TCS Daily

A Pseudo Event

By William O'Keefe - March 10, 2003 12:00 AM

The National Academy of Sciences has just released a review of the Bush administration's draft climate science program strategic plan. Some news accounts of the Academy's review - in particular a front page story in the New York Times - created the impression that the review echoed criticism by environmental groups that the Bush administration lacks a serious commitment to address the climate change risk.

In fact, the review commended the Administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSSP) as a good first step and for "identifying exciting new directions for the program..." Readers of newspapers should expect first to get the facts and then the views of the writers. But, that does not happen as often as it should.

The National Academy's report is a case in point. Last fall, when the Department of Commerce released the draft strategic plan, it was made clear that this was the start of a process designed to reach out broadly and openly for participation and comment. The measure of success for the process was the extent to which the draft was modified. In other words, it was a starting point to encourage comment, criticism and suggestions for improvement. The Academy review was to be an important part of the revision process and supplement the hundreds of comments that were submitted to the Commerce Department by interested parties. That the Bush administration has been criticized instead of being commended for creating such an open process is curious. It only proves the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

Shortly after releasing the draft last fall, the Department of Commerce organized a workshop attended by over 1000 stakeholders to discuss it, solicited written comments on it and asked the National Academy of Sciences to play a central role in the review process. In opening the workshop, participants were told explicitly that there was an expectation that the draft would be significantly changed. Comments made by workshop participants and the Marshall Institute were very consistent with those made by the Academy in its report. Taken together, they provide a solid basis for turning a draft into a well-focused and valuable strategic plan. Viewed from this perspective and in the context of total transparency, you have to wonder why the release of the report justified as much attention as it did.

As the Academy stated in its report, the draft "represents a good start to the process" ...and " these efforts indicate a strong interest on the part of the CCSP (climate change science program) in developing a plan that is consistent with current scientific thinking and is responsive to the nation's needs for information on climate and associated global changes." This is hardly the perception created by press reports that the President's policies lack vision and the plan lacks most of the elements of a strategic plan and is unlikely to accomplish its aim. Articles containing these comments take excerpts from the Academy report out of context and convey the impression that the draft strategic plan is the end result of a process, not the beginning of one.

Why would journalists try to create such a misleading impression? The simple reasons are either that they did not do their homework or what is more likely, they subscribe to the unproven hypothesis that human activities are responsible for most of the global warming that has taken place over the past century.

Journalists, like the rest of us, are entitled to their opinions and are entitled to express them. Editorial pages are a good place for doing that. But none of us is entitled to our own facts.

On the subject of global warming, there are some important facts that are frequently overlooked by the press:

  • The pattern of warming that occurred in the 20th century was not consistent with the pattern of increases in carbon dioxide emissions that took place during that century, with the greatest period of warming beginning in the later half of the 19th century and peaking at about 1940.

  • The lack of warming in the lower atmosphere, that has been accurately documented by satellites that cover the globe, is inconsistent with the prevailing greenhouse theory.

  • Models, which are the basis for conclusions about human impacts, consistently over predict the extent of warming and have not been scientifically validated.

  • The lack of knowledge about ocean currents, solar impacts, water vapor, clouds and climate sensitivity makes it impossible to distinguish natural variability from human influence.

A lack of journalistic objectivity is neither new nor confined to climate change or other environmental issues. Over 40 years ago, the renowned historian Daniel Boorstin wrote a prescient book titled "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America." He documented in great detail the growing tendency on the part of the media and others to use events and ambiguity to create an image of reality that is plausible but in fact is a synthetic truth. This reflects a skill that goes beyond the ability for precise reporting to adeptness in making things seem true and believable. That is certainly what happened in the reporting about the National Academy of Sciences report.

The press jealously guards the important prerogatives and freedoms that come with operating in a free society. But with those rights come responsibilities. At a time when the gap between what people can know and should know is getting ever larger, the journalistic community should reach for higher standards of accuracy, objectivity and reporting.

William O'Keefe is President of the Marshall Institute in Washington D.C.

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