Fox News Defends Its False Balance With Climate Science Denial

fox-news-logoYou can trust on Fox News for misrepresenting climate science or the science behind environmental issues in general. They are one of the media outlets that are burdened with most of the blame on misinforming the U.S. public on these matters. What they say almost always has no bearing whatsoever on what is in the scientific literature.

Often the misinformation they spread is in the form of what is called false balance. This is the balancing of one position with another so that they don’t seem to be biased towards one particular position. And yes this is a deliberate tactic by them to sow confusion on global warming.

Yesterday Fox news defended this false balance in a severely flawed opinion piece (archived here) that contains some good examples of the misinformation they spread. I’ll dive into the more egregious parts of this opinion piece by Marlos Lewis:

In George Orwell’s novel, “1984,” the totalitarian state (“Big Brother”) demands blind belief in falsehoods that literally stand the truth on its head: War Is Peace, Ignorance Is Strength, and Freedom Is Slavery.

If Orwell were alive and could observe today’s climate debate, he might have to add another inversion to the litany of deception: Balance Is Bias.

In a recent column in The Guardian, climate activists John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli claim that Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and other conservative media provide “false balance” by featuring climate contrarians.

By “disproportionately representing” climate skeptics in their global warming coverage, Abraham and Nuccitelli argue, conservative media foster the illusion of scientific controversy and hide from the public a near-universal scientific consensus.

This criticism is a big fat empty suit. It is Abraham and Nuccitelli who mislead the public by misrepresenting what the climate debate is about.

I find this a classic example of Lewis projecting what he does on his opponents. As the criticism from Abraham and Nuccitelli isn’t a big empty suit because the position that humans are causing global warming is supported by science organisations and national academies around the world. This endorsement is a reflection of the agreement in the scientific literature and it’s the position of the vast majority of experts (Skeptical Science has a good summary). These experts are the ones telling us that it is something we need to worry about.

There are just a few scientists that disagree with this and they so far have not succeeded in convincing other scientists. Which in itself indicates that they don’t have a case as science passes judgement on the basis of merit.

Abraham and Nuccitelli site Cook et al (2013), a study co-authored by Nuccitelli, which allegedly finds that 97% of climate scientists agree with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that most of the 0.7°C of global warming since 1951 is due to man-made greenhouse gases. Skeptics, they suggest, are a fringe element, unworthy of media attention.

But the Cook study does not really prove what it claims to prove.

The authors examined 11,944 abstracts of climate papers published between 1991-2011. They found that nearly two-thirds of the abstracts expressed no opinion on the supposed “consensus” position. So their headline – 97% of scientists agree – is inaccurate and misleading. IN 1984-speak, they are claiming Silence is Affirmation.

They don’t “allegedly” find it, they show that this is the case. Like I previously said in my blog post ‘97% Climate consensus ‘denial’: the debunkers again not debunked‘ it’s nonsense to include papers that do not state a position on global warming. It’s nonsensical as the papers that don’t state a position often are researching an entirely different question/subject in climatology.

Take for example a literature search on HIV to answer the question if HIV causes AIDS. When you do this you won’t only get papers that talk about this link, the majority will talk about something entirely different. For example how HIV is being tested as a possible carrier of genetic material in gene therapy (don’t worry, it doesn’t contain the RNA of HIV so it can’t cause AIDS). A very interesting topic and very promising for helping people with genetic disorders, but it doesn’t tell you if HIV causes AIDS. This simple analogy shows how asinine this type of reasoning is.

Of the abstracts that expressed an opinion, Cook et al. claim that 97.1% (less than one-third of the original total) agree with the IPCC consensus position. But that too is a stretcher.

University of Delaware Prof. David Legates and three colleagues examined the Cook team’s database, and found that less than 1% of the 11,944 abstracts explicitly endorse the so-called consensus.

Why am I not surprised that the writer references ‘Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation’: A Rejoinder to Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change’. I’ve dealt with the flaws in this paper in my previously mentioned blog post ‘97% Climate consensus ‘denial’: the debunkers again not debunked‘, but I’ll highlight the biggest flaw.

The most important detail in this paper is the following table:


It shows the different levels of endorsement, the amount of abstracts that matched it, and the percentage of it compared to all the included abstracts. The flaw in this paper becomes very obvious when you look at this table.

If you take for example the papers that explicitly reject that humans are causing global warming based on the abstract rating you get the number of 0.08%. That’s based on 9 papers explicitly rejecting that humans are causing global warming. Against 64 abstract that explicitly state that humans are causing it.

So yes, if you calculate the endorsement level in the way this paper did it you’ll indeed find a 1% endorsement level (0.54% to be precise). But it also shows that only 0.08% of the included abstracts explicitly reject the consensus. This undermines the very point Lewis is trying to make.

What amazes is that Abraham and Nuccitelli still pin their hopes on the cult of consensus. Forging an inter-governmental consensus has been the IPCC’s mission for 25 years, unavoidably politicizing climate science in the process. It has long since begun to backfire. People get suspicious when government-appointed experts define “the science” for the purpose of advancing an agenda that just happens to increase government control of energy markets.

Abraham and Nuccitelli have learned nothing if they think that demanding even greater fealty to groupthink will do anything except energize skeptics and increase their popularity.

A scientific consensus is a consensus that’s based on evidence; it’s not a cult like belief system. Scientists go where the evidence leads them, they don’t make the evidence fit their views. That’s behaviour that ends careers.

It’s also not a valid line of reasoning as consensus views are a big part of science. Just like there is a consensus view on the subject of anthropogenic global warming, there is one for evolution, plate tectonics, big bang, germ theory, in all the scientific fields and subjects. When the vast majority of scientists say this is what we have deduced based on available evidence you cannot reject that as “groupthink”.

Also the IPCC isn’t in the business of manufacturing a consensus. Something they clearly state this in their principles document:

The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of  risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy, although they may need to deal objectively with scientific, technical and socio-economic factors relevant to the application of particular policies.

In other words they synthesize research and give an as balanced as possible statements on what the scientific literature says. So their reports reflect what is in the scientific literature.

The good news is that conservative media are not going to take their advice, because doing so would allow one faction of experts to monopolize the discussion. Scores of government agencies, hundreds of mainstream media outlets, and thousands of Web sites serve up daily diets of climate alarm. Presenting contrarian analysis and commentary is balance, not bias.

Not listening to what experts tell you isn’t a valid response and putting them next to ‘contrarians’ isn’t providing balance. In the case of a scientific subjects there often isn’t another equally valid position. Putting a doctor next to an anti-vaccination proponent isn’t being balanced, that’s undermining legitimate science and misinforming the public. And this opinion piece is doing just that with what it proposes.

What Fox News is doing is what I argued against with my blog post ‘The Ideological Armour Of ‘Climate Sceptics’’. Allowing views that aren’t based on facts goes against basic journalistic standards. Doing this misinforms the public and undermines the very democratic processes we depend on.

Attacking Abraham and Nuccitelli for calling out media outlets on spreading misinformation is not a valid response. Calling out inaccuracies is something we should support.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.