Progress in the middle ground

One lasting idea that came out of my animal research research was the idea Elisabeth Ormandy expressed right at the end – that where the true progress is made is in the middle ground. The extreme sides of either argument are only really shouting into the void; those closer to the centre, who are willing to concede some things (but not all), and make compromises are those who really push an issue forward. Animal rights advocates like SUBCAR want all animal research to stop immediately, but without any concession that this is simply not possible. But it’s also not helpful to say things are absolutely fine as they are and defend every point from within a walled castle.

As a journalist, I also don’t believe it’s my job to present the screaming sides. Only presenting the two extremes I think can give the public an unfair read it two ways: firstly it presents the topic as severely polarized, as if there is only one solution or the other; and secondly, it doesn’t really allow the public to form an opinion, or to be able to progress the dialogue. The purpose of journalism is to push things forward, first and foremost by allowing people to gain enough interest and knowledge of a subject to form an opinion they can take out into their own discussions, and maybe help change the world.

Of course, animal research is not the only place this issue comes up in science: one of the most obvious is climate change. A little while back, I went to a talk by Michael E. Mann about his new book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Mann is responsible in part for the original “hockey stick” graph that shows a sharp upward trend in temperature in the past few decades, and is one of the main targets for deniers. You can see his whole talk here, but what I found more interesting than the actual talk was the question period (also in the video link). At 42 minutes, a guy stands up and begins his question by bluntly declaring himself a denier. He went on, in a vehement tone: “Unfortunately you explanations of the hockey stick leave out some inconvenient truths […] Your explanation about hiding the decline I don’t buy at all […] I want you to explain how you managed to defend, to this day, a projection based on those flaws.” I cut out a lot of the details of his statement/question here as there enter some scientific details Mann himself clears up in his answer; to me the important thing is the manner in which this guy presented himself and his query. I can’t think of a better word than venomous, almost spitting into the microphone, and as you can see from the excerpts here, very accusatory.

Later on in the question period (around 1 hr 18 mins), someone asks another scientific questions in this way: “I see that in your study you covered the past thousand years with your tree ring data. I’ve seen previous charts that show spikes in temperature that precede the industrial revolution, and now I may be wrong with my data, but just years of looking into these and I’ve seen these charts… with temperatures much higher than they are currently; I was wondering if you could comment on that.” Again, the question is cribbed, but the important this is the respect and curiosity with which the question was asked. With the self-proclaimed denier, the tension in the room peaked, the moderator nervously watched on and Mann’s answer was terse. With the second inquiry, the answer was happily and fully given in the spirit of dialogue. The point I’m trying to make, of course, is that progress is made in the middle ground, with honest questions, not attacks.

“Deniers” can spit venom like the best of them, but often the die-hard supporters of anthropogenic global warming (caused by humans – aka AGW) are not much better. Take this recent article in the Edmonton Journal about a new study that suggests burning Alberta’s oilsands would have a negligible effect on global warming. The article was absolutely excellent, finding all the subtleties in the issue and pointing out how the scientists involved were just following the science; the purest pursuit of knowledge. They didn’t care which “agenda” it fit into. The fossil fuel contained in the oilsands is not enough to make a significant impact on climate change, but that doesn’t mean we should be all gung-ho in exploiting them; there are plenty of other environmental consequences.

But although the article did an excellent job at explaining all this, the comments were a real eye-opener. Both extreme sides are out in full force. Two quick examples:

Johnnie Oil 1:42 PM on 2/20/2012

surprise, surprise, surprise the climate fear monger cultists are proven wrong again and again and again.
It is time to put entire CO2, global warming, global cooling, climate change or whatever they will call it next time
the facts don’t match their lies and fantasies to rest once and for all. When will people wake up and see the truth, the facts
and it has been a scam all along, nothing but a way for governments to tax people more so they can get bigger and more bloated
and to transfer our wealth to corrupt 3rd world countries that control the UN in all its’ uselessness

Joe Adanac 2:22 PM on 2/20/2012

The findings are not surprising. The Harper regime is making it difficult for climate change scientists to get funding or media exposure unless they tow the party line and express pro-oilsands views in their work. That’s what happens when Canada turns itself into a petro state ala Saudi Arabia. The credibility of Canadian science is in the toilet right now the same way it was in the US during the Bush years.

Despite the article saying that the science of climate change is not in any way disputed, some on the extreme ends seem to have taken it that way and run with it; the deniers decrying it as the end of AGW; and those with an unreasonably strong conviction to the AGW cause saying the scientists responsible for the study must be corrupt, and in the pocket of Big Oil. Neither side seems to have read the article with full attention; an article which actually does a good job of finding the nuance and the middle ground.

I suppose even if a journalist does a great job, sensible responses are not always guaranteed! Is this a special case for climate change? Is it because the issue has been so highly polarized in the media for such a long time? These, and many other related question are what I hope to explore in my master’s thesis. Oh yes, year one of journalism school has just come to a close: bring on year two!


(As a P.S., over the summer I’ll be working on a truly fantastic internship, as a writer for The Scientist magazine! I won’t start until June, but look out for me then, I aim to write as much for them as they can cope with)


4 thoughts on “Progress in the middle ground

  1. Congratulations on the internship, keep your eyes’ ears and mind wide open and if you find yourself being used as the editorial go-for and coffee totty just remember it will help make you invisible and you can eves drop on stuff that most people would kill to find out.
    Excellent piece and well observed, hopefully the ‘middle ground’ will draw in a greater crowd who’s combined dialogue will win over most of the entrenched extremism?

    I really believe that you can “change the world” even if the road be long and tortuous, but stick to it and I’m certain it will lead to a worthy goal.

  2. I hope it’s a mistake to characterize the public debate about *anything* by the comments on newspaper websites. Can you imagine what they would have looked like during the Scopes trial?

    Immoderate reactions aren’t unique to climate change or scientific issues, though; check out the comments on articles about Trayvon Martin.

    1. Very true remarks! I guess I just used the remarks on that particular article to demonstrate that it’s not just the deniers that are extreme and unreasonable in this debate. These things are certainly not restricted to science, it’s just what I know best 😉

  3. I agree that working in the middle ground will accomplish much more then the 2 extremes. I am a veterinary technician who works with and cares for lab animals in Canada. Most of us are very scared of reveling to others where we work for fear of the extreme PETA type responses out there. It really is a shame. Those of us on the veterinary side of animals research really do have concern for the animals, and advocate for them a great deal. Always striving to learn better ways to improve their welfare. We are on the side of the animal welfare, but still do understand the need for their use in science. We might not always agree with the research being done either, but we do everything in our means to make animals as comfortable as we can.
    I have seen much worse treatment of animals by regular pet owners when I worked in a vet clinic.

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