On ‘Climategate,’ science and the media

by Michael Pursell

The breaking of ‘Climategate’ has spiked media attention to disagreements over the causes and nature of global climate change, and has revealed a dark side of the culture of scientific research. In all, the scandal presents us with a telling a parable of politics & science in the digital media age. 

Perhaps predictably, those already inclined to accept the scientific narrative of anthropogenic global warming have framed the corruption of research as an exception to an otherwise legitimate body of evidence; those who were already skeptical of climate change theories have heralded the scandal as fresh evidence that global warming science has been problematic from the start.

The public has responded to outings of private emails by East Anglia climate scientists in a way that conforms with what media scholars call “reinforcement theory.” According to the theory, media consumers on both sides of the climate debate are guilty of basically the same transgression that these British climate scientists are being accused of: when presented with a direct challenge to our way of thinking, along with a complex and often contradictory array of evidence, we tend to seek and selectively highlight those media narratives which allow us to keep our preconceived notions in tact. While this might at first seem a cynical view of human belief and behavior, it can also be understood as a natural, easy way for people to cope with the dizzying multitudes of media content they’re confronted with on a daily basis.

Public figures, for their part, are falling neatly in line with reinforcement theory. Sarah Palin and others on the right have called for President Obama to boycott the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in light of the scandal; White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, meanwhile, asserts that "there’s no real scientific basis for the dispute of this," email scandal or no. It will be interesting to see in the weeks ahead whether this issue is mentioned in the course of formal proceedings in Copenhagen, and if so, how it will be framed in that context.

We would do well on all sides of these questions to ask ourselves how we got here and why these issues spark such vehemence in American politics. Science, when it is trustworthy, can provide a vitally neutral foundation for dialogue, but Climategate has shown us a fallible institution. When we can no longer collectively trust in science to serve that function of neutrality, we have a problem. It is one thing for the left and the right to disagree about health care, foreign relations, or economic policy. If we cannot even agree on what constitutes a legitimate source of knowledge — if our worlds grow so far apart that we can’t establish a few basic facts in common — then the implications for our democracy are grave.