I recently read the novel Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, a book about climate change. When I first began reading the book I had no intentions of doing a review, but as I got deeper into the book, and the characters voiced their opinions, about media in general, my intentions changed.
The premise of the book is that millions of monarch butterflies migrate to a rural area in Tennessee for the winter instead of going to their usual location in Mexico. After they are discovered by Dellarobia on her family’s land, and the media gets involved with a news story, people from around the world begin showing up including a scientist. The next several months the scientist, Dr. Ovid Byron, and his team attempt to ascertain why the monarch butterflies wintered in Tennessee.
There have been discussions in the media and scientific journals about how monarchs are decreasing in population. While some believe the cause is climate change, others believe it is the use of pesticides and some believe it is a combination of both. For example, Andre Leu, IFOAM President and author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides, quotes in his book, “Herbicide-resistant plants….have increased the use of glyphosate, which kills all other plants including milkweed, the only type of plant that monarch butterflies use for laying their eggs.” The author cites that milkweed has declined by 60 percent and monarchs in the U.S. that winter in the forests of Mexico has dropped from 1 billion in 1997 to 33.5 million. The milkweed fact above was mentioned in Flight Behavior.
I”m not going to use this space to debate climate change; rather, I’m going to use this space to discuss the role of media in the conversation. Today, media is quoting “experts” about climate change (and other issues) that are in fact not experts at all. Where are the credible scientists and researchers who are doing the work around climate change in this conversation?
Many scientists do not like how they are portrayed in and by the media. Reporters often spend more time being skeptical about the facts being delivered by a respected scientist then they do when speaking to a person who uses social media to get his/her word out effectively but has no basis in training or education to be discussing the scientific merits of an issue. (In other words, scientists don’t speak sexy talk).
Dellarobia and her husband Cub, give us an example: “Here’s the thing,” she said. “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?”
“Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report,” Cub maintained, and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic.
In another example, Dellarobia doesn’t understand why Dr. Byran’s job is not to save the monarchs. “That is a concern of conscience,” he said. “Not of biology. Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.”
“That must be why people don’t like it,” she said, surprised at her tartness.
“Ovid, too, seemed startled. “They don’t like science?”
“…You’ve explained to me how big this is. The climate thing….But other people say just forget it. My husband, guys on the radio. They say it’s not proven.”
“What we’re discussing is clear and present, Dellarobia. Scientists agree on that. These men on the radio, I assume, are nonscientists. Why would people buy snake oil when they want medicine?
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You guys aren’t popular. Maybe your medicine’s too bitter. Or you’re not selling to us. Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it….”
[Ovid] “We were not always unpopular. Scientists.”
I truly feel through the words of these characters that Kingslover is hitting this “expert issue” on the head.
Their conversation continues with Dr. Byran saying he believes academics are the referees and can talk to either side. But Dellarobia counters and says academics are not doing this.
“It’s a point,” he said. “If we tangle too much in the public debate, our peers will criticize our language as imprecise, or too certain. Too theatrical. Even simple words like ‘theory’ and ‘proof’ have different meanings outside of science. Having a popular audience can get us pegged as second-rank scholars.”
“Is that why you don’t talk to reporters? Because, honestly, you’re good.”
“It’s a hazardous road…”
While Dellarobia becomes the poster woman of the plight of the butterflies she encourages a persistent TV reporter who wants a follow-up interview to speak with Dr. Byran. Needless to say, the reporter has no interest in interviewing him and he has no interest in speaking with her, even though Dellarobia stresses the importance of his need to speak out. So she in essence tricks him into the TV interview. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well and at one point Dr. Byran is literally yelling at her.
On camera, to the reporter: “You are letting a public relations firm write your scripts for you. The same outfit that spent a decade manufacturing doubts for you about the smoking-and-cancer contention. Do you people never learn? It’s the same damned company, Tina, the Advancement of Sound Science. Look it up, why don’t you. They went off the Philip Morris payroll and into the Exxon pocket.”
And herein lies the second reason I’m writing this editorial. We the media have done a lousy job of doing our jobs. We are not unbiased. We don’t do our homework. We report what others write without fact checking. We have helped to condition our audience to respond to sensationalism rather than facts. Facts can be boring. Drama is intriguing. Facts are bland. Drama is sexy.
Last year I lamented that people don’t understand this country’s energy challenges. They see gas prices dropping (at historic lows today in comparison to the last several years) and forget about the need to diversify our energy portfolio. So I suggested if I put the factual information in an article about aliens, would it get read? People did -thousands. And this is what Barbara Kingsolver has done so beautifully. She has taken climate change and all the issues surrounding it and put them into a wonderfully written, moving and engaging novel that hopefully will trigger readers’ thinking about a the issue of climate change.