A lay public depends heavily on the media to translate the opaque language of scientific theory. Yet 90 percent of responding scientists think that the news media do not understand "the tentativeness of scientific discovery and the complexities of the results," according to a recent survey by the Freedom Forum.
The simplistic news coverage of the complex global-warming issue shows that the wariness is well-founded.
Next month, the world's politicians will gather for a global warming summit in Kyoto, Japan, to craft a solution to a problem as yet undefined. The plan's details will pass through the filter of a news profession that has profoundly misled public opinion on the science of climate change for 20 years.
In 1975, Peter Gwynne of Newsweek filed this ominous report from the climate front: "The central fact is that the Earth's climate seems to be cooling down. Meteorologists are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century. If the climate change is as profound as some of the pessimists fear, the resulting famines could be catastrophic.
"In England," Gwynne gasped, "farmers have seen their growing season decline by about two weeks since 1950." Internationally, global cooling had purportedly caused "the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded."
Solutions to the problem _ such as "melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting Arctic rivers" _ were, he conceded, probably unrealistic. But, unless something was done, coping with global cooling would become more difficult "once the results were grim reality."
Twenty-two years later _ Nov. 3, 1997 _ Time magazine warns of a quite different climate crisis.
"The fact that the world is warming is unmistakable," reporter Michael Lemonick asserts, "and the argument made by some scientists that it's just a natural phenomenon has been dashed by new evidence. Mountain glaciers are melting all over the world. Unusually severe weather has been frequent in the past few years (and) tropical diseases have begun to move into regions that were once too cold for insect carriers."
As for President Clinton's proposal to tackle global cooling _ er, warming _ by reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, the reporter quotes environmentalist Robert Musil: "a Band-Aid on a problem that requires a tourniquet."
Nowhere is there an acknowledgment that journalists had predicted the world would be shivering in hunger by now. Nowhere does Lemonick mention that many of today's "experts" on a warming apocalypse were yesterday's Cassandras of the Big Chill.
In fact, there was no scientific consensus on cooling 20 years ago, and there is no consensus on warming today.
A Gallup survey of 400 climate experts finds that "a majority of scientists involved in global climate research believe average global temperatures have increased over the past 100 years, but few attribute the increase to human activity."
The Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany finds that 64 percent of climatologists believe global warming is occurring, but 67 percent disagree that "climate models can accurately predict climactic conditions." These numbers disprove Al Gore's claim that 98 percent of scientists perceive a crisis.
Thumbing the professional journals Science and Nature, one finds the science is still fluid.
"The question of whether the observed increase in global mean temperature over the last century is indeed caused by human activities or natural climate variability remains a controversial issue," writes climatologist Klaus Hasselman in the May issue of Science.
But the popular press has pronounced the issue settled.
In a shrill Los Angeles Times story berating the Clinton administration for half-steps on global warming, reporter James Gerstenzang dismisses "the position of some scientists _ considered out of the mainstream _ who say that if global warming is taking place, it may simply be a natural phenomenon."
Even if scientists conclude that man may be exacerbating global warming, they are uncertain about what that means. Yet the premise of the Kyoto conference is the certitude that warming means disaster.
In fact, warming trends historically have increased human prosperity.
During the world's last warming period (1000 to 1300 A.D.), European agriculture flourished farther north and at higher elevations than now possible; harvests generally increased.
While scientists surveyed by the Planck Institute split on whether global warming would help or harm society, 82 percent agree that "stabilizing CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions will require a fundamental restructuring of the global economy."
That's because CO2 is the fundamental byproduct of industrial civilization. The United Nations estimates that just stabilizing current CO2 emissions would require a devastating cut of 60 percent below 1990 levels. By way of perspective, the booming U.S. economy has boosted its CO2 emissions by 8 percent this decade.
The economic consequences of a serious CO2 cap would far outweigh the detrimental consequences of a warmer climate, plunging standards of living and stalling the growth of poor nations.
Recall the 1990 Clean Air Act. An authoritative, $500-million 1989 report commissioned by Congress reflected the opinion of a majority of scientists that acid rain was an insufficiently serious problem to warrant federal legislation. Yet politicians and journalists ignored the report and urged government action against industrial pollutants.
That action has caused thousands of eastern coal miners to lose their jobs since 1990.
The price of ignoring the ambiguities of global-warming science could be much higher.
+ Henry Payne is editorial cartoonist for Scripps Howard News Service. +
Scripps Howard News Service