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Climate Hustle

New study finds fringe global warming contrarians get disproportionate media attention

Posted on 12 August 2014 by dana1981

A new study led by Bart Verheggen surveyed 1,868 scientists studying various aspects of climate change, asking them several questions mainly focused on what’s causing global warming. They survey also asked the respondents,

How frequently have you featured in the media regarding your views on climate change?

The answers to this question reflect whether the media is really fair and balanced on the subject of global warming. A truly balanced media would give equally proportional attention and coverage to climate scientists in the mainstream and on the fringes. For example, if 20% of contrarian climate scientists reported frequent media attention, a fair and balanced media would also give frequent coverage to 20% of mainstream climate scientists.

Instead, fringe contrarian climate scientists reported that they receive frequent media coverage twice as often as mainstream climate scientists.

Self-reported frequency of media coverage for respondents in different categories, segregated by their answer regarding the qualitative contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. Self-reported frequency of media coverage for respondents in different categories, segregated by their answer regarding the qualitative contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. Source: Environmental Science & Technology (Verheggen et al. 2014)

Specifically, 30% of those few who said that greenhouse gases have caused an insignificant amount of global warming (or even cooling) reported frequent media coverage, compared to just 15% of climate scientists who said greenhouse gases have caused strong global warming.

This disproportionate media coverage of fringe climate contrarians is a problem known as “false balance,” and has plagued not only politically conservative media outlets, but also purportedly neutral news organizations like the BBC. It stems from journalists believing it’s “balanced” to give “both sides” of every issue equal coverage, even if one of those sides represents the views of a small fringe of qualified experts.

The practice is no different than giving equal time to evolutionary biologists and Creationists, or to medical doctors and those who claim smoking doesn’t cause cancer. This new study confirms that according to the scientists themselves, fringe climate contrarians who hold views well outside the mainstream are receiving disproportionate media coverage.

The survey also asked participants,

What fraction of global warming since the mid-20th century can be attributed to human-induced increases in atmospheric GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations?

Among those who answered numerically and reported having published more than 10 peer-reviewed climate-related studies, 90% said that human greenhouse gas emissions have caused more than 50% of global warming since the 1950s. 70% said human greenhouse gases are responsible for more than 75% of that global warming, and 30% said they’re responsible for more than 100%.

The reason greenhouse gases can be (and probably are) responsible for more than 100% of the observed warming is that other factors (mainly human aerosol pollution) have caused cooling at the same time. For example, if greenhouse gases had caused 1°C of warming, aerosol pollution and other factors had caused 0.5°C cooling at the same time, there would be 0.5°C net warming with greenhouse gases responsible for 200% of it. Most papers studying this question have put the greenhouse gas contribution to global warming since mid-century at 120–200%.

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). 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).

The 90% consensus in this survey that human greenhouse gas emissions are the main contributor to the current global warming is somewhat of an underestimate. The authors of the study report,

...invitees tagged as ‘unconvinced’ (3% of invitees against 5% of respondents) ... were slightly overrepresented among the respondents

The authors also found evidence that some contrarians had inflated their number of self-reported peer-reviewed climate-related papers. However, they didn’t quantify this effect, so all we can say is that the expert consensus that humans are the main contributor to global warming is somewhere north of 90%.

This result is broadly consistent with the survey performed by Doran & Zimmerman in 2009, which found that 97% of climate scientists agreed that humans are causing significant global warming. However, the Verheggen survey included much more specific questions, for example asking climate scientists to quantify the human contribution, and had a much larger sample size of climate experts. The result is also similar to the 97% consensus found in surveys of climate experts’ public statements and peer-reviewed research.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 8:

  1. An interesting thought about how this could potentially play out. Given a large pool of climate scientists for the "97%" side, the media could easily pick a different expert for each story - especially if they try to pick an expert with particular knowledge, eg., hurricanes, or the arctic, or El NIno.

    On the other hand, the "3%" side has a few go-to contrarians, who get called upon frequently, whether the sotry is in their area of "expertise" or not.

    In the public's eye, the "97%" story is seen as a different face each time, and the "3%" story is represented by an increasingly familiar face. Some people might start to think that the person they see time after time is the "real" expert, and all the others are just drive-by wannabes. After all, why would the media keep going to the same person if they aren't the best? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question. The answer is "false balance".)

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  2. Bob, interestingly the right-wing media have a tendency to call in the same scientist all the time, so perfectly ridiculed by John Oliver - Bill Nye vs some climate sceptic. For the viewers it portrays the climate debate as one single guy against many others who are "skeptical".

    A tactic that climate scientists could use is to form a PR agency where they will provide the media with an expert best equipped to answer the question in discussion, and by this also give a more correct view of the overwhelming amount of scientists that say AGW is real and a present danger. Even the left-leaning media outlets would benefit from this as they also have a tendency to air the same handful of scientists. In some panels it would be wise to have more than one scientist too, so people can see how they agree about AGW too although through studying different fields.

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  3. Mass media news has to know that it is playing a risky game of gambling with public trust.   Once audiences discover that their news sources are misperceiving or misleading, then viewers will seek trusted information elsewhere.   Specialized web sites, apps, and online videos are vastly superior to TV or newspapers,,,and it suggests the rise of targeted subject matter news - like business reports shows.   We are ready for a half hour daily global warming show.  (straightforward to gather up an hours worth of climate news per day)    The audience is there, waiting for it, ill served by mass media.  Weather calamities will trigger the cognitive dissonence that might push the change.   Mass media news that provides 2 minutes of pictures and grieving victims will be left to compete amongst themselves.

    In a recent lecture Prof Kerry Emanuel of MIT mentioned the problem that media faces in business practices that drive it to false debating    An excellent lecture. 

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  4. Johncl:

    An interesting alternative hypothesis.  I don't watch much of the US right-wing news networks - usually just the clips I see on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. There, the number of times I see the same faces pop up on the contrarian side (e.g. Anthony Watts - an "expert" by nobody's definition), my impression was that certain people are way over-represented.

    I think this falls in the "for future research" category!

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  5. r.pauli:

    For an interesting take on just how much deception some people can put up with and still trust an authority figure, you might want to try reading The Authoritarians.

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  6. The SkS article says, " A truly balanced media would give equally proportional attention and coverage to climate scientists in the mainstream and on the fringes."

    I have to disagree: that would not be 'balance', that would be simply another kind of the "false equivalency" the Press is already too much in love with. The right amount of attention to pay to the fringe is zero.

    We don't talk about Lorentz's attempts at a theory of relativity anymore in the mass media when scientific topics reach relativity, we discuss Einstein's, as the sole plausible contender.

    Likewise for climate science: the alternatives to the AGW hypothesis are all no longer contenders, only real science should be covered.

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  7. Truly balanced government spending would mean equal funds to climate scientists based on their scientific work, not on their personal believe.

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  8. Call me cynical, but I don't think the media outlets seek any sort of balance; they simply seek to sell advertisements while telling their stories.  Controversy makes for more interesting stories; so, they seek controversy.

    If they simply tell people there is no real controversy, these are the facts, then they loose market share to the agencies telling a more interesting story.

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