The Washington Post Doubles Down on False Balance

The Washington Post Doubles Down on False Balance

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the Washington Post embraced false balance in its flawed piece on the Heartland affair.  Not only did the Post quote the head of an organization known for “spreading misinformation” and “personally attacking climate scientists to further its goals,” it also quoted the long-debunked Richard Lindzen. And it quoted a confusionist to frame the “debate” as a he-said/she-said, when it is really about climate science vs. misinformation.

Now the Post has doubled down with another dreadful piece of false balance, but attempts to rationalize it with this rewriting of history:

There is no question that climate scientists have mobilized in recent years to talk more publicly about greenhouse-gas emissions from activities such as driving and coal-fired power plants. For years there were only a handful of researchers on both sides of the debate: the late Stanford University professor Stephen Schneider and James E. Hansen, who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, spoke about the risks associated with climate change while Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, questioned the extent to which humans contributed to the problem.

Now dozens of climate scientists have taken on a more public-advocacy role, contending that mounting evidence suggests the world needs to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from the industrial and transport sectors or risk disastrous consequences.

No. For years there have been hundreds of climate scientists willing to explain climate science to the media and public and policymakers. Indeed, a 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, “Expert credibility in climate change” — coauthored by Schneider — reaffirmed the broad scientific understanding of climate change, while questioning the media’s reliance on a tiny group of less-credibile scientists for “balance.” That analysis concluded:

Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that 1) 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC [anthropogenic climate change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; and 2) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

There have never been more than a handful of climate researchers willing to spread misinformation and confusion. The status quo media simply doesn’t care if the person they’re quoting has been wrong again and again and again, has published few if any significant articles in the field in recent years, or actually continues to spread disinformation that has been long debunked in the scientific literature. But they should.

Lindzen has been debunked by leading climate scientists for years (see here and here). Yet the media still quote him as if he were a credible climate researcher. Same for Spencer (see Climate Scientists Debunk Latest Bunk by Roy Spencer and Should you believe anything Roy Spencer says).

But the Post wants to rationalize yet another piece that “balances” climate scientists with disinformers and confusionists.

It is worth pointing out that false balance isn’t just about who you quote but what you quote them saying. The new NPR ethics handbook, which I will have a post on tomorrow, spells this out:

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

This is precisely what the Washington Post article does not do. The article is full of false balance, a scale with the reporter’s thumb pressed down on the side of misinformation to give it equal weight. And so while it quotes some credible scientists, we have this nonsense:

Georgia Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist Judith Curry says human activity is contributing to climate change but it remains uncertain whether it is or will be “the dominant factor.”

She said she respected Gleick’s scientific work but worried about where his activism had taken him.

“Colleagues trying to make criminals out of themselves, and each other, is just an insane situation,” she said.

Just an insane situation. Seriously.

It is absurd to quote Curry’s crocodile tears on this subject when she spends a great deal of her time these days smearing climate scientists (see “Judith Curry abandons science“), specifically calling them “dishonest” (see here). But at least that statement is a matter of opinion.

This isn’t:

Judith Curry says human activity is contributing to climate change but it remains uncertain whether it is or will be “the dominant factor.”

Now this is the Post is letting a source mislead it and its readers. The scientific literature makes clear that It’s “Extremely Likely That at Least 74% of Observed Warming Since 1950″ Was Manmade; It’s Highly Likely All of It Was. As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has pointed out, “Over the last 40 or so years, natural drivers would have caused cooling,” so other than a small amount of internal variability, the overwhelming majority of the warming we’ve seen is from human emissions.

But does the Post point this out? No. It lets Curry’s unscientific opinion stand.

Even more absurd, is the “will be” part of the sentence. If Curry actually said it, it is the most nonsensical thing she’s ever said. In any case, it’s among the most nonsensical things the Post ever wrote on climate. The other factors — solar forcing, volcanoes, internal variability in the oceans — are either variable or random, but they aren’t going to steadily grow (unless Curry knows something that no other climate scientist knows).

The contribution of human activity is, however, just going to accumulate and grow steadily (see The Radiative Forcing of the CO2 Humans Have Put in the Air Equals 1 Million Hiroshima Bombs a Day“). Indeed, the lags in the climate system mean “We Are Just Now Experiencing the Full Effect of CO2 Emitted [by] the Late 1980s.”

So even if a scientist or journalist could possibly believe we don’t know whether humans are the dominant factor in climate change today, only an unserious scientist or uninformed journalist could possibly believe it won’t be the dominant factor in the coming decades. To present Curry’s statement with no scientific response at all is worse than false balance. It is unrebutted misinformation.

Here’s more false balance from the Post:

Several academics who question the notion that human activities are driving dangerous warming said Gleick’s actions show that climate scientists cannot be trusted. William Harper [sic], a Princeton University physics professor who is chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, wrote in an e-mail that Gleick’s actions demonstrate how radicalized several of them have become.

“Some scientists feel that any hint that something may be rotten in the state of climate is a threat that must be countered by any means possible,” wrote Harper, suggesting that many scientists can fundraise by projecting dire climate impacts.

It is of course William Happer who chairs the GMI, a leading promoter of disinformation — is there no fact-checking or googling at the Post? Happer has been widely debunked by climate scientists — see here.  Does the Washington Post rebut Happer’s false charge or point out that GMI raises money from fossil fuel companies by promising to spread misinformation? Of course not.

As Chris Mooney notes in his reply to this article, “Don’t Blame the Victims: Why Public Outreach By Climate Scientists is More Vital Than Ever,” it’s true that “climate researchers have become much more politically engaged. They’ve sought to become better at communication, and to have a greater influence on public policy. They’ve tried to establish rapid response capabilities, and also, better ways of protecting themselves from political harassment and lawsuits.” But the key point is that:

This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because there has been a long term campaign to attack and discredit climate science, and obscure what we actually know. Ultimately, researchers decided that they couldn’t just be silent as their knowledge was distorted, or as their colleagues were attacked.

So what did they do? Just what Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan would have done—and in fact, did repeatedly on the public issues of their day. They spoke out.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is essential. Scientific knowledge is a powerful thing, which is precisely why it is of vital importance that it gets communicated, accurately, in such a way as to influence public policy. If that isn’t happening, then not only is it natural for scientists to step up—they have a moral obligation to do so, and to do so effectively.

Indeed, the poor and declining media coverage of climate change has left a huge vacuum that those with scientific information have naturally tried to fill.  Mooney continues:

I say this, incidentally, because I was appalled by an article in the Washington Post today, which at least online was entitled “In climate wars, radicalization of researchers brings risks.” I know that reporters often don’t control their titles, so maybe the word “radicalization” was not Juliet Eilperin’s fault. But in the article itself, Eilperin also says that climate researchers have been “politicized,” which is also negative and judgmental, and misleading.

The thrust of the article is that the Peter Gleick-Heartland Institute affair is an indicator of growing scientist politicization around climate change. But just because one researcher (Gleick) did something that he now says  he regrets—soliciting documents under a false identity—does not mean that we get to tar climate researchers as radicals or political operatives.

Thankfully, the Post has now changed the headline to “In climate wars, advocacy by some researchers brings risks.” But the article remains chock full of false balance, a scale with the reporter’s thumb pressed down on the side of misinformation to give it equal weight.

Let me give the final word to the 2010 study co-authored by Schneider:

Preliminary reviews of scientific literature and surveys of climate scientists indicate striking agreement with the primary conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the twentieth century…

A vocal minority of researchers and other critics contest the conclusions of the mainstream scientific assessment, frequently citing large numbers of scientists whom they believe support their claims.  This group, often termed climate change skeptics, contrarians, or deniers, has received large amounts of media attention and wields significant influence in the societal debate about climate change impacts and policy….

Despite media tendencies to present ‘both sides’ in ACC debates [anthropogenic climate change], which can contribute to continued public misunderstanding regarding ACC, not all climate researchers are equal in scientific credibility and expertise in the climate system.  This extensive analysis of the mainstream versus skeptical/contrarian researchers suggests a strong role for considering expert credibility in the relative weight of and attention to these groups of researchers in future discussions in media, policy, and public forums regarding anthropogenic climate change..

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