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PBS False Balance Hour - What's Up With That?

Posted on 20 September 2012 by dana1981

We have previously criticized the mainstream media for favoring false balance over factually accurate scientific reporting when it comes to climate change.  In one of the worst examples of this unfortunate and counter-productive practice, the US Public Boadcasting Service (PBS), which is funded by both taxpayers and private donations, (for example, from the Koch brothers) aired a climate story on the PBS News Hour which began by featuring the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project's Richard Muller, "balanced" with a subsequent interview of contrarian blogger Anthony Watts.

Ultimately, Watts' comments suffered from a double standard, dismissing Muller's comments as not yet being supported by peer-reviewed research, but offering his own opinions despite the fact that they were not only unsupported, but even contradicted by Watts' own peer-reviewed research.

Surface Temperature Record Accuracy

When asked to describe his 'skepticism' about human-caused global warming, Watts went into a long discussion about his concerns that encroachment of human development near surface temperature stations has introduced a bias into the temperature record.  However, what Watts failed to mention is that the scientific groups who compile the surface temperature record put a great deal of effort into filtering out these sorts of biases

Watts also failed to mention that there have been many peer-reviewed scientific studies investigating whether these efforts have been successful, and they have almost universally concluded that those extraneous influences on the temperature record have been removed.  For example, Fall et al. (2011) concluded that for all temperature stations classifications with regards to the influence of urban influences, the long-term average global warming trend is the same.

"The lack of a substantial average temperature difference across classes, once the geographical distribution of stations is taken into account, is also consistent with the lack of significant trend differences in average temperatures....average temperature trends were statistically indistinguishable across classes."

The second author on Fall et al. is a fellow who goes by the name of Anthony Watts.

There are also of course many 'natural thermometers' confirming the warming of the globe - rapidly rising seas, melting sea ice, melting land ice, etc. (Figure 1).

warming indicators

Figure 1: Natural thermometers indicating a warming world.

Peer-Review Irony

When asked about the research of Muller and the BEST team, which has also confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record, Watts provided a very ironic response.

"Unfortunately he has not succeeded in terms of how science views, you know, a successful inquiry. His papers have not passed peer review."

Anthony Watts himself has co-authored two peer-reviewed scientific papers, one of which was the aforementioned Fall et al., which confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record with respect to the average global surface warming. 

On his blog, Watts has attempted to defend his claims on PBS news hour by referencing a preliminary, unsubmitted, unpublished paper he has drafted  which purports to identify problems in the temperature record.  However, that preliminary paper contains numerous fundamental flaws which entirely negate its conclusions, and since it has not passed peer-review, according to Watts' own comments it is not "a successful inquiry."

So we have Watts dismissing Muller's comments because his research has not passed peer-review, and yet Watts' own comments contradict the results of his own peer-reviewed paper.

Global Warming Attributed to Humans

After agreeing that global warming exists, Watts shifted over to the myth "it's not us."

"...the ability to attribute the percentage of global warming to CO2 versus other man-made influences is still an open question."

This comment simply illustrates a lack of awareness of the body of peer-reviewed climate science literature.  A number of studies using a variety of different statistical and physical approaches have investigated how much various factors have contributed to global warming.  These studies have universally concluded that humans are responsible for close to 100% of the observed global surface warming over the past half century (Figure 2).

HvA 50 years

Figure 2: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

There is a fairly large degree of uncertainty in these figures, primarily because the magnitude of the cooling effect from human aerosol emissions is not well known.  However, the amount of warming caused by human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is known to a high degree of certainty, and these same studies have all found that GHGs are responsible for over 100% of the observed warming over this timeframe (Figure 3).

50-65 years

Figure 3: Percent contributions of various effects to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

Political Tools

In claiming that climate science has become too politicized, Watts claimed

"some of the scientists who are the leaders in the issue have become for lack of a better word, political tools on the issue."

It is unclear to whom Watts refers here, since the few contrarian climate scientists like John Christy and Richard Lindzen have been trotted out before US Congress virtually every time a congressional committee has held a climate hearing.  It seems unlikely that Watts would refer to his fellow climate contrarians in such unflattering terms, but they do seem to best fit his description as "political tools."

Watts on His Motives and Double Standards

At Skeptical Science it is against our site policy to speculate about a person's motives, but in this case, Watts volunteered the information.

SPENCER MICHELS: What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?

ANTHONY WATTS: They want to change policy. They want to apply taxes and these kinds of things may not be the actual solution for making a change to our society.

It is interesting that Watts responds to a question about a science-based opinion with a criticism about policy.  For example, Watts is not most bothered that people are ignoring or unaware of the biases that he incorrectly believes exist in the temperature record.  No, Watts is most bothered that we might implement an economically-beneficial carbon tax.

In another related piece of irony, Watts criticizes his opponents for using "scare tactics" and then claiming that if they get their way, it will mean economic catastrophe.

"Some people don't respond well to scare tactics and there have been some scare tactics used by some of the proponents on the other side of the issue....We can't just rip all that up or change it in the space off five, 10 or 15 years because it'll be catastrophic to our economy."

Watts Fails Risk Management 101

At the interview, Watts illustrates that he understands neither pragmatism nor risk management.

"I would call myself a pragmatic skeptic...I think that some of the issues have been oversold, may have been oversold, because they allow for more regulation to take place."

Pragmatism involves taking a practical approach to problem solving.  In terms of climate change, there is no more practical approach than implementing a carbon pricing system so that the costs of climate change are reflected in the price of the products which cause them.  Without knowing the climate costs of the products on the market, consumers cannot take those costs into account when making purchasing decisions.  Yet this pragmatic approach is exactly the one which Anthony Watts most fears.

There are also two key words in the quote above - "I think."  We know that Anthony Watts personally believes that the consequences of climate change will not be very bad.  However, Watts' opinion is contradicted by the body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.  There is a very slim possibility that Watts and his fellow contrarians are right and the consequences of climate change will be manageable.  However, when faced with the mere possibility of a catastrophic scenario, the proper risk management approach is to take steps to prevent that scenario from happening.  In our case, catastrophe is not just possible, it is the most likely outcome if we continue in a business as usual scenario.  It is in no way pragmatic to continue along this path.

Peer Review and False Media Balance

Ultimately Anthony Watts was correct to note that peer review is an important step in ensuring the accuracy of a scientific paper.  It is fair to criticize Muller for publicizing the BEST team results prior to their acceptance in a peer reviewed journal.

However, if we apply that same standard to Anthony Watts, his sole scientific argument against human-caused global warming falls apart.  Not only has the accuracy of the surface temperature record been confirmed by BEST and Watts' own Fall et al. (2011), but also by a number of other peer-reviewed papers such as Peterson et al. (2003) and Menne et al. (2010).  If Watts believes these studies are flawed, he should attempt to demonstrate it in a peer-reviewed paper.  Until he has accomplished this, by his own standards his argument is invalid.

It is also very concerning that PBS interviewed Watts to begin with.  Watts only has one two peer-reviewed studies to his name, and they were not even mentioned in the interview.  In fact, hiw own peer-reviewed research contradicts the main argument Watts made in the interview.  The PBS interviewer also failed to challenge Watts' many incorrect and hypocritical statements, instead tossing him one softball question after another. 

Apparently Watts was recommended for the interview by the Heartland Institute.  PBS should obviously not be contacting a fossil fuel-funded global warming denying anti-science think tank which has previously compared climate realists to mass murderers for interview suggestions on a climate story.  This also isn't the first time that PBS News Hour has consulted with the Heartland Institute to provide false balance for a climate story.

PBS has responded to criticisms of their News Hour piece here and here, essentially by saying that they have also interviewed climate scientists and done accurate reporting on climate change.  While we applaud their more accurate and informative climate stories, it does not excuse the Heartland-consulted false balance in this particular piece.  In fact, Michels admitted that he interviewed Watts to "hear more about the skeptical perspective," which is the very definition of false balance - presenting "the other side" for the sake of presenting it, regardless of its factual accuracy.

We do appreciate that Spencer Michels referenced Skeptical Science in his follow-up post and provided an explanation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding how we know the temperature record is accurate (which referenced Menne et al. and Fall et al., as we did in the above post).  In fact, this would have been useful information to include in the original PBS News Hour piece - perhaps an interview with NOAA scientists instead of a blogger.  Instead, PBS sacrificed factually accurate scientific reporting for the sake of creating a false perception of balance.

Further Reading:

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Comments 151 to 180 out of 180:

  1. fretslider - consider for moment that it is proved that there is too many errors in the surface temperature record for it to be a reliable indicator of climate. Now how do you explain away the same signal, same trend in satellite MSU readings ( UAH, RSS). How about global glacial mass loss, or OHC? It is the consilience of independent measures that gives strength to the science (and confidence that the surface temperature record is useful).
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  2. fretslider @ 145: Don't you worry, I read the journals. I'm well aware of what is out there. Oh, I haven't been moderated in quite a while. Perhaps this one will be the one that gets me in trouble. If so, I'll understand why. Not supposed to post links without explaining why. (-snip-).
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    Moderator Response: [DB] You surmise correctly; inflammatory snipped.
  3. Please note that discussion of moderation detracts from the OP of this thread. Further comments about moderation will be deleted, as will comments pertaining to Antarctic sea ice.
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  4. Jeff Masters Wunderblog for September 20 has an excellent discussion of Antarctic/Arctic temperatures and sea ice.
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  5. Between the (IMO highly disingenuous) potshots at NOAA, the tiresome reference to Galileo, and rhetoric such as:
    Have you forgotten the most basic principle of science, falsifying the null hypothesis.
    I must say fretslider appears to be trying to frame the discussion on this thread in a manner better suited to climate pseudoskepticism, a framing which I for one categorically reject. The attempt to sidestep the massive body of physics, paleoclimate reconstruction, empirical observation, and experimental support undergirding the mainstream understanding of Earth climate (and supporting the consensus position on climate change) with reference to poorly-defined (at the immediate point of use), much-abused concepts from the philosophy or practice of science (as a process) is a behaviour which I personally find infuriating (as compared to conspiracy-mongering, which is amusing). It is IMO exactly this sort of behaviour that fretslider is engaging in with this sort of nonsense (which also IMO happens to be a personal attack - by oh-so-careful insinuation - against DSL, at least if DSL is a practicing scientist). Bluntly put, the four pillars supporting consensus climate science - theory, paleoclimate, experiment, observations - are of such size and robustness that they handily falsify any would-be "null hypothesis" which attempts to eliminate or minimize the human element in the modern climate change we find ourselves in - a change, I might add, which is occuring at breack-neck pace (however slowly it might be perceived). Many self-styled skeptics have been asked to pony up the evidence to support their positions and have fallen short (or fallen silent). So I appeal to fretslider to dispense with the snide innuendo and empty philosophy and get down to providing evidence.
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  6. What null hypothesis, fretslider? Can you provide one so that we may continue this discussion in more concrete detail? Take the veil off your comments if you're interested in progress. Get down to brass tacks.
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  7. @Moderator: Given that Dale characterized all SkS suthors as "dolts" in February on WUWT and has not subsequently aplogized to us for doing so, can he banned from further posting on SkS?
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  8. Dale at #13:
    I will admit though, that I found it quite amusing how Jo Nova reported it. "Record minimum Great Southern Ocean extent". You have to admit, that's 'headline brilliance'. Hehehe.
    It's merely eflected brilliance. Codling is slavishly emulating the prior work of real, actual, genuine brilliance.
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  9. John @157 (and DB): Just want to point out, I said "last couple of months". February is not, the "last couple of months". In fact, it's 7 months ago. Also, I will refer people to a recent SkS thread where I admitted my previous prose was not constructive and that I recognised that and wanted to attempt to change. I believe in the "last couple of months" my change of prose has been much more civil.
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    Moderator Response: [JH] Thanks for the clarification. I will consider the above comment to be an apology. Other SkS authors may or may not consider it to be such.
  10. Hey, it's possible to improve. I was chastised and edited several times at RealClimate in times gone by; some of the stuff I wrote there I now feel a bit squeamish over. Takes years to get over bad habits. I still fall off the wagon now and again.
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  11. I don't have anything to add regarding the thorough treatment of misreporting of the NewsHour on climate change, but it should be remarked that its general reputation for fairness, intrepid investigativeness, and veracity should be challenged:
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  12. Bernard J@158: that was a *hoot!* Good way to start off my science-y day...tanks! Dale@159: I will accept your apology, such as it was, as an honest effort to mend the error of your previously *doltish* ways..which leads me to... doug_bostrom@160: Indeed, let s/he who is w/o sin, cast the first prosaical stone. I too, occasionally 'fall off the wagon' of polite discourse and revert to Advanced Trolliana. Dale, you seem to have at least begun to listen to, and analyze, the real conclusions and findings of the past 50+ years of climate research. I hope that you continue to add *positively* to the discussion, and perhaps your postings on WUWT will be eventually moderated there, due to your coming over to the Light Side..;) If you've not already done so, I *highly* recommend Spencer Weart's book, "The Discovery Of Global Warming." truly a seminal work in the lexicon of those who want to learn of the history.
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  13. Good point from Vroomie on Spencer Weart's book. It's available free, online, from the American Institute of Physics website: The Discovery of Global Warming
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  14. doug_bostrom@163: One knows that one has been away from one's Favorites list a while (or one simply doesn't pay too good attention to it), when one sees a link like yours above (*squirrel!!!*), excitedly adds it to one's favorite's list... ..and gets a pop-up saying "It's already here, dumkopf!" Thanks for posting that link. Again. Squirrel......!
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  15. Weart's often the first and best answer to many questions. :-)
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  16. Intriguing detail. Bud Ward of the Yale Climate Media Forum wonders why regular News Hour science correspondents didn't handle the Watts segment:
    Why not use veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who NewsHour brought in to cover complex science issues after he and the science staff had been let go by CNN? Climate change is an issue on which O’Brien has done substantial earlier coverage, and it’s a subject he says he is eager to continue reporting on. There’s an answer to that question, actually. O’Brien said in a phone interview that he is a freelancer with a contract to do 15 science stories a year for NewsHour … specifically excluding climate science.
    From this article: A PBS ‘NewsHour’ Blog Post and Broadcast Provoke Viewers’ Ire That suggests News Hour has cast climate science completely into the political affairs bucket, a sad mistake because dragging politics into science promotes exactly the sort of cloudy thinking we saw from Watts. Was the segment about politics, or climate science? Impossible to tell.
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  17. Yes that explains why the segment was more about 'why are you a skeptic?' than 'what do you think is wrong with the science?'. It's rather absurd that PBS excludes their science correspondent from climate science stories.
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  18. The PBS Ombudsman has responded.
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  19. Yes, responded with more false balance in the comments section. Sheesh! I think it is extraordinarily difficult to break this journalistic "conditioning" of false balance. But we must try anyway.
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  20. The journalist conditioning to which Rob painting so validly refers is partly a response to the fact that controversy sells. If there was a widespread and organised campaign to tell PBS that they have permanently turned audience members away, especially if such a campaign accumulates Facebook, Twitter, or other counts, PBS might start wondering whether they're losing more than they're gaining. Controversy sells, but when more customers are lost than gained because they want to buy the truth rather than fallacious propaganda, it might not be worth selling that controversy...
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  21. Yes - obviously difficult because the mainstream audience must be given some serious contextualization in order to be even close to a position to start sorting bad eggs from good eggs. It's like being James Bond as the timer on the bomb ticks down, and in order to understand how to defuse it, one either guesses which wire to cut based on which looks prettier or which color has traditionally meant X (red bad! cut it!), or one uses the last few minutes to read the 3700-page manual (and an additional 84 supplements and updates). Watts offers a glossy pamphlet with the title "Don't worry about it. It's not even a bomb." Boom.
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  22. "The journalist conditioning to which Rob painting so validly refers is partly a response to the fact that controversy sells." Bernard J, it was *ALL* predicted, uncannily, or at least summed up nicely, here. This tendency has been going on, since time immemorial, and how to combat it, I'm clueless. However, as said above, we *must* try.
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  23. I still hope that those guys at PBS will reconsider and issue some sequel of even an appology, if presented with the evidence of their bad journalism. Their programs were such an educational inspiration for me when I was living in US and learning English (my fourth language), i.e. from WTTW "Window To The World" station in Chicago, IL... Now, I realise Hartland is also located in Chicago, and that Heartland has reccomended Watts as "a balance in this debate". I feel so shamefully disappointed... Is it just one freaky mishap, or is the quality of PBS going bankrupt?
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  24. Thank you for that informative article Dana. Thought I should let you know I couldn't resist reposting at my little blogspot. What's Up With That Watts.blogspot Keep up the great work !
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  25. Actually, given that the standard line is that 98% of the scientific community is in agreement, PBS should have given Muller 49 minutes and Watts one.
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  26. Great post. I actually read the WTFUWT response first, so it was rather delightful to come here and read a nice balanced explanation of what Watts was so upset about.
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  27. Link in citizenschallenge comment @174 is broken (four "/" characters after http: instead of two).
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  28. Great article! Well done. Where would I find an "entry point" to this article from the home page. I stumbled on it via an "author search" for Dana. I'm obviously new to SkS, still learning the ropes.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] This page offers a sequential list of every post ever made at Skeptical Science.
  29. Thanks Tom. The newest blog posts are listed in the left hand margin of the page, below the list of most popular myths. Otherwise you have to know what you're looking for and use the search bar towards the upper left (i.e. search for "PBS").
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  30. I suspect that fear of being seen as politically partizan on the subject of AGW may be a big factor. An article in today's Sydney Morning Herald spoke of 50.7 percent of coral on the Great Barrier Reef being lost over the past 27 years, according to a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The article mentioned the causes being fertilizer and pesticde runoff as well as the crown of thorns starfish. No mention is made of climate change. Out of curiosity I went to the AIMS website and read what they had to say. According to AIMS there were three causes and not just two. As well as agricultural runoff and crown of thorns starfish was coral bleaching. The article cites AGW as the primary cause of the bleaching due to rising water temperature. It would seem that even when reporting directly from scientific sources some media will simply omit any mention of AGW.
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