- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

A scientist, said famed philosopher Will Rogers, "is a man that can find out anything, and nobody in the world has any way of proving he really found anything or not." It is a continuing complaint of those predicting imminent environmental apocalypse that they rarely have sufficient evidence to prove it to the uncomprehending Americans who stolidly decline to share activists' enthusiasm for the cause. It is not for want of effort by the media.

Consider the case of the New York Times, which had bad news, very bad news for readers this month. The North Pole, it reported solemnly Aug. 19, is "melting," a grim portent of global warming and a major disappointment to a boatload of tourists who had gone there hoping to have their pictures taken standing at the top of the world. Why all the journalistic concern? "The last time scientists can be certain the pole was awash in water," New York Times reporter John Noble Wilford explained, "was more than 50 million years ago." Mr. Wilford helpfully quoted a Harvard University scientist named James McCarthy to the effect that passengers on the trip could see with their own eyes that global warming "was real."

A spate of similarly troubling accounts followed. ABC News spoke to another scientist on the voyage who expressed shock that "Santa's Workshop is now underwater." A day later, The Washington Post reported, "The world, it seems, is melting from the top down." The Christian Science Monitor cited "growing evidence" that the Earth's climate is changing, particularly in the Arctic region, a "bellweather" for the rest of the world.

The implication of the stories was that man had somehow tipped the world out of a delicate environmental balance perhaps through his insatiable appetite for luxuries like electricity, agriculture and ESPN into a dizzying descent toward death and destruction. He would have to repent his ways or else.

As it turned out, however, things weren't quite as bad as all that. Ten days after the original New York Times story ran, the paper ran a correction on the story, not on the front page, of course, but on page 2. The Aug. 19 account "misstated" the routine conditions of sea ice at the North Pole, the paper said. In fact: "A clear spot has probably opened at the Pole before, scientists say, because about 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean is clear of ice in a typical summer." In other words, it hasn't been 50 million years since the sea was "awash" in water, but, well, last year. Further, the correction said, the fact that there is water rather than ice "is not necessarily related to global warming." Perhaps, as The Post reported, the fluid conditions have more to do with the 50 degree temperatures at the Pole during the summer when the days there are 24 hours long. At any rate, Santa need not worry about getting his workshop rezoned for resort activities yet.

One can just imagine a gathering of editors at the Times weighing requests for a correction because it turned out that the story had erred by about 49,999,999 years on the date there had last been open water at the North Pole. How could one get it so wrong?

One explanation is that science is a complex business, it is constantly changing and reporters have a hard time keeping up. Scientist James Hansen, who began a 1998 paper with the quote from Will Rogers above, this month produced a study which argues that governments focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions to stave off global warming may be concentrating on the wrong ones. Better to try cutting other kinds of heat-trapping emissions first. Such reductions, by the way, might not be so threatening to coal and oil industries crucial to the workings of this economy. Reporters who have been busy writing about the crucial need to cut carbon dioxide emissions to save the planet may find themselves explaining to editors that the scientific agenda and their reporting may have to change.

Some journalists, however, assume an activist agenda as their own. In 1994, Boston Globe reporter Diane Dumanoski acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that she had manipulated news about a "hole" in the ozone layer for something less than scientific or journalistic reasons: She wanted to get top billing for a story. Told that the mere "probability" of the "hole" wasn't good enough to warrant Page One, she called a scientific source back and "negotiated something that really wasn't accurate … something much balder than what was true." The story ran on Page One. A New York Times story reporting that this summer, like last summer, there is open water at the North Pole, probably wouldn't make the front page. It might not even be considered fit to print at all.

What we know most about climate change these days is how little we know about it. Said a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Although studies "suggest that there is some [man-made] component in the observed temperature record, they cannot be considered as compelling evidence of a clear cause-and-effect link" between man and climate change. That means scientists have a long way to go before they can pass the Will Rogers test.

E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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