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NPR lies artfully

Mark Twain, I believe, once wrote that there are two ways of lying artfully -- telling the truth but not the whole truth, and telling the whole truth but telling it in such a manner that your audience believes you're lying. A story on NPR this morning pretty well accomplished the latter.

February 15, 2010
 
 

Mark Twain, I believe, once wrote that there are two ways of lying artfully -- telling the truth but not the whole truth, and telling the whole truth but telling it in such a manner that your audience believes you're lying. A story on NPR this morning pretty well accomplished the latter.

Using the recent snowstorms in Washington, DC as a hook, the item was titled "Get This: Warming Planet Can Mean More Snow." (Of course, titles aren't broadcast on the radio. To get the title, you have to go to the website.) Taken absolutely straight, the story refuted current silliness about how winter storms contradict scientific evidence of climate change. But it was hard to take the story absolutely straight, because it wasn't presented anywhere near straight. The overall flavor reminded me of nothing so much as the technique my mother refers to as "damning with faint praise."

The opening line was, "With snow blanketing much of the country, the topic of global warming has become the butt of jokes." But the story wasn't really about the jokes, and it never came right out and said that the jokes were based on ignorance. In fact, the strongest statement it contained was that "For scientists who study the climate, it's all a bit much. They're trying to dig out. Most don't see a contradiction between a warming world and lots of snow."

Ummm . . . let me get this right -- the scientists have been snowed under but most of them don't see a contradiction in that? No contradiction? How about simply reporting that climate scientists have, in fact, been for years predicting increased snowfall in coastal areas? Not only does this winter not contradict climate science, it positively corroborates it! And "most"? Can anyone name three scientists who actually study the climate and who do see such a contradiction??

And that opening to the story was no aberation. After soft-pedaling through the substance, the reporter ended with the following:

"In [a warming] climate, you will have more frequent extreme events, heat waves and so on, but again, none of those individual events is proof itself that climate is changing," [a weather blogger] says.

Climate scientists say they can't prove any single weather event is due to climate change. Thus, they say, Hurricane Katrina or the heat wave in Vancouver that's dogging the Winter Olympics isn't proof that climate change is happening. Nor can southern and eastern snowstorms prove that it's not.

So there's the bottom line -- the memory the audience will be left with. Southern and eastern snowstorms can't prove that climate change isn't happening. Implication: it might not be, but we'll need more than a few snowstorms to seal the verdict. The whole thing reminds me of an Eddie Izzard routine where he wryly demonstrates the power of visual imagery trumping verbiage -- he makes a statement which might or might not be true, then alternates between shaking and nodding his head . . . no, I don't mean it . . . yes, I do . . no, I really don't . . .

Wry comedy is hardly one of the qualities I look for in a morning "news" program.

For a far more informative take on the same subject, I was glad to see Bill McKibben's piece in The Washington Post. Quoting the same blogger and citing the same events, McKibben managed to leave his audience less confused, not more. Who knows, maybe someone at NPR reads the Post. And, if so, maybe they'll learn something.

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