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This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

Polar Bears & the Sleazy New York Times

SPOTLIGHT: Journalistic professionalism evaporates in front of our eyes.

BIG PICTURE: When historians document the demise of the mainstream media, an article published this week by the New York Times will make an excellent case study. Titled “Climate Change Denialists Say Polar Bears Are Fine. Scientists Are Pushing Back,” it’s written by Erica Goode who isn’t just any journalist. She’s a former Environment Editor of the Times. In 2009, she “founded and led a cluster of reporters dedicated to environmental reporting.” Currently, she’s a visiting professor at Syracuse University.

Out here in the real world, a debate exists about polar bears. Will they be adversely affected by climate change or will they continue to adapt as they have historically?

Since the future hasn’t yet arrived, it’s impossible to know whose opinions will turn out to be correct. But rather than presenting a range of perspectives to her readers, Goode takes sides. Apparently clairvoyant, she knows that experts concerned about the long term prospects of polar bears are correct. She knows that dissenting voices are wrong. No other possibility is conceivable within the confines of her exceedingly narrow mind.

She doesn’t tell us that researchers with significant academic records and decades of experience can be found on both sides of this question. Instead, in the first sentence of her article, Goode negates all possibility that a legitimate debate might be in progress. Climate “denialists,” she declares, are “capitalizing” on the iconic status of polar bears “to spread doubts about the threat of global warming.”

Goode knows the dissenters are playing politics. She knows their motives are profane. With a wave of her hand, she thus relieves herself of the obligation to take seriously these alternative viewpoints.

People who think polar bears are currently doing well – a separate question from how they might fare in the future – are similarly labeled “climate denialists” by Goode in paragraph four. Individuals on the other side of the fence, meanwhile, are portrayed as “real experts” and “mainstream scientists.”

Last November, a shocking paper was published online. It has now appeared in the print edition of the journal BioScience. Titled “Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate Change Denial by Proxy,” the PDF version fills five pages of text, followed by two pages of references. This is an assault by a gang of 14 authors on an individual scholar.

The target is Susan Crockford, a Canadian zoologist and adjunct professor with more than 35 years experience in her field. As the author of PolarBearScience.com, Crockford performs a public service. She encourages us to look past activist spin and media hype. Not everything we’re told about polar bears, she says, rests on a solid foundation.

While it’s appropriate for these 14 people to challenge Crockford’s assertions, their tone is anything but scholarly. This is five pages of name-calling. PolarBearScience.com is labeled a “denier blog” at the outset. So are online venues that cite Crockford’s work. The term ‘denial’ is used 9 times. ‘Denier’ 18 times. ‘Deniers’ 12 times.

The entire exercise is brazenly political. This paper sends a message to everyone else: think twice before departing from the polar bear party line. Our ugly gang of bullies will come looking for you next.

How does Goode present these events? Is 14 against one viewed as a tad unsporting? Does anyone in her article express astonishment that a naked political screed somehow got published in a peer-reviewed academic journal? Is free inquiry lauded? The importance of vigorous scientific debate championed?

I’m afraid not. She’s an extension of the gang, you see. Smugly certain that Crockford is a ‘climate denier,’ Goode considers this female scholar in a male-dominated field unworthy not only of a hearing, but of empathy, as well.

According to Goode, the 14 are merely “scientists banding together against climate change denial.” She quotes Michael Oppenheimer: “Some climate scientists basically have had enough of being punching bags.” Voilà, the victim is transformed into an aggressor who deserves what she got.

Goode tells us Oppenheimer is “a professor of geoscience and international affairs” at Princeton. She fails to mention that he spent two decades cashing paycheques at the overtly activist Environmental Defense Fund. This man isn’t impartial. He has a flashing neon sign of an agenda.

In the world inhabited by Goode, polar bear dissenters are dismissed out-of-hand because she knows they’re politically motivated. But orchestrated political behaviour by a gang of 14 is OK. And scientists affiliated with organizations that lobby for political change are reliable commentators.

Rather than inform its readers in a fair and even-handed manner, the Times this week became a mouthpiece for one side in a scientific debate. Erica Goode chose to be prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner in the case of Susan Crockford.

She sided not with the brave dissident, but with the numerous and the powerful. Crockford wasn’t merely assaulted in BioScience, her assault was justified and amplified in the pages of the Times. By another woman.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Environmental reporting at the New York Times is a disgrace.

LINKS:

Polar Bear Facts & Myths: A Science Summary for All Ages
Susan J. Crockford
  • Susan Crockford comments on these matters here and here
  • see this thorough critique of the BioScience paper by RomanM published last December
  • here Richard Tol says the BioScience paper is “smoke and mirrors,” an elaborate way of saying merely “that there are people who worry about sea-ice and polar bears, and those who do not and cite Dr Crockford.”
  • near the bottom here, James Delingpole publishes a lengthy quote from longtime polar bear expert Mitchell Taylor. The quote in the orange box at the top of this post comes from there.

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This entry was posted on April 13, 2018 by in ethical & philosophical, media and tagged , , , .
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