Just one week ago I watched an interesting discussion on Reyers Laat (a talk show of the Flemish television). It wasn’t climate related, it was actually about the terroristic attacks in Paris. Part of the discussion was the role of the media in the current fear. By focusing on the negative things the media gives the impression that we live in a worrisome world.
The host invited among others the editor-in-chief of the VRT television news, Björn Soenens. He stated that the media should play another role in society. The media should privide a framework, give more background, insight, context. In that way the public would be better prepared to judge such situations. That is a noble mission, but seeing the reaction of one participant in the discussion showed me not everybody believed him. I wasn’t impressed either. I knew that the VRT news wasn’t exactly an example of these aspirations. His news program got mentioned several times in this blog for its bias in climate communication.
Just take a look at some examples from his own organization. This is how the global temperatures of 2014 were presented in the online version of the vrt news:2014 was the warmest year worldwide since 1880 (Dutch) and Worldwide heat records can’t be a coincidence anymore (Dutch).
Basically they only report on the NASA and NOAA datasets and from this they concluded that 2014 is the warmest year.
This is what they didn’t explain:
Yesterday I learned from the vrt news site that sea level rise is accelerating. The last two weeks I was absorbed by a project, so it took me a bit off guard. Since I had a little bit more time now, I was curious what was really said and decided to take a closer look.
Looking at their article Sea level rise accelerated in last decades (Dutch) it became quickly clear that what was found was not an accelerating of the rise in the last decades, as the title suggests, but a different estimation of sea level rise in the the period 1900 – 1990s. It could be traced back to a study published in Nature (abstract here) by Carling Hay (a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences), Eric Morrow (a recent Ph.D. graduate of Earth and Planetary Sciences) and their colleagues at Harvard University.
Their study allegedly shows that calculations of global sea level rise from 1900 to the 1990s had been overestimated by as much as 30 percent. It was assumed that sea level rise in the period between 1900 – 1990s was 1.5 – 1.8 mm per year. But after their reassessment they came to a smaller figure of 1.2 mm per year, therefor the current rate of 3 mm per year is higher than one would expect.
That didn’t impress me by a bit. I think those scientists are seriously overstating their case and/or underestimating the uncertainties.
A couple days ago I read about Damiaan Denys, a Belgian professor of Psychiatry at the University of Amsterdam, specialized in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. He is currently giving theater performances about anxiety, because he wants to make his science more accessible to the public.
In an interview in Vrij Nederland (Dutch) he explains that we live in a culture of anxiety. Fear at such is a useful thing, it prevents us from sticking our hand into the fire a second time. It always has an object (a lion, heights, a terrorist) we can relate to, we can think about it or avoid it. It becomes anxiety when it has no object or when there is an unknown threat. Anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from our mind’s vision of the possible dangers that might result in a negative situation.
The basis for this anxiety is the existential problem that many things are uncontrollable. Yet the obsessive-compulsive patient wants to drive out his fears by means of rituals. Denys gives the example of someone who want to wash his hands hundreds of time a day, this to suppress his obsession that for example his mother will die if he doesn’t do so. By doing this ritual, he gets the illusion of control on something that is intrinsically uncontrollable and this soothes his pain.
Although Denys hardly mentioned the climate in his interview (only that phobias follow the current trends like for example global warming, inspired by the media), but what he tells makes sense in the global warming storyline.
The third question in the interview Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 11) with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe was about how she sees her role in science communication:
3. In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years?
Over the last decade, climate change has become so politically polarized that, according to a recent poll, it now ranks second only to that of the president’s performance in dividing Democrats from Republicans. As scientists, many of us assume this polarization and abundance of misconceptions is due to knowledge deficit; in other words, a lack of public support is caused by a lack of information available to the public. If we make that information available, people will change their minds.
I have heard of this type of climate communication before in the Cook lecture last September in Bristol. According to his own saying he tries to replace “myths” by “facts”. My first thought at the time was: “Who will make that decision of what is a misconception and what is a fact?”. I have no problem with debunking fallacies, on the contrary, but having been at the Cook lecture I am not really sure if that was really the case there. So I am a bit wary towards that kind of approach.
Her approach seems differently: