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The epidemic of climate science false balance in the media

Posted on 27 February 2014 by dana1981

False balance in media reporting on climate change is a big problem for one overarching reason: there is a huge gap between the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming, and the public perception that scientists are evenly divided on the subject.

 The consensus gap

This can undoubtedly be traced in large part to the media giving disproportionate coverage to the opposing fringe climate contrarian views. Research has shown that people who are unaware of the expert consensus are less likely to accept the science and less likely to support taking action to address the problem, so media false balance can be linked directly to our inability to solve the climate problem.

The BBC is one such culprit, having repeatedly given climate contrarians disproportionate air time on its programs. Frequent recent BBC guests include blogger Andrew Montford and politician and founder of the anti-climate policy think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation, Nigel Lawson. The former was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live's Stephen Nolan show, together with climate scientist Paul Williams from the University of Reading. The latter was invited onto the BBC Radio 4 Today program alongside climate scientist Brian Hoskins from the Imperial College London and Royal Society.

As climate experts, Williams and Hoskins were excellent choices to discuss the subjects at hand – climate science, models, and the link between climate change and the extreme weather causing flooding in the UK. On the other hand, Montford and Lawson are not climate scientists, nor even scientists of any sort. Williams and Hoskins are entirely capable of discussing the knowns and uncertainties in their areas of expertise, which calls into question the BBC's motives for inviting non-scientist climate contrarians onto the shows alongside these experts.

Whatever the reason, as could have been expected, both Montford and Lawson repeated several falsehoods on these shows. For example, Montford incorrectly claimed "we haven't had any warming at all for the last two decades," and Lawson made the same assertion for "the past 15, 16, 17 years."

The data are easily checked using this tool; the best estimates in all available data sets show that global surface temperatures have warmed over the past 15, 16, 17, and 20 years. In fact, over the past two decades, we've seen over 0.3°C average global surface warming, according to the best estimates. On top of that, over 90 percent of global warming goes into the oceans, which have accumulated heat at a rate equivalent to 2 billion Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations during the period in question.

After receiving a figurative flood of listener complaints regarding the Lawson interview, the BBC Radio 4 Today program defended its practice of false balance, claiming,

"we are satisfied that both this segment and our overall coverage is fair, balanced, and impartial."

Perhaps the BBC is satisfied with becoming the UK equivalent of Fox News. However, the following exchange between BBC host Justin Webb and guests Brian Hoskins and Nigel Lawson illustrates the problem with this approach.

Justin Webb: So [the warming is] there somewhere?
Sir Brian Hoskins: Oh yes, it's there in the oceans.
Lord Lawson: That is pure speculation.
Sir Brian Hoskins: No, it's a measurement.
Lord Lawson: No, it's not. It's speculation.
Justin Webb: Well, it's a combination of the two isn't it? As this whole discussion is. Lord Lawson and Sir Brian Hoskins, thank you very much.

What a perfect example of "fair, balanced, and impartial" coverage! A climate expert states an empirical fact, a climate contrarian flatly denies this factual reality, and the BBC host declares that the truth must surely lie between fact and fiction.

The BBC isn't the only purportedly unbiased media outlet to fall victim to false balance in its climate reporting. CNN has a tendency to use this same type of debate format when covering climate change. For example, CNN Crossfire recently invited David Kreutzer, an economist at the right-wing political think tank Heritage Institute, and League of Conservation Voters senior vice president Navin Nayak, who has a background in biology and environmental studies. Neither is a climate scientist, but most of the show was spent debating climate science (and debating it inaccurately).

As another example, after the USA Today editorial team wrote a straightforward editorial simply pointing out that cold winter weather in some areas doesn't disprove global warming, they then felt the need to solicit an "opposing view." They had to settle for a non-scientist from the right-wing think tank Heartland Institute, probably because they couldn't find a scientist anywhere who would take the absurd opposing view.

The Washington Post also just published a Charles Krauthammer opinion piece (another non-scientist) leading off by saying "I'm not a global warming denier," followed by denying so basic climate science facts, climate scientist Michael Mann made a drinking game out of it, and one of the paper's own editorial writers was forced to debunk it. The Sunday news shows haven't been any better, likewise treating climate science in the same manner as they would a political debate.

Recently, Juan Cole published a nice piece of satire entitled "Bill Nye Science Guy to Debate GOP Rep Gohmert on Gravity." I had to click the link to verify that it was a satirical story; with all of these media outlets inviting contrarian non-scientist opinions climate science, one can only wonder if evolution and gravity will be the next topics of these "debates."

Unfortunately, the BBC has habitually undervalued expert input from scientists and academics. In an essay to be published next month, Professor Lewis of Cardiff University notes that the BBC relies heavily on sources from politics and business like Nigel Lawson, and relatively infrequently on academics and scientists.

"A 2007 study, for example, found that around half of those sources used on BBC news were from just four professions: the worlds of politics, business, law and order and the news media. By contrast, the main knowledge-based professions and civic voices (from the academy, medicine, science and technology, thinks tanks, government/public agencies and NGOs) made up, between them, only 10 per cent of all sources.

This concentration was confirmed by the recent BBC Trust review of television news, which suggested that the dominance of these four groups as news sources has increased over the last five years"

Likewise the independent Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science written by Professor Steve Jones in 2011 concluded,

"For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over?diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story ... There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC's written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air."

However, David Jordan, head of BBC editorial standards, told Members of Parliament that the network rejected Jones' recommendation that they avoid false balance in their climate reporting.

The problem is that science isn't a matter of opinion.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. I put a complaint in to the BBC about Lawson's appearance on Radio 4 because "almost every point he made was woefully wrong."

    The reply I got back from the BBC was:-

    Whilst there may be a scientific consensus about global warming - that it is happening and largely man-made - there is no similar agreement about what should be done to tackle it; whether money should be spent, for example, on cutting carbon emissions or would be better used adapting our defences to the changing climate. Lord Lawson is not a scientist, but as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer is well qualified to comment on the economic arguments, which are a legitimate area for debate.

    We believe there has to be space in the BBC’s coverage where scientific consensus meets reasonable argument about the policy implications of that consensus view. That said we do accept that we could have offered a clearer description of the sceptical position taken by Lord Lawson and the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the introduction. That would have clarified in the audience’s minds the ideological background to the arguments.

    It smacks of an excuse of the moment rather than a proper explanation.

    My own explanation is that the many 'swivel-eyed loons' within the Tory party had been applying a lot of pressure on climate (and may be other things as well) and the BBC caved in.

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  2. Some hope from NBC News

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  3. MA Rodger: The BBC's response seems especially inapt given what Lawson actually spent his time arguing about (the science).

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  4. The BBC have got appalling at covering climate change over the last two or three years.
    The recent storms have been devastating in the UK and follows up on the year of flooding in 2012.

    In over two months of bad weather and extreme flooding, the BBC completely failed to look at climate change or ask scientists about the weather. Instead they happily gave the voice of a  Somerset MP who has a background of opposing wind farms and blamed the Environment Agency for failing to cope with record rain fall.

    I have to say, but don't like to, the changes have come about since the last election.
    It may be coincidence, but given that we have a government here that has a Prime Minister that refuses to acknowledge that he has appointed climate change deniers in some key positions, the BBC should be challenging the views of various government officials and politicians that they interview.

    Plus of course Labour did their bit by fueling the arguements last year about energy bills, which lit the touch paper that launched attacks on renewable energy.

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  5. Any fool can look at detailed budget slashing at DEFRA and decode what the Conservatives actually think about climate change. Meanwhile the BBC's been on the wrong foot recently for a number of reasons, are vulnerable and hence need to be careful not to offend the wrong people. 

    Folks don't rise to the top of management with a tin ear. Tone is set from the top. It's all a matter of listening.  

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  6. Among Climate Scientists, the agreement about Global Warming is 100%.  Most believe the sensitivity is above 2C per doubling of CO2.  A very few believe its below 2C.  But there are no Climate Scientists, none, who disbelieve the idea altogether.  This is a point that the public needs to be made more aware of.  Its the reason Climate Deniers say their argument is with CAGW, not AGW, because it allows them to weasel out of their advocacy like a lawyer if you manage to nail them down on specifics.

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  7. The response by the BBC reported by MA Rodger @1 could be annotated thus

    Whilst there may be a scientific consensus about global warming - that it is happening and largely man-made - there is no similar agreement about what should be done to tackle it; whether money should be spent, for example, on cutting carbon emissions or would be better used adapting our defences to the changing climate. Lord Lawson is not a scientist, but as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer is well qualified to comment on the economic arguments, which are a legitimate area for debate.

    Maybe, but Lord Lawson was not invited to discuss the economic arguments, he was discussing whether the recent extreme rainfall in the UK was linked to climate change. That is not an "economic argument". Moreover he was put up against a climate  scientist whose area of expertese is not economics.  Why ?

    We believe there has to be space in the BBC’s coverage where scientific consensus meets reasonable argument about the policy implications of that consensus view.

    If that is the case, then again why was Sir Brian Hoskins invited to take part, since he is not a policy maker ? Moreover the implication of this statement by the BBC appears to be that, somehow disliking the policy implications of climate change is sufficient reason to doubt the physical science - which is a nonsensical position. There is aboslutely no reason why the scientific consensus on global warming should "meet" arguments about the policy implications; because the policy can have no influence on physics.

    That said we do accept that we could have offered a clearer description of the sceptical position taken by Lord Lawson and the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the introduction. That would have clarified in the audience’s minds the ideological background to the arguments.

    Perhaps they should have included this too

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  8. I remember the late BBC One Planet podcast, that covered environmental issues: they had this "balance" in their interviews, giving space to the likes of Richard Lindzen and letting him get away with claims like "high sensitivity is just the result of biased models" or that the reason for virtually the whole scientific comunity to support climate action was "vested interests".

    This podcast has had its good moments, but bad moments like this made me feel less sorry for them being cut off.

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  9. I can't help but to wonder if a contrarian such as Judith Curry would have any name recognition at all (outside of the small number of climate scientists working in her area of expertise) if not for this mindless pursuit of "balance" by journalists.  It can elevate a relative mediocrity to genius (celebrity?) status. 

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  10. These "balancing" or "Alternative point of view" claims are definitely not about improving the best understanding of the science, or about developing the best understanding of what needs to be done.

    Lawson and many other very powerful business and political figures have devoted their entire life's effort to the promotion of benefit for the few for a short-time, pushing all they can get away with to make it easier for wealth to be obtained from many unsustainable and damaging activities, including, but not limited to, the burning of fossil fuels.

    Only a fool, or a person who shares the deep desire to maximize the short-term benefit for the few from unsustainable and damaging activities, would consider that type of person to be a reasonable party to invite to comment on the merits of "undoing all their life's work, just for the benefit of future generations who have no vote and have no money to spend today".

    The future of humanity requires leaders who will genuinely push for the rapid development of sustainable ways of living, in spite of the popularity or proifitability that can be 'created by the fallible actions of greedy people". The sooner these type of people are unable to get away with their unacceptable desires the better it will be for everyone else.

    It needs to be clear that there is a real "Us vs. Them" battle to be fought. Unsustainable and damaging activities threaten the sustainability of economies, societies, and humanity's future on this amazing planet.

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  11. As I've mentioned on a couple of other blogs recently, I can’t actually think of any British climate scientist with a record of published research who is a sceptic, so maybe it isn’t surprising that Nigel Lawson always gets the call to provide "balance".

    If the BBC is consistent, maybe we'll be hearing the views of John Major on quantum mechanics or Kenneth Clarke on superstring theory.

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  12. How long do we have to read Dana's mantra about 97%. It just gives deniers more ammunition to fuel the fire. Get real. Most scientists who know anything about this agree we have global warming, ditto that CO2 contributes to GW, and ditto that Humans are the main cause for the present rise in CO2. So lets get on with the stuff thats really important - how critical is it - and what do we do about it. If the BBC were to allow only blatant onesided arguments from folks such as dana then we would be just as insensed as if they only listened to Lord Lawson. The very one sided propaganda nature of the debate is in my opinion why the public are losing sight of the real issues.

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  13. MartinG:

    Carefully collected and analyzed survey data is more valuable than personal impressions.

    The underpinning of the Consensus Project is made plain in the infographic at the head of the OP: in the first place there is a gap between the public perception of scientists' findings and the findings themselves, and in the second place narrowing the gap increases the likelihood that laypeople (such as myself) will support making climate policy.

    This is exacerbated by the fact that those engaged in disinformation, such as Lawson, are certainly not interested in "get[ing] on with the stuff that's really important" and are still trying to call very basic, solid scientific conclusions into question.

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  14. Chris Snow @11.

    Back in October the BBC Radio 4 Today programme reported that the BBC could not find a British climate scientist that was not signed up to the IPCC's findings. That morning there were 6 items on the IPCC AR5 SPM release. The only skeptical voice was that of Lawson but from the archive and presented as an exemplar of wrongheadedness. It made for refreshing listening.

    However, by luchtime the numpties had managed to get Bob Carter onto The World At One, resulting in an attrocious piece of news reporting by the BBC (transcript here - Peter Stott was not even allowed to hear what Carter had said, due to 'technical problems' apparently). Of course, in 'finding' Carter the BBC had not found a British climatologist. Carter is Australian and a geolologist. But he does have a UK connection - as one of Lawson's Gentlemen Who Prefer Fantasy, by dint of the GWPF being a charity, he is thus able to spread his untruths at the UK taxpayer's expense.

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  15. MartinG@12 - "How long do we have to read Dana's mantra about 97%. It just gives deniers more ammunition to fuel the fire."

    I suspect you're trolling here, but putting that aside, once the 'consensus gap' - the gap between the scientific reality (97%) and public perception - is closed we won't really need to blog about it anymore. We're a long way from that largely (I believe) to rubbish reporting of climate-related matters in the mainstream media.

    To be sure there's a nutty fringe element no matter what the topic of discussion is, however the mainstream media have falsely elevated the one-eyed skeptics stature in the public eye. They may have fooled the public for a brief time, but the physics of global warming & the chemistry of ocean acidification will not be denied. 

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  16. MartinG@12,

    In case you've fogrotten, I suggest you refresh your understanding of 5 stages of climate denial.

    A appriciate that you're past most (if not all) of the stages and you now think about mitigation and you're bored by "Dana's mantra".

    However, please note that not all people are as fortunate as yourself with respect to the knowledge of AGW. And these are not marginal Joes no one listens to: these are influential poloicy makers like over half of US congress or current govs in Australia or UK. Those 1 & 2 stage deniers are unable to think about the problem at your level of understanding because they lack the basics. Therefore "Dana's mantra" is the appropriate way of arguing with these deniers. First things first. They will not understand your argumentation "what do we do about it" because their response is "nothing as the problem is imaginary" (it is not, as proven many times).

    The only alternative is to "silence" the deniers (i.e. get rid of 50%+ of US congress, and get rid of BBC who inappropriately gives voice to deniers like Lawson, relplacing it with other, better balanced news orgs like Al Jazeera) which will diminish the gap in public mind.

    These are roughly the 2 broad strategies of addressing the problem of AGW. You have to consider them. Your statement "lets (sic!) get on with the stuff thats really important" indicates your lack of due consideration of the issue.

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  17. Here is yet another illustration of chriskoz's pointYesterday's opinion piece in Forbes, denying the existence of an expert consensus on anthropogenic global warming.

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  18. Tom Dayton - Fascinating article, if only for the author bio:

    Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, debater, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress, head of the I Love Fossil Fuels Campaign, and author of Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Key to Winning Hearts and Minds,” and the forthcoming book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (Penguin/Portfolio, 2014).

    Of course, there's no chance whatsoever that he might be biased against the science or anything... (/sarc)

    On a more serious note, many conservative business oriented publications in the US like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal seem predisposed to printing disturbingly influential nonsense. Again, the science is a matter of facts and data, not opinion. 

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  19. Frankly I am horrified at the nonsense Forbes is allowing into print. I have reached the opinion that they have no credibilty at all when it comes to issues of climate, and that has caused me to look with a jaundiced eye at everything they report on now.

    I am fine with people expressing their opinions, but it seems the editorial board at Forbes has given up all pretence at objectivity and has become as non-scientific and biased as Fox News.

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  20. Sheesh Martin @12!  First of all this isn't 'my mantra', this is the result of Skeptical Science Cook et al. (2013) study.  I repeat the result a lot because...well, for the reasons I explained in the above post!

    I agree we should be debating what to do about it (policy), and have said so many times.  But we're not, in large part because of the consensus gap.  Just look at the BBC and all these other media examples - they're still 'debating' science instead of policy.

    Then you say the BBC shouldn't have one-sided arguments.  On climate science?  When the debate is between fact and fiction, yes, it should be "one-sided".  Especially when the other side is comprised of political ideologues.

    I'll close with a quote from Frank Luntz.

    "there's a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time."

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  21. My point is, that by following the propaganda road (say it again*E100) you allow your detractors to rubbish what you say with real, if partial arguments. This allows them to portray you as spouting dogma in conflict with science, and thus allowing the gap between public perception and where real science is to widen. This is counterproductive, and unhelpful, just as many of the comments on this site say more about the contributor than the topic. We should rather focus on what the real consensus is – because that includes that the planet is warming, which is an undisputed fact , – then we can seriously discuss what is the best thing to do about it. After all most propaganda in the past has been used to push false impressions on an unenlightened public, and rarely has a lasting effect. That’s why I say – get real.

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  22. MartinG:

    IMO you are confusing effective communication strategies with propaganda.

    Assuming a policy solution to global warming is required, domestic constituencies (voters) have to be willing to support political efforts to reach that solution. If the applicable science doesn't get communicated effectively to the public, who are unlikely to have the inclination or expertise to, say, wade through the entire IPCC AR4 or AR5, such a policy solution stands no chance of being implemented.

    IMO you are also espousing a simplistically negative notion of propaganda (as a technique). What's your evidence that propaganda has only been used to "push false impressions" in the past, or that it "rarely has a lasting effect"?

    (One of the most striking pieces of propaganda I can think of is "Rosie the Riveter", below. Is the "impression" being made upon the viewer false or unethical? Can you really say that it, and other propaganda encouraging women to work in factories in the US during the Second World War, did not have a lasting effect?)

    Rosie the Riveter

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