Feb 1 2011

Scientific American Waffles on the Science of Global Warming

Is climate ‘THE issue of our time’ or a ‘doomsday obsession’?

climate-change“Climate is the issue of our time,” says Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina (Observations, 10/28/10). So why does her magazine keep treating human-caused global warming as an open question?

DiChristina was responding to criticism her magazine had received (Climate Progress, 10/26/10; FAIR Blog, 10/27/10) over a November 2010 article by Michael Lemonick about Judith Curry, a climate scientist whose critiques of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are often cited by climate denialists. The article—subheaded “Why Can’t We Have a Civil Conversation About Climate?”—left the impression that the truth on climate change is somewhere in the middle:

Climate scientists feel embattled by a politically motivated witch hunt, and in that charged environment, what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason—especially since the skeptics have latched onto her as proof they have been right all along. But Curry and the skeptics have their own cause for grievance. They feel they have all been lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments.

So skeptics have worthy arguments against the idea that human alteration of the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm up? If Scientific American knows of any, it’s sitting on the scientific scoop of the decade. In reality, there’s no more scientific basis to rejection of human-caused warming than there is to any number of pseudo-scientific belief systems—but you’re unlikely to find Scientific American complaining that we can’t have a civil conversation about Bigfoot, or that Atlantis researchers are all “lumped together as crackpots.”

The article was accompanied by an online survey to determine, in Lemonick’s words, whether Curry was “a heroic whistleblower, speaking the truth when others can’t or won’t,” or someone who has “gone off the scientific deep end, hurling baseless charges at a group of scientists who are doing their best to understand the complexities of Earth’s climate.” Among the specific questions the Web poll asked was, “What is causing climate change?”

There’s something strange about any kind of poll on questions of science, as if the laws of nature responded to public opinion. But the adjective often used alongside Web polls—which record the opinions of a non-random selection of Web surfers—is “unscientific.” Why would Scientific American use one to gauge opinion on climate questions?

Stranger still, the magazine’s website also featured a regular “Energy Poll” conducted “in association with” the Shell oil company (Climate Progress, 10/20/10). In violation of standard media ethics, there was no indication that this was actually a paid advertisement, designed (in the words of Scientific American’s media kit) to “strike up a dialogue between Shell and our influential worldwide audience.”

Taking money for science journalism from a company with a critical interest in denying science is inherently problematic—just as it’s dubious for Nova, the closest equivalent to Scientific American on TV, to be dependent on funding from climate change deniers (FAIR Blog, 9/14/10). The magazine doesn’t accept tobacco advertising—and, perhaps not coincidentally, does not run articles suggesting that “both sides” have “worthy arguments” about the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.

To be clear, Scientific American does publish important articles that acknowledge the reality and the devastating impact of climate change, like “Threatening Ocean Life From the Inside Out” (8/10), which detailed the danger that carbon dioxide emissions pose to a wide variety of sea creatures. But it also prints pieces like “Another Century of Oil? Getting More From Current Reserves” (10/09), by oil industry executive Leonardo Maugueri, which blithely discussed techniques for extracting and burning ever more petroleum from the planet with only the barest nod to “climate” as a consideration. Maugueri’s recommendations are a recipe for accelerating the global disaster forecast elsewhere in Scientific American’s pages.

But aren’t such predictions simply fretting about nothing? That’s the implication of Scientific American’s September 2010 cover story, “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which listed the fact that “numerous climatologists sound the alarm about the possibility of runaway global warming” among other “extravagant doomsday obsessions”—including Malthus’ population projections and the notion that the Mayan calendar means the world will end in 2012.