PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 167, Winter 2012: Vital Indicators


Separating Fact from Fiction

Quidditch and Quackery

Ellie M. Cohen

Vital Indicators
Director's Column: Separating Fact from Fiction in the Media
Seabirds and Marine Protection
Shorebirds Respond to Changing Bayshore Habitats
Restoration Works!
Songbirds and Global Change
Focus on Hummingbirds
Planning For the Future of Nature
PRBO Highlights
International Shorebird Surveys
Ross Sea Protection
PRBO Wish List

Ellie M. Cohen. PRBO Photo.
My nine-year-old daughter has been deeply engaged in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling in the past few months. She recently announced that when she was older she would play Quidditch, a make-believe game from the Potter series that involves flying on magical broomsticks, six large hoops, and a winged ball.

Amused but also a bit concerned, I suggested that it was time for her to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Looking at me as though I had just arrived from another planet, she informed me that many colleges now have Quidditch teams. Sure enough, the game has been adapted to on-the-ground play by “Generation Potter,” those youth who grew up on Harry and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The incident brought to mind a question that seems to arise all too regularly these days, on issues of great import to the future of our planet: how do we distinguish between fiction and reality in our national media?
Fact: Extreme weather is breaking records.

For example, a recent piece published by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) was entitled: “No need to panic about global warming... no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy.” A subheadline touted: “Editor’s Note: ...signed by the 16 scientists listed [below].”

Most of the signatories to the opinion piece, however, were not climate scientists at all. Yet, the WSJ, which had previously rejected an accurate climate change piece by scientists from the National Academies of Science, published this fringe group’s recounting of myths—myths that had been repeatedly debunked by national and international scientific societies as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which represents the consensus, and thus cautious and conservative conclusions, of more than 2,000 scientists globally).

The obfuscation of scientific consensus is hardly new. In the excellent book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway chronicle the efforts of the tobacco industry and others to undermine widely accepted science as early as the 1950s for their own interests. They marshaled a handful of scientists (usually not from relevant disciplines) to question protocols and procedures, demand more research, distribute biased “white” papers, conduct scientific symposia, and publish “proceedings” which were not peer reviewed but professionally marketed to the media and the public—and often given “equal” time. The WSJ opinion piece appears to be cut from the same cloth.

Asking today if one “believes” that there has been a significant increase in climate-altering atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from human activities is akin to asking if one believes that the earth orbits the sun. As a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates, man-made global warming is undeniable and indisputable.

With a little bit of research on the authors of these faux science communications, we can distinguish between fact and fiction. We can respectfully debunk these myths put forth to confuse the public and defuse immediate action that can secure our future.

No wizardry will magically solve the challenges of climate change, but many solutions exist. At PRBO, we are a leader in advancing science-based solutions to conserving nature in a changing world—through birds and other indicators, as this Observer highlights.

It’s time to move on from climate change denial quackery to a fact-based public discourse on the opportunities before us.

And, yes, my daughter will get to play Quidditch in college if she wants to—but not on a flying broomstick!

Follow these links for more information:

Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate

Dismal Science at WSJ Frumhoff

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

Merchants of Doubt

Skeptical Science

[back to top] [printable page]