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Fox News defends global warming false balance by denying the 97% consensus

Posted on 23 October 2013 by dana1981

A study published earlier this year in the journal Public Understanding of Science found that consumption of politically conservative media outlets like Fox News decreases viewer trust in scientists, which in turn decreases belief that global warming is happening. This is in large part a result of disproportionate representation of the less than 3 percent of climate scientists who are 'skeptical' of human-caused global warming, as well as interviewing climate contrarian non-experts, for example from conservative fossil fuel-funded think tanks.

Last week, I reported that studies of media coverage leading up to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealed that Fox News and other politically conservative media outlets continued this practice of false balance. Fox News was particularly guilty, representing climate contrarians in 69 percent of their IPCC stories.

Fox News false balance

How did Fox News respond to my criticisms that they were disproportionately representing the views of climate contrarians, particularly non-experts from think tanks? By publishing an opinion piece by Marlo Lewis from a conservative fossil fuel-funded think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Lewis has a background in political science, and has been described by DeSmogBlog as,

"...just another energy industry crony who is paid to deny that fossil fuel pollution causes problems."

Lewis defended Fox News' false balance climate reporting by denying that there is an expert consensus on human-caused global warming. He did so by attacking the study that I co-authored earlier this year, finding 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate abstracts and papers taking a position on the cause of global warming agree that humans are responsible.

Soon after our paper was published, it was the subject of many attacks by climate contrarians who know that expert consensus is a powerful public communications tool. These attacks exemplified the five characteristics common to scientific denialism highlighted in a paper by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee (Diethelm & McKee 2009):

1) Conspiracy theories;
2) Fake experts;
3) Cherry picking;
4) Impossible expectations of what research can deliver; and
5) Misrepresentation and logical fallacies.

Five months later, Lewis' Fox News opinion piece made the exact same arguments, exemplifying all five characteristics of scientific denialism. Mainly, he focused on the papers captured in our peer-reviewed literature search using the keywords "global warming" and "global climate change" that didn't say anything about the causes of global warming. These are broad search terms, and Lewis' expectation that every climate-related paper must discuss the causes of global warming is an example of impossible expectations. Lewis also advanced this revealing conspiracy theory:

"People get suspicious when government-appointed experts define "the science" for the purpose of advancing an agenda that just happens to increase government control of energy markets."

In reality, by acknowledging that he and his fellow climate contrarians are suspicious of the expert consensus because they don't like its implications, Lewis is admitting that the global warming 'debate' isn't about science.

Lewis and his colleagues at Fox News and throughout the conservative media have an ideological opposition to some climate solutions. Opposition to climate solutions is nearly impossible to justify if the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming is correct. Thus Lewis and his colleagues work backwards from their predetermined conclusion that the expert consensus must be wrong, finding anyone who will tell them what they want to believe, and amplifying the voices of those climate contrarians.

In his opinion piece, Lewis finally did admit the root cause of Fox News' biased global warming coverage.

"...many experts regard cap-and-trade and the like as a cure worse than the alleged disease."

Those who oppose cap and trade (a Republican invention) should join the debate about the best climate solutions policies. For example, a growing number of conservatives support a revenue neutral carbon tax, which is a free market solution that doesn't significantly increase the size of government. It's also a solution that's been implemented in British Columbia with great success and popularity.

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Comments 1 to 20:

  1. Lewis probably used Deithelm and McKee's list of the five denialist characteristics in composing his opinion piece.  "Hey, that's good stuff!"  

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  2. I'd add another couple of characteristics to scientific denialism, if we consider Marlo Lewis as a phenotype of the denier in its natural environment:

    -- Fabrication. Dana Nuccitelli is quite obviously not a "government-appointed expert" but Lewis is nonetheless completely uninhibited from embroidering truth with fiction. 

    -- Inability to distinguish science from public policy. "I disagree with policy so the science informing the policy must be wrong."

    Regarding the latter, it's notionally a matter of personal choice whether to fasten one's safety belt, but the physics of plunging through a windshield remain a completely separate matter. Choice might be constrained by law which might be cause for resentment, but the physics of mass times velocity, conservation of energy, facial lacerations and skull fractures are still not public policy. This distinction seems entirely lost or absent in the minds of people such as Marlo Lewis.

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  3. Help needed.  I'm hoping this comment is relevant to the topic, as an example of denial in the media. I'm trying out the UK Press Complaints Commission process to see how it goes. I wrote a complaint about the following article (my complaint is at the bottom of this post):

    And got the following response from the Telegraph via the PCC:

    I'm away next week so will need to respond to this on Friday - any thoughts on how I should respond very welcome.

    The overall complaint is that the article misleads by highlighting any differences between climate forecasts and observations and claiming as a result that the forecasts have been “wrong”. Given these were forecasts decades in length, for the word “wrong” to be justified a large discrepancy between the forecast for a large part of the globe would need to be observed. In fact the differences have been relatively small and not widespread. The forecasts have in fact been very accurate.
    The title is misleading, stating that “global warming” forecasts were wrong. In the article, it admits that the forecasts were for 0.13 degrees Celsius warming per decade, where it has actually been 0.12 degrees Celsius. I understand that originally the article stated that the forecast was for 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, but has since been corrected. The headline made more sense with the original figure but now misleads.
    The second sentence repeats the claim in more stark terms “world is not heating at the rate they claimed it was in a key report”. This is again misleading given the difference between forecasts and actual warming. The context of this line below the headline links the statement that forecasts were wrong with the rate of heating.

    The second paragraph states that the IPCC report “is understood to concede that the computer predictions for global warming and the effects of carbon emissions have been proved to be inaccurate”. The words “computer”, “prediction” and “predictions” do not appear in the report at all. There is no direct statement in the report to say that previous forecasts have been inaccurate.

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  4. Dana,

    You and I have a very similar background in risk management for large consulting firms.  I am older than you and have since moved on and entered the field of academia.  I hold a B.S. in Biology and an M.S in Fisheries and Wildlife.  I am working on an M.S. in Biological Sciences which I plan on following with a PhD.  I still consult with various companies pertaining to risk management, and EHS managment.  

    The 97% consensus you refer to is among climate scientists only.  That percentage moves downward as you move away from strictly climate scientists.  I would argue that there are a myriad of other science disciplines that have a say in the matter of the complicated geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, etc... that we live on and in.  As I am sure you know, all the spheres are interconnected and have reciprocal interactions.

    Let me clearly state that CO2 is a GHG, and anthropogenic releases of this GHG along with land use changes contribute to an increase in overall global temperature.  Where we diverge is in the overall effects of the temperature increase.

    Scientists are trained to be logical and to process data.  If only "climate scientists" are capable of intellectually commenting on global warming, then that silences a lot of voices.  Including mine and yours...

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Dana is on vacation and may not be able to respond to you for a couple of weeks.

  5. Terranova, if you look at the paper in question you'll see that the 97% figure does not pertain only to climate scientists. 


    "We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. In a second phase of this study, we invited authors to rate their own papers. Compared to abstract ratings, a smaller percentage of self-rated papers expressed no position on AGW (35.5%). Among self-rated papers expressing a position on AGW, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. For both abstract ratings and authors’ self-ratings, the percentage of endorsements among papers expressing a position on AGW marginally increased over time. Our analysis indicates that  the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.

    Notice that the papers selected were not filtered by author discipline, which means that your hypothesis "the 97% consensus you refer to is among climate scientists only" is plainly incorrect.

    Here's the paper. 

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  6. Doug,

    You are correct about the paper you referred to, but that is not what Dana referred to.  Reference Dana's second sentence in the first paragraph: "This is in large part a result of disproportionate representation of the less than 3 percent of climate scientists who are 'skeptical' of human-caused global warming,..." Emphasis mine. 

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  7. Terranova, what you said was "the 97% consensus you refer to is among climate scientists only."  You go on to say "That percentage moves downward as you move away from strictly climate scientists." 

    Tested against the fact of the paper, the reason we're speaking of "97%,"  those statements are plainly wrong. Thus you are mischaracterizing the paper Dana is talking about. 

    This is an extremely easy conversation to end. No loss of face is involved. You can easily search the abstracts used in the paper and demonstrate how your assumption was incorrect.

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  8. Doug,

    I am directly referring to Dana's quote in the first paragraph of this post.  I am not referring to the paper he mentions later in the article which is separate.  I really don't know any sane academician with any sort of science background who disagrees with AGW.  They do, however, disagree with the catastrophic predictions.  And, that disagreement should not be referred to as denialism and contrarianism.  Just as I refrain from using words like alarmism.  

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  9. Terranova@6,

    As doug_bostrom explained to you, what Dana meant with the "less than 3 percent of climate scientists" sentence you're nit-picking so persistently, is "less than 3 percent of scientists publishing in the peer reviewed climate journals". I agree, that your nit-pick makes sense (i.e. Dana should have been more careful in his wording) but, unlike yourself, I don't conclude unsupported & demostrably wrong claims out of it.

    Your nit-pick would make sense if it contributed to the improvement of the article or to our understanding of related scientific facts. But it does not: it is actually meant to confuse the facts, so I suggest you stop doing it.

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  10. Terranova,

    "other science disciplines... have a say in the matter of the complicated geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, etc"

    The Consensus Project list of papers was compiled under the search terms "global warming" and "global climate change." No discipline that has published on the topic was filtered out.

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  11. Terranova... Here you are making a number of assumptions that I would suggest are erroneous.  

    One would be that Dana thinks that those who aren't climate scientists (per se) can't comment or have an opinion.  Voices are clearly not being silenced, but the research and the people who are actively doing research are probably the best informed regarding their areas of expertise.  Where people get in trouble is when someone without specific expertise is trying to claim the those who do have expertise are wrong.  And this happens quite a lot in climate science.

    Another would be that the 97% only counts climate scientists.  The 97% in Cook 2013 refers to research papers, not scientists.  Oreskes and Cook refer to papers on global warming.  Doran and Anderegg refer to climate scientists.

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  12. @ Terranova #8:

    You state:

    I really don't know any sane academician with any sort of science background who disagrees with AGW. They do, however, disagree with the catastrophic predictions.

    Is this staatement based on your personal inteactions with "sane academicians"? 

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  13. doug bostrom @7, the concensus paper does not test the level of concensus among non-climate scientists.  Rather, it tests the level of concensus among non-climate scientists who write papers on the impacts or methods of mitigation of climate science, ie, a biases sub-sample of non climate scientists.   Based on Doran 2009, only around 76% of non-climate scientists not actively publishing on climate science accept the consensus, possibly a little less as Doran's question 2 is weaker than the position tested in the concensus paper.

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  14. Terranova @4, could you state clearly for the record whether or not you agree that the expected climate response to a doubling of CO2 is approximately 3 degrees C?  I just wish to confirm that your disagreement is with Dana really is " the overall effects of the temperature increase."  More specifically, I wish to confirm that you are not actually diverging with unrealistically low estimates of climate sensitivity as well.

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  15. Terranova @8, again would you clarrify, by AGW do you mean the theory that states (among other things) that anthropogenic factors caused most (>50%) of the increase in GMST since 1950?  Or are you using "AGW" incorrectly to refer to the theory that CO2 is a greenhouse gas?

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  16. Sorry folks but I'm stuck at Terranova's "The 97% consensus you refer to is among climate scientists only."

    A cursory glance at abstracts tested in the paper shows that there are a plethora of researchers authoring tested papers who cannot by the farthest stretch of imagination be characterized as "climate scientists."  I didn't bother to check but I'll stick my neck out and hazard a guess that it's possible most of the authors surveyed in the work are not climate scientists. 

    That is, unless by "climate scientist" we're rebadging forestry agronomists, botanists specializing in gymnosperms and a host of other people working in numerous disciplines that happen to be touched by climate change as "climate scientists." These are all included in results leading to the 97% figure, are not included in the "not climate related" categorization. 

    So whatever other quibbles we may have with Terranova or Dana, Terranova's characterization of the paper is incorrect. 

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  17. Terranova - the Cook et al. (2013) study included papers researching the impacts of climate change.  When I say "climate scientists", I'm referring to anyone actively researching some aspect of the climate, including impacts.  Hence I have to disagree with you.

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  18. Cook et al analyzed papers on the subject of climate change. It seems obvious that the ratio of climate scientists amongst that sample is going to be significantly greater than the ratio of climate scientists amongst all scientists. Ergo, Cook et al does not provide a foundation for claiming that 97% of all scientists concur with AGW. Further, as Tom Curtis noted, other studies have found 97% agreement amongst climate scientists, but lower levels amongst scientists in other disciplines.

    That said, Terranova's argument that lower levels of agreement amongst people who know less about the subject indicates that the conclusions of the experts are in doubt seems illogical on its face. Rather, it clearly illustrates the existence of a non-scientific basis for these 'doubts'. From the ~30% of Fox news viewers who accept AGW to the ~50% of the general population to the ~75% of all scientists to the ~90% of earth scientists and finally ~97% of scientists publishing on the subject it is clear that the better informed someone is on the subject the more likely that the facts will overcome cultural biases from the misinformation campaign. Each step up the ladder of familiarity with the subject results in greater acceptance of AGW... and leaves the shrinking group of 'doubters' increasingly delusional. There is a reason the only climate scientists who dispute AGW science are people like Roy ('AGW is not real because God promised not to send another great flood') Spencer and Judith ('Since AGW is not 100% certain we should treat skeptical claims as equally valid') Curry. At lower levels of knowledge most 'skeptics' are just ignorant of the facts, but as you get to higher levels of understanding the only people denying the obvious are those with impenetrable blinders.

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  19. CBDunkerson, *this* is a keeper!

    "From the ~30% of Fox news viewers who accept AGW to the ~50% of the general population to the ~75% of all scientists to the ~90% of earth scientists and finally ~97% of scientists publishing on the subject it is clear that the better informed someone is on the subject the more likely that the facts will overcome cultural biases from the misinformation campaign."


    Truly a gem!

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  20. Jubble @3 - Sorry, but Friday has already been and gone. I thought based on previous correspondence we were intending to keep in touch about this sort of thing?  Here's where we're up to at this end on hauling The Telegraph before the Press Complaints Commission:

    So far they have at least corrected a couple of their most blatant inaccuracies, and we've yet to make a formal complaint to the PCC. IIRC Fox were spouting the same "60%" nonsense as The Mail and The Telegraph last month. How might one go about persuading a US based purveyor of "news" to publish a similar "correction"?

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