Archive for the ‘Media’ Category


The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?


Politics isn’t bad; it’s the reporting

19 July 2012

As people in other parts of the world fight for the right to vote, too many Australian voters dismiss politics as boring, unimportant, even irrelevant. 15% of Australians believe “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not politics that is the problem; it’s the way it’s reported.

I don’t believe in such a thing as a “national spirit”, but there does appear to be some truth to the idea that Australians tend to be apathetic. There are probably multiple reasons for our apathy. Perhaps our economic fortunes have made us complacent. I suspect the Liberal Party may be deliberately trying to trash the reputation of politics to win support for reducing the size of government. But I think the most fundamental reason voters believe politics is irrelevant, unimportant, and boring is because political reporting focuses on the aspects that really are irrelevant, unimportant, and (while often superficially attention-grabbing) unable to hold long-term interest.

Politics is reported as though it were a sport or a reality show. Lazily, formulaically, brainlessly, journalists slot every event into a narrative which says one party or person is going up or down in popularity. It’s a “bad week” for some political party or leader; there’s a “good poll” for another; someone is “ahead” in the race; someone is “behind” in the game. The Prime Minister’s latest speech appeared “Prime Ministerial” (whatever that means), but in yesterday’s speech she appeared “weak”, and another speech she will make tomorrow will be a pivotal event because she will “assert her authority”.

The headline political events are not policies but parliamentary stunts, leadership spills and plots, and scandals about individual MPs. For example, on 30 May, the House of Representatives passed legislation to create a Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Also, in an unrelated and unimportant procedural vote, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott realized he was on the same side as an MP whose vote he considers illegitimate, and ran for the door. The latter event became the day’s major political story. Read the rest of this entry ?


The conspiracy to capture the Australian media

5 February 2012

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently then you may know Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart has been buying up shares in TV channels (Network Ten) and newspapers (Fairfax Media). What you may not be aware of is a video of Christopher Monckton and other climate change deniers plotting how to “capture” the Australian media to promote their views.

The video has to be watched to be believed. It’s surreal, almost like something out of a conspiracy thriller: a cabal of crazy people plotting how to control the media, and thus control people’s thoughts. Though Monckton may be prone to delusions of grandeur (this is coming from a man who believes he’s found the cure for AIDS), the things he says in this video are actually plausible. Read the rest of this entry ?


The Fake Scandal of Climategate

23 November 2010

This post was written for Skeptical Science as the first part of a series on the fake scandal of Climategate.

It’s bad enough that global warming contrarians are successfully misleading the public by propagating misconceptions about climate science. But recently it has become popular to attack climate scientists themselves, to accuse them of fraud and conspiracy. Exhibit No. 1 of the climate conspiracy theory is a collection of emails stolen (or possibly leaked) from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA), which appeared on the internet in November 2009.

Founded in 1972, CRU is only a small research unit with around 16 staff. CRU is best known for its work, since 1978, on a global record of instrumental temperature measurements from 1850 to the present, or CRUTEM. CRU’s land surface temperatures are combined with the UK Met Office Hadley Centre’s sea surface temperatures to form the global land-ocean record HadCRUT. CRU has also published reconstructions of pre-1850 temperatures based on tree rings, and CRU scientists have been involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The 1,073 emails span 13 years of correspondence between colleagues at CRU. Much of it is mundane, but in this digital age it took only a matter of hours for contrarians to do some quote-mining. Contrarians alleged that the CRU scientists had manipulated data to support predetermined conclusions, that they had stonewalled Freedom of Information (FoI) requests for data, and that they had corrupted the peer review and IPCC processes.

The story was quickly dubbed “Climategate”, and it spread rapidly from arcane contrarian blogs through conservative columnists to the mainstream media. The hyperbole was turned up to eleven. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, claiming that anyone even mentioned in the emails, or remotely connected to CRU, must also be part of a conspiracy. In this way, the Climategate conspiracy theory snowballed to include the entire field of climate science. The Climategate emails were held up as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming”, and the media were only too happy to play up the controversy.

The CRU scientists have been cleared

In the months that followed, there were several inquiries into the allegations resulting from the emails. When a few of the more suggestive email quotes are reeled off by pundits without much context, they can sound pretty damning. But each and every one of these inquiries has found no fraud and no conspiracy. Read the rest of this entry ?


Americans Know Nothing About Climate Change

19 October 2010

A new survey of 2,030 American adults (weighted according to demographics and political party allegiance) confirms what previous surveys have suggested: that the American public’s understanding of climate change is dismal. The researchers graded the participants based on percentage of questions answered correctly (although some questions were harder than others). A majority, 52%, received an F. 25% got a D, 15% a C, 7% a B, and only 1% got an A.

I am not aware of any similar surveys of Australians — I hope we are not quite as bad, but there is a powerful climate change denial lobby here too. For context, it’s not just climate science about which Americans are ignorant; it is part of a larger problem of general scientific ignorance. Surveys have consistently found that about 40% of Americans think the Earth is only a few thousand years old; about 20% do not know that a year is the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.

The results are pretty depressing considering that the US is a democracy:

  • Only 63% of Americans say global warming is happening. 19% think not, and 19% are not sure.
  • Only 50% say humans are the main cause of the current warming (compared to roughly 97% of publishing climatologists). 35% say natural changes are the main cause.
  • Only 39% say that most scientists agree global warming is happening; 38% think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists. (Clearly the contrarian line of “no scientific consensus” is working.) Read the rest of this entry ?

Scientific Opinion versus Media Balance

2 August 2010

Renegade Conservatory Guy has created an infographic showing the discrepancy between scientific opinion on global warming and public opinion. I think this speaks for itself.