We are as certain that humans are dramatically changing the planet’s climate as we are that smoking causes cancer. So nothing justifies this lame phrasing in a New York Times article on Obama’s forthcoming carbon pollution rule:
Coal plants are the nation’s largest source of the greenhouse gases that scientists say are the chief cause of global warming.
Elizabeth Kolbert, one of the country’s top climate reporters, slammed the Times in a tweet:
One of the country’s top climatologists, Michael Mann, tweeted back some sarcasm: “Scientists say plants photosynthesize … gravity exists.”
Given how many articles will be written on greenhouse gases and climate change in the coming weeks, it’s important to underscore why the “scientists say” formulation is wrong. First off, it’s been decades since the New York Times qualified its statements about the dangers of smoking with phrases like “scientists say.” See, for instance, this article from 1996:
So, Smoking Causes Cancer: This Is News?
WAS it really news to anybody, as headlines proclaimed a little more than a week ago, that smoking causes lung cancer?
The 1996 study that led to those headlines “was the first proof, on the cellular and molecular level, that a chemical in smoke could damage lung cells in a way that could eventually lead to cancer.” The “exact mechanism” by which cigarette smoking caused cancer hadn’t been known, and so the NYT explains, “the tobacco industry exploited that seed of doubt to the fullest, arguing that although scientists had shown an association between smoking and cancer, they had not proved cause and effect.”
Yet, the mechanisms by which greenhouse gases warm the planet have been known for over a century. And the warming itself has been “unequivocal” according to the world’s scientists AND every major government for a long time.
I wonder when the Times will run a piece headlined, “So, Carbon Pollution Causes Global Warming: This Is News?”
Ah, but perhaps some readers are thinking you need “scientists say” because of the phrase “chief cause.” No. Again, this formulation isn’t in the least bit controversial either to scientists or governments. We are also as certain that GHGs are the chief cause of global warming as we are that smoking causes cancer, as the 2013 summary report on the science by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear.
I elaborated on this point back in a September piece on that report. In fact, the IPCC report — signed off on word for word by every major government in the world — explains:
The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.
To clarify, our best estimate is that humans are responsible for all of the warming we have suffered since 1950. Now that is a fact that the media could usefully convey to the public and policymakers.
For this stronger statement, one might use the formulation “scientists have determined humans are responsible for all the warming we have experienced since 1950.”
Another problem with the phrasing “scientists say” is that it frames the consensus on climate science as a debate rather than a description of what scientific observations and analysis have shown. Remember as far back as 1970, the tobacco label read, “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.” It did not read “Warning: The Surgeon General says that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.”
The motto of The U.K.’s Royal Society — “the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence,” founded in 1660 — is Nullius in verba — Latin for “On the words of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” It is “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”
By framing human-caused global warming as something “scientists say,” the media helps foster a he-said, she-said climate of false balance — or worse, a climate in which scientists are directly attacked in an effort undermine our growing understanding of climate science. The Irish Times has an important story on this very subject, “IPCC co-chairman says scientists being intimidated by climate change deniers.”
That co-chair, Prof, Thomas Stocker, said climate science deniers — led by “people and organizations with vested interests” — were involved in a “concerted campaign to isolate individual scientists and destroy them” in order to undermine the IPCC’s fifth assessment report.
It is time for the media to retire the phrase “scientists say” when it comes to the core elements of the ever-strengthening consensus on the dangers posed by human-caused climate change.