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Media failure on Iraq War repeated in climate change coverage

Posted on 6 December 2013 by Stephan Lewandowsky

"Iraq is developing a long-range ballistic missile system that could carry weapons of mass destruction up to 700 miles." Iraq is progressing towards "dirty bombs that spew radioactivity, mobile bio-weapons facilities, and a new long-range ballistic missile." An Iraqi defector "tells of work on at least 20 hidden weapons sites." It is an "undisputed fact" that September 11 attacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague.

Those claims appeared in mainstream newspapers during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. All those claims were false. The nonexistence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq immediately prior to the invasion and the absence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida eventually became the official U.S. position with the Duelfer Report and the report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

A decade later, those media failures are relevant not only because of the war's six-figure death toll and because the Iraqi per capita GDP has so far failed to return to prewar levels, but also because they remind us that the media, including highly reputable newspapers, can sometimes get things quite wrong.

A similar media failure is arguably under way this very moment with regard to climate change. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded with near certainty that human economic activity is responsible for ongoing global warming, and some of the largest insurance companies on the planet have blamed the increase in losses from extreme weather events to climate-related disasters.

This has not kept some newspapers from reporting that Arctic ice is "recovering", a rather adventurous claim in light of the fact that the Arctic has lost 40% of its ice cover since 1980 and that ice extent is now lower than during several millennia preceding 1980. A recent quantitative analysis of climate coverage in the Australian media confirmed that misreporting of the science is widespread.

There are some interesting similarities and differences between the media failures involving Iraqi WMDs and climate change.

One notable difference between pre-invasion reporting on Iraqi WMD and climate change is that, in contrast to the near-hegemony of war-supporting reporting (at least in the U.S.), the public has a broader choice now when it comes to climate change: While there is a large supply of disinformation that threatens the public's right to being adequately informed, there is also no shortage of actual scientific information, both in the mainstream media and beyond.

The diversity of sources empowers the public to select their information wisely, but it also provides a playing field for the dominant influence of people's cultural worldviews or "ideology", which can override even education. People whose core personal values are threatened by possible responses to climate change, such as a price on carbon or regulatory measures, are known to rely on media sources that are more likely to create confusion about climate change than disseminate scientifically accurate information.

Worldviews may also explain another cognitive difference between Iraq and climate, which concerns the asymmetry in the evaluation of evidence in the two cases. In the case of Iraqi WMDs, we now know that the media—and politicians among the "Coalition of the Willing"—used weak and insufficient evidence to call for a pre-emptive war against a largely imaginary risk. In the case of climate, by contrast, a mountain of scientific evidence pointing to a risk far greater than that posed by Saddam Hussein is ignored, and mitigative action refused, on the basis of similar worldviews.

There are also similarities. In both cases, a link can be drawn between misinformation and the likelihood of warfare. Together with colleagues, I reviewed the literature on this relationship in a recent paper using the Iraq War and climate change as case studies. We report a reasonably clear link between the acceptance of misinformation and support for the Iraq War, both before and after military action commenced. In one U.S. study, belief in misinformation—that is, the existence of WMDs—was the most powerful predictor of support for the Iraq war. Belief in WMDs quadrupled the likelihood of support for the war.

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. The Iraq War Resolution was presented to Congress in Sept 2002, a year after the tragedy of 911.  The Resolution passed in Oct 2002.  In Nov 2002, there was a General election, during which the Presidents Party gained two seats in the Senate and 8 in the House, handing them control of both Legislative bodies.

    People play politics in DC all the time in scheduling votes for major actions, but a War Vote is different.  Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives hang in the balance.  If ever 'conscience' was needed to rule a Congressman's actions, this qualified.  But a year away from the horror of 911?  Scheduling a War Vote a month before an election ensured that Congressmen would NOT be voting their conscience but rather in consideration of the revenge-lust of their constituents.  Who can 'lead' with conscience in a War Vote when the Mob has been handed a hammer a month away?  In the House, 95% of the NAY votes for war came from Democrats, and in the Senate it was 91%.  And the Party clearly paid greatly a month later for those votes of conscience.

    200,000+ people, including 4,000+ American soldiers, died, in part, as an Afterthought to a War Vote scheduled primarily over its political consequences.  And the American media had Nothing to say about this.  It has always seemed to a particular kind of crime to have done this to our soldiers, and the Iraqi people, and for the media to treat it with no light whatsoever.  They are complicit in a crime.

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  2. I have no idea what has happened here...

    First we went non-science AGW issues, now we have left AGW completely...

    Should  we expect sports chat soon?

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Put a lid on it!

  3. The science is in.  Now, we need to change public opinion.  As an artist whose anti-war play "Prophecy" was censored in the NY Times, though loved by audiences, my experience with producing a play about Climate Change scientists and their struggle, "Extreme Whether" is similar.  We need stories that tell the truth.

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  4. Yube, this is the purpose of the site, to better inform the public. What can be more central than media coverage?

    However, I doubt the media can do better. 1) it is an entertainment source.  2) its a source for soothing, as much or more than informing. 3) There is no solutions offered but only presentation of the problem.

    What we need to develop are valid solutions, then the public will want to hear it. And, then that section of the media will look at the real problem. A certain part of the public needs to be deceived, the media simply provides.

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  5. In the US, our advertiser supported media is wildly successful at delivering commericial messages.   The purpose of any news segment is to attract and build more of an audience for advertisers.   They have no obligation to serve the welfare of viewers.

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  6. All: The OP was posted at the request of John Cook, the founder and owner of SkS. If you object to its posting, you are free to do so. Temper tantrums will not, however, be tolerated.

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  7. I think the analogy that is the topic of this OP does hold up. In both cases, the mainsteam media's coverage misinformed opinion.  It's been well documented how the need for invasion was marketed and its probable costs downplayed during the fake "emergency" sold by the Bush Administration.

    I think what is maybe confusing about the analogy is that while the media's coverage of both WMD and AGW resulted (is resulting in the case of AGW) in many more people believing untruths, one was a case where action was being justified and one is a case where inaction is being justified.

    I think the analogy will hold up in this way too: after it becomes widely apparent that there was a failure to portray the AGW situation in a way that accurately reflects honest/ dilegent reporting of what is actually known vs unknown, it would be as hard to find people defending their staunch assertions that AGW is harmless as it is to find those willing to admit the degree of their support for the Iraq war today.  Many of those supporting inaction may die before it is so blatantly obvious that they were mistaken, but if some of them are still around in decades to come they could rightfully put much blame on the media.

    On Iraq, I though Frank Rich's book "the Greatest Story Ever Sold" was very good.  It has timeline of what those in the know actually thought vs what the Bush Admin spun, with a largely malable or complicit media to help.  It's pretty shocking to see the the filtering of information that occurred and the focus on "evidence" that painted the picture of a potential mushroom cloud.  Rich even gets into the fake expert reports used in the runup to the invsion. A similar timeline will be able to be made for the disinformers on AGW of today vs what is actually known.


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  8. Funglestrumpet: Your post was deleted because it was off-topic. 

    The topic of the OP is a comparison of the media coverage of the Iraq war to its coverage of climate change. 

    Conspiracy theories about the Sept 11 attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York are not on topic.

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  9. keitho: All of your posts have been deleted because they were nothing more than argumentative sloganeering and generally off-topic. All response to your comments were also deleted.

    Please read the SkS Comments Policy and adhere to it.  If you do not, you will forfeit your privilege to post comments.

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  10. Nigelj, One Planet Only Forever, Philippe Chantreau, and Rob Painting:

    Thank you all for taking the time to post thoughtful responses to keitho's diatribes.

    I aplogoize for not getting on top ofthis situation earlier thatn I did, but I was focused on producing the Weekly Digest,

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  11. Good analogy, but it doesn't support your position. Both WMD and CAGW were presented to the UN (remember Colin Powell presentation on WMD and the IPCC on CAGW) as irrefutable facts, governments around the world accepted the propositions on face value.  There were skeptics on both presentations who questioned the lack of evidence they were howled down.  The results lives and billions wasted.

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  12. Warren Hindmarsh @11, WMD in Iraq were presented to the UN by the UN agency (ie, the IAEA), as possibly existing in Iraq, but that there was no confirmation either that they existed or had been destroyed.  Further, it was presented by the IAEA that Iraq was in fact cooperating with inspections.  Those views were in fact correct.

    That you, instead of drawing the analogy to Hans Blix's statements, draw it to that of a politically motivated actor shows your analogy to be deceptive rather than informative.  If you want to draw the analogy, draw it between like and like (IAEA and IPCC).  Of course, if you do, the lesson from the analogy would be that the IPCC reports are fair minded, and as reliable as is permited given the evidence, while clearly drawing attention to where the evidence is insufficient to support conclusions, or make the conclusions tentative.

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  13. The spin-meisters in the Bush-Cheney Administration purposely embedded the media into the shock and awe invasion of Iraq. That mechanism succesfully co-opted the U.S. media. There is no parallel mechanism in place when it comes to communicating the science  of climate change.

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  14. I agree with the article, the media were unquestioning over the rather weak claims about weapons of mass destruction. The media  seem to let many ridiculous sceptical claims on climate science go unanswered (apart from the work of this site). Whether this is journalistic ignorance on the science, or bias its hard to tell and is possibly both.

    However theres no point wringing your hands, only the mainstream climate science community can move to better engage with the media, and ensure its case is put fairly, and that sceptical claims are properly scrutinised.

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  15. I have used the Iraq war to illustrate to conservatives (Liberals here in Australia) how hypocritical their views on climate change action are.

    The reasoning of Bush, Blair and Howard used to justify the Iraq war was essentially this:

    We think that there is a very high probability that Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction.  If this is true then the consequences of allowing this to continue will be very severe.  Therefore we cannot wait for absolute certainty, we must act now.

    That was a logically consistent argument and the decision to invade Iraq was justified if (and its a very big IF)  Saddam did posses WMD.

    Now, if only the conservatives would apply the same logic to Global Warming but instead they refuse to acknowledge the consequences and demand that we wait for absolute certainty.

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  16. John Hartz @ 8

    The point that I was making, with proof of same, was that not all conspiracy theories are false and this site, in saying that climate deniers are likely to be conspiracy theorists supports the media's meme that they are.

    It is no good complaining about media manipulation of the public's opinion on climate change while supporting their manipulation of the public's opinion on other matters.

    Important as it surely is, climate change is not the only game in town. If sks wants to have an effect on the media, it needs to support others who also wish to have the same effect on the same media.

    How that was off topic is a mystery to me. (I note that later posts have disappeared into w.m.d. and wars fought over them.)

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] I apparently misread your initial post. My apologies for deleting it.

  17. Iraqi per capita GDP has so far failed to return to prewar levels,

    This claim is not accurate.  Iraqi per capita GDP in 2001 was $772, it was $6455 in 2012.  That is nearly a ten fold increase in Iraqi per capita GDP.  

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Please specify the source of your data.

  18. JH, Smith's numbers line up with the chart and 'knowledge graph' produced when Googling "Iraq GDP". Google cites the World Bank as their source. The link in the article above also goes to World Bank data on Iraq, and shows the same $210.3 billion figure for 2012 as Google has, but not the history. I found the history at this page, and it too matches Google once you click through the different time periods.

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  19. Please specify the source of your data.

    The acronym "GDP" was hyperlinked to the World Bank, which is the same source hyperlinked as the citation for the claim that "Iraqi per capita GDP has so far failed to return to prewar levels".

    Iraqi GDP per capita pre-war (2001) was $772 USD

    Iraqi GDP per capita pre-war (2001) was $6455 USD

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Thank you. I obviously did not see that "GDP" had a link embedded in it. I cannot help but wonder, however, how the thousands of Iragi refugees residing in other Mideast countries are accounted for in the World Bank's computations.  

  20. Sorry the last point in my post No. 19 should read;

    Iraqi GDP per capita currently (2012) was $6455 USD.  

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  21. JH inline @17:

    Iraq GDP per capita (PPP), 1999-2011.

    Also, Iraq's "Economy grows but how many benefit?"

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  22. I cannot help but wonder, however, how the thousands of Iragi refugees residing in other Mideast countries are accounted for in the World Bank's computations.

    I do not know, but per capita GDP was the metric chosen by the author and the World Bank was their chosen source for the data.  The claim is not accurate and should be corrected, particularly in the context of an article discussing media reporting accuracy.  

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] This matter certainly bears further review by the author of the OP -- especially since the link embedded in the statement you have called into question is also to the World Bank data base. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  23. John Hartz @19 inline, Iraq has a population of around 31 million, and around 1 million regugees external to the borders (ie, excluding IDP and returned refugees).  That means including them in the per capita population would reduce per capita GDP by at most 3.25%, a minimal impact relative to the PPP per capita GDP growth of just over 100% since 2003.  Given the removal of sanctions, it would be extraordinary of Iraq's economy had not improved.

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  24. @Tom Curtis #23: Sadam Huessein and his henchmen accumulated much personal wealth through illegal means (e.g. selling petroleum on the black market) during their reign. Is this taken into account in the World Bank's computation of Iraq's GDP  during this time period?  

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  25. John Hartz @24, I doubt it, although I do not know.  Including it, however, would not substantially alter the reported GDP in that, first, it was a small percentage of the oil now being sold; second, much of the illegal funds was obtained by diverting money from the oil for food program, which was accounted for; and third, because it was diverted to private holdings, it would not have had the multiplier effect within the economy that normal trade generates.  Indeed, for illegal profits to have made up the difference in the GDP, they would have to be in order of $US 170 billion.  That is at least an order of magnitude greater than estimates of Saddam's black market oil sales prior to the 2nd US/Iraqi war.    Consequently, while we cannot be certain that the Iraqi PPP per capita GDP is over 100% greater than that prior to the second US/Iraq War, there is little doubt that it is much larger than before the war. 

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  26. Smith @22. Big deal. Is GDP a good measure of progress?
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  27. Here is a poll demonstrating the public's sheer ignorance of the facts regarding the Iraq war. On issues that challenge Power (war, climate change, alternative economic systems), educating the public on the truth is persona no grata for the 4th Estate for the Propaganda Model. Only about 6% of the UK public is aware of the Iraq death toll's order of magnitude.
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