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The False Objectivity of “Balance”

Filed under: — mike @ 18 November 2005

We here at RC continue to be disappointed with the tendency for some journalistic outlets to favor so-called “balance” over accuracy in their treatment of politically-controversial scientific issues such as global climate change. While giving equal coverage to two opposing sides may seem appropriate in political discourse, it is manifestly inappropriate in discussions of science, where objective truths exist. In the case of climate change, a clear consensus exists among mainstream researchers that human influences on climate are already detectable, and that potentially far more substantial changes are likely to take place in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates. There are only a handful of “contrarian” climate scientists who continue to dispute that consensus. To give these contrarians equal time or space in public discourse on climate change out of a sense of need for journalistic “balance” is as indefensible as, say, granting the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite. It’s plainly inappropriate. But it stubbornly persists nonetheless.

The latest example of inappropriate application of “balance” in a journalistic (or in this case, editorial) context can be found in a recent exchange that took place in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle recently published an op-ed jointly written by two UC Berkeley faculty (a scientist and a journalism expert) entitled “The politics of climate change–Should we trust a novelist on global warming?”. In this op-ed, they (justifiably, in our view) criticize an event that was held in San Francisco to promote Michael Crichton’s book “State of Fear” and the deeply flawed attacks against mainstream scientific research that the book seeks to promote. The op-ed pointed out that Crichton’s arguments and claims are generally false and/or misleading, and fly in the face of established mainstream research findings of the international scientific community. Of course, we have pointed that out ourselves (here and here) before.

Nothing wrong with that. The problem occured when the Chronicle, in an attempt at “balance”, published an opposing view by Debra Saunders. Saunders took this opportunity to offer up the familiar contrarian talking points we’ve dealt with numerous times before on this site, and the usual mix of myths, half-truths, innuendo, and ad hominem attack that are too often the hallmark of shrill contrarian op-ed pieces. Her criticisms, moreover, are completely vacuous from a scientific point of view. Her rhetoric might nonetheless sound convincing…unless, of course, you happen to know that the various underlying premises on which it is based are at best misleading, and at worst just plain false…and unless you notice that she completely ducks the actual scientific issues involved. For example, Saunders quotes William Gray’s off-the-cuff criticism of a study by Naomi Oreskes that demonstrated the existence of an overwhelming consensus in the peer-reviewed scientific literature on the reality of anthropogenic climate change (see our previous discussion of that study). Yet Saunders is unable to muster a single counter-example to challenge Oreskes’ findings.

So, are we foreover stuck with this situation? Perhaps not. There are some signs that journalists and editors are growing increasingly savvy in recognizing the false objectivity of “balance” in the treatment of scientific issues. This is perhaps best exemplified by the wonderfully insightful recent editorial “Truth a higher calling than fairness” by Mark Trahan, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We hope that an increasingly larger number of journalists and editors will heed Trahan’s words.


84 Responses to “The False Objectivity of “Balance””

  1. 51
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #50,

    The old saying “…sometimes the biggest lie is the truth told in a certain way” rings a bell here.

  2. 52
    kyan gadac says:

    The following quote is from a Planning Strategy for the South Coast of Western Australia. It’s indicative of state level policy and the real consequences of ‘objectivity’ -

    “Under all the models run by the IPCC, global average temperatures and sea levels are expected to rise. However, the IPCC sea level analysis depends largely on data from a small area of Europe and has been criticised for omitting some conflicting data from other locations with a greater prospect of land level stability. Locally, good quality sea level records are of relatively short duration.

    In the recent development of the new draft Statement of Planning Policy for coastal areas of the state, the potential for sea level rise has been included in the calculation for development setbacks for protection from physical processes. An allowance of 0.38 metres was selected as the most appropriate at this time. It is derived from the IPCC Third Assessment Report6 and is the average rise between between 2000 and 2100 of the averages of the Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation models (AOGCM’s) of the 35 IPCC emission scenarios.”

    I know it’s a bit cheeky but I’d be interested in any comments – especially wrt the 0.38m figure in light of recent reports about Greenland etc. I’ve got to write a submission b4 25 Nov about this nonsense. (The above statement is the only reference to climate change in the whole planning document.

    [Response: The stuff about the IPCC sea level analysis is junk. See http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/409.htm; also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_level_rise. 0.38m is the IPCC midline to 2100, but thats global. It should probably be adjusted for Australia; not sure if people would agree on what the adjustment should be - William]

  3. 53
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #52 (KG): I’m sure there are several someones busily working on results for Greenland based on all the recent information, but so far nothing has come out in public that I’ve seen. Maybe one of the RC authors knows something, but my suspicion is that whoever is working on it won’t want any preliminary information to leak out given the big splash it will make. But the main point is that the models didn’t account for this now-obvious mechanism for rapid ice sheet collapse, and so it seems inevitable that the TAR sea level rise figure will be revised substantially upward in the AR4.

  4. 54
    PHEaston says:

    To suggest that journalists (or their editors) should chose not to give air to an alternative scientific viewpoint means you are happy with journalists making judgements on behalf of science.

    [Response: Two points. First, journalists make judgements all the time and there's nothing wrong with that. Second, automatically including a nay-sayer everytime is the exact opposite of exercising judgement. Good journalists in the field ask a lot of people what they think before making their call, and all we would really like is for the true balance of views to be reflected in the articles. -gavin]

  5. 55
    Larry says:

    Response to comment #39: There is also a lot of research that has looked at how much of a difference Kyoto could make. The answer is: very little in the short term but a lot in the long term (i.e. not for us, but for our children and grandchildren).

    Could you quantify what you mean by “a lot” at all? And could you point to any piece of research that says that Kyoto actually would make a lot of difference in any term?

  6. 56
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    Sometimes it can be difficult to separate climate science and the politics that surround it. In things like newspaper editorials it can be hard to separate the scientific and political signal (to adopt a climate science term).

    Promoting science doesn’t mean you are promoting policies that use science. Someone who publicly promotes scientific findings could be considered a science activist, and someone who promotes policy choices a political activist. They are separate but can be so closely related that the political and scientific signals can be difficult to separate. RC does try to steer clear of policy discussions, but the political and scientific are so intertwined that this is difficult. IMO I think RC is doing a good job of this.

    I try to avoid policy discussions on RC, except I do like the fact that climate change regulatory schemes would mean work for lawyers, no I mean more career opportunities for the kids in law school. For me its not about more work for me, its about the kids ;) I’ll will briefly note that the US has the most extensive and strictly enforced set of environmental laws in the world and has the strongest economy. Claims of economic catastrophe (# 39) have been brought up for many years by many people and have been wrong.

    Public opinion does have an effect on policy decisions. I’m not sure exactly what RPjr’s position on this issue is, his articles are usually more nuanced then his confrontational blog comments. You can look at environmental laws and trace their origins as the result of law makers responding to public opinions. A quick example would be the Oil Pollution Act which was formulated and enacted after the Exxon Valdez spill.

    For Lynn (#43) I think you are talking about individual environmentalists verses the environmental organizations. National groups have scientists on staff, like Bill Chameides a NAS member at Environmental Defense. When the national groups work (I have known some of their attorneys) they carefully consider what the scientific evidence is before making a decision. One of the reasons the contrarians attack the scientific community is when the scientific evidence is carefully examined it usually supports environmentalist group’s positions. Calling yourself an extremist is feeding into what is a myth propagated by contrarians. IMO enviros have unilaterally disarmed (to borrow Eli Rabett’s term) on the extremist label and allowed it to be pasted on them.

    Finally to add to Eli Rabett’s excellent comment #44 if public opinion doesn’t matter why do major corporations like Exxon fund groups like CEI. They are investing their hard earned profits with the expectation that public opinion will be swayed. Like them or hate them the oil companies are very sophisticated and would not spend money if they weren’t getting something valuable in return.

  7. 57
    Larry says:

    The reason I asked the questions — unanswered — in comment #55 is that, in comment #9 the response asserted that “here at RC”, “the ‘political implications of the science’ (i.e., whether or not the Kyoto Accord should be ratified)” “is something we obviously don’t” talk about. It just seemed to me that, if you wanted to stay above the political fray in that sense, you wouldn’t want to be making unsubstantiated statements about what “a lot” of difference Kyoto is supposed to make in the long run. Would you?

    [Response: "unsubstantiated allegations" is gratuitously impolite. And of course how much impact reducing CO2 emissions would have on the climate is a scientific (not political) question well within the remit of this site - William]

  8. 58
    PHEaston says:

    Joseph O’Sullivan (no. 56) said: “One of the reasons the contrarians attack the scientific community is when the scientific evidence is carefully examined it usually supports environmentalist group’s positions.”
    I think that here, for ‘contrarians’, he is referring to those in industry who have tended to resist the change to greter environmental protection (due to the greater costs it initially appears to involve). On this site, the term ‘contrarian’ is regularly applied to those who question the certainty of AGW. In my mind, most of those alluded to ARE scientists. Yes, there are extremist and irrational sceptics, but there are also extremist and irrational AGW advocates. The sensible aspects of the debate are between scientists across the spectrum of conviction. The serious ‘contrarians’ do not attack the ‘scientific community’ or resort to petty personal attack or nicknames. They pose serious and legitimate questions to AGW science.

  9. 59
    Larry says:

    Reponse to #57: “unsubstantiated allegations” is gratuitously impolite. And of course how much impact reducing CO2 emissions would have on the climate is a scientific (not political) question well within the remit of this site – William

    Humblest apology, William for any gratuitousness. Yes indeed, CO2 impact on climate is a “scientific (not political) question”. As is the speed of sound at sea level. But I simply wanted to know a single piece of scientific (or, for that matter, any other) evidence that purported to show that the Kyoto accord would ever make “a lot” of difference — I didn’t think that would be difficult since it was also asserted that there was “a lot” of research (scientific research, I’m assuming) showing exactly that, and I’m just asking for one instance. If you can’t produce one instance, then, fairness aside, don’t you think it would be in the interest of truth (the higher calling) to say so, and possibly retract the original assertion?

    [Response: Kyoto itself is universally regarded as a first step towards reducing GHG emissions. As far as I know, just doing Kyoto and nothing else would not make a great difference (to CO2 levels over the century, and therefore to predicted temperature changes) - William]

  10. 60
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #58, “The serious ‘contrarians’ do not attack the ‘scientific community’ or resort to petty personal attack or nicknames. They pose serious and legitimate questions to AGW science.”

    Really? Now, how come they keep repeating the same incorrect statements and are told they are wrong over and over again, yet to say the same thing again? Why do you say these questions are “serious and legitimate” if the answers are already out there?

    It is a stalling tactic, that or an attempt to get these questions bouncing around inside the heads of the general public so they will think AGW is not happening or that the vast majority of scientists (such as those in the IPCC) are not doing their work correctly.

    As well, I’ve seen several “serious” contrarians’ remarks that would be nearly libelous or slanderous. These “contrarians” have no footing left and are attempting to drag some of the most respected scientists (like Drs. Mann, Bradley, Hughes, Schneider, and Trenberth) down the hill with them. On the other hand, I have seen no comments by these respected scientists which attempt to attack the “contrarians” in such a libelous or slanderous manner.

    [Response: This discussion is skating very close to the line. Please keep it civil. -gavin]

  11. 61
    Ian Castles says:

    William, Your comment “Kyoto itself is UNIVERSALLY regarded as a first step towards reducing GHG emissions” (EMPHASIS added) is factually wrong. In peer-reviewed papers published in February 2005 by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA), economist William McKibbin outlined a number of reasons why he believed that “the Kyoto Protocol is so badly constructed that it has set back the search for sensible and effective policy response by at least a decade”, and political scientist Aynsley Kellow wrote that “The Kyoto Protocol is usually justified as a necessary ‘first step’, but it might well be a step in the wrong direction and one which could hinder rather than help future international cooperation” (“Uncertainty and Climate Change: The Challenge for Policy”, pps. 27, 61). Both scholars are co-authors of important books and other papers on Kyoto. The House of Lords Committee unanimously reported that “The Kyoto Protocol … attempts to punish short-term non-compliance … with an enforcement mechanism that is so weak it is likely to be counterproductive, i.e., it will encourage reduced participation in the future, not the widening participation that is required.” For many more examples, please see the full set of papers in “The Costs of the Kyoto Protocol” in the special issue of “The Energy Journal” (1999).

    [Response: Hi Ian. Fair-ish point; you have chosen one interpretation of what I said; I meant another. I would have been more careful in a post. So: I'm fully aware that many people dislike Kyoto. But even they don't think Kyoto is the end point: even they agree that more after is the intent. But we stray too far from the science - William]

    [Response: Enough already. Whether Kyoto is or is not a first step/a panacea/useless is not going to be worked out here. -gavin]

  12. 62
    Larry says:

    Stephen Berg: Now, how come they [the serious 'contrarians'] keep repeating the same incorrect statements and are told they are wrong over and over again, yet to say the same thing again? Why do you say these questions are “serious and legitimate” if the answers are already out there?

    That’s actually why it’s called a “debate”, Stephen. It’s not sufficient to “tell” someone they’re wrong, even if you do it “over and over again” — you have to provide reason and evidence for your claim, they get to critique your reason and evidence, you get to critique theirs, and so on. In real science, unlike TV shows, the truth is rarely just “out there” — it emerges through a process of critical analysis, and needs to be able to withstand continual skeptical scrutiny.

  13. 63

    #61, Fair enough, but repeating continuously the same thing is not engaging a debate, its more like preaching for a cause. As an example, a true debate would demand Lindzen disciples (short of Dr Lindzen himself), to explain his often repeated words in #50, by far the greatest AGW contrarian slogan disseminated to the masses. I am waiting to hear from those who stand by such controversial stance, and engage in a good exchange about it. I think many people will enjoy hearing a plausible defense, rather than a deafening but quite suggestive silence.

  14. 64
    Larry says:

    That too is fair enough. I think, unfortunately, that “preaching” in the media can be found on both sides — consider Stephen Schneider’s notorious “scary scenarios” remark, for example. Lindzen erred in using a comparison of weather and climate to make a point, I think, but the point — that it’s difficult and risky to try to extend a forecast of anything as complex as climate as far into the future as the models do — is at least plausible and arguable.

  15. 65
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #61, “That’s actually why it’s called a “debate”, Stephen. It’s not sufficient to “tell” someone they’re wrong, even if you do it “over and over again” — you have to provide reason and evidence for your claim, they get to critique your reason and evidence, you get to critique theirs, and so on. In real science, unlike TV shows, the truth is rarely just “out there” — it emerges through a process of critical analysis, and needs to be able to withstand continual skeptical scrutiny.”

    It may be called by some a debate, but it sure isn’t constructive if the same rebuttals have to be continuously given. Nothing is gained by doing this. The process ends up going around in circles multiple times and little new information is brought out if old and failed arguments by contrarians are repeatedly brought forth. A little exposure to this site (i.e. RealClimate) by these contrarians will leave them with the rebuttals to most of their arguments.

    As for withstanding the “continual skeptical scrutiny”, I believe this is called Peer-Review. Sure, the P-R process is not flawless, but it weeds out the vast majority of fatally-flawed studies, that is, studies with flaws that render the results incorrect.

    The MBH “Hockey Stick” paper is probably one of the most scrutinised studies in scientific history. (At least it seems that way in how often the media and other groups cover it.) It has passed all the tests with flying colours. That is, upon review after review of the study, the results have remained consistent and verifiable and in no danger of being found fatally-flawed (as Pat Michaels would like you to believe). Small nit-picky fix-ups may have been identified, but they have not placed the results in danger of being found inaccurate.

  16. 66
    Larry says:

    Well, this is now a debate about the debate. Contrarians too no doubt feel exasperated that the other side repeats already “rebutted” arguments (e.g., the “hockey stick”), but that’s how debates always feel to partisans of one side or the other. What is wrong, however, and what I’m concerned about, are attempts to shut down the debate by the side that is currently dominant — the number of times in the history of science that minorities (sometimes of one) have eventually shown the way to the truth ought to be reason enough for everyone to work on both their patience and their open-mindedness.

  17. 67

    Larry, that was not a mistake from the part of Dr Lindzen, it’s what he thinks:

    “This brings one to what is probably the major point of disagreement: Can one trust computer climate models to correctly predict the response to increasing CO2? As the accompanying cartoon suggests, our experience with weather forecasts is not particularly encouraging though it may be argued that the prediction of gross climate changes is not as demanding as predicting the detailed weather. Even here, the situation is nuanced. ”

    Richard S. Lindzen before the senate environment and public works committee. 2/May/2001

    In the later CNN comment he removed the obtuse caveat of 2001, probably indicating his 2005 evolved thinking about the subject, but he is definitely not confident in Meteorologists/Climatologists ability to forecast past 3 days. Climate single numbers, like Global Temperature, is nowhere as difficult to predict as very demanding high resolution weather forecasts. Hansen et Al. and many others predicted in the 80′s the very warm temperature peak we are experiencing right now. This should alleviate some doubts as to whether scientists can’t see what is coming. I find Lindzen’s pessimism not refreshing, because he is not reflecting actual accomplishments in the field.. This may be due to his thinking about his colleagues:

    “First, climate science, itself, has traditionally been a scientific backwater. There is little question that the best science students traditionally went into physics, math and, more recently, computer science.” Lindzen 2/May/2001

    Stephen Schneider’s scary predictions interest me, I read his webpage and he doesn’t give any exaggerations, may be I missed the scary scenes, Dr Schneider does not denigrate his entire discipline though.

    I think Dr Lindzen and others like him should separate their political views, like MIT colleague Noam Chomsky, who makes no bones about his views while having outstanding Academic accomplishments, it is a matter of language, how to relate to the public without achieving, on purpose or not, confusion.

  18. 68
    Hans Erren says:

    Of course there are contrarians who dismiss the entire scientific evidence, “CO2 rise is not man-made”, “there is no warming”, etc.

    Most skeptics and warmer however, debate the magnitude of certain effects.
    eg: projected economic growth, strength of aerosol cooling, strength of water vapour feedback. This is a genuine scientific debate. And both opponents dismiss evidence of the other party.

  19. 69
    Larry says:

    Wayne writes: I think Dr Lindzen and others like him should separate their political views….

    I think everyone involved, Wayne, should do their best to separate their political/ideological/quasi-religious views from science — i.e., from dispassionate reason and evidence. In that context, let me quote a little more extensively from Stephen Schneider’s famous interview in Discover (you may not know it or remember it):

    … like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.

    This clearly transforms science into politics, and politics of the most manipulative, disreputable kind at that.

    As for Lindzen, you may find his “pessimism not refreshing” and I may even agree with you — but that’s not a reason to suppress his views, which, as I say, are at the very least arguable.

    [Response: Oh please... Selective mis-quotations of that interview have been contrarian fodder for years and are a complete distortion of what was said and what Schneider's position is. The full quote and Schneider's respsonse to the issue are easily available (here) and continued use of this ridiculous canard can only be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to mislead. Just to make it perfectly clear the full quote is:

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but - which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

    Schneider also made it abundantly clear that this bind should be tackled directly by any scientist dealing with the media:

    [Misquoters] also omit my solutions to the double ethical bind: (1) use metaphors that succinctly convey both urgency and uncertainty, and (2) produce an inventory of written products from editorials to articles to books, so that those who want to know more about an author’s views on both the caveats and the risks have a hierarchy of detailed written sources to which they can turn. What I was telling the Discover interviewer, of course, was my disdain for a soundbite-communications process that imposes the double ethical bind on all who venture into the popular media. To twist my openly stated and serious objections to the soundbite process into some kind of advocacy of exaggeration is a clear distortion. Moreover, not only do I disapprove of the “ends justify the means” philosophy of which I am accused, but, in fact have actively campaigned against it in myriad speeches and writings. Instead, I repeatedly advocate that scientists explicitly warn their audiences that “what to do” is a value choice as opposed to “what can happen” and “what are the odds,” which are scientific issues.

    Hopefully forums like RealClimate make it easier to put sound-bites in context with all the caveats and problems. We are not here however just to be used for talking-point jousting. -gavin]

  20. 70
    PHEaston says:

    I believe ‘scientific judgement’ should be kept separate from ‘political judgement’.

    As is well known: there are some (perhaps quite a few) who believe that if there are some valid doubts regarding AGW, we can not risk waiting to find out. Their view is that by continuing the debate, then enactment of Kyoto and any other efforts to reverse the process will be delayed. This may be a valid judgement, but it is a political one and not a scientific one.

    My understanding of this site is that its purpose is scientific. It contains a lot of good science and good scientific debate, but I fear there are too often ‘opinions’ or ‘politcal views’ that get confused with science.

  21. 71

    #70, That has become quite a problem, if I want to make a political statement it should be based on something, that something, in the case of AGW is provided by scientists. If some scientists mix their political views with their scientific theories, it is not a good view to rely on, yet that is exactly what some politicians are looking for, some scientist agreeing with their plans. Through sound bites from media interviews they find each other, and use their flawed rethoric to advance their mutual causes.
    Unlike an institution, like the Roman Catholic Church, there is no one to discipline scientists mixing science with politics. What is left is for the media to recognize the scientist fusing disciplines together, they regularly fail to do that. The end result is instead of reading headlines like Scientists correctly forecasting present world wide warmer weather, we read things like GW science is flawed, not credible and too experimental. The media has to do a better job, pit ideas with ideas, especially publish accomplishments, what ever happened to that? But not good science against a sci-political theory.

  22. 72
    Ian Castles says:

    Gavin, ….. [ad homs. deleted]

    [Response:Ian, this is not the place for character assassinations. -gavin]

  23. 73

    Very interesting to read Saunders’ piece, which, if you read it carefully, contains only one item of any substance: that a hurricane expert doesn’t believe in global warming. (She doesn’t say anything about him having published a peer-reviewed paper to this effect, though.)

    Her ideas on science are also interesting. I don’t think anyone advocates that scientists should think in lockstep. To use a form of argument as flawed as her own: Does she advocate that scientists stop using Newton’s laws because that would mean they had been brainwashed into believing them? If we did that for real most of the modern world would stop. Some things are widely believed simply because they happen to be true.

  24. 74
    Terry says:

    RC wrote:

    “We here at RC continue to be disappointed with the tendency for some journalistic outlets to favor so-called “balance” over accuracy in their treatment of politically-controversial scientific issues such as global climate change. While giving equal coverage to two opposing sides may seem appropriate in political discourse, it is manifestly inappropriate in discussions of science, where objective truths exist.”

    A curious post. Perhaps you have gone just a smidge too far.

    You complain that SOME journalistic outlets TEND TO give equal coverage to the two opposing views.

    If we take this position seriously, you presumably believe that ALL journalistic outlets should favor your side of the argument.

    Is this perhaps just a little bit over-reaching? Is there to be no room in the world for people who disagree with you, for people who even dare to sometimes put an opposing viewpoint on an equal footing with yours? Not one journalistic outlet should be allowed to favor presenting a viewpoint opposing yours as respectable? Is it really necessary to exterminate all opposition? Are you absolutely correct about everything? Should anyone ever be allowed to question anything you believe to be the truth?

    As I say, perhaps you went a little too far in your wording. Surely there is room in this world for a little bit of dissent.

    [Moderator: ad hom deleted]

  25. 75
    Abbey says:

    Mike-

    We all know that “a clear consensus exists among mainstream researchers that human influences on climate are already detectable, and that potentially far more substantial changes are likely to take place in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates.” Or rather, all of us that read RealClimate know this to be true. Sections of the public, policymakers, and journalists like Ms. Saunders remain unconvinced. Should we fault the San Francisco Chronicle for printing this opposing (however ridiculous it may sound to us) viewpoint? OR Should we fault the scientific community for still being unable to effectively convince the public, despite its wealth of evidence? I believe the latter is more to blame. To borrow your analogy, we all know the earth is round. Are we so incompetent that we still haven’t proven this to the rest of the world?

    You state

    [Moderator: Actually, that was Eric, not Mike]

    in comment #2, “RealClimate exists to try to help people get the facts straight.” Obviously, not enough people are reading RC. Although a noble forum, this blog is a passive way of communicating the findings of the scientific community. More active communication on behalf of the scientific community needs to take place.

    Stop waiting for more truth and less ‘balance’ in journalism. It will never happen. The only way ridiculous ideas like that of Ms. Saunders will cease to be printed is if they have been thoroughly discounted by overwhelming public opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle is less likely to print the words of what most people consider a wacko. Evidently, a forum still exists for articles like hers, which only points to the inability of the scientific community to effectively communicate its wealth of findings.

  26. 76
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #74, “Is this perhaps just a little bit over-reaching? Is there to be no room in the world for people who disagree with you, for people who even dare to sometimes put an opposing viewpoint on an equal footing with yours? Not one journalistic outlet should be allowed to favor presenting a viewpoint opposing yours as respectable? Is it really necessary to exterminate all opposition? Are you absolutely correct about everything? Should anyone ever be allowed to question anything you believe to be the truth?”

    Read the following article to get the answer to your questions:

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978

    ‘Extra! November/December 2004

    Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
    Creating controversy where science finds consensus

    By Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff

    A new study has found that when it comes to U.S. media coverage of global warming , superficial balanceâ??telling “both” sides of the storyâ??can actually be a form of informational bias. Despite the consistent assertions of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activities have had a “discernible” influence on the global climate and that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately, “he said/she said” reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views greatly amplified.’

    (Continued…)

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978

  27. 77
    Terry says:

    Stephen:

    Interesting article. A few questions:

    The article was by F.A.I.R. How much do you trust F.A.I.R.? Do you think they are completely honest and reliable? Do you have any qualms at all about relying on them? Come on, surely we can agree that F.A.I.R. might not be the final authority on this.

    It is interesting that the F.A.I.R. study looks at articles from *1988* through 2002 and many of the articles they cite are from the early 90s. Do you wonder a little bit about how relevant fifteen-year-old articles are to assessing the tenor of today’s press coverage? RealClimate regularly mentions how the evidence has grown much stronger recently. (The Mann papers didn’t even start until 1998.) Wouldn’t you expect accurate reporting to have given much more weight to the skeptics fifteen years ago when the evidence was much weaker? (A while back, the satellites were showing virtually no warming, shouldn’t that have carried some weight at the time?)

  28. 78
    Tom Fiddaman says:

    Re 77

    What I find telling is that the balancing opinions I see are often from people like Myron Ebell, with limited or no scientific credentials, who hail from organizations with limited scientific credentials and strong industry ties. If I were writing about biosciences, and found myself constantly turning to coal miners for balancing opinions, it would give me pause.

    It’s not unreasonable to be skeptical of the FAIR report, since (to my knowledge) it’s not peer reviewed and there’s not a lot of detail on methods. However, it would be easy to spot-check results, e.g. to focus on recent articles to determine whether the effect persists. Let us know how it turns out?

  29. 79
    martha says:

    Science is not a democratic process my friend. Your suggestion is off-target and dangerous. You would silence the voices of those who challenge the received wisdom of the majority. Science has a TERRIBLE record of accepting new or facts that challenged the received wisdom.

    How long did we live with the dogmatic beliefs enshrined by the likes of Freud and Skinner? I fear that the global warming crowd is a similar bunch of bullies who attack all those who question their assertions.

    Journalism is a tool to bring the voice of those pushed aside by the tenure rank. The sad fact that the tenure-based science establishment creates entrenched dogma. Global warming perspective is an emerging dogma.

    Yes, there are only a few scientist who have the courage to counter the dogma in a direct fashion. There are a large number who are quietly skeptical of the dogma but afraid to voice.

    Shame on you for suggesting a bully technique to stymie scientific progress and understanding. The real issue is that science demands that facts accurately presented. Unfortunately this is not happening in the discussion around global warming. We have fallen victim to political science not climate science.

  30. 80

    79: “Science has a TERRIBLE record of accepting new or facts that challenged the received wisdom. … How long did we live with the dogmatic beliefs enshrined by the likes of Freud and Skinner?”

    Not all fields in what’s generally called “science” in English have the same track record. The hard sciences like maths, physics, etc have a completely different track record from “sciences” like psychology. When a completely unknown Swiss patent clerk published an article questioning the absoluteness of time and space his assertions were relatively quickly accepted, despite what he wrote overturning several centuries of scientific consensus. And really, could you imagine any assertions that would make anyone sound more like a complete nutcase than those for which Einstein is now famous?

    But the point isn’t really whether science is democratic or whether dissenting opinion should be heard. The point is that dissenting opinion on climate science is only worth listening to if it is backed by scientific argument. Personally, I think journalists should be extremely wary of publishing opinions about climate research that are not either in accord with established consensus, or clearly backed by real scientific argument. Such opinions should either not be published, or be published in such a way that readers can tell what the basis for the opinion expressed is. And, really, that is just good journalism, whether the subject is science or not.

    “We have fallen victim to political science not climate science.”

    Yes, that is the real point. But how would you deal with it if not by improving the reporting on climate science?

  31. 81
    Terry says:

    I agree that popular reporting of science is a very difficult proposition. Virtually all reporters simply don’t have the technical skills to understand the issues — they are particularly bad at understanding statistical arguments.

    Under the circumstances, it is not ridiculous for a reporter to simply get an opposing opinion and report both sides. This is particularly true when the opposing opinions are from people like Lindzen or Landsea with serious credentials that cannot be dismissed.

    Asking reporters to decide which side is worth reporting and which is not is simply asking them to do something they are completely unqualified to do.

    It is a difficult problem. I don’t see an easy solution.

  32. 82

    #81,
    The solution as to the current AGW debate is to report facts as based on unquestionable sources, to provide the dominant consensus view, may be presented from one or more scientists, and to balance an opposite opinion in the context of how well it is appreciated by peers. Whoever’s great credentials has no importance for the subject if the opinion is flawed, and especially if it is reported without challenge by peers. In the case of contrarians, their statements are often balanced against asymmetrical questions, offering mainstream views not as strongly and persuasive but especially without a chance for a rebuttal . What is needed is to treat the audience or reader, with the best possible evidence without over-emphasizing the views of the one against the hard earned agreed upon science of the many. It is common, especially on television news, that a single contrarian is quoted about the subject of climate change without ever offering the dominant view from any of a vast body of scientists, sort of like leaving the AGW majority view as coming from a vague body of marginalized scientists not as important as the gem of a contrarian carrying the interview. For instance , Dr Gray was quoted today by a CNN meteorologist issuing his latest forecast for the next hurricane season, Gray ‘s stastement emphasized as a stern conclusion that AGW has nothing to do with increased hurricane activity, yet the usually capable meteorologist didn’t say a word about the views of the majority. The lack of balance was again achieved to the detriment of the public, who by triumph of their intelligence and awareness (it is warmer everywhere out there) still believe that AGW exists.

  33. 83

    I am actually qualified to write this because I have been a newspaper reporter and journalist since 1984. As a scientist long before I was a journalist, I have always applied scientific principles to my writing.

    1. The first rule any journalist is taught is to follow the dollar. If somebody has money at stake in a story you are covering, expect that they will try to lie to you or at least shade the story a few compass points from the truth. In scientific stories, especially those involving environmental issues, this is ALWAYS the case. In any environmental science issue, somebody has money to gain or lose, and therefore will be tempted to attempt to sway your story and your reporting. Therefore, as a competent journalist, you follow the dollar because you would be stupid not to. Good journalists consider it a professional mark of shame to be duped or deceived by a source. Bad journalists don’t care as long as the paycheck clears.

    2. The second rule journalists are taught is that people tell lies. Journalists witness the best and worst of human behavior. People lie to journalists when they have motivation to do so and do not believe they will be caught. It happens all the time. A good journalist does not want to print a lie as if it were truth. For this reason, like scientists, good journalists ask for corroborating evidence whenever a source tells them something that strains the facts. Just as for scientists, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    3. A good journalist, upon being assigned a story, first does basic research from published sources, identifies potential interviewees from these published sources, and begins making queries and seeking interviews. If the story, for example, involves mercury emissions from a coal burning power plant, the reporter should naturally assume the coal plant spokesperson will deny any harmful effects from its pollution. This is because the coal plant operator has a direct financial stake in making this assertion, even if scientific evidence shows it is not true. This is called following the dollar. By definition, the coal plant operator is not an unbiased source. A good journalist expects the coal plant operator to tell lies because it is a simple, scientific fact the coal plant emits lots of pollution and the coal plant makes lots of money by emitting this pollution.

    4. Past history of environmental journalism since Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold shows that polluters will baldly tell reporters lies to cover up what they are doing. Journalists, like scientists, are responsible for deeply understanding the history of the subject they are working within. There is no excuse for ignorance of this history. A scientist dealing with radioactivity should know who Marie Curie or Enrico Fermi was. So should a journalist. Any competent journalist or scientist knows that the incidence of scientific fraud or prevarication among paid scientific consultants for potentially financially liable corporations are manifest in the historic record. In contrast, nobody paid off Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein. Competent journalists use this documented historic record as a compass.

    This is the way responsible journalism is supposed to be practiced. It almost never is. Here’s why:

    1. Most journalists are scientifically illiterate.

    2. The bosses of reporters (ie. editors) are even more scientifically illiterate.

    3. The publisher doesn’t care.

    4. The concept of balance cited by news reporters for science stories would dictate that every time they mention the Holocaust they must call up a Holocaust denial group and get a quote from them denying the Holocaust to provide “balance.” Or that every time a story references the Apollo mission, the reporter must call up a person who denies humans ever landed on the moon. Since journalists do not do this when writing stories about these topics, this renders their own argument provably false.

    5. Journalists are basically dumb, unmotivated human beings who have consistently failed to be able to hold a paid job in any other profession except journalism. While this sounds rather harsh, if you attempt to question a journalist in detail on why they wrote a story a certain way, they cannot defend themselves in an articulate and informed fashion. To do so would force them to admit they are illiterate and uninformed on the subject; they don’t care about the story or topic anyways; their editor told them to write it; they don’t understand why you, the scientist, cares so much about how your work is presented in the newspaper; they don’t have time to listen to you or read your papers and supporting evidence; and it’s almost 5 and time to leave their dreadfully boring job that they hate.

    6. The obligation to “provide balance” is the last pathetic arrow in the journalist’s quiver. For example, scientific evidence over the past 200 years shows the Atlantic cod stocks off New England are today at perhaps 10 percent of their historic levels, and dropping every year due to overfishing. Every year, as scientific evidence shows cod stocks dropping even lower, the Boston Globe feels “compelled” to include a number of quotes from Gloucester, Mass. fishermen disputing the entire 200-year time series of data without providing any data of their own. This is done to provide “balance” to the story. The journalist queries the scientists extensively on the methodology of their studies, and how and why their studies indicate what the scientists say they indicate. The same journalist in the same story asks nothing similar of the fishermen who dispute the entire scientific record, but prints their quotes verbatim without any questions about the sources of their data. The reader, of course, is left with no useful information, since the reporter provides them with none. While the reporter acts as a hostile interrogator to the scientist, she acts as a pliant stenographer to the Gloucester Fishermens’ Wives Association and by doing so equates a 200 year data bank as being no more meaningful than a brief unsubstantiated quote from a person with a direct financial stake in fishing the New England cod until they go extinct. This is the Boston Globe.

    IN RESPONSE TO THE ABOVE, the best and most intelligent response for a scientist in the presence of a reporter on deadline is to refuse to do an interview and ask the reporter to quote directly from the research paper in question. This forces the reporter to seek and read the actual research paper and understand it. Do not accede to their snivelling request for you to “explain it” over the phone. If they cannot understand the paper, they should not be reporting on it. Don’t let them.

    As a newspaper reporter for 20 years, I know this. I was a scientist long before I became a journalist. Scientists are the true journalists. They report what they see. Once journalists do not see what they report, they lose function — just like scientists. All scientists by nature are amateurs. They cannot claim to know everything about what they study. They study what is not known. A cardinal rule among journalists is that you do not accept payment by a source for writing a story in a certain way. Scientists violate this ethic all the time by taking money in exchange for scientific opinions they know conflict with the evidentiary record. Scientists have poisoned their own well. Journalists have poisoned theirs as well.

    Every scientist started out as a little kid wondering about a bug, a flower or a star in the universe.

    How did the well become so tainted as we have grown older? How did we let it?

  34. 84

    [...] Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a history of writing misleading contrarian pieces on climate change. She contacted NASA Public Affairs [...]


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