I often enjoy reading woolly environmentalist George Monbiot in the Guardian, and I find myself agreeing with a great deal of what he writes, but one thing he said in yesterday's article struck me as a little odd:
The attack on climate scientists is now widening to an all-out war on science. Writing recently for the Telegraph, the columnist Gerald Warner dismissed scientists as "white-coated prima donnas and narcissists … pointy-heads in lab coats [who] have reassumed the role of mad cranks … The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the 19th century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening to them any more."
Views like this can be explained partly as the revenge of the humanities students. There is scarcely an editor or executive in any major media company – and precious few journalists – with a science degree, yet everyone knows that the anoraks are taking over the world.
I've read this kind of thing before by other writers whose work I love very much. And I think it's bizarre. Do these highly intelligent people really think that people who get a degree in one type of subject are so very different from people who choose to get a degree in another subject? Really? Because I don't think that at all. I think it's a bit of a false friend when you're going around looking for an explanation as to why people don't write about science convincingly or effectively - ah, they must have done a humanities degree, that values instinct and emotion rather than evidence-based research into things, that explains it all.
I mean, by all means do some proper evidence-based scientific research into the likelihood of science or humanities graduates writing good or bad news stories, and then come back to me. Otherwise, well, it's just what you think, isn't it. And that isn't science. Or am I missing the point? Maybe I am.
A humanities degree doesn't mean you're incapable of seeing the truth in complicated science, or that you're incapable of writing about it properly either. Just as a science degree doesn't guarantee that you'll do it right. It's a fairly narrow definition of a human being, what subject they did for a few years at university rather than all those other decades in their life which might have been spent doing this, that or the other. I've met a lot of dumb science graduates, and a lot of bright humanities graduates - and yes, I appreciate this is anecdotal evidence, and yes, somehow, I am aware that's not the same as peer-reviewed science, though how I should know that despite not having done a science degree must be some kind of bloody miracle, apparently.
As ever when I read stuff about journalism, I am struck by the kindness with which writers treat journalists and the willingness to accept everything other than malice as a reason for why they don't always get it right - Nick Davies is the same, and Ben Goldacre too. I'm not too dumb to imagine they might be inviting us to read between the lines, but still. It's rare to see anyone suggest that the reason why a journalist might get something wrong is because they don't care whether it's right or not, or because they want to write X, regardless of whether it's accurate, or fair, or truthful. They always look for alternatives - their higher education, for example. It's all very charitable. But is George really sitting there, confused, saying: "They must be good people, and I'm sure they're doing their best, but they just happen to be humanities graduates, that must be it, that must be why they can't understand the science, or they get it wrong."
I'd offer another, alternative explanation. It's not based on science so we're going to have to wing it - but since Monbiot's daftness about humanities graduates isn't based on science either, I'm sure he'd have to permit it. I think journalists get it wrong about climate change because they don't care. Columnists don't care whether they're right or not; they just want to be contrarian and pack a punch. It's easier to say "Aha, there's no global warming, because it's raining outside my window!" than it is to say "I wonder if these AGW models are entirely correct and whether we really will suffer catastrophic climate change" - but it's not just about easiness either; it's about entertainment. And the reason why there are so many columnists attacking climate change is because they find it entertaining - there's good scope and knockabout fun in chortling away at possible scenarios and conflating the Met Office's forecast for a 'barbecue summer' with really worrying science about the impact of temperature rises.
Columnists, particularly the ones you'll find in the usual suspects, are just trying to get a rise out of it. It's easy to snipe at Littlejohn, but look, he's up to his old tricks again, printing absolute tosh about Michael Foot - twice - for no reason other than to be provocative (and that because Foot is dead, no-one can sue - his relatives can, if they wish, go to the PCC, but we all know what will happen there. The defenders of freedom and haters of censorship will gnaw their fingernails to the bone hand-wringing about Littlejohn's 'right to offend' by telling the opposite of the truth). He might not know whether what he's saying about Foot is true or not, but the thing is he really doesn't care. If it's knocking some old leftie, then he'll do it.
You could say to me: oh, but that's Littlejohn. He's just a bad apple; they're not all like it. But I'd say: why is he? He's a marvellously successful journalist, right at the top of his game. Why is he a bad apple? He gets away with that tripe twice a week and gets magnificently rewarded for it. Being provocative and exploiting that contrarian "Yeah, what about me?" narcissism, regardless of the facts, is not the exception, I'm afraid. As I was saying yesterday, if you just read the Guardian (perhaps) or only read stuff you agreed with, you'd never know this. But look at the press as a whole and you'll see Littlejohn isn't the exception; he's the template. He does what he does very well. He's what I'd call a proll - a professional troll. I might think it's abhorrent, but what do I know? He's massively wealthy and adored by thousands while I'm typing this in my spare bedroom waiting for the kettle to boil. It's not hard to see who is the loser really.
It's not a great deal more complicated than that, and I think that while Monbiot would like to think the best of others, and fellow journalists, he's giving newspaper columnists a damn sight more credit than they deserve. They aren't getting it wrong because they didn't do a nice science subject at university, which would have made them write better stories; they are doing it because these are the stories that would have been written anyway, if not by them then by others. They fit into the right-libertarian narrative so beloved of these newspapers: we can do what we like to pollute and it won't make any difference; any attempt to stop us polluting as much as we want is just the evil apparatus of state trying to invade our lives and take away our freedoms; it's all a big con by academics to get handouts to prop up their careers, while we have to carry on paying tax and funding it all.
That's what I think it is. I could be wrong, of course. But it seems much more plausible to me than imagining that people who did humanities instead of science are just a bunch of yo-yos who can't grasp the concepts well enough and who therefore end up writing a load of rubbish. No, they're entirely aware of what they're doing. The science of climate change is complicated, but not insurmountable to anyone if they bother trying. It's the 'getting them to bother trying' bit that's tricky. And George is of course at the vanguard of this, and long may he continue. I just think that with silly lines like the one about humanities students he doesn't really do himself many favours.
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