Scientists who step into the political arena deserve to be challenged. This isn’t an attack on science – it’s an exploration of competing political perspectives.

Those of us who’ve worked as professional journalists know the public doesn’t always understand media conventions. Many people, for example, don’t realize that the authors of news stories don’t write the headlines. That’s done by an editor sitting at a desk in the newsroom.

He or she has a list of all the stories that need to appear in the next day’s edition of the newspaper. These are laid out on blank pages, fitted around one another like a jigsaw puzzle. Then dozens of headlines are dreamed up.

The headlines are intended to catch the attention of bleary-eyed readers skimming the newspaper the next morning. Their length is constricted by how much space happens to be available on the physical page. These editors are sometimes rushed and, in any case, they usually lack the reporter’s depth of knowledge.

Every print journalist has more than once opened the newspaper the next morning and groaned. An inappropriate headline above a story you’ve written is always an unpleasant surprise. But life is imperfect and that’s how the news biz works. Editors don’t have time to secure the approval of every reporter for every headline every single day.

All of the above helps explain what I view as a misleading headline in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, a Canadian national newspaper. Resources minister touting Keystone in U.S. slams climate scientist declares the large print.

The entire article consists of 576 words. It’s about a speech that Canada’s minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, delivered in Washington, DC this week. Presumably, he spoke for 30 minutes or more.

Less than 20 percent of the news article (107 words or 18.5%) concerns comments Oliver made during the Q&A afterward. Here’s the relevant part of the news story:

In a post-speech question-and-answer session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the minister dropped his usual carefully measured tone to decry leading climate-change scientist James Hansen, recently retired from NASA. Developing the oil sands, Mr. Hansen has said, would mean “there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 (parts per million), a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.”

The minister said such doom and gloom predictions were “exaggerated rhetoric,” that “doesn’t do the (environmentalists’) cause any good.”

“Frankly, it’s nonsense,” Mr. Oliver said, adding that Mr. Hansen “should be ashamed.”[article backed up here]

The bolded quote above is dead accurate. It appeared in a piece authored by Hansen that was published last year in the New York Times. This “climate scientist” – as the Globe & Mail‘s headline describes him – actually implied that it’s currently within the power of human beings to control the climate.

According to him, there’s a magic number – 500 parts of CO2 per million in the atmosphere. If that magic number is exceeded, our children will be left with “a climate system that is out of their control.”

What utter rubbish. The climate has never been our plaything. Humans don’t control it now, we have never controlled it in the past, and it’s highly implausible that our children will control it whatever decisions we make during the coming decades.

Those words may have been penned by someone who holds science degrees, but there’s nothing remotely scientific about them. Rather, they are the distinctly political opinions of a drama queen.

Hansen is a full-blown activist. Not the peaceful, law-abiding kind, but the sort who feels the need to repeatedly break the law and get himself arrested. The last occasion was 10 weeks ago. Before that, he was arrested in September 2011, in September 2010, and in June 2009.

Hansen’s New York Times piece talked about “our addiction to fossil fuels.” It declared that, if we don’t take his advice regarding economic matters such as resource development and carbon taxes we will “be judged immoral by coming generations.”

But he himself has nothing to lose, does he? If his predictions turn out to be wrong, Hansen won’t suffer any repercussions. For one thing, he’ll already have departed this mortal coil (he’s currently 72 years old). Our society has no mechanism for holding scientists – some of whom have been falsely predicting catastrophe for decades – accountable for their mistaken prophesies.

When there is no downside to being wrong and lots of upside – including celebrity status and cash prizes – some people feel little incentive to be the sort of restrained, precise thinkers that come to mind when we hear the term “scientist.”

But here’s the really important point: When scientists step into the political arena – and Hansen has lived there for decades – no one should be surprised if their views get challenged. This has nothing to do with attacking science and everything to do with vigorous public debate, with the healthy airing of a range of opinions.

The editor who wrote the headline Resources minister touting Keystone in U.S. slams climate scientist makes it sound as though a government minister has ambushed a defenseless scientist. That is so inaccurate, it’s laughable.

In a similar vein, here’s how the UK Guardian‘s activist-pretending-to-be-a-journalist Suzanne Goldenberg framed things:

Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, rarely bothers to hide his dislike for critics of the country’s carbon-heavy tar sands or the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

But it still came as a surprise to hear Oliver lash out at one of America’s pre-eminent scientists, climatologist James Hansen, during a visit to Washington DC.

It’s not clear why Oliver was so vehement. The minister launched his attack on Hansen.[backed up here]

In the world inhabited by Goldenberg, a government minister isn’t entitled to disagree with anyone. To do so means he dislikes them. It means he’s vehemently lashing out. It means he’s attacking them.

In the world inhabited by Goldenberg, Hansen isn’t an attention-seeker who gets himself arrested at the drop of a hat but “one of America’s pre-eminent scientists.” Except that Hansen’s notoriety appears to be totally unconnected to any genuine scientific breakthroughs. He’s famous because he’s a media darling. He’s well-known because he has a history of uttering apocalyptic statements that appeal to Rita Skeeters such as Goldenberg.

Although he himself has never been elected by anyone, it’s clear from that New York Times piece that Hansen thinks his role is to boss around people who actually will be held accountable for their mistakes, who are answerable to the voters who elected them.

The Canadian citizens who, in essence, hired our Natural Resources minister expect leadership. That is exactly what Oliver provided this week when he challenged Hansen’s hyperbole, when he correctly scolded him for his “exaggerated rhetoric.”

Oliver wasn’t persecuting a scientist who, up to that point, had been labouring away in a lab somewhere, minding his own business.

Instead, he was doing exactly what a politician is supposed to do. He was drawing attention to the shortcomings of an alternative political perspective.

Hansen’s New York Times op-ed is backed up here


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