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Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 November 2008

Debra 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 recently for a comment on the initial glitch on the October GHCN numbers (see this earlier post for discussions of that). They forwarded the query to me and since her questions were straightforward, I answered them as best I could. Indeed in her subsequent column, she quotes me accurately and in context. However, the rest of her column shows none of the same appreciation for basic journalistic standards.

She starts by asking why newspapers are no longer trusted – a good question, and one that may indeed be answerable. However the column quickly goes off the rails. First off, her headline “When the warmest year in history isn’t” doesn’t appear to be related to any actual content. Possibly it refers to the 1934/1998 hoohah from last year (again see posts passim for discussion on its irrelevance to global warming). Journalists don’t generally write their own headlines, but a vague connection to current events is the more usual practice.

Next, she gets the Oreskes’ Science and society paper story completely wrong (it was a sampling of literature and survived numerous challenges to its validity – see here and here). Then she uncritically quotes David Bellamy (a late-developing contrarian who used to present natural history programs on the BBC) who appears to think that an anti-GW article he wrote in 2004 is responsible for him not presenting BBC documentaries since 1994 (an event he had previously blamed on his running against John Major (then UK prime minister) in an election). She then throws in a few completely untrue ‘facts’ (i.e. “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” (not) and “in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased” (no it didn’t) or that there ‘has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ (wrong again: 0.21 +/- 0.13 deg C/dec GISTEMP, OLS, 95% CI)). However, note that she is quoting Bellamy and Lindzen here, so that it can be plausibly claimed that she is just reporting the statements rather than endorsing their nonexistent truth value. Sneaky. She even quotes Marc Morano and the Erika Lovley column in support of a contention that the consensus is collapsing. Oh dear.

In fact, the only bit of original reportage in the piece comes from the email from me; the rest of the article is simply a cut-and-paste of untrue and unverified claims strung together in a facsimile of logical argument. Why is it so hard for newspapers to insist that their columnists at least make an effort to check their facts? If she can email NASA about the GHCN issue, she could have emailed any number of people about the other points she made if she’d wanted to get it right.

The sad thing is that this kind of empty rhetoric is being employed at a time when maximum intellectual effort needs to be put into dealing with the energy and climate situation. As I’ve said elsewhere, the reflexive refusal of some commentators (on the right and, occasionally, the left) to come to terms with the reality of climate change is profoundly disappointing and an abdication of their potentially constructive role in public life.

If Ms. Saunders wants an answer for why “people don’t trust newspapers”, she need only fact-check her own column.

262 Responses to “Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?”

  1. 1
    Geoff Russell says:

    Answer is pretty simple Gavin. Many journalists don’t believe in facts, just
    opinions. I recently did a radio interview (over the phone) with our independent
    Government funded public broadcaster (the ABC). During the
    interview I said that livestock was Australia’s largest climate forcing.
    The interview was then very quickly wound up. I rang the journalist/interviewer
    back a couple of days later and the conversation went roughly like this.

    Me: “Why did you wind up the interview so quickly, was it because you
    didn’t believe what I said about livestock?”

    Journo: “That’s your opinion and I’ve heard others give a similar opinion”.

    Me: “But do you believe its true, do I need to send you all the information required to verify my claim”

    Journo: “That’s your opinion, you are entitled to it”

    Me: “But do you think that what I’m saying is true or false?”

    Journo: “You are entitled to your opinion.”

    Me: … we went on like this for a while but it became obvious that he
    wasn’t going to be drawn into discussion of the validity of
    my claim.

    About a week later I had a similar phone call, but this time
    with a senior print journalist. He came within a whisker of
    saying there are no facts, just opinions.

  2. 2
    Danny Bloom says:

    Very good post. One note, and you are probably aware of this, but in case you are
    not, Debra Saunders’ article in the SF Chronicle was NOT an “oped” article. She is
    a fulltime reporter/columnist at the SFC, so it is more correct to label
    that article as a “column”. An “oped” piece, literally, opposite page from the edtorial page,
    but now meaning any “commentary” by some expert or freelance writer, is
    not the same thing as a “column”. So your headline above should read “Why
    don’t newspaper columns get fact-checked?” It’s a good question, yes. Great post, sir!

    btw, my global warming lawsuit at the ICC continues to gather steam via a new
    Reuters “blog” post here: And lots of hate mail coming in, too. From the skeptics…

  3. 3
    Phil Scadden says:

    Why dont people trust newspapers? Because journos are clueless and only writing what the editor thinks will sell copy. Why would you even considering believing what you read in the paper?

    To journos (and editors) that try – they have another problem. They get a “fact” from one place – how do they check? Well their only recourse on anything vaguely tecnical from horse-racing to science is go to an authority? What is “authorities” dont agree? Given the skeptical nature of science, with anything topical there will somewhere be a scientist with a contrary view. Bellamy? Well he was on TV doing documentaries when editor was a kid – must be a reliable authority. Or more often – this authority goes with what editor wants to believe is right so accept that one.

    Democracy really relies on having an informed electorate – there must be a better way but beats me as to what.

  4. 4
    Jim Eaton says:

    In contrast, today’s Sacramento Bee front page headline is, “Sierra Nevada climate changes feed monster, forest-devouring fires.” by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tom Knudson.

    Some interesting quotes:

    “I don’t envision sand dunes like the Sahara,” said Mike Yost, a retired forestry professor from Taylorsville. “But I can envision places where there aren’t going to be forests again in many human lifetimes and in some places, maybe never.”

    “You will always be left wondering: Is the tree I am planting today going to be able to survive the climate of the future?” said Mike Landram, reforestation manager for the Forest Service in California. “That will be a lingering question.”

    “Current estimates indicate that western forests are responsible for 20 to 40 percent of total U.S. carbon sequestration. If wildfire trends continue … the forests may become a source of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide rather than a (reservoir).” [Anthony Westerling]

    “Maybe in the drying climate, it doesn’t come back as forest,” [Leah] Wills said. “Maybe the Great Basin desert, which is mainly grassland and sage, is moving west.”

    “To quote ‘Star Trek,’ we are going where no man has gone before – where no plant community has gone before.” [Malcom North]

  5. 5
    Russell Seitz says:

    Gavin, the sad fact is that the implosion of bipartisan engagement on science policy stems from the disappearance of science editors from the mastheads of the very few Republican must reads that ever had them to begin with .

    The Wall Street Journal never replaced Jerry Bishop, and let its weekly Science Journal section wither away, while The Weekly Standard , Human Events The American Spectator and National Review have undergone a sort of orbital decay into resonance with the party line of The Discovery Institute .

    Just how far gone the situation is can be gauged from encounters with the worthies who edit theses publications . Those who have written reams about science more or less weekly have too often never laid hands on a copy of the eponymous weekly journal, let alone a copy of Nature , and it is touching to see their expressions vary and their lips move as they first examine these alien journalistic life forms .

    They seldom like what they see or read but still, one tries —

  6. 6
    Chris Colose says:

    I write for a student newspaper, and have done some articles relating to energy policy and climate change, arctic ice extent, and am currently working on one related to a recent Science paper discovering evidence of mid-latitude glaciation on Mars. Although we are not professional journalists, we do get distributed as much as some, and are held to rigorous standards as far as quality and accuracy of content.

    Still, as the only one on the staff with a decent understanding of environmental and climate topics, I could make up a bunch of stuff or cite erroneous or “cherry-picked” facts and it would easily pass through the editing process (who have a primary concern for structure and clarity). In fact, in making claims outside everyday knowledge, my editors are simply looking or a quote from at least an apparently reputable source. While “easy-to-find” facts such as how many electoral votes Obama received are once in a while corrected, the facts for some more complex stuff is up to me to find, and my editors are not going to be sifting through peer-reviewed papers and websites like GISS to make sure my numbers are right. They, and the readers, essentially have to trust that I cited a proper source and did not misrepresent the source.

    I have a responsibility to do such, and if erroneous information is pointed out after publication, the newpaper takes responsiblity and loses credibility to the wider readership. Opinion pieces are different than actual covering of stories, but still, keep in mind that *real* news outlets are seeking the facts and portraying them in an honest manner (and in fact make that a highest priority). The very reputation of that source depends on quality coverage.

  7. 7
    rpauli says:

    This is the fault of the editor and publisher. It is a long chain of sequential mis-judgments. The editor allowed this publication.

    The publisher is beholden to their big revenue source – print advertising. And much of that advertising is for high carbon fuel items – mostly cars but other consumer goods too. The publisher is only protecting their interests by encouraging or allowing such journalistic dreck.

    They are promoting their short term goals even if they are contrary to our long term interests.

    Nothing changes unless there is money to be made, or money to be lost.

    We could complain to the publisher, but I prefer to complain to some of their larger advertisers. No matter what they are selling, they don’t want to hear that we will not be reading their newspaper because of inept and unfair coverage.

  8. 8

    Obviously some news outlets have political and philosophical agendas that screen and distort what is reported and how it is reported (e.g. Fox News). That is acceptable in terms of supporting free speech in a democratic system of government but it is incorrect and naive to assume that their objective is to impartially report the news.

    In Australia, our national newspaper has a similar approach to climate change as the Wall Street Journal in the US and has delighted in running ongoing contrarian arguments, including last weekend (29 November) by a staff reporter John Stapleton, “Cold snap fails to cool protagonists of global warming”:,25197,24723425-11949,00.html.

    The paper ran a related editorial piece continuing to sow confusion and doubt:,25197,24722322-16382,00.html.

  9. 9
    jcbmack says:

    The NY Times, PBS, (BBC for the most part) and the ABC-NBC news networks are accurate most of the time and dig deeper into the facts and report the opinions in a fair and balanced manner. I watch Charlie Rose, Brian Williams, and read the Economist and NY Times from cover to cover and they really do care about facts. Having said this, sometimes even they interview people with extreme and rare views, sometimes experts not in consensus and sometimes people who are not experts in a given field and this is one way even these reputable news mediums can distort things. Also there was a scandal at the NY Times a few years ago with a brilliant young writer who made up the news at it suited him and sensationalized marginal world events into a fictional story. PBS is the best programming in the world, but they are not infallible and they are actually over funded and not in need of public funding, but this does not change the fact that they report on global climate change and other world events impeccably.

    The Economist is fair to both republicans and democrats, but shows how alternative energy sources are economically feasible and rewarding and how the science of climatology is progressing.

  10. 10
    jcbmack says:

    I also recall the tobacco industry fiasco highlighted in the true to life movie, “The Insider,” and where even Wallace refused to report all the facts; money and politics Gavin, difficult to overcome special interests when they can buy and sell whole industries 20 times over.

  11. 11
    jcbmack says:

    Russell, I enjoyed your blog, just read it.

  12. 12
    Richard Steckis says:

    “I don’t envision sand dunes like the Sahara,” said Mike Yost, a retired forestry professor from Taylorsville. “But I can envision places where there aren’t going to be forests again in many human lifetimes and in some places, maybe never.”

    Is that one of the experts who predicted that the forests around Mt. St. Helens would not recover for 200 years after the eruption? Give me a break.

  13. 13
    Mark J.Fiore says:

    Excellent post.I have read every single issue of the Chronicle here in San Francisco, since 1992, when I moved here from Boston. Each and every thing that Debra Saunders writes is chock full of inaccuracies and outright misstatement of facts. Her writing is often nothing more than right wing diatribe, and her pieces on Global Warming are not worth the co2 used to create the paper they are printed on. Excellent post.
    Mark J. Fiore

  14. 14
    Andy Gunther says:

    I hope you edited your post into a LTE to the San Francisco Chronicle. Saunders has written many such idiotic pieces that I’ve suffered through as a subscriber (and responded to). I took heart in the fact that she seemed to have moved on recently, but now she’s back. She seeks scientific “findings” she likes to present an opinion that gets her readership, and like most of her colleagues has no appreciation for the scientific process.

    I just had a go round with a reporter from San Diego, who wrote a piece about the San Diego Foundation’s recent study on the future of San Diego as climate changes. (
    He felt the need to quote Gary Sharp that temperature changes are all just due to the urban heat island effect because “as long as there are skeptics in the scientific community we will quote them.” I explained to him that why Sharp’s claim is preposterous, but it was clear this reporter could not differentiate real scientific debate from blather if it struck him in the face.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see many journalists capable of fact checking their own work. Since the reporters rarely have much time to do story, I think our only chance is to continue to serve as knowledgeable sources for honest reporters while knowing that hacks like Saunders don’t want to learn.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists (disclosure: I am a member of the UCS Board) published a book by their media director and a science reporter that may be of interest (A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media).

  15. 15
    rpauli says:

    Presumably her boss would be interested in hearing our thoughts:

    Gilbert, Susan
    Administration, Editorial
    Assistant Managing Editor

  16. 16
    John Philip says:

    Groan! Not Bellamy AGAIN, not the Petition Project AGAIN. Bellamy’s credibility (and along the way that of Fred Singer) on climate change at least was pretty much removed three years ago by George Monbiot. His concluding paragraph..

    It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in your palm. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals. You must, if you are David Bellamy, embrace instead the claims of an eccentric former architect, which are based on what appears to be a non-existent data set. And you must do all this while calling yourself a scientist.

    And one would only need to go as far as wikipedia to discover the veracity of the statement that 31,000 scientists signed the Petition Project’s slice of deception, indeed those of a sceptical (excuse English spelling) disposition need look no further than their house journal.

    In conclusion, through his Global Warming Petition Project, Arthur Robinson has solicited the opinions of the wrong group of people in the wrong way and drawn the wrong conclusions about any possible consensus among relevant and qualified scientists regarding the hypothesis of human-caused global warming. His petition is unqualified to deliver answers about a consensus in which the public is interested. He has a right to conduct any kind of petition drive he wishes, but he is not ethically entitled to misrepresent his petition as a fair reflection of relevant scientific opinion. He has confused his political with his scientific aims and misled the public in the process.

    RealClimate is an extraordinarily useful resource and I hope/believe the rebuttal wiki will develop into the same. Here in the UK the climate change bill has just received its Third Reading having been beefed up to include an 80% reduction target so maybe the message is getting through to the political class. However it seems that on some fronts, the fact that the same dwindling collection of myths, long-discredited assertions and half truths is still being recycled in reputable newspapers indicates that we are not communicating the strength of the scientific evidence and the actions that need to flow from that sufficiently well :-(

    Nil desperandum. Keep up the excellent work. As Warren Buffett said, it is when the tide goes out that you discover who is swimming naked. Whats up with that?

  17. 17
    Tom Dayton says:

    For what little it is worth, as soon as I read Saunders’ article in my morning newspaper (yes, I am a subscriber to cut-from-trees paper), I quickly sent a letter to the editor of the San Fran Chronicle:

    Dear Chronicle:

    Debra Saunders’ opinion about global warming (2008/11/30) continued her tradition of repeating other people’s opinions without vetting. I am amazed that the Chronicle pays anyone for so little work.

    Facts contradicting the opinions that Saunders parrots are easily available, organized topic-by-topic, with references to scientifically peer-reviewed publications, at many places such as . A nicely narrative presentation is . An index of links to such sites is at .

    Saunders used the absence of peer-reviewed articles against the existence of human-caused global warming, as evidence of suppression of those opinions. But by her argument, there is equally strong bias against “scientists” who believe the moon landings were faked and biological evolution never happened. Unlike the Chronicle’s policy for accepting opinion pieces by Saunders, peer-reviewed scientific journals require articles to have at least remotely plausible rationales that face up to all the empirical evidence. They are not outlets for mere opinions.

    Conspiracy complaints are common to deniers of global warming and deniers of moon landings. Saunders complained that the October 2008 temperature reporting mistake was barely reported in America. The real reasons that story got so little coverage are that the error was detected and corrected quickly, and the initial postings on the GISS web site aren’t very important. The initial postings only start the always more thorough checking by GISS and many, many people independent of GISS. Explanation of all that has been posted since November 11 in the “Mountains and molehills” topic on

    — Tom Dayton

  18. 18
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Gavin – I cited you, Oreskes, Hansen, RealClimate, and the IPCC reports in an email to her after her last piece on climate. At least she seems to have clicked on the links, even if she did not accept the content.

    Thanks for taking time to respond to her.

    At one time the SF Chronicle had very good science writers, who read the paper from front to back and discussed any errors in science that might occur in other reporters pieces with the edtors. Corrections would appear. No corrections appeared after Saunders last piece.

    I still live in the area, but I no longer subscribe to the SF Chronicle.

    Thanks again.

  19. 19
    Mark A. York says:

    As a reporter myself, this sort of thing makes me wince. Of course columnists don’t have to ahere to truth the way journalists have to. Wall Street Journal reporters frequently make fools out of the Paul Gigot led opinion page. The Wrong Way Feldman on anything scientific. In a way this bouys my spirits, since in the wake of Crichton’s tradgic early departure, my novel debunks most of this stuff.

  20. 20
    Chris says:

    Post 17. If you click the links in this post you might get a 404 not found error. Delete the full stop at the end of the url and viola!

  21. 21
    Craig Allen says:

    SF Chronicle = ‘Science Fiction Chronicle’?

  22. 22
    Danny Bloom says:

    I think it is important not to dump on all newspaper writers, reporters, editors, copy editors and fact checkers. A reporter reporting news needs to check his or her story thoroughly to make sure the facts are correct as reported, but columnists and oped writers have more leeway to give vent
    to their opinions. An oped by definition is an opinion piece, not a news report. Debra Saunders’ stories are “columns” and columns do not have to be as stringently fact checked as news reports. Of course, editors behind the scenes and copy editors at the copy desk should do their best to make sure
    the news stories are accurate, but an opinion piece is just that, Gavin, an opinion. So are you calling
    Saunders’ pieces columns or opeds? If you don’t use the right terminology, then how can
    you expect reporters to pay attention to what you are saying above? A letter to the editor is different from a newspaper column is different from an oped piece is different from an editorial
    is different from a wire story. Agree or disagree? You still haven’t changed the headline of this post, above, or maybe you don’t think you should, and that is fine, but if you criticize Saunders, and she deserves criticicism, yes, at least get the terms correct. She is a columnist. They
    deal in opinions, not facts. Does Billy Graham deal with facts when he
    writes his superstitious religous crap? No, yet he gets published in Time and Newsweek.

  23. 23
    Jim Redden says:

    At least she didn’t lay claim to the Global Warming Religion framing…that conveniently lets those who have NOT taken time to understand the simple basics of the issue confuse belief with fact.

    Any reasonable interpretation of the evidence of anthropogenic climate change suggests undertaking an immediate no regrets strategy of adaptation and mitigation, especially when the technology is at hand to produce energy with less atmospheric carbon release, or the low hanging fruit of increased efficiency–even if one has doubts one can be prudent.

    The end quip in her article about James Hansen had me searching the internet as well, as it was news to me that presenting evidence in a courtroom testimony was to be disparaged. If she has a beef with the outcome, perhaps the jury would be a better target.

    Thanks for the ongoing efforts to keep us informed.

  24. 24
    John Mashey says:

    Well, don’t give up. I read the Chronicle only rarely, but had some luck (I think, it’s sometimes hard to tell whose comments had effects) in the last few years helping several other papers to be better.

    Those led to the advice in what to do about poor science reporting.

  25. 25

    Ans: Because basically they are reporters, not journalists. I once offered the opinion on raido that they were parrots, bred for their large lungs and small brains, but perhaps I was doing some of them an injustice. The real problem is to catch their interest to get a reply out in the media. Hard to do until you remember that basically they are there to make a profit for the media owners. Journalism? Forget it.

  26. 26

    Thank you Gavin and RealClimate again. There are so many things to say I don’t know where to start. The good news is that the economic depression has finally convinced people that the Bush war on science and regulation wasn’t the right way to go. The election proves that. The bad news is that innumerate humanitologists are still as poorly educated as they have always been. The questions are how bad does the climatic disaster have to get to convince the average person that we don’t need any more climatic disaster, and is recovery possible at that time?

    It seems to me that the climate contrarians are putting up a last-ditch defense at the present time, just like the Republicans were before the economic crash. Perhaps the contrarian defense has only a few months or years to go before it crashes. The Obama administration will have to rebuild the entire federal government because the Bush administration destroyed as much of it as they could. I can tell you that as a retired bureaucrat. After that, Obama can allow the truth to flow out from the government. That should make your job a lot easier. Have you, Gavin, considered applying for a political plum job in the Obama Administration? In the right position, your influence might be greater than you could imagine. .

  27. 27

    One of the funniest things about this otherwise sorry inability of the media to get things right is how The Australian (owned by Rupert Murdoch, say no more) every now and then goes on a rant about how terrible it is that educational practices have come to be based on the apparently discredited ideology of post-modernism.

    In fact their approach to climate reporting, where they consider all facts to be relative to the mindset of the observer and that there is no objective position to be teased out of contradictory opinions (no matter how well-informed, or not), is pretty darn close to post-modernism, to the extent that I might even say that it objectively (if there is such a thing) meets the definition.

    After we had a change of government here late 2007, I thought things would get better. But no: the denial has only shifted from active to passive. The government is going into the UN Climate Change Conference with no position on a 2020 target for CO2 levels, even after having it put to them that a 2°C rise would kill the Great Barrier Reef. Dismissing the science may be stupid; accepting the science and refusing to act is criminal.

    To be entirely fair, The Australian doesn’t only treat climate change as factually mutable; I’ve complained to no effect about their scant regard for the facts in other areas too.

  28. 28
    dhogaza says:

    Is that one of the experts who predicted that the forests around Mt. St. Helens would not recover for 200 years after the eruption? Give me a break.

    So, Mr. Steckis, are you claiming that the old growth forests around Mt. St. Helens have recovered?

    Or is Weyerhauser (for instance) lying when they claim to have – through aggressive replanting – transformed the blown-down and ash-blanketed old growth on their land to a short-rotation pulp farm?

  29. 29
    GT says:

    As I’ve said before in these columns, the modern commercial media industry is not concerned with keeping the public informed. The primary responsibility of any commercial organization is to generate a return for its shareholders and a commercial media company does this by selling advertising.

    In order to maximise shareholder returns a media organization must maximise its circulation or audience and media proprietors understand only too well that controversy sells. I’m sure that Debra Saunders’ editor is very satisfied with her efforts at generating controversy and he/she will also be very happy that such a high profile website as RealClimate has responded – more fuel for the fire.

    Unfortunately, reputable information outlets such as RealClimate are caught in a Catch 22 situation. To respond to such articles merely plays into the hands of the originators but not responding would lead some to think such articles are essentially accurate.

  30. 30
    Neuroskeptic says:

    If op-eds had to be factually accurate, there wouldn’t be many of them left.

  31. 31
    pete best says:

    It says it all about newspapers who have an historic political angle and a lot of them post essentially nonsense about AGW. This makes me think about all of the other stuff they print too and write about. Is any of it grounded in fact or opinion, probably opinion with a few facts at times in the main. I doubt it is there fault anyway, lots of bright people with no understanding of science workin the media and as the media is now 24/7 with endless stuff they have to pedal in order to fill that space and time makes anyone who has read good books on AGW or come here for the excellent reality fact based articles because its full of scientists who have been peer reviwed unlike the people in the media how can effectively write what the paper wants which is a easier I woud suggest.

  32. 32
    Mark Smith says:

    John Phillip, regarding the UK climate change bill.

    Do bear in mind that the UK signed up to Kyoto – how have we done? Are we emitting 20% less CO2 than in 1990? Of course not.
    I wouldn’t put much faith in the CC bill.

  33. 33
    Oliver says:

    One clear inaccuracy not spuriously sourced: she says David Bellamy is an Australian. He’s not

  34. 34
    Mark Smith says:

    John Phillip – regarding the UK climate change bill.

    We signed up to Kyoto, and comitted to a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions relative to 1990. We didn’t honour that.
    I wouldn’t have much faith in the cc bill.

  35. 35
    Slioch says:

    Gavin, it is as least as bad on this side of the pond. Yesterday, the UK Sunday Telegraph, which used to be a reasonably serious, if right wing, national paper published yet another column of misinformation and misrepresentation, written by Christopher Booker, entitled “President-elect Barack Obama proposes economic suicide for US”, see:

    I did what I could to counter the flow of ignorance and denial that always follows Booker’s (and similar) writings, but it seemed a pretty lonely task at times. Which brings me to my main point: such columns as those in the SF Chronicle and the UK Telegraph are probably read by far more people than are the various web-sites (good and bad) concerned with aspects of climate change. Yet they do not seem to receive the attention that they should from those with a respect for facts and a knowledge of science. Thus, there develops in these blogs a self-sustaining feeding frenzy of denial that appears to be shifting public opinion in that direction.

    You guys on Realclimate do a great job at one end of the spectrum of comment, and obviously cannot commit to spread your message further to newspaper blogs. But there is a real need for more informed commentators on these blogs.

    The reason why Bellamy can get away with nonsense like “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” is that in most places such statements go uncontested. I was actually writing a rebuttal of this very statement in the UK Sunday Express yesterday (suggesting, hopefully, that the reason Bellamy has been dropped from the BBC was actually because of his disrespect for facts) – but I was called away and it remained uncontested.

    So, the greatest gap in the coverage of informed comment appears to be at this lowest level. It’s mucky and tedious and repetitive and I wouldn’t expect the big boys in climatology to get involved, but more effort by scientifically literate individuals is definitely needed. The swamp is growing.

  36. 36
    J says:

    “Obviously some news outlets have political and philosophical agendas that screen and distort what is reported and how it is reported (e.g. Fox News)”

    No, all news outlets have a political and philosophical agenda. They also tend to be staffed by folks who are innumerate and utterly ignorant of science. As a result, most reporters simply lack the ability to have any idea what you’re talking about when it comes to a subject more complicated than who’s having a sale tomorrow. Journalists also have an unwarranted confidence in credentials, with the associated misconception that expertise in one area implies expertise in other areas. I don’t know why you single out FoxNews here – they’re hardly worse than average in this area, and considerably better than American network news operations.

    “there is equally strong bias against “scientists” who believe the moon landings were faked and biological evolution never happened”

    Excellent point, because there’s a critical difference here: I’m not aware of any effort to professionally sanction scientists who make such claims (though that may have happened and I didn’t hear about it). I think you underestimate the damage done by actions such as Heidi Cullen’s call for decertification of meteorologists who question AGW. A call for punishment of people advancing a point of view will almost automatically increase support for that point of view among journalists, even if they generally disagree with it.

  37. 37
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    Gavin, PLEASE write the SF Chronicle.

    In fact, why not offer a counter-point op-ed to set the record straight?

  38. 38
    Karen Street says:

    Re #6–can your school newspaper find a way to work with someone(s) from various departments to do fact checking?

    The letter I sent Susan Gilbert (and thanks for providing the name and e-mail):

    For many years, the Chron has printed numerous accurate articles on climate change, many of which (The Difference a Degree [F] Makes) help give context to what is happening, and will happen.

    There also seems to be an acceptance that it is OK to have columnists/op-eds on both the right and left provide political perspective based on information that isn’t true.

    I have learned from columnists whose political views differ from mine, sometimes differ by a lot. You provide a valuable service to people like me by presenting this variety of views. However, you damage public discourse when you allow columnists like Saunders to make claims that are not true, or to cite people’s whose thinking has been rejected by scientific and policiy experts. This differs from thinking that is still being debated by those communities.

    It makes as much sense to print columns which cite non-facts on climate change as it does to print columns on the advantages of smoking and unprotected sex, except that it isn’t just the individual acting on the ideas who is damaged. Innocent people, other species, will suffer.

    Please continue printing a wide variety of views. But also consider that columnists repeatedly citing facts that aren’t may not benefit the readership.

  39. 39
    John Philip says:

    Mark Smith,

    The UK picture wrt Kyoto is complicated – on all GHG gases we are on probably target, thanks to a reduction in methane that was little to do with Government policy, on CO2 alone we are likely to miss the 2010 target, unless radical measures are adopted rapidly.

    I take your point about targets, however – my point was more that passing the Bill into Third Reading (by a majority of 463 to 3, from memory) illustrates that the science has (finally) got through to the MPs, who are passing a Bill that is by no means guaranteeed to be popular, leaving just the likes of Bellamy, Monckton, Melanie Phillips and Christopher Booker (any more?) to broadcast their pseudoscience in the conservative media.

  40. 40
    Roly says:

    Then there’s the classic David Bellamy typo. He claimed 89% of glaciers were advancing which was strange because the source he cited claimed only 55%. Fortunately George Monbiot did some real investigative journalism and discovered that Mr Bellamy had mistyped 55% as 555 (missed the shift key) and since the total number of glaciers his source was working with was 625 after some ‘complex’ maths (555*100/625) he came up with 89%!

    Of course the original source was wrong as well, so an erroneous calculation based on erroneous data. It would be hillarious if the consequences of this nonsense was not so tragic.

  41. 41
    Donald E. Flood says:

    I do not understand how people can be so stupid, in this case, newspaper reporters who should know better! I respect the climate models deeply, but I, as a layperson, do not understand them. Those models require advanced physics, mathematics, chemistry, meteorology, etc., but hey, do we, as laypeople, really need those models? (Yes, scientists both need and require those physical models, but that’s not my point.) The evidence for us, as laypeople, is all in the statistical models. Get Excel, Open Office, or in my case, Minitab. Copy CO2 concentrations in one column, global temperatures in another column, and run a correlation coefficient. Viola! Statistically significant all the way!! Now, yes, correlation does not prove causation, but that’s what the physical models are for. Made-made climate change proven. QED. What could be simpler?

    [Response: Actually it’s a lot more complicated than this precisely because of the correlation/causation issue. But you are partially correct, that requires phyisically-based models to demonstrate. – gavin]

  42. 42
    wmanny says:

    #24 John:

    Agreed, more overblown rhetoric from the wings. It’s hard to find thoughtful mainstream science articles, no doubt. Last year, for instance, she killed a good point (“Here’s the rub: If dissent is so rare, why do global-warming conformists feel the strong need to argue that minority views should be dismissed as nutty or venal? Why not posit that there is such a thing as honest disagreement on the science?”) by dropping the subject and moving on to overstate her case about funding.

    On your Deltoid post about poor reporting, I would offer R5: Reporters Can Be Ambitious. They want their articles to be read, and “Earth to Melt by 2030” or “Alarmists Paid Millions by Sierra Club” may sell more papers, so to speak, than “Thoughtful Scientists Disagree on Efficacy of Tree Ring Data Calibration”. Ah, well.

    Less a propos of this topic, but right up your alley, I imagine, is the following:

    If you’ve already seen it, never mind, but I know you have an interest in trying to get at how people arrive at their [overarching] scientific opinions. It’s about Seitz, Nierenberg and Jastrow.

  43. 43
    Ray Ladbury says:

    When I was a grad student, I had the privilege of attending a conference where issues of science in the press were discussed with working science journists. In later life, I had the additional privilege of writing for a physics trade publication where we had to report on cutting edge physics in a way a physics undergrad could follow. From the vantage point of this experience, I can assure you of the following trivial conclusion: Science journalism is tough. More to the point here, imagine trying to do science journalism when you have no background in the science, have sources you trust ideologically telling you not to trust the scientists and are kind of shaky on that whole objective-reality notion to begin with.
    A journalist in any specialty will tell you: if you don’t trust your sources, don’t run the story. So why the hell does Debra Saunders think she can write about science when she doesn’t trust the scientists and doesn’t understand the science to begin with?

  44. 44
    Sarah says:

    Why is fact checking in journalism rare? Well, it is expensive and time consuming. (And even when a publication can afford the effort, we cannot always make up for lazy or biased reporting.) Newspapers, with their daily schedule, simply do not have the time to fact check articles and must rely on reporters and editors to do a good job. Being human, they sometimes fail. Remember, though, when you screw up at work, probably only a few people will ever find out. When a journalist makes a mistake, that can go worldwide.

    [Response: You are of course correct that fact checking takes time, and so it isn’t done as diligently in daily newspapers as in monthlies for instance. However, columnists do have more time than news journalists, and as this episode demonstrates, Ms. Saunders had plenty of time (days) to call NASA and get a response, so the idea that this is has to be rushed out and no-one can check everything is clearly not relevant. I have tremendous respect for the enormous amounts of work that good journalists do, and I’d love to be able to help them do it even better, but this column was not a shining example of good practice! – gavin]

  45. 45
    Hank Roberts says:

    Roly mentions a classic. New Scientist didn’t bother checking an opinion letter that made improbable claims that were attributed — and checkable by calling up the agency they were attributed to, quite easily.

    “‘This is complete bullshit,’ they told him ….”

  46. 46

    The temperature records at North Pole
    and Vostok
    are still flat. Yes, not so long ago Gavin put an article about this phenomenon, but may I ask what is the model predicted exact date when one would be able to recognize the trend?

    P.S. I know, the two stations looks like cherry picking, but consider that these are located in the ideal places. No noise related to day-night temperature difference. No UHI effect either.

  47. 47
    John H Walkup says:

    If it included facts it wouldn’t be opinion.

  48. 48
    Sekerob says:

    For Amundsen-Scott the real flat to fluctuating in that region might be an indication of instability? In fact, the flux this decade seems quite pronounced.

  49. 49
    Steve Bloom says:

    I very much doubt Saunders gets fact-checked at all (except perhaps a screening for out-and-out libel). She was hired precisely to write columns (on all sorts of topics) that upset the Chron’s generally liberal readership. I think the editors are perfectly aware that fact-checking would ruin the effect.

    On the plus side, the Chron does still have a first-class science reporting staff whose work is frequently featured on the front page.

  50. 50
    S2 says:

    #46, Tegiri Nenashi

    The temperature records at North Pole

    Amundsen-Scott isn’t at the North Pole.