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Global Warming: Media Bias and the Misinformation Pipeline

Thu ,18/08/2011


The Scientific Consensus: All the major scientific organizations in the world have endorsed a  statement similar to that of the American Chemical Society:

”Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles. There is very little room for doubt that observed climate trends are due to human activities. The threats are serious and action is urgently needed to mitigate the risks of climate change.” 

  This urgent message continues to be mainly ignored by the public and our politicians. This seems strange as scientist’s trustworthiness is  highly rated  by the public, with 84% having a favorable view of scientists .  In spite of the scientist’s warning, a  Gallup poll found American’ s concern about global warming has fallen from just three years ago, when 66%  said they were worried about the problem, to only 51% today   A recent CNN  poll  found that 97% of scientists who are actively engaged in research in climate science agree that global warming is occurring and the primary cause is man’s activities. There is clearly a scientific consensus on the matter, but the public seems confused on the issue. That is because the 3% of the climate scientists who do not agree with the scientific consensus receive an inordinately large amount of publicity.

The Misinformation Pipeline: While skepticism based upon reason makes science stronger, many of the skeptics do not have that as a goal.  Many skeptics publish their articles in rather obscure journals where they are not peer-reviewed by competent climate scientists.  Occasionally, one of the skeptics has a paper published in a major journal, and though some of these make major contributions, many of them are later found to contain incorrect assumptions and errors. The errors are usually pointed out in letters and articles in the journals, and should require retraction or correction, but some of the skeptics have refused to do so, and instead launch attacks upon their critics. While other climate scientists are well aware of the errors, the general public is not, and they often remember the controversy  as evidence that ” the science is not settled”. These controversies, and erroneous results, are often delivered to the public through a well-funded misinformation pipeline. The pipeline carries the misinformation from the uncorrected or obscure journals articles to blog sites, through biased institutes and think tanks, and often into respectable newspapers and magazines. Spin is added along the way and the headlines are made more and more sensational as the information moves along the pipeline. What comes out of the pipeline often bears little resemblance even to the original article, but that matters little as the purpose of the pipeline is to spread doubt.

Speed is of the essence as it is important to get the message “out there” before it can be debunked. Because, once “out there”, it is  difficult to correct it in the minds of the public. One good example of this is the controversy that arose over an article by Steig, et. al. which had been featured on the cover of Nature. Steig found that over the last fifty years, the Antarctic had been getting warmer by 0.1 C per decade. A year later, an article with the headline “O’Donnell et al 2010 Refutes Steig et al 2009″ appeared on many news and blog sites. However, O’Donnell’s paper was nowhere to be found. The source of the headline was traced to skeptic Steve McIntyre’s ClimateAudit website. It turned out that McIntyre was one of the authors of the paper, and he had circulated the phony headline over two weeks before O’Donnell’s paper was published. Now, that is fast. And O’Donnell’s article hardly refuted Steig’s, as he also found that Antartica was warming, but a slightly different geographical pattern.  

Tracing a Path: A more recent example was an article that appeared on MSNBC’s Newsvine blog site. The headline read:  New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism – Yahoo! News and it had the summary :

 The underlying physics does not support the James Hansen CO2 model and nor does the data. End of Story.”

That is certainly not accurate, as Hansen, the director of NASA, has published many peer-reviewed articles  based upon NASA’s data that show that CO2 is primarily responsible for global warming. It was unlikely that a single article published by climate skeptic Roy Spencer in the rather obscure journal, Remote Sensing, would blow a hole in anything. Nor was it the end of the story.  Tracing the story backwards shows how misinformation about global warming is rapidly spread through the news media. I reported this story to Newsvine as inaccurate and mis-categorized. The headline is sensationalized, and no reasonable news story would describe climate scientists as “alarmists” 15 times. However, Newsvine did not act as it was categorized as “news” by Yahoo!News. I contacted Yahoo!News and explained that it was a violation of journalistic ethics to categorize an opinion article as news. I received a reply quickly, but it mainly passed the buck to Forbes, saying:

“We are not responsible for the content contained within news articles or headlines from outside source providers. If you would like to report incorrect information provided in a news article from one of these outside source providers, please contact the publisher at www.forbes.com. “ I replied to Yahoo! News, suggesting that if someone there couldn’t make a decision about the matter, they might wish to change their name to Yahoo! News and Opinion so they would be covered in the future. I also sent a complaint to Forbes, but apparently Forbes is not very concerned as they have yet to reply. (1)

Forbes. The article in Forbes was written by James Taylor, who is listed as a fellow at the Heartland Institute. You may remember James Taylor, as he wrote a number of articles for the tobacco industry suggesting that secondhand smoke was not harmful. His article in Forbes was categorized as a news article since he claimed the information came from a “press release”. But when I clicked on the link to the “press release”, I ended up at a blog site run by Roger Pielke, a proverbial climate skeptic. There the supposed “news release” was titled: “Comments On The Paper ‘On the Misdiagnosis Of Surface Temperature Feedbacks From Variations In Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance’ By Spencer and Braswell 2011” . I suppose James Taylor considers Roger Pielke’s  comments as news, but not everyone feels that way. And, in case the reader missed the significance of  Pielke’s comments, underneath them he recommended a post on Roy Spencer’s blog site titled: ” Is Gore’s Missing Heat Really Hiding in the Deep Ocean?” Wait a minute! It was Spencer who wrote the original journal article and his blog article would indicate that Spencer might have a bias.

Spencer’s Paper: Spencer’s paper was published in a normally reputable but little-known journal, Remote Sensing . The article was listed as being peer-reviewed, but is unlikely that the article was peer-reviewed by anyone with an expertise in climate science. As soon as climate scientists had time to analyze the article, they found a number of errors. According to Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas A&M University: “He’s taken an incorrect model, he’s tweaked it to match observations, but the conclusions you get from that are not correct.” And, an analysis by climate scientists Trenberth and  Fasullo says in part:  “The model has no realistic ocean, no El Niño, and no hydrological cycle, and it was tuned to give the result it gave. The bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper.” That about sums it up. *

Timeline: The article may have had little scientific merit,  but the misinformation pipeline that delivered it was certainly efficient.  In this case, a paper titled “On the Misdiagnosis Of Surface Temperature Feedbacks From Variations In Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance“, with significant errors, was published in Remote Sensing on July 25. It appeared as a “Comments on …”  article on Roger Pielke’s blog site on July 26, then passed through the Heartland Institute where it somehow became a “press release”. Along the way, it morphed into James Taylor’s article, New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism,  which appeared July 27 in Forbes, where it was now categorized as a news article. It then appeared on  July 28 on Yahoo!News and MSNBC’s Newsvine, again mis-categorized as news, with the title New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism – Yahoo! News.  Three days after publication, an erroneous and sensationalized version was on the major news network. Since then, a number of other blog sites and news sources have picked up the sensationalized version of the article and possibly millions of people have read it. Very few of those will read the climate scientist’s opinion of the article.The article will soon sink into obscurity,  but it will have accomplished it’s purpose, which was to spread doubt about climate change. And that’s why the public is confused.

Correcting the problem: The solution is for the news media to follow journalism’s ethics and to avoid biasMedia Bias  refers to censorship or propagandism on the part of particular news sources, where content is framed in the light of a preconceived agenda, such as favoring a station’s corporate economic interests, having a political slant, or sensationalism that tends to distort news to make it a better commercial “product.” The business community considers legislation that would reduce our carbon emissions to be antibusiness(2). Many business newspapers, magazines, and journals reflect that bias and even the leaders such as Investors Business Daily, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes are often biased toward the skeptic’s position. The bias shows up in the news stories selected, opinions mis-categorized as news, selecting a disproportionate number of skeptics articles for opinion pages, and writing or allowing sensational headlines on the opinion articles. Yes, the editors have complete control over what op-ed pieces and letters are published and they often write the headlines for opinion articles. An egregious example of this is a Wall street Journal article titled “Science Has Spoken, Global Warming Is a Myth”. The article turned out to be a hoax , but it came right before the Senate was to consider the Kyoto Treaty and may have influenced the Senate to reject ratification. While the editors might not have known that the article was based on flawed science, they certainly should have realized that two biochemists, who had little experience in climate science, could not speak for all science on such an important matter. 

Journalism’s Ethics: Unethical practices by new sources is a great disservice to its readers and, in this case, to the entire world. It should certainly be expected that  journalists and news media follow the Ethical code of The Society of Professional Journalists, who believe that it is the ethical duty of the journalist to:

Seek the Truth and Report it: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Be Accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

It is a principle of professional ethics that anyone who practices the profession, whether a member of the professional organization or not, is bound by the code of ethics of the profession. In this case, the ethical code would apply to anyone who claims to reports the news, even bloggers.

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore

* Note added 9/3/2011:  In the latest issue of Remote Sensing, the editor, Dr. Wolfgang Wagner, resigned and issued a public apology for this article saying, “With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements.” “The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers.“

(1) It is a serious violation of journalism ethics to represent an opinion article such as this as a news story. Please let Yahoo know how you feel about this by reporting it as abuse at this  link >>  

 It may also be reported as an ethical violation to Forbes at readers@forbes.com .

(2) That is not really the case. The LA Times reported that a group of International investors, responsible for more than $15 trillion in assets, issued a global warming warning. (2) They called for the world’s nations, particularly the United States, to move decisively to combat climate change or face the possibility of economic disruptions even worse than the global recession of the last two years. They also pointed out that “The economic opportunities are enormous for nations with the foresight to seize them while the risks of inaction are potentially catastrophic.”

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore