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.