A journalist who ‘outsources’ her opinion on climate change causes a stir.
In a recent post explaining why she believes global warming is real, Atlantic senior editor Megan McArdle admitted that she relied on others who were more informed about climate science than her.
So far, so good. After all, don’t we all do the same with complex subjects that we don’t have the time or inclination to study up on?
McArdle next listed her go-to sources on climate change science:
I’ve basically outsourced my opinion on the science to people like Jonathan Adler, Ron Bailey, and Pat Michaels of Cato — all of whom concede that anthropogenic global warming is real, though they may contest the likely extent, or desired remedies.
[Editor’s Note: Adler is a former environmental official with the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., now on the faculty at Case Western Reserve University; Bailey is a libertarian columnist and science writer for Reason magazine and reason.com, products of the Reason Foundation, and a former journalist in residence at CEI; Michaels, a former University of Virginia faculty member and at one time the state’s climatologist, is founding editor of the World Climate Report, underwritten by the Greening Earth Society, Western Fuels Association.]
This list (especially the inclusion of Michaels) was met with incredulity by numerous climate commentators. Joe Romm called it “the most jaw-dropping admission on climate I’ve seen in years from a journalist.” Jeremy Hance, writing in Mongabay.com, similarly regarded it as a “startling admission,” in an essay titled, “Climate Journalism Gone Awry.”
I’ll get to the specific objections from critics in a minute. First let’s take a look at McArdle’s explanation for why she “outsources” her opinion to others:
I cannot be an expert on everything. I don’t know what the speed limit should be, how we should redesign the military to counter 21st century threats, or the best way to allocate scarce water resources between competing claims, even though I recognize that in a modern society, these are all the proper concerns of the government; even though I think that these questions are important, I am willing to leave them to experts on traffic patterns, national defense, and water rights. So with global warming. Time spent brushing up on the science is time spent not reading up on things where I have greater comparative advantage, like tax policy or the budget.
This seems entirely practical. Even Hance, in his Mongabay piece, is understanding. “I sympathize with McArdle: it’s frustrating to write about things on which your own knowledge is only superficial, and so that’s exactly why we seek out expert opinions — and either quote or paraphrase them.”
The problem, he says, is that McArdle hasn’t based her opinion on recognized experts, “but to a legal professor with an environmental blog (Jonathan Adler), a science editor for a libertarian magazine (Ron Bailey), and a well-known climate change skeptic scientist from the Cato Institute (Pat Michaels), which has been criticized for pushing climate denialism and bad science.”
This is a reasonable criticism. Evidently, the positions and views of America’s leading scientific organizations, or those of the world’s scientific bodies and institutions do not count as much as the scientific views of Mssrs. Adler, Bailey, and Michaels, only one of whom is actually a scientist in the first place. So why does she turn to them? Well, they happen to share a particular worldview, which seems to make them credible in her eyes, as she infers here:
If they [Adler, Bailey, and Michaels] say the planet is warming, then I trust that this is very likely to be true — not just because I like them, but because if you’ve convinced leading libertarians that humans are contributing to global warming, you’ve convinced me.
In other words, she is convinced not because of their knowledge of climate science, but because they are libertarians. Now that seems entirely wrong-headed, especially for a journalist. But it is consistent with how most people make judgments, be it about global warming, nuclear power, or genetically modified foods: It is often our cultural or political worldview that most influences our thinking on any given issue. For news and opinion, we all turn to sources that share our worldviews. That’s why conservatives watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, and liberals watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.
In their news writing, however, journalists are expected to seek out diverse sources of information, not those that are aligned with their own political orientation.
McArdle, perhaps, sees herself in a different light. At least she is upfront about her means of selection. Evidently, McArdle is a journalist with libertarian leanings, for she outsources her views on climate change to libertarians she finds trustworthy.
Of course, in our increasingly fragmented media landscape, consumers can easily stay cocooned in a customized universe that reinforces their own biases and views of the world. We would all be better served, however, if journalists stepped out of their own cocoons while on the job.