Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 8, 2018

Our scientifically hapless media and the lay public they produce

Thomas Jefferson is said to have stated: “if I had the choice of having a government, but no media, or a media, but no government, I would choose the latter”. I also believe that our media plays a central and essential role in governing our country but have noted that they do a terrible job of covering issues related to science. This deficiency is most unfortunate, because our modern world is so closely tied to and dependent on the details of scientific issues.

Just think back for a moment two years ago to the many debates that occurred between candidates of both parties for the US presidency. In all of those debates, there was almost zero consideration and questions concerning the greatest environmental problem before us (that would be global warming, of course). That’s right – almost zero attention to climate change. And, all of those debates were directed by members of the media. I suspect that most of the candidates did not want to be put on record for their views in this area and the media happily obliged partly, I’m sure, because they also felt unsure of how to direct such discussions.

So how could that be – one should ask. Isn’t global warming the most important environmental issue today? In fact, isn’t global warming the most important issue, period, on the table. The blame for this ridiculously inadequate coverage lies primarily at the feet of our national and regional media, does it not? Most individuals of the media don’t know very much about basic science themselves and are poor referees of conversation dealing with science.

Note also that whenever the media hosts a legitimate climate scientist, they often introduce that person with the comment, “some scientists think ……” or they frequently include comments made by a pseudo scientific denier who has the opposite view – deniers are all too easy to find. This leaves the public with the impression that the issue is unsettled – something like a 50/50 split even at the basic scientific level. This conclusion is not at all true, of course. Within our legitimate scientific community, the issue is as “settled” as any issue of some complexity can be and it has been studied for many decades. Yet, the media leaves us with the impression that this issue is not totally settled.

So why does our media do this? Part of the reason is that they are taught in their schools of journalism that every issue has at least two different legitimate sides. While this is true in many areas of human interest, it is not true when dealing with a science-based issues. This is because Mother Nature does things one way – Her way – and the goal of science is to identify what that one way is. Nevertheless, no matter how certain and well-understood a given issue in science becomes after years of study and observation, the media still continues to present other alternative and unsupported views as if they were equally credible. The media often leaves the public thinking that the correct science is simply a matter of personal opinion.

The media is prone to doing this because of their training in journalism and their poor acquaintance with science. Let’s face it – studying science is difficult and relatively few choose to study science in earnest – and certainly not those individuals preparing themselves for a career in journalism. They have so many fields to become aquainted with and are not likely to spend lots of time on the most difficult of these. Therefore, when directing a debate on climate change between two or more participants, they typically cannot tell when the comments of one or more of the contestants is scientifically out of bounds, thereby allowing nonsense to consume much of the allotted time.

I have a couple of examples that illustrate how even utterly ridiculous science can pass without comment in the political domain even with hordes of media present. During one of his annual State of the Nation speeches President Clinton said “and we will continue to address our environmental problems – such as stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming and black holes”. So black holes constitute an environmental problem that mankind has any control over? In fact, the closest black holes are about 100,000  light-years away from Earth and even if they had any detectable effect on us, we would have no chance of affecting them. What an absolutely silly comment! What amazed me most about this incident, however, is that I neither read nor heard any comment or corrections by the media about Clinton’s looney comment.

Another example: During one of her State of the State speeches the then Governor of Montana, Judy Martz, she was asked by a reporter “in view of the global warming problem, do you promote the increased production of electrical power by the coal-driven power plants in Eastern Montana”. Governor Martz then scolded that reporter with the strong retort, “my record concerning the regulation our smoke stack industries is absolutely clear. They have been forced to include the latest technologies for the removal of pollutants.” Then, neither that reporter nor those covering that speech bothered to point out that the pollutant under discussion at that moment, CO2, cannot be removed from smoke stacks by existing scrubbing devices. All coal, oil, or gas burning power plants emit all of their carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere. Again, I noted not a single comment in the media concerning this ridiculous statement, neither at that moment nor in the state’s several newspapers the following day. The Governor had just shown that she did not understand this most basic aspect of fossil fuel pollution and the media let it pass most probably because they did not understand it either.

Winston Churchill is reported to have once said “the best argument against a democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter”. If Winston was correct, a major reason for this is that our media is the major source of information for the public and, as I have been pointing our here, our media is all too often not sufficiently knowledgeable as to keep discussions of modern scientific issues between the rails of confirmed science.

So, what the media needs, of course, is increased knowledge of science and, if that is not possible, then they need to at least know and understand how the scientific community works and where they can find the best versions of any scientific issue. A public gathering of a political nature is not where the laws of nature are likely to be accurately decided. In such discussions members of the media should arrive with sufficient minimum knowledge as to keep the discussions between the rails of scientific reality. Also, they should know that to downplay the seriousness of the climate change issue is all too easy to do – it is, after all, what we all wish we could do. At the same time, facing this problem squarely and trying to successfully address it can be very difficult to do and might even require a considerable amount of sacrifice and lifestyle change for the public. Yes, the media does control the extent to which the lay public understands the issues before them. That is a great responsibility on which both our democracy and the physical state of our planet depend.




  1. This is a verified thing that the great Thomas Jefferson did observe; “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” We can apply that to what the National Geographic Magazine has become after they took up the anthropogenic global warming cause and it has really made many to doubt the validity of what they report. I’ll give you an example of what I mean by that;
    “Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Predicted for American West”
    Global warming to cause historic “megadrought” by century’s end.  National Geographic  FEBRUARY 12, 2015

    My, aren’t those computer models wonderful tools to analyze the climate? It is amazing how a wild prediction made using climate models can be proven to be so bogus when in 03/01/2017 we get this report below.
    03/01/2017 – Snowpack’s Water Content Remains Far above Average 
    SACRAMENTO – The Sierra Nevada snowpack continues to build during one of the wettest winters in California’s recorded history. 

  2. Hello, I really enjoy your blog! I have a request for some sources. I’ve been looking for information on St. Olaf’s endowment investment. Where did you get yours? In an earlier post you also mentioned Pres. Anderson commenting on why he didn’t think the college should divest to have a “seat at the table”. Is there any way I could get access to that correspondence? I’m researching the college’s and Northfield’s climate action. My plan is to present the evidence to the investment office, because by my research not only is it morally obligatory, it’s financially profitable to divest (Cleveland and Reibstein, 2015, titled “The Path to Fossil Fuel Divestment for Universities: Climate Responsible Investment” if you want to look at the source I’m getting that from). While I’m by no means an expert, I’m attempting to be informed enough to be persuasive. Thanks, and happy holidays!

    • Isabella,

      Thanks for your comments and interest.

      I really don’t know the exact mix of St O’ s investments. President Anderson has simply told me via email that they are invested in fossil fuel industries and that they have no intention of divesting from them.

      As to the President’s “seat at the table” comment, he made it at a Q and A session with the class of ’68 at their 50th anniversary. My sister and bro it law were there and reported it to me.

      Hope you are able to get more details from them. I have not found them to be very cooperative on this issue, however.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: