Journalism is hard. To portray the world accurately to a lay audience without delving into the complexities and nuances of the universe we inhabit, writers must always simplify, explain, and make difficult content relatable for their readers. You can do this well and comprehensively, and you can do it poorly.
Often, writers simplify and give concrete examples with the best of intentions, even though I don’t put it past some of the activist writers out there to fudge what they portray and fidget with the details. But what really strikes a nerve with me is when writers end up misleading so grossly that their readers walk away with a completely twisted view of the world. The late Hans Rosling was a master at pricking the bubbles that these mistakes had created in our heads.
I have summarised his perhaps most valuable advice to Always Be Comparing Thy Numbers; never let numbers stand alone; always have readily available comparisons that let you answer the crucial questions: Is that a lot? What was it last year? Ten years ago? Do informed researchers think it’s a lot?
Most of us don’t walk around with easily comparable frameworks for what’s a large and small number in areas we know nothing about – how many people normally die in car accidents or from medical errors, how long the Amazon River is or how much ice there is in the world. Implicitly or explicitly, we rely on fact-checking journalists to tell us in the process of covering the crucial topic they’re writing about.
Too often, they don’t. And not only do they neglect their professional role, they tend to make our misunderstandings worse when they actually engage in contrived comparisons. In any story that includes climate change this tendency seems to have gone completely haywire (maybe the covidocracy can give it a run for its money).
Far from being settled, climate science is tricky: we don’t know well what happens to global temperatures when atmospheric CO2 doubles (‘climate sensitivity’); we can’t properly model clouds and cloud formation, crucial for how much of the sun’s incoming heat will be reflected away; the range for best-guesses as to what the global temperature rise over the coming century will be is vast (maybe 1°C, maybe 5°C) – so vast, in fact, that it hardly warrants a quantification.
Yet, the science is “settled,” we hear, and we must “listen to the scientists”.
The sea level rise, the Olympic swimming pools, and the football fields
But the worst crimes are the subtle throwaway lines that journalists tack onto their coverage of impending doom that give a completely mistaken impression about the future of the world. Let’s start with the Amazon.