A commenter on one of my blog posts lamented, “I believe that the worst thing that has happened in my life, I'm 65, is 24 hour news.” While I disagree with this writer’s opinion on ubiquitous and continuous news coverage, I do whole-heartedly agree with the point he was making, that when you have so much time to tell the news, a lot of what you’re reporting is not really news. It’s opinion; it’s fluff, or it’s just time-killing babble.
And it goes deeper than just being annoying. It often reaches a point where what is reported on is a gross exaggeration of the news. This often happens when, in an unyielding attempt to be fair and balanced, news producers, directors, and reporters often seek the “other side” of what amounts to a simple fact.
Take, as an example, the question of whether or not global warming is at least partially caused by human activity. Almost everyone agrees with the fact that the world has been getting warmer over the past century or so. The sticking point is whether this is part of a natural cycle of change or if it is caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by human activity.
Climate scientists working for an array of unconnected organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Royal Society, along with thousands of peer-reviewed climate studies going back more than 15 years say that not only is the climate warming, but it is warming due to human influence. In fact, 97 percent of climatologists agree that anthropogenic global warming is real.
Of course, science isn’t ruled by consensus, but by evidence. But the vast majority of the evidence supports the notion that humans can and do adversely affect climate and other natural phenomena on a global scale. Consider the growing holes in the ozone that occurred during the 1970s. The scare back then was that ozone depletion would result in increasing risks of melanoma and that if it continued people would need protection from the sun anytime they went outside.
Conspiracy theorists of the day claimed it was mostly hype and that a call to replace chlorofluorocarbons with less harmful propellants in aerosol cans and in refrigerating units worldwide would be too costly. But that was in the days before 24-hour news networks and the Internet came on the scene. Conspiracy theorists had less of a voice because they had no easy way to propagate their agenda.
In a decade-long campaign to rid the atmosphere of ozone-depleting gases, the U.S. and other industrialized nations banded together and replaced chlorofluorocarbons with innocuous gases. The ozone holes sealed themselves within a few years. Catastrophe averted.
Global warming is at least as big a problem for the global environment as was ozone depletion. But truth deniers of today have a much bigger platform from which to shout their claims. They have blogs, Internet forums, and numerous 24-hour news channels hungry for something to report.
The Dallas Morning News ran a piece called “Balance of Opinion: The global-warming debate” last month. The headline says it all. When 97 percent of experts agree that something is true, why is there a debate going on at all, let alone one that grabs headlines?
Another example of the news industry’s unrelenting focus on balancing every story with a counterclaim can be seen in the evolution vs. creation debate. Creationists, for the most part, no longer call themselves creationists, because the Supreme Court rightfully ruled that creation is not science, but religion. It therefore cannot be taught in public schools. So instead of creationism, they now support intelligent design “theory.” It’s exactly the same bunk in a shiny new package.
Recent polls say that about 45 percent of Americans believe that life was created in a week by God about 6,000 years ago. In other words, nearly half the population believes that a Bronze-Age fairy tale is literal truth.
Now, this wouldn’t be surprising if it were 1810 instead of 2010. Even most scientists 200 years ago accepted the biblical tale of creation. They had little or no evidence to suggest it wasn’t true back then. But, unlike other scientific theories that are embraced by the general public (gravity, atoms, cells, etc.) the theory of evolution is attacked because it is the theory that is in direct opposition to an Old Testament telling of how we came to be. Besides, most people see humans as a superior species and so have an air of arrogance that won’t let them believe that we share a common ancestor with monkeys.
But the scientific evidence supporting evolution is no less formidable than the evidence supporting the atomic theory. In the same polls that show lukewarm public support for the theory at best, 97 percent of biologists say they accept evolution as factual. Yes, it’s the same percentage as for the proportion of environmental scientists that say global warming is caused by human activity.
Neither of these theories, evolution or global warming, is debated among scientists as being true or false. They are obviously true. Any scientific debate focuses on the minutia, the details of pinpointing timelines for evolutionary, or environmental, changes, and on the mechanisms of change.
Yet the news media treat the theory of evolution as though there is a great amount of scientific opposition to it. There isn’t. Only those who do not understand evolution are against it. And most truth deniers do not wish to understand what they are against; otherwise they would have to stop denying it.
But, in the interest of being “fair,” news reports often include spurious counterclaims to well-established scientific theories (and in science, a theory is a proposition that is well-accepted and has lots of supporting evidence to back it up).
Would these same news organizations give equal time to the Flat Earth Society members who claim that a spherical earth is just a conspiracy theory? Are there any organized efforts to include a flat earth theory as an alternative to the spherical earth theory that is taught in geography classes in school? No, that would be inane.
It is equally inane to suggest that the universe, and all life in it, was created in six days and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. It is equally inane to subscribe to the contention that humans do not have any effect on global climate.
But until news organizations stop treating truth deniers as equals, they will continue to have a loud global voice.