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George Monbiot: Climate, Junk Science and Zombie Myths

George Monbiot is a British writer known for his environmental and political activism. He is a columnist at The Guardian, and author of the bestselling books The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, among others. His latest book is Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the ­Frontiers of Rewilding, which tells the story of his efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living.

I sat down with Monbiot to talk about why junk science is becoming an accepted part of the public discourse around climate change, creating what he calls “the phenomenon of zombie myths.” Monbiot also talks about why some media outlets continue to report on climate change without all of the facts. Below is the first of our two-part conversation.*

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James Hoggan: What do you think about the state of public discourse around climate change?[view:in_this_series=block_1]

George Monbiot: Well, it seems to be the one area in which you can persistently get away with junk science. Now, in any other area in the mainstream media, if for example a newspaper says, “HIV is not connected with AIDS,” like The Sunday Times did for a while, the response by scientists is so strong and so effective that it has to roll back and retract that position, which is what it did, thankfully, because it was a grossly irresponsible position.

If you say, vitamin C cures cancer, for example, as certain newspapers have done at certain times, then, they too are effectively forced to roll back in the name of sound science, good science. But if you say climate change that we’re currently experiencing is caused by sun spots or cosmic rays or volcanoes or any of the other bullshit explanations, which are spread far and wide, you can, if you’re a newspaper like The Daily Mail in the UK or if you’re a television station like FOX News in the US, say it again and again and again and come up with a million different variants on it and never effectively be held to account for the nonsense that you’re promulgating.

JH: What is it about climate change that is so different to the other issues?

GM: The difference is that there is a huge amount of money at stake – money belonging to some very powerful corporations that continue to exert a great deal of influence within the media. They have a large array of public relations weaponry at their fingertips and they’re able to keep this junk science story bubbling for years and years and years. However many times it’s refuted, however effectively it is refuted, it doesn’t die. It’s what those of us interested in climate change call the phenomenon of zombie myths. The zombie climate change myths just keep coming up. No matter how many times they’re killed, they still keep standing up and walking.

JH: I’m the PR guy, so I’m used to spin. But I’ve never seen a situation where the people with essentially all the facts on their side lose to an opponent that virtually has no facts.

GM: It makes me feel impotent, to be honest. If we look clearly at the UK situation, just to give you an example, it’s almost as bad as the US, but not quite. You’re getting a newspaper like the Daily Mail, which will say, “There’s been no global warming for the past 15 years and we are, in fact, about to enter a new ice age.” Then you’ll get scientists saying, “This is the most demonstrable nonsense.” I’ll write in the Guardian, saying the Daily Mail should be ashamed of itself promulgating this junk science and it won’t make a damn bit of difference. It just bounces off like an arrow shot at a tank. Then they’ll keep repeating the same nonsense again a few weeks later. I have not seen that in any other field. I’ve not seen any other scientific issue where people can just keep banging it out, and banging it out, and banging out, utterly impervious to correction from the scientists who are the experts in the field.

JH: Can you discuss this more around the idea of confirmation bias – where people favour information that confirms their beliefs? Does that explain it?

GM: It’s one of the things that explain it. The Internet has contributed to this. Strangely, the Internet was supposed to expose us to a whole lot of different points of view. The problem is we have a tendency as people to form communities with those who have similar viewpoints. And the Internet allows us to form effectively closed communities in which we only hear the voices of those who agree with us. Some people might deliberately go into opposition blogs to troll or something, but they’re not going to listen to what the people are saying, they’re just going to try to shout them down.

But you have someone like Lord Monckton who will attract certain followers who will listen to what he’s saying and they will not listen to what the climate scientists are saying. And he will then go on to various nutty television stations, whether it’s FOX News, or Prison Planet, or any of the other slightly unhinged right-wing, pro-corporate stations and he will say something nonsensical and all his followers will hear that. And because they haven’t got any conflicting influence, they will believe that that is the truth. And then, when somebody says something that doesn’t fit that framing, which is out of that box, they’ll say, “That’s mad. That’s crazy. Because we aren’t familiar with it, and that is what must be wrong.”

This is a self-reinforcing process that takes place everywhere. Even we, environmentalists, are prone to it and we have to be very wary of it.

JH: I’d like your thoughts on what you might call agenda journalism and the problem of confirmation bias. Don’t columnists like George Will have higher level of responsibility for ensuring accuracy regardless of their bias?

GM: Well, I think in a way, it’s worse than that. I don’t think he’s making things up. I think he is just taking without any examination, without any skepticism, without any creativity at all. He’s just accepting what other people are telling him. And he’s got no skeptical distance that says, “Is this right or is this wrong, where is the science here, where is the evidence to support this position?” He’s just not doing it. Now, that is the most basic failing that a journalist could make.

Like all of us, he is entitled to his own opinions; he is not entitled to his own facts.

And I’m a columnist of a left-wing persuasion, and so, I will look at some facts and I will draw conclusions which fit into my own framing and that’s what we all do. Every person on earth does that, but what I’m trying to do is, first of all, to make sure I got my facts right. My position is that, if your opinions are not supported by the facts, you have to change your opinions. I mean apart from the ethical issues, why waste your life on promulgating bullshit? I mean, what a terrible waste.

JH: Have you always been as passionate about the environment as you are today?

GM: Yes, from when I was a very small child, I was intensely concerned about the planet. I don’t know where it came from. It didn’t really come from my upbringing. It was just something that was of enormous importance to me. I was fascinated by the natural wonders of the world, by wildlife, by everything to do with the natural world; geology, weather, whatever it might be. For me, it has always been something whose preciousness is apparent, whose wonders are apparent. And we’ve just got to get this right, and we’ve got to make some very hard and very difficult choices in order to get it right, but we cannot make those choices unless we get our facts right.

Read Part 2 of this interview here: George Monbiot on Environmentalist: “I Cannot Abide Bullshit”

* This is an abridged version of the interview.

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