How the media screws up climate change, Part 1: Sketchy Sources

Sorry for the hiatus — turns out working a full-time job and writing a blog consistently is actually pretty difficult! (It doesn’t help that I can’t drink coffee at my desk, working in a virus lab and all. Being a Seattleite this is my own personal hell.)

Angestellter auf Laptop eingeschlafen

I want to talk about something I mentioned in the introduction to my blog: how climate change is discussed in the media. There are so many problems in the world, many of them based in science — global warming is just one hot-button issue, but it’s fantastic to see so many people talking about it.

The problem is, scientists are not all engaging, charismatic public speakers. Good science does not require good people skills. The people who do the research are often not the ones who reach people and impress the seriousness of climate change on the public. And mass media has to cover such a tremendous scale of material, it’s not surprising that most of their staff are not scientists.

This is what causes the churning-out of such fantastic headlines as “Scientists say sniffing farts could prevent cancer.” (No… they super don’t.) Reports like this one are basically the result of a game of telephone, starting with the researchers, and the actual findings are lost somewhere along the way and get replaced with something only mildly, “if-you-squint-really-hard” related to the original study. Of course, the gaffes aren’t always this obvious, and the small inaccuracies are even more worrying because they’re a lot harder to catch.

I could write an entire book on the subject, but I’ll try to keep it focused. There are a number of ongoing issues with mass media reporting on climate change (and these issues apply to other subjects as well, including, for instance, GMO’s):

  • Inaccurate reporting and mis-interpreting findings (see: farts curing cancer)
  • Using poor sources of information, or sometimes none at all
  • Citing anecdotes, hearsay, and opinions as fact
  • Artificially balancing an issue: making dissenting opinions (e.g. vaccines cause autism!) seem more credible than they actually are

In this post I’ll mostly discuss #2. I’ll also touch on #4, but that warrants its own separate discussion. It’s a real phenomenon called false balance, and it’s fascinating.

In 2005, USA Today reported, unequivocally, that global warming was real. Hooray!

This was a potential big step for climate scientists, who had been struggling to “wake people up” to the dangers of carbon emissions. The Bush Jr. administration had already popularized the term “pro-science” (this really drove it home that an opposite “anti-science” group must exist… angry sigh). There was also an ongoing problem with the media mis-reporting climate science, which of course meant that people were believing the wrong things about global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a multi-national body of scientists, established by the UN and the Word Meteorological Organization (WMO). They publish periodic reports on climate change. The reports describe, for example, the impacts that humans have had on global warming, and how we can fix it. Basically, they’re the best authority on climate change you could possibly get.

In 2007, in their fourth assessment report (found here, if you’re interested in reading it – they’re currently working on their sixth), they concluded that there’s a 66-90% probability that human-caused global warming has had a significant influence on the planet.

In 2008, a study in Nature set out to add some of their own data to support the IPCC’s findings on a continental scale. They described biological changes in 28,800 species of plants and animals. They also looked at 829 natural phenomena like snowmelt and coastal erosion. Data went as far back as 1970, focusing on Europe and North America. They found that, indeed, these changes – which ranged from melting glaciers to plants blooming earlier – could not simply be attributed to nature. The vast majority of these changes could be attributed to human influence.

I probably don’t have to tell you that this is one of many papers that support human-caused climate change.

Soon after the Nature study, journalist Doyle Rice wrote an article – also in USA today – that reported on the findings. He waxed eloquent on the scope of the study, the robust results, the trustworthiness of the author… but near the end, he randomly included a quote from Pat Michaels, a climatologist and (also, somehow) well-known global warming skeptic. Michaels said that the research was “a retrospective study, with very little to say prospectively, given the unevenness of global warming”. He also said there had been no warming since 1997 (not true). If Doyle was so impressed with the Nature study, why did he include Michael’s dissenting view in his article? Why didn’t he at least include the caveat that “most climate scientists disagree with Michael’s view”?

Because controversy makes for a good story. (More on this later.)

A little on Pat Michaels: he actually does believe the climate has warmed, but he thinks future changes will be minor. In 2002 he predicted that the globe would warm between 1.3-3.0°C between 1990 and 2100, centering around 1.9°C. This was lower than the IPCC estimates of 1.4-5.8°C for this period.

This doesn’t seem like a huge disagreement, and in fact the current data from NOAA shows that since 1990, land + ocean temperatures have risen almost exactly as much as Michaels predicted – if the current trend continued to 2100, it would be 2°C on the nose. (How did I calculate this? Simple: the graph calculates a trend, by century, of 1.83°C. Just multiply that by 1.1 to get the approximate trend for 110 years.)

However, let’s take a look at the 110 years before 1990 (so, 1880 to 1990). During that time we only saw a 0.5°C increase in land + ocean temperature.* 2°C is a lot more than 0.5°C. It doesn’t seem like Michaels is taking this non-linear trend into account; does he not believe temperatures will warm exponentially? What does he think will happen after 2100?

*Question Everything: “I know NOAA is a trustworthy source. But are we totally sure about that?” Well, it’s good to challenge sources, even the allegedly great ones! I’m not a climate scientist, but I am a researcher, so I start with my favorite high-tech super-fancy investigating tool: the Google search.

The first result for “Is NOAA reliable?” takes us to an article on the website HNGN.com. To its credit, the website does cite its sources, which include the Washington Times and Government Executive, in expressing doubts about NOAA’s reliability. But upon following the Washington Times link, the first thing I noticed was that the author – and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Congressman (R-Texas) Lamar Smith – does NOT cite his sources. Big red flag.

I’m also trying, and failing, to ignore the fact that the article is covered in ads and interspersed with links to no less than six other articles about guns and/or fighter jets… I’m not criticizing the obvious partisanship of the Washington Times, only the fact that science clearly isn’t their area of expertise.

I should also mention that the HNGN.com website is also wrought with ads, and the other articles carry such titles as “Angelina Jolie Ready To Find Love After Split From Brad Pitt [Report]” and “Kristen Stewart Talks About Love Life And Sexuality, Wants To Date Men Again” (under the category “News”). Get after it, ladies.

The other source cited on HNGN, from Government Executive, simply re-iterates Lamar Smith’s views. Hardly a diverse set of resources. In this article, Smith’s strongest source of information is simply, “whistleblowers.” Seems legit.

Other NOAA critics include James Taylor, president of the Spark of Freedom foundation, whose name popped up in Forbes a couple of times during my search. He denied that climate change was progressing and that NOAA fudges their data. Of course, he also claimed that global warming is reducing wildfires and droughts. The summary of that article is “Global warming is increasing, wildfires and droughts are decreasing, THEREFORE global warming must reduce wildfires and droughts!” (Angry sigh.) But… wait… I thought he didn’t believe in global warming? I don’t even know.

This guy ALSO claimed that only a third of scientists agreed with the IPCC, the multi-national body of scientists we talked about earlier, which turns out to be total horse pucky. So, maybe he’s not so reliable either.

ANYWAY. Here’s the punch line regarding our climate change skeptic Pat Michaels: he received $100,000 from a Colorado energy corporation whose mission was — wait for it — to get rid of carbon dioxide caps. He also admitted on CNN that he gets 40% of his funding from oil companies and lots of delicious, filthy money from fossil fuels and coal. Now, this doesn’t make him any less of a climatologist, but… remember how I talked about this blog being a way to help you spot possible indicators of a bad resource? This is another damn good example.

In spite of all this, Pat Michaels is a well-established climate scientist and prolific writer. He has a PhD in ecological climatology and, on the surface, seems like a perfectly reputable source of information on climate change. So it’s extremely frustrating when his hat gets thrown in the ring when the media reports on climate change findings. In articles like Doyle Rice’s, the dissenting opinion, which is the vast minority among climate scientists, is given a lot more weight than it should.

∴∴∴∴∴

References:

Boykoff MT. We Speak for the Trees: Media Reporting on the Environment. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2009; 34:431-57. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.environ.051308.084254.

Clark CS. NOAA Chief Spars with Lawmaker Over Climate Change Data. Government Executive website. http://www.govexec.com/oversight/2015/11/noaa-chief-spars-lawmaker-over-climate-change-data/123948/. November 23, 2015. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Climate at a Glance. NOAA website. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/2017. Accessed October 5, 2017.

False balance. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_balance. Updated September 9, 2017. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Hoofnagle M. Denialism From Forbes Courtesy of Heartland Hack James Taylor. ScienceBlogs website. http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2013/02/15/denialism-from-forbes-courtesy-of-heartland-hack-james-taylor/. February 15, 2013. Accessed October 5, 2017.

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_balance. Accessed October 5, 2017.

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/contents.html. Accessed October 5, 2017.

MacDonald T. NOAA Climate Data: How Reliable Is It? HNGN website. http://www.hngn.com/articles/154811/20151127/noaa-climate-data-how-reliable-is-it.htm. Accessed October 5, 2017.

No, Farts Don’t Prevent Cancer: Claims Don’t Pass the Smell Test. NBC News website. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/no-farts-dont-prevent-cancer-claims-dont-pass-smell-test-n156136. July 15, 2014. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Patrick Michaels. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Michaels. Updated September 14, 2017. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Rosenzweig C et al. Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change. Nature, 2008; 453:353-7. doi:10.1038/nature06937.

Rice D. Climate now shifting on a continental scale, huge study says. USA Today website. https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/weather/climate/globalwarming/2008-05-14-climate-study_N.htm. May 14, 2008. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Smith L. NOAA’s climate change science fiction. Washington Times website. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/26/lamar-smith-noaas-climate-change-science-fiction/. November 26, 2015. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Taylor J. Sorry, Jerry Brown, Global Warming Is Reducing Wildfires. Forbes website. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/2014/05/21/sorry-jerry-brown-global-warming-is-reducing-wildfires/#5dbdb23d681c. May 21, 2014. Accessed October 5, 2017.

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