How Best to Debate Climate Deniers on TV? Simple: Don't.


Photo via Sheerman-Chase

I can't wait to see the comments on this one. Really, I can't. But this is a concept that I think is important to think about, especially at a time when much of the media appears to be buying into the narrative that the science supporting climate change is being 'called into question'. As a result, we're seeing more calls for televised 'debate' than usual, especially from outlets already convinced that global warming is a big hoax. So what's a climate scientist to do when s/he's asked by a skeptic to appear on Fox News to defend the vast scientific consensus that human activity is warming global temperatures from the latest assault on the science?

Say no.What? Refuse to debate, and let the skeptics win? Or make it appear that climate scientists have something to hide, or can't defend their views? Or worse, fail to prevent a sound case to the public, who deserve a 'fair' portrait of the state of climate science?

Well, that fairness is the issue that's really in question here--and it's something that climate scientists rarely get in such 'debates'. Joe Romm at Climate Progress has made this point over and over again--even by simply agreeing to debate climate skeptics whose goal is to spread misinformation, scientists are already losing out.

There are a number of reasons for this, including that during TV debates, personality plays a role in determining a 'victor' (when we should only be looking at facts), 'data' collected by other side doesn't have to be substantiated, and that there's rarely enough time for an adequate case to be made for something as complex as anthropogenic climate change. And sitting across someone trumpeting a debunked study or misinformation can serve to legitimize that 'point of view'--putting it on the same footing as painstakingly gathered, peer-reviewed findings from climate scientists.

Televised debate is not the way to "prove" or "disprove" climate science--that forum would be the scientific peer review process, whereupon data is scrutinized, commented upon, criticized, and conclusions are drawn. An unsubstantiated four-minute yelling match between talking heads should really have no bearing on whether one "believes" in climate change.

Note that I am not advocating in any way a suppression of dialogue, and this is indeed a tricky topic. But these TV debates do seem pretty pointless to me--except as an opportunity for climate skeptics with faulty data to appear to make a legitimate case by virtue of the fact that they're on TV, and sitting across from a real expert.

Greenfrye explains why this is almost always an uphill, losing situation for climate scientists--he notes that "a debate is not about being right, it is about winning by appearing to be right. The more the audience does not understand the issue, the easier it is to win." So, when sitting down to debate false or misleading claims made by an opponent of climate change, a scientist or expert typically only has 3 options:

i) Simply state each lie is a lie, one for one, in which case it becomes his word/my word;
ii) Refuting the lies with facts and data, but of course refuting nonsense takes longer than saying it, so he might cover 1 point in 5, which leaves the impression that he had no answer for 4/5 points;
iii) Try to make his own points, in which case it can seem that he had no answer to any of the points you made.

No matter what he chooses, he uses up all of his time and the best he can do is seem to make it 50/50

There's a reason that no science gets determined in this manner--vehement rhetoric on noisy talk shows shouldn't be the venue for probing climate science. Again, I'm not calling on skeptics to be silenced, or suggesting that climate scientists shouldn't explain their findings--if anything, I'm in favor of more transparency, and better efforts by scientists to make their findings clearer to the public. And I'd encourage climate scientists to (very) publicly review skeptics' findings (however grudgingly), and subject them to peer reviews, to restore public faith in the process. Let's just not try to do it in two and half minutes before we have to cut to commercial.

More on Debating Climate Science
Bill Nye Schools Bill O'Reilly in Climate Change (Video)
Calm Down Over ' Climate Gate': 6 Points for a Level-Headed Debate

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