Yellow Science

June 25, 2008

In the late 19th century, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer developed what would come to be known as yellow journalism. By disregarding what had been standard journalistic methods, particularly in regards to the verifying of sources, these two publishers were able both to push their country toward war with Spain and dramatically increase the circulation of their respective newspapers.


Man has always had a healthy desire for knowledge, and it is the feeding of this hunger that ennobles journalism. Hearst and Pulitzer were acutely aware that man has a less healthy but no less voracious desire to believe that he has knowledge, particularly knowledge of something sensational. It is the feeding of this hunger that irreparably disgraced journalism, and a century later now threatens to do the same to science.

* * *

Scientists, like journalists, are called upon to plumb the depths of the unknown and to fairly and objectively report their findings to their own professional community as well as the general public. Scientists, like the journalists of yesteryear, have specific methods for ensuring that the public trust placed in them is not abused. The most fundamental of these methods is the well-known, if not so creatively named, scientific method. The essence of the scientific method is the formulation of hypotheses (ideas) and the using of these hypotheses to make predictions that can be experimentally tested. In the words of Sir Arthur Eddington in “The Philosophy of Physical Science,” “Every item of physical knowledge must therefore be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure.”

Nevertheless, over the past several decades an increasing number of scientists have shed the restraints imposed by the scientific method and begun to proclaim the truth of man-made global warming. This is a hypothesis that remains untested, makes no predictions that can be tested in the near future, and cannot offer a numerical explanation for the limited evidence to which it clings. No equations have been shown to explain the relationship between fossil-fuel emission and global temperature. The only predictions that have been made are apocalyptic, so the hypothesis has to be accepted before it can be tested.

The only evidence that can be said to support this so-called scientific consensus is the supposed correlation of historical global temperatures with historical carbon-dioxide content in the atmosphere. Even if we do not question the accuracy of our estimates of global temperatures into previous centuries, and even if we ignore the falling global temperatures over the past decade as fossil-fuel emissions have continued to increase, an honest scientist would still have to admit that the hypothesis of man-made global warming hardly rises to the level of “an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure.” Global warming may or may not be “the greatest scam in history,” as it was recently called by John Coleman, a prominent meteorologist and the founder of the Weather Channel. Certainly, however, under the scientific method it does not rise to the level of an “item of physical knowledge.”

Nevertheless, the acceptance of man-made global warming as scientific fact has become so prevalent that the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, recently declared: “The debate is over. It’s time to discuss solutions.” Leaving aside the question of the secretary-general’s qualifications, that is certainly one of the most antiscientific statements ever made. The first question that this raises is why have so many scientists chosen to ignore this glaring failure of the global warming hypothesis to meet the standards of their own profession? The second question is what, if anything, can be done about it?

The first, and most obvious, temptation for this sort of willful blindness is financial. Hearst made only a fraction of his estimated $140 million in net worth from yellow journalism. Global warming, on the other hand, has provided an estimated $50 billion in research grants to those willing to practice yellow science. Influence in the public sphere is another strong temptation. It might not be as impressive as starting the Spanish-American War, but global-warming alarmists have amassed a large group of journalists and politicians ready to silence any critics and endorse whatever boondoggle scheme is prescribed as the cure to our impending climate catastrophe.

Finally, one should not underestimate the temptation of convenience. Just as it is far easier to publish stories without verifying the sources; so is it much more convenient to practice yellow science than the real thing. It takes far more courage, perseverance, and perspiration to develop formulas, make predictions, and risk being proved wrong than to look at historical data and muse about observed similarities. Yellow scientists have fled the risks of science that Albert Einstein described when he said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right, a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

* * *

The layman might object that this is not his problem. Surely Joe Six-Pack should not be expected to monitor the findings of research physicists; if anything is to be done about this collapse of scientific standards, it must be done by the scientific community itself. Unfortunately, history has shown the inability of professional communities to police their own ranks. When it first reared its head, yellow journalism was roundly condemned by the journalistic community. In fact, it was these critics who coined the term yellow journalism. The condemnation of their peers was an insufficient deterrent for Pulitzer and Hearst, because it was the approval of the public that drove their circulation. Eventually the entire journalistic community acceded to the sensationalism that the public seemed to insist on.

In recent decades, the scorn of prominent scientists such as John Coleman has been similarly unable to stop the ascendancy of the global-warming hypothesis as the public has been increasingly drawn by its sensationalism. The scientific community as a whole is on the brink of acceding to Ban Ki-Moon’s insistence that “the debate is over” and turning now to their grant applications.

Ultimately, it is only the public that holds the power to enforce professional standards, and therefore each of us must accept this responsibility. Most of us will not be able to comprehend the latest climatologic studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but fortunately that is not necessary. However complex the information may be, the standards are quite clear. One need not be a Beltway newshound to know that whatever follows the phrase “unnamed sources in the capital” or “rumors in Hollywood are” is not real journalism. Similarly, one does not need an advanced degree in natural science to understand that whatever follows the phrase “most experts agree” or “no one can measure the exact effect but” is not real science. In fact, if there is no possible way that a statement can realistically be tested, it probably fails to meet the standards for any professional community and is of no real use to the public.

The long-term results of yellow journalism have probably been more devastating than the war it started. Journalists have lost the respectability of their profession, and the public has lost real journalism. We are in very real danger, as scientists and as a nation, of losing the respectability of a professional community that has done so much to make this country great in the past hundred years. If yellow science overcomes real science it will not only be on account of the greed, ambition, and cowardice of our scientists but also the sloth and cowardice of a public that is unwilling to stand up and demand professionalism. This is why, as the editors of the New York Press said in 1897, I “called them yellow because they are yellow.”

Mr. Kerian is a mechanical engineer and small business owner in Grafton, N.D.

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