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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. 1
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    Thanks for this posting. I hope people recommend it to journalists, especially at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (including, that editorial page’s online adjunct, with its “Best of the Web” by James Taranto, whose standard response to climate science is sarcasm). Like the conservative George F. Will, who claims to be serious about science, the WSJ’s editors apparently consider Michael Crichton’s views scientific — but some important decision-makers nevertheless read commentaries on those pages.

  2. 2
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:


    Let me offer my daily alternative view;-) You characterize these stories as “politically-controversial scientific issues.” To use a term from your post yesterday, this is a “misframing.” They are not scientific issues of any sort, they are political issues for which people cherry pick information, stretch and break facts, and generally frame issues in the light that makes their favored political position look as favorable as possible.

    Don’t look to the media, with the rare exception of people who cover science for science sake (e.g., parts of Science Times, front of Science magazine etc.), for coverage of scientifc issues. Science is rarely newsworthy but for its role as a tool of politics.

    The balance issue is not about science. It is about politics. And politics typically has two sides. Continued efforts to turn political debates into scientific debates have the effect of politicizing the science. The way out of this trap, if indeed you wish to be relevant to decision makers is not to engage in a futile attempt to enforce some degree of scientific accuracy as you see it (good luck with that), but instead to weigh in on the political questions — OK, Saunders has her science wrong, so what? Who cares? Why does this matter to society or policy?

    I’d ask the same question of Bill Gray, Michael Crichton and Steve McIntyre. So what?

    [Response: Sorry Roger, I have to weigh in here. The article that Mike’s post cites was about a citizens iniative to roll back a recent gas tax increase in Washington State. The Seattle newspapers decided that since the facts were so clear (rolling back the gas tax would bankrupt the state government, at least in the short term, something that even the Republicans didn’t argue with), they had a responsibility to push their view that the voters should vote NO. In short, the newspapers got involved in th politics on the basis of their understanding of the facts. RealClimate exists to try to help people get the facts straight. If they (or we) wish to get involved in the politics on that basis, all power too them. But going ahead with the politics, sans the facts, is a recipe for disaster, however popular it may be in federal politics these days.– eric]

  3. 3
    Mark A. York says:

    This is an important post. I really appreciate it as a trained journalist with a scientific background. At J-schools this is discussed often but not employed enough on the job. It’s known as the “He said She said” view from nowhere syndrome. As far as I know this is attributed to Prof. Jay Rosen of NYU.

  4. 4
    Tom says:

    “Balanced” coverage should not mean giving *equal* weight to those far outside the mainstream. Yes they should mention the opposing views, but not 50-60% of the same air time for only 3% of dissenters. Unless, of course, you’re FOX News and the 3% of dissenting voices are paid for by industry operatives, oil, automotive, coal, etc.

  5. 5
    Mark A. York says:

    Mr. Pielke illustrates this “contrary” view perfectly, Yeah we’re wrong, so what this is politics. Unbelievable.

  6. 6
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:


    Let me just postulate that the RC folks have the science right. What is this “contrary” business?

  7. 7
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #2, “The balance issue is not about science. It is about politics. And politics typically has two sides. Continued efforts to turn political debates into scientific debates have the effect of politicizing the science. The way out of this trap, if indeed you wish to be relevant to decision makers is not to engage in a futile attempt to enforce some degree of scientific accuracy as you see it (good luck with that), but instead to weigh in on the political questions — OK, Saunders has her science wrong, so what? Who cares? Why does this matter to society or policy?”

    The balance issue IS about science, but it is skeptics who believe it is about politics. The media believes it is injecting “balance” in their SCIENTIFIC coverage, but what that does is inject increased uncertainty and questionability into the “debate,” which makes policymakers indecisive, since they are not about taking risks which may cost them votes in the next election.

    Scientists like Drs. Mann, Bradley, Hughes, Trenberth, Emanuel, etc. are keeping science separate from politics. Skeptics like Michaels, McIntyre, Idso, Lindzen, Singer, etc. are politicising science so they can continue to get work. If the science was permanently severed from the politics, these skeptics would be out of work.

    And, if Saunders has her science wrong, then why is she even published? I thought scientific discourse was about finding the truth, rather than to engage in disinformation and obfuscation. Those who engage in these tactics have no business doing what they are doing and should find something more productive, rather than destructive, to do. This disinformation and obfuscation campaign is only leading politicians to do little to try and combat climate change.

  8. 8
    Roger Hill says:

    Exac-attack! Can you be any more spot on I think not.

  9. 9
    Tom Cole says:

    “The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.”

    And ‘The False Objectivity of “Balance”‘ deals with the following scientific topics……

    [Response: Hmmm. It never occured to us it might be necessary to explicitly point out the difference between “the politicization of the science”, which is obviously something we talk about quite frequently here at RC, and the “political implications of the science” (i.e., whether or not the Kyoto Accord should be ratified), which is something we obviously don’t. If that distinction somehow hasn’t become crystal clear, we indeed apologize to any readers who might been under some sort of misapprehension. – Mike]

  10. 10
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    If I recall right, the challenge for RealClimate, according to Nature’s editors in their “Welcome climate bloggers” editorial of 23/30 December 2004, is “to change the media coverage of their discipline.” I wonder what Roger Pielke Jr. (comment 2) has to say about Nature’s assertion, but I especially wonder what Tom Cole (comment 9) — and the many who in the past have agreed with him — have to say about it. How can the RC scientists try to change the media coverage if they can’t even engage it? Thanks.

  11. 11
    Max says:

    Not only politics has two sides. Science always had many facets and always will have different opinions. And honestly, it doesn’t matter how many scientists believe in a consensus, as long as the science is done rightly. Albert Einstein also had to fight for his view, although parts of it were widely ignored and believed to be wrong. (Today, it was the other way round, some of Einsteins ideas are reconsidered to get research further). I just remember an incident with Stephen Hawking, where he published his opinion of the way of the universe (as an expanding universe) and he recently pulled back some of his argument, although many scientists believed him right. The only reason why this wasn’t a problem or a public storm is due to the political insignificance of his findings.

    I think that politics should leave science alone and just go on whatever useful they are doing.

  12. 12
    Brian S. says:

    Since Bill Gray’s name came up again here, it might be worth mentioning I finally called him yesterday to offer a bet over his prediction that temperatures will decrease in 5-8 years. He declined to bet.

    I also emailed Debra Saunders yesterday, told her about Gray, and offered to bet her if she considers herself a skeptic. No response so far.

    If the media will cover the few skeptics out there, it should be worth mentioning that the skeptics won’t put their money where their mouths are.

  13. 13
    Tom Cole says:

    Mike, from my viewpoint, your essay falls more into the philosophical realm than political, so I don’t fault your post as being overtly political. However, it certainly doesn’t fall under any scientific discipline that I am aware of and I was at a loss as to how the ensuing discussion could ever be “restricted to scientific topics”. I just don’t see how a proper discussion of the points you have raised would not have to inevitably devolve into a political discussion at some point if your post was to be properly explored.

    I have always thought that the best way to influence media coverage of a scientific issue is to allow the full light of day to shine on the issue rather than suggest how reporting of scientific issues should be conducted, and I have been involved in some highly politicized issues over the course of my career.

    I don’t know. Maybe I have an anachronistic view in light of the scientific discipline of today and how it fits into this new blogging world, which I have yet to come to grips with. I certainly realize that I am well on my way to becoming one of those “old dogs” that I used to complain about so much when I was in graduate school.

    However, I will pose this question to you. Should scientists be involved in the business of telling journalists the best way to go about conducting their business? Sure seems like a slippery slope to me.

  14. 14
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:


    A few quick comments.

    1. The RC post we are discussing critiques an op-ed, which by defintiion is a political commentary. It is not reporting. The purpose of many (not all) editorial pages is to publish a diversity of political perspectives. hence we see both David Brooks and Paul Krugman in the NYT. A critique of an op-ed is a political act.

    2. As far as working for a “change in media coverage,” what is the point of such a change if not to influence public opinion or policy maker action? The op-ed favorably cited by Mike Mann says this explcitly, “That means we need to clearly say there is no scientific debate about climate change — and instead shift the conversation to next steps… Those of us who write opinion need to press for public-policy action, steps that move us as a planet forward. We need to make the case that the United States must be a part of a global solution.” I agree strongly with these statements, hence my repeated calls for the explicit engagement of scientists with issues of policy. Hence, my utter confusion when Mike also writes (response to comment #10) that RC doesn’t talk about the “political impications of science.” Of course they do so, just in the guise of talking about science. Taking on a Debra Sanders (or Michael Crichton, or James Inhofe, or George Will) is an overt politcial act.

    [Response:Roger, Take a hypothetical example; two people with opposite political aims incorrectly cite what a scientist has said in support of their different agendas. Scientist criticises both of them. You would have it that this is an overt political act, because the original statements were quite clearly political. However, in criticising both, the scientist is quite clearly policy neutral – the very essence of the ‘honest broker’ (to quote a phrase). It is not political to correct people who misquote or distort scientific results. A bad argument is simply a bad argument and people with similar or diametrically opposed policy standpoints can point that out without being taking a political stand. Michael Crichton (to pick an example) is often absolutely (and knowingly) incorrect in his statements on this issue. To point this out is not to take a stand on his opinion about what should or should not be done. Since we have hacked over this ground before, I won’t belabour the point, but it would be nice if you could at least acknowledge that sensible people can disagree with your bald assertion (though none apparently in the sci-pol academic community who have already decided that we must either be naive or mendacious ;) ). – gavin]

    [Response II: I just thought of something else: if a scientist criticising a politician is political, then the sci-pol guy who criticises the scientist (who he assumes to be acting politically), must also be acting politically, and by the same logic, must support the original policy aims of the politician in question. Therefore, either there is ‘non-political’ space to criticise anyone, or there isn’t such space for anyone (including yourself). -gavin]

  15. 15
    Mike says:

    This is a little like saying there shouldn’t be so much sensationalistic journalism–of course there shouldn’t, but that’s what sells the papers. Journalism is both a public service and a free-market enterprise, so I’m never surprised, or really disappointed, when they fail to follow the protocols of other disciplines. They’re just looking for a story that everyone will buy.

    Of course, journalistic ethics mandates that journalists make at least some effort to report accurately, so I agree that it needs to be emphasized that the consensus among scientists is, there is a warming trend, it appears to be anomalous, and it appears to be caused in part by human factors. (You would really then need to go on to explain that consensus does tend to determine correct scientific practice, but explaining the principles of scientific reasoning and research to the public at large would make science articles about 10 times as long as they currently are.) I don’t see anything wrong with reporting that there are challenges to the consensus, so long as it isn’t presented as an equally supported challenge.

  16. 16
    George Musser says:

    Balance may be problematic scientifically, but perhaps it serves a purpose rhetorically. It seems plausible that if the paper had *not* provided an opposing op-ed, many readers (who are skeptical about climate change but not beyond persuasion) might have dismissed the first op-ed outright. The debate format may have reached them. People in our society, understandably wary of ideological bias, have learned to say: “Give me both sides and let *me* make the call. Otherwise you must be trying to hide something from me.” (Of course, there are plenty of others who merely want to be reaffirmed in their beliefs, but an op-ed is presumably directed at those who are persuadable.)

    We would have to survey readers to see whether this approach works, but I suggest we entertain the possibility.


  17. 17
    John Fleck says:

    There’s a fallacy in your premise. Debra Saunders is a Chronicle columnist. Publishing her column was not some misguided attempt at providing “balance” to the previous piece by Tolan and Harte. It was publishing a column by the newspaper’s own columnist. That’s what columnists do – weigh in with weighty opinions about whatever happens to be on their desk that morning. In this case, it happened to be Tolan, Harte and Crichton. It is worth calling Saunders out on the bad science in her piece (just as it is worth calling out Crichton). But it’s wrong to make this part of a discussion about the “false balance” problem.

  18. 18
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    In comment 10 I questioned comments 2 (Roger Pielke Jr., who has since added comment 14) and 9 (Tom Cole, who has since added comment 13).

    In 13, Cole asks whether “scientists should be involved in the business of telling journalists the best way to go about conducting their business.” My (nonscientist’s) answer: Yes. Absolutely. More crucially now than ever. Nature’s editors were right: RC should seek to “change the media coverage of their discipline.” So should scientists. So should citizens.

    When George F. Will in an op-ed cites bogus science from Michael Crichton as fact, he should be told a better way to go about his business.

    When the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto recycles his statistically bogus sarcasm hinging on the supposed irony of Vice President Gore’s preaching about global warming on a day with an outlier of a cold temperature, he should be told a better way to go about his business.

    Journalists writing about science no more deserve immunity to criticism from scientists than does a science graduate student in a seminar displaying a viewgraph that’s simply wrong. It continues to baffle me that some scientists apparently think political discussion, even about science, is for others, but not for them. As I’ve said in this forum before, as much as I admire the RC scientists, it seems to me that they themselves mix it up with commentary writers too seldom, not too often.

    Which leads me to Roger Pielke, who surely can’t believe that because an op-ed is not classified as a news report it can’t contain reporting, or more importantly, misreporting. In my experience the best op-eds are actually full of reporting. But as I say, that can easily mean misreporting; note, please, the Will and Taranto examples earlier in the present comment. Bad reporting within opinion pieces.

    I agree with Pielke that to criticize an op-ed is obviously a political act. I disagree with scientists who believe scientists should refrain from such political acts, and I gather that Pielke does too.

    Pielke’s main point — and I apologize if I have this wrong — seems to be that since we _know_ that humans are changing the climate, serious-minded people in possession of the facts should stop dithering with people who still question the facts, and just start getting things done — at high levels, apparently — in the political and policy realms.

    Maybe he’s right. But it seems to me that he’s assuming that in America, at least, policy about this can simply be set a bit more like the Soviets would have set it, via authoritarian measures taken by the few, and a bit less like what seems to me to be the only option for progress: the hard slog of civic debate, inherently involving the citizenry, even in cases when most citizens already agree on the basic facts.

    And the hard slog of civic debate, it seems to me, includes, crucially, the correcting of bad reporting, _especially_ when that reporting appears in an op-ed commentary. Bravo, RC, for slogging.

  19. 19
    Tom Cole says:

    RE # 12

    I am new to the science blogosphere and have not fully digested the proper way to conduct science in this realm, but it seems to me that the choice to decline a “bet” as to who is correct in a scientific discussion of a certain topic is hardly relevant as to the efficacy of a given argument one way or the other.

    RE #18
    Okay. Suppose I buy your stance – it is permissable for a given discipline to dictate to journalists how their field should be covered. Then, which disciplines are not allowed to dictate to journalists how their fields should be covered, or are all disciplines allowed to have equal say so in how their field is journalistically covered, writing the rules so to speak, including economics and politics?

    I apologize profusely for bringing up the e and p words, but it couldn’t be helped, as noted in my original post.

  20. 20
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:

    Gavin (responses to #14)-

    First, there is nothing wrong with being political. It is how we get the business of society done. My objection with RC is not that you guys act politically, but that you act politically but claim not to be. This mismatch is what I have argued is a factor that contributes to the politicization of science.

    Second, reasonable people can (and should) disagree of course. That is the point for our exchanging ideas and arguments. Just like in science, policy thinking is improved through interaction of people with different perspectives.

    Finally, yes, I have a strong political perspective on the climate issue. It just doesn’t map well onto the skeptic-mainstream debate. Sometimes there are more than two perspectives on a political issue.

    Thanks, and have a nice holiday ;-)

  21. 21
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I wonder if people writing or speaking blatant lies about global warming science in the factual media can be sued for libel. Especially if it’s done intentionally to mislead people into dismissing GW (and is not an honest mistake). People shouldn’t be allowed to go around telling lies that hurt people, without some repercussions, and in my books such writers and spokespersons are hurting practically the whole of humanity, at least those who are & will be victims of GW – and we’ll all suffer in some way, economically at the least. A good editor would censored such lies.

    And if it goes to court, all you scientists need to do in a civil case is produce a proponderance of evidence (a >50% chance GW is happening), and we reached that level long ago. A lot easier than achieving .05 p.

    Maybe it could be like a medical malpractice suit. Doctors who tell a patient he or she is fine, when the patient has a serious illness (and the patient doesn’t get treatment & worsens) can be sued.

    Now, Crichton’s book was fiction, so he’s off limits.

    On the other hand, I’m not against debating what we should do about GW – ignore it and throw a big GHG party, adapt to it, or mitigate it; go with solar or wind power; move closer to the husband’s workplace or the wife’s workplace, etc…

  22. 22
    Brooks Hurd says:

    RE: 21


    Be careful of what you wish for. The sword can cut both ways.

  23. 23
    Brian S. says:

    Re #19: RealClimate discussed the science value of betting at

    Personally, I think it has value in demonstrating whether people actually believe the scientific propositions that they’re announcing, and the extent of their certainty.

    Re #21: not much chance of a libel suit in the US, unless a skeptic made knowingly false statements about the work of particular scientists who supported AGW. Fraud allegations against businesses opposing mitigation strategies is a better approach, but would be very difficult (until we get some of those secret insider documents fed to us).

    Libel might have a slightly better shot outside of the US.

  24. 24
    Gregory Lewis says:

    RE 20: Roger,
    Some of this seems semantic. By your definition RC is clearly engaged in politics. By Gavin’s it is not.

    I don’t think the argument over whether RC is is engaged in politics is particularly interesting. On your blog, you have made several criticisms and suggestions for improving their site. Which I basically agree with, but they do a very good job of trying to honestly explain the science. Of course they have have their perspectives and biases which lead them to emphasis certain issues and ignore others, as do you. Most readers will recognize that.

    You all could do a better job of it, but given that this is volunteer work, you all do a very good job as it is. And it is highly educational.

    RC is fundamentally different from someone like Deborah Sanders, who seems like a partisan hack who doesn’t care about facts. Not to single her out there are many others. I wish editors demanded a little bit more veracity on the op-ed page.

  25. 25
    Steve Bloom says:

    SF Bay Area folks on this list will be aware that Deborah Saunders was hired to be the local right-wing “balance” on the Chronicle’s opinion page, and as such is being paid to take the “skeptical” view on global warming. Nobody who doesn’t already agree with her pays any attention to the substance of her views, although I think a lot of people read her just to build up a head of steam about what a jerk she is (and of course to follow what the right wing is thinking). She gets a lot of hate mail.

  26. 26
    Mark A. York says:

    “but that you act politically but claim not to be.”

    This is a canned right-wing poitical talking point used on newspapers (MSM) And the same one my detractors used on both me and RC. Could it be that RC has the correct science and are only arguing that point? Because that’s what I see. Others don’t like the truth. I understand that. The truth has to win. It just has to.

  27. 27
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    The way I see it, climate science is inherently ‘political’ in that an awareness that we are all facing an rapidly accelerating disaster implies that we should do something meaningful about it. And that we should do something which objectively has a chance to prevent the worst of the disaster, ie something that will stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or, at least in the short term, slow their build up. Is that any more political than a team of scientists finding out that a volcano is about to erupt near a large population centre and saying that those people should be evacuated quickly? Whereas the question of who does the evacuation, who pays for it, where and how should those people then be housed would go beyond the remit of the scientists (and they wouldn’t be any more qualified than you or I to comment on this). Is that a valid comparison?

    After all we aren’t speaking about Mars, we are speaking about our planet, our lives and our families. And the political debate of mitigation or adaptation surely hinges on the science, eg on climate sensitivity. If climate sensitivity was much lower than most models predict then adaptation would be a logical political response. If it is not, and if we agree that there is (or eventually will be) a carbon cycle feedback, then it isn’t. Once people understand that sea-levels will continue to rise, will eventually make most major cities uninhabitable, and the glaciers which feed much or Asia’s agriculture will disappear, marine life will face an acid catastrophe, and nobody can see how a net food deficit can be avoided, we all know that the political option of ‘just adapt to it when it happens’ will melt away as fast as the glaciers.

    I’ve been discussing climate change with lots of people at campaign stalls recently, and it has opened my eyes as to how far this ‘balanced’ climate sceptic reporting is shaping the thinking of even those people who are concerned and want to see some action (‘I am aware that flying might make climate change worse, but I’ll still do it because the warming may just be part of a natural cycle – I would stop if I was more certain’; ‘I am worried, but I have also heard that it is just water vapour which makes us warmer, so we just don’t kow if this CO2 thing is true, everybody seems to have a different agenda’ etc.). And maybe the warming comes from all the nuclear explosions in the 40s and 50s which might have put us into a different orbit round the sun (Heard it this week at a stall – that was a new one for me!). This balanced mis-reporting really is shaping ordinary people’s political and personal responses.

    And I am really grateful for this website. Until I found it, I was as confused about the issues as a lot of other well-meaning people I speak to. Without the factual information this website gives, I don’t think I would have become confident enough to do any campaigning for action on climate change. Or even have made this a priority in my life.

    Almuth Ernsting

  28. 28
    Gerald Machnee says:

    Re #7
    ***Scientists like Drs. Mann, Bradley, Hughes, Trenberth, Emanuel, etc. are keeping science separate from politics. Skeptics like Michaels, McIntyre, Idso, Lindzen, Singer, etc. are politicising science so they can continue to get work. If the science was permanently severed from the politics, these skeptics would be out of work.***
    This preceding statement in itself is political. It infers that the second group mentioned does not do any science.

    ***And, if Saunders has her science wrong, then why is she even published? I thought scientific discourse was about finding the truth, rather than to engage in disinformation and obfuscation.***
    Who decides if it is truth? believers or non-believers? You have to analyze the scientific study, then demonstrate the errors. You cannot just say someone “obfuscates”

  29. 29
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #22, yes, I did consider legal action could cut both ways. In fact I would really love to hear that GW had been disproved beyond a shadow of doubt (and had satisfied my common-sense, “avoid the false negative” approach), or that I had awakened from some really bad nightmare. Then I could spend my life fighting the food industry re MSG instead — I get terrible migraines from it & it’s hidden under some 50 different names, new ones cropping up all the time. Or, maybe just have fun.

    The point is GW is a dangerous & harmful thing for a lot of people & life forms around the world, and there should be some repercussions against people who blatantly work to stop the world from solving this problem.

    The legal metaphor has some heuristic value. In a jury civil case, the jury lay persons would weigh the evidence & theories and arguments, and I think they are okay in general in figuring things out. They take their work seriously, and they are sometimes asked to decide highly techincal & scientific issues, and I think they would do okay. Isn’t that what science is trying to do here through RC, break through to the lay persons and explain GW at our level — give it to the lay people, so they can own it too. It’s not just an arcane science issue for scientists.

    Which brings me to another point. GW is not a right-left political issue, it’s a whole world issue. We’re all on Spaceship Earth together very likely headed for very rough times (& already in them to some extent), and should be working together to solve this problem in the best ways (least harmful to our other interests) we can, and certainly not trying to block others from solving it. It’s not nice to use the fear of negative sanctions, but if enlightened self-interest or human compassion don’t work, maybe it’s necessary. Sometimes you have to get tough on kids who keep playing with matches. Sometimes societies have to create laws when crime or conflicts just keep happening. At the very least, the “you break it, you buy it” principle needs to be enforced.

    GW contrarian propaganda (as distinguished from bonafide science skepticism) is not the same as other science falsifications – such as creationism and intelligent design. Believing in those does not lead to harm the way believing in contrarian arguments against GW does & will. Although I do think these falsifications in the face of the (Wow! & awesome) evolutionary processes God’s world reveals to the intelligent scientists God created may be a grave insult to the Creator, perhaps tantamount to creating graven images & false idols (God only knows & judges that). And these are harmful to the extent that they bleed over and harm the credibility of science in general, and GW science in particular.

  30. 30

    Roger Pielke Jr asks (#2)

    “OK, Saunders has her science wrong, so what? Who cares? Why does this matter to society or policy?”

    Pielke Jr should care, because a misinformed public is a mortal danger to a democratic society. Our society depends on the wisdom of the public mind to guide wise public policy. A misinformed public is the greatest weapon of lobbyists and special interests.

    Climate skeptic propaganda is polluting the public mind. This endangers the public welfare by allowing financial interests to exercise public policy without interference from an informed public.

    Pielke Jr claims, “They are not scientific issues of any sort”. Yet the distortions promoted by the skeptics are misrepresentations are of fact, not merely differences of opinion. The public can’t be expected to turn to the scientific literature for an educated referee about such a technically complex issue as climate science. They will necessarily rely on science fiction novels and op-ed pages to form their opinions. This is why scientists like Pielke should care that Sanders got her facts wrong.

    Pielke’s “so what?” message encourages the politization of science by promoting indifference towards the dissemination of propaganda disguised as honest opinion. His indifference to the harm done to the public mind by the AGW deniers is perhaps why so many skeptics find comfort in Pielke’s message, and why so many casual observers mistake him for a global warming skeptic.

  31. 31
    Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    Michael (#30)-

    You assert “a misinformed public is a mortal danger to a democratic society. Our society depends on the wisdom of the public mind to guide wise public policy. A misinformed public is the greatest weapon of lobbyists and special interests.” This view represents what has been called by political scientists a “textbook” version of democracy that bears no relation to how things actually work in the real world.

    It is important to recognize that among political theorists there are different conceptions of the role of public opinion in democracy, which has implications for how we think about the role of science, the media and politics.. The version of democracy that you emphasize — that the public guide wise public policy — is not well supported by theory or evidence. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it is a complete myth (albeit with legs) that has been proven incorrect by people like Lippmann, Key, Schattschneider, Dahl and in the area of the public understanding of science by the work of Brian Wynne. These perspectives may be uncomfortable to some, but they can’t be easily dissmissed. (That’s of course what mindless skeptics/contrarians do;-)

    But in all seriousness, the issue is complex and reasonable people do disagree. But understanding these agreements can help to understand why people hold different views about the role of public opinion in a democracy. For those who are interested, let me dip into a syllabus and recommend this short gem of an essay by political scientist E. E. Schattschneider:

    [Response:Roger, in my view, all this theory is irrelevant. Although we are accused of being scientists “in order to get grants”, the fact is that most of us are in science because we believe that science serves the common good. Telling us that we can shirk what we consider our responsibility — informing the public through the best knowledge we can provide — falls on deaf ears. You might as well tell us not to be doing science. Doing science and informing people about it are one and the same. Indeed, one might ask, if you really believe that an informed public is irrelevant, then why do you teach at the University of Colorado? –eric]

  32. 32
    Mark A. York says:

    RE:#7 The argument is circular as the op-ed, skeptics, and Crichton have had their errors exposed to no avail.

    “This view represents what has been called by political scientists a “textbook” version of democracy that bears no relation to how things actually work in the real world.”

    And it is the view of poly sci’s that drives your interests. Over here it is about the science and there is no argument about that. Implying there is just clouds the picture. This is a PR problem, so claiming people don’t matter, when they vote for the reps who make policy supposedly based on the science is a dipsydoodle of epic proportion. Of course that is juxtaposed against powerful lobbying interests who don’t have the public interest in their sights.

    You can’t balance scientific certainty against documented lies and expect to win out in the end by continuing to say well, people have different views and it’s complicated. That sir, would be an example of the overgeneralization fallacy.

  33. 33
    Brooks Hurd says:

    Re: 29

    I agree with you that a trail could be valuable. In my opinion the discovery process of a court case would be illuminating, because we would finally get to see all the data on both sides of the argument.

  34. 34
    Roger Albin says:

    Roger (#31)
    Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process.
    -EE Schattschneider

    Schattschneider’s argument contains quite a bit of truth. This argument implies also that for good policy choices in a democracy, the competing leaders and organizations have to do a good job of analyzing and presenting the alternatives. If anything, this implication only underscores the concerns about media “balance” raised in this post. If the basic facts are presented improperly, how can the public participate properly? Schattschneider’s argument implies also that leaders and organizations have to behave responsibly. This means recognizing scientific evidence for what it is, not introducing wilful distortions, and not engaging in misleading polemical campaigns. Before you can have a useful series of disagreements about policy, there has to be some common ground about the facts, but this is precisely what climate contrarians attempt to obstruct. The press’s behavior has inadvertantly abetted this process.

  35. 35
    Randolph Fritz says:

    And, b’gosh, Foxed news has even decided that global warming might be real. Whoa!


  36. 36
    Franz says:

    Concerning global warming and legal action:

    This will probably only be successful once the damages from global change become visible to everyone, whatever they may be. When the members of the jury themselves suffer from the consequences they will be immune to the legal circus. This is likely another reason, why the typical skeptics are old men. Anyone would hate to explain these paid lies to a grand jury, and only if you are in your 60s you can hope to keep your money for the rest of your life.

  37. 37
    eric says:

    Thank you Michael Seward (#30), who wrote in response to Pielke’s repeated argument that getting the facts straight isn’t important that, “our society depends on the wisdom of the public mind to guide wise public policy.”

    A very nice example of the importance of knowing what the best science has to tell us is reflected in an October 19 NY Times article by Scott Boregerson (United States Coast Guard Academy). He argues that ignoring the melting of Arctic ice could be a huge strategic mistake for the U.S., because what is happening in the Arctic is the opening up of new fishing and energy resources, and most importantly, new transportation routes. Countries that believe these changes will be permanent will take advantage of them. Goverments and peoples that don’t take these thiings seriously may miss some rather lucrative opportunities.

  38. 38
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:

    Eric (response to #31, #37)-

    Response to #31, your statement “all this theory is irrelevant” is simply stunning. Questions of the role of expertise in politics date to Plato and before. There are legitimate questions here, just as there are in climate science. Perhaps you can now understand the mindset of those climate contrarians who say “all of this theory is irrelevant.”

    #37 Be careful, I never said that science wasn’t important. It is critically important. It is critically important for policy making. I said that the policy utility of trying to change public opinion through the media was of questionable value.

    You can be sure that the countries who are positioning themselves to take advantage of a melting Arctic are not doing so because of public opinion, but because of choices provided by experts, which includes scientists. The dynamics here are straight out of Schattschneider.

    If you want to maximize the value of your science, it can’t hurt to understand some of the work done by people who study the role of science and experts in decision making.

    [Response: Roger, I figured that would get your attention. As hopefully you have gathered, I actually have great respect for the work you do (and the kind or work you do). I don’t think it is irrelevant in general. But it is irrelevant in the context in which you are putting it, which is in a forum at RealClimate. You have accused us in the past of having an underlying “policy agenda”, which we reject. Now you are telling us that our goals of influencing policy are misguided. But we already rejected the premise (that we are trying to influence policy). As a democrat (that’s not “Democrat”), I certainly hope that public opinion matters, and it is certainly my hope that RealClimate has an positive influence on public knowledge. As to whether our efforts will influence policy, that is a philosophical and political science question, and this is a web site for scientific information.]

  39. 39
    Jim Glendenning says:

    The Seattle PI has declared that the truth about GW has been discovered and that it will henceforth not publish anything that contradicts the theory of AGW. RC has won at least one adherent to its cause.

    The problem is that the debate about the cause of global warming is not really so much about the science as it is about energy use. If global warming is only caused by burning of fossil fuels then it may be possible for humans to do something about global warming. That, however, brings up other problems. How much reduction of fossil fuel burning will it take to stop global warming? And that is where the whole thing becomes politicised because only the command and control of government can make businesses reduce their fossil fuel use. The solutions envisioned by the Kyoto Protocol were looked at by the developed countries and rejected because they would result in draconian cuts in energy production, which they judged would cripple their economies.So they decided to wait and study the situation further.

    Anyone who spends even a few minutes thinking about this issue has to understand that for modernity to continue to progress energy production must continue to grow. And this is where the rubber meets the road. The following questions are asked: 1.If we undertake the sacrifices called for by Kyoto and cripple our economy, what happens when, fifty years later, we find out that AGW was not correct? 2.Is it even possible to slow fossil fuel use enough to slow/stop AGW? 3.If we are unable to slow fossil fuel use enough to slow/stop GW what are our options?

    These are all political and economic questions that require engineers and scientists to provide the answers. The more credible the theory of AGW is the more likely is that politicians, engineers, and CEOs will start to spend lots of time and effort on the issue.

    It is my opinion that the proponents of AGW would have a great deal more credence in the minds of decision makers and skeptics if they: 1. Were not seen as being allied with extreme environmental groups. 2. Were open to increasing energy production through the use of nuclear and hydro-electric power as well as the “green” power such as wind and solar. 3. Advocated that decreasing our use of fossil fuels made sense whether it affects GW or not. Because fossil fuel supplies are limited, they are more valuable for other uses (fertilizers, medicines, clothing, plastics, etc.). 4.And, possibly the most telling argument, decreasing fossil fuel use increases our national security.

    It also wouldn’t hurt if they admitted to being a wee bit less than 100% sure that GHGs are the sole cause of GW.

    Glad you put this post up because it really, IMHO, gets to the heart of the debate that needs to be held.

    [Response:Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting comment. I agree with much of what you say. I would make one correction — you write that “If we undertake the sacrifices called for by Kyoto and cripple our economy, what happens when, fifty years later, we find out that AGW was not correct?” I am not a professional economist, but my reading of that literature suggests that there is very little basis to suggest that following Kyoto will cripple our economy. Indeed, there is a lot of research showing exactly the opposite. 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). Finally: I don’t think you will find single professional arguing that “GHGs are the sole cause of GW” (though one might of course find this in newspapers and advocacy group’s literature). –eric]

  40. 40
    David H says:

    Brooks Hurd in #33 put his finger on the real place where balance matters. Unbalanced media coverage will not affect the final outcome of any debate once all the data is in clear view. The debates on tobacco, MMR and WMD were very unbalanced but a popular consensus has emerged that is as near unanimous as can be expected on any complex issue. In each case concealed data leaked out that discredited one side and one hears little from them on these issues now. The climate change debate is far more complex and we will not see the beginning of the end of it until people stop saying:

    “We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

    This is not to prejudge whether the data will prove one side right or wrong but no one can claim to have proved anything so long as any part of what they assert as proof is opaque.

    [Response:Err, um, I hope this isn’t a redredging of the “hockey stick” debate, because all of the data have always been available… — eric]

  41. 41
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    In 19 Tom Cole asked me: “Which disciplines are not allowed to dictate to journalists how their fields should be covered, or are all disciplines allowed to have equal say so in how their field is journalistically covered?”

    It seems to me that any journalist worth her notepad allows no one to dictate to her, but that no citizens of any democracy (or republic) worth the paper its constitution is written on refrain in any topic area from criticizing — not dictating to, but criticizing — journalism. If a health physicist’s local newspaper runs a semi-hysterical series of reports and commentaries overstating the dangers of depleted uranium used in weapons, that scientist can’t dictate a thing to the newspaper, but she can certainly criticize the reports and the commentaries. My view is that scientists should contribute more, not less, to public discussion of science-related issues, because having better rather than worse information in citizens’ possession is inherently, intrinsically, fundamentally a good thing.

    That’s why I’m with the other contributors above who seem to share my astonishment at Roger Pielke Jr.’s apparently extreme belief “that the policy utility of trying to change public opinion through the media [is] of questionable value,” that “the version of democracy [in which] the public guide wise public policy — is not well supported by theory or evidence,” and that he’d “go so far as to say that it is a complete myth.” Part of the problem here might be the specific phrasing about the public guiding wise policy; if Pielke is saying that in the end it’s only a comparatively few technocrats who decide, for example, how to regulate the introduction of mercury into the environment, I agree with him as far as that goes. But if he’s saying that there’s little or no value to enhancing public understanding of mercury’s dangers, or to trying to enhance public understanding of any science-related issues via efforts analogous to RC’s efforts, he loses me.

    [Response:Yes! He loses me on this too! It seems self evident that the only changes in policy that have ever occurred in the area of “human and environmental well being” have been driven by public opinion / grassroots organizing. Greenpeace and the marine mammal protection act comes to mind…..-Eric]

  42. 42

    Roger Pielke, Jr: (re:#31):

    Schattschneider in his essay gives no comfort to those who would argue that an ignorant public is irrelevant to the outcome of a democratic society. He tells us exactly why it matters that the skeptics such as Saunders have their facts wrong, and why you should care.

    Schattschneider says that polled opinions do not correlate to actual policy. That doesn’t mean that an ignorant public is irrelevant to the outcome of the political process. In fact, Schattschneider argues that the “don’t knows” have an unacknowledged influence on the democratic process. This is exactly why you should care that the skeptics have their science wrong.

    Schattschneider says “Our survival depends on our ability to judge things by their results and our ability to establish relations of confidence and responsibility so we can take advantage of what other people know.” Citizens in a democratic society can’t be expected to be experts in every area of expertise. Citizens pass judgment on the most complex questions by acknowledging the authority of what qualified people know. Schattschneider says, “Democracy is – a form of collaboration (between) ignorant people and experts.” The skeptics are contaminating this collaboration by portraying an abusive distortion of the facts as the expertise of qualified skeptical climate authorities. This is not merely the healthy conflict of competing interests; it is the misuse of the democratic process by means of a fundamental dishonesty.

    Government by informed citizens, exercised through elected representatives, is a grand ideal that you describe as a complete myth. So what? That is certainly a poor excuse for failing to acknowledge the great harm done to the public good by the efforts of Saunders and her kind to contaminate the public debate with distortions and discredited arguments disguised as expert authority.

    Define democracy however you like; I find your refusal to acknowledge the harm done by the fundamental dishonesty of the global warming skeptics to be not only puzzling, but deeply troubling.

  43. 43
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #39, I’m mainly interested the “anthropogenic” part of GW, that which IS under my control. Can’t do much to turn down the sun or unwobble the earth, or plug up volcanoes.

    I can assure you that scientists are NOT allied with environmental extremists, or even regular environmentalists (though secretly they may be using compact fluorescent bulbs). In fact they’re probably closer to the contrarians, in that they require 95% (or some high) certainty before making GW claims, just a few points shy of the 99% certainty contrarians demand. Environmentalists, on the other hand, follow the medical model of seeking to avoid false negatives, and on serious problems like GW, just the theory (proposed in 19th c) without much evidence is an incentive to reduce GHGs.

    I guess I’m one of your extremists, since I started reducing my GHGs in 1990, well before scientific certainty, and have now reduced more than 3/4 (with the help of my 100% wind powered electricity from Green Mountain Energy). How extreme can you get? I think Amory Lovins ( & can even reduce 9/10 cost-effectively. And I’m extremely laughing all the way to the bank – saving $$hundred per year and even increasing my living standards. I know of businesses that are doing the same (business environmental extremists, you might call them).

    So, if contrarians want to continue burning their money in their front yards along with their fall leaves, I don’t have any power to stop them….I just think they’re off mentally/emotionally.

    Environmental Extremist & Proud of It
    (question is, why aren’t you one? Come & join the greatest club on earth)

  44. 44
    Eli Rabett says:

    If the policy utility of trying to change public opinion through the media was of questionable value why have the Marshall Institute, the American Enterprise Institution, CEI, etc. invested so much in it. Why do folk such as Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas, Richard Lindzen, Pat Michaels, Bill Gray and others use their scientific credentials at every possible opportunity when they speak out against the reality of human caused climate change?

    Unilateral disarmament is not exactly a recommended procedure when you are under attack.

  45. 45
    Dano says:

    What Eli said.

    I would also add ‘astroturf’ organizations, who recently appear to have morphed and we see their talking points in current #40 above. And this site would be, I argue, in response to Eli’s assertion in current #44.



  46. 46
    Brooks Hurd says:

    Re: 43 Lynn,
    “I’m mainly interested the “anthropogenic” part of GW, that which IS under my control.”

    I am interested in what part of GW is anthropogenic and thus is under your, my, or anyone’s control? What would you estimate the portion to be?

  47. 47
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #46, “I am interested in what part of GW is anthropogenic and thus is under your, my, or anyone’s control? What would you estimate the portion to be?”

    This “portion” does not need to be stated. (The portion of AGW is very high, however, which is evident in the Keeling Curve and other indices.)

    What is needed is for people to stop asking these frivolous questions, to stop stalling the process of combatting human-induced climate change and actually engage in ACTION! If we are to stop this from escalating and reduce the danger on those who inhabit this planet (human, fauna, and flora), we all need to do our part and reduce our impact on the Earth.

    Enough with the posturing and let’s get on with it!

  48. 48
    Brooks Hurd says:

    Re: 47


    I am not posturing. I was asking a legitimate question. How can a legitimate question be frivolous?

    The Keeling curve plots Mona Loa CO2 data since 1958. There is no “evidence” of high AGW from this curve. Any relationship of the Keeling curve to AGW is an assumption. Lynn pointed out that there are other forcings besides CO2. This is clearly true from many studies.

    I am not saying that man has not contributed to climate change. I was simply asking what Lynn believes to be the portion of GW which is AGW.

  49. 49
    Sashka says:

    Re: 7

    Skeptics like Michaels, McIntyre, Idso, Lindzen, Singer, etc. are politicising science so they can continue to get work. If the science was permanently severed from the politics, these skeptics would be out of work.

    I’m sure that RC team knows full well that in addition to being a world-class scientist Lindzen holds a tenured position at MIT so he will not be out of work no matter what. I am amazed that the same people who would not let me post my opinion about certain Dr. S., allow such a low level personal attacks against a fellow scientist who contributed so extensively to our understanding of the atmosphere.

  50. 50


    I would be interested in reading your explanation of Lindzen’s famous often repeated TV statement on Climate Change:

    “LINDZEN: People seem to have a good reason to understand that forecasting weather is inaccurate beyond two or three days.

    Why one should believe that a forecast 40 years ahead, or 100 years ahead, will be better is not clear to me.”

    [Response: This is why Lindzen is so clever. Note that he doesn’t say that climate in 40 years time is as unpredictable as weather (since he knows that is not true), but he focusses on what people (in general) may or may not believe. Sneaky! – gavin]

    [Response: I don’t think RC has a refutation of the weather/climate thing, probably because the idea is too stupid. But! I’m not above the stupid: see here. Also, NWP forecasts are useful out to 6-ish days, depending on exactly how you define “useful” and where you are – William]