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Airing the issues

March 7, 2011

Tropical waterfall.

Environmental issues get an airing in a University of Minnesota lecture series.

A lecture series explores fresh angles on environmental topics

By Deane Morrison

Suppose you were booked on a flight, and 97 of 100 mechanics who had examined the plane said it would never make it to its destination. Would you board?

That's the gist of a question veteran Twin Cities news anchor Don Shelby once put to a person who was skeptical that global warming is real. Of course, the skeptic said he would not board.

Shelby then told him that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the Earth is warming. The skeptic said he would reconsider.

Shelby pulled no punches as he told that story and many others about media coverage of climate change to an audience of scientists, communicators, and the public at the University of Minnesota. His talk, "The War of Words About Science," was part of "Frontiers in the Environment," a free, Wednesday noon lecture series by the University's Institute on the Environment (IonE).

Gaining 'Momentum'

Tickets are now on sale for Momentum 2011, IonE's new event series featuring leading environmental visionaries. This season's headliners: eco-entrepreneur Majora Carter (Mar. 10), international health guru Hans Rosling (Apr. 26), and deep-sea explorer Sylvia Earle (May 12).

A call to action

In his presentation, Shelby decried the lack of factual information about climate change circulating unchallenged in the media.

"An error in fact was a firing offense when I was coming up, even if it was a mistake," he told the audience. Now, he said, outright lies about what the climate data show are repeated and quickly become established, especially in the minds of readers and listeners who want to believe them.

Part of the problem is with the concept of balance, he said. Many journalists seem to think that giving sources on both sides of the climate debate equal time or equal column inches is the way to go. But, he said, with 97 percent of scientists saying the data point toward warming, the true balance would be more like 97 column inches to three.

In spite of the near-consensus among scientists on global warming, he said the American public is still poorly informed on science issues.

"Twenty-eight percent of the science being read by people is on weight loss," according to one survey, he remarked.

Shelby urged journalists to become more investigative in their approach to covering climate change and "chase the money, find out whose ox is being gored" and investigate whether scientists who disagree with evidence of warming are in the pay of parties with a stake in keeping the status quo.

He said the scientific community must take the fight to the other side, likening the media battle to a prizefight. In this ring, scientists who present data in support of global warming are blocking all the punches from the opposition while not landing a single blow themselves. Meanwhile, the opposition is using body blows to knock the scientists to their knees.

"It's time you threw some punches," Shelby admonished the scientists in the audience.

Coming attractions

The series continues this spring with talks on food safety, links between population and the environment, how fungi that rot wood may play a key role in converting biomass to fuel, climate literacy, and other topics. Speakers will come from both inside and outside the University.

Next up (March 9) is George Weiblen, associate professor of plant biology at the University, whose laboratory is the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. He will speak on ways to protect the wilderness from logging, including his own effort to establish a research reserve in a logging area where tribal landowners receive payment in exchange for stewardship of the forest.

A complete schedule, map, and videos of previous talks are available on the IonE website.

Tags: Institute on Environment

videoExcerpts from Don Shelby's speech 

Excerpts from Don Shelby's speech

Related Links

Full Don Shelby video

Institute on the Environment