The Cautious Language of Scientists Hurts Us – So Too Journalists

The Uninhabitable Earth

This piece in New York Magazine has caused a stir because it’s maybe the first wide spread scientific guesstimate of what havoc climate change will wreak, and when.  And that makes it terrifying because while science has been warning us for decades, few of us have truly consumed those warnings, too many of us have pooh poohed them entirely, and some have arrogantly assumed that our technology will save us.  Maybe nobody who hasn’t seen their little part of the Earth already changed can really be able to grasp what’s coming.  We suffer because the language that scientists and journalists use is almost congenitally cautious.

…and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation…

I want to connect this lack of imagination for ecological disaster to our political climate change.  The same cautiousness, equanimity and false balance that journalists bring to science reporting they have long brought to political reporting.  When we say the press still hasn’t adjusted to the Trump phenomenon, what we mean is they’re reporting about unabashed con men with no conscience as if they’re the statesmen of old who were called to public service and served honorably.  The media brought us George W. Bush and Donald Trump by not being alarmist enough, ie. timidity caused by the false belief that things just can’t change that much and claims that it can are irresponsible.

But it’s the timidity that’s irresponsible.


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