Media Reporting of Climate Change: Too Balanced or Biased?

April 19th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Cherries ripe for the picking:

Too balanced


Put me in neither camp. I actually think that the media — in toto — has done a good job of covering a challenging and protean issue.

19 Responses to “Media Reporting of Climate Change: Too Balanced or Biased?”

  1. Sylvain Says:

    Put together I believe that media coverage can be seen as unbiased. Although I don’t believe that any particuliar news media is unbiased.

    What bother me is that side A is asking to silenced side B. Side B isn’t asking to silenced Side A.

    I get very suspicious to people that wish to prevent me from having access to dissident views. It makes me ask the question: “What do they have to hide”.

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  3. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    Benny Peiser criticises the emphasis that’s placed on scientific consensus, but doesn’t offer an alternative for the lay public who want to understand climate science. Does he have a superior alternative to following the consensus?

    Certainly, relying on consensus is not perfectly reliable, but no single Ph.D. scientist, much less member of the lay public, can digest and assess tens of thousands of research publications. Thus, consensus assessments, such as IPCC, are by far the best yardstick we’ve got. It’s easy to find examples of where scientific consensus was far from the mark, but in my experience, those are noteworthy precisely because they’re so exceptional and that by and large, scientific consensus has a much better track record than any other measure.

    I would be particularly interested to understand how Peiser would apply his thoughts on the treatment of consensus both by the media and by the scientific community to dissidents in other areas, such as Peter Duesberg’s contrarian views on HIV and AIDS.

    Peiser puts a lot of emphasis on falsification, but his treatment of this is fuzzy and unhelpful. AGW theory is not a single hypothesis that can be either confirmed or falsified by specific observations. It’s a messy conglomeration of many different pieces and problems with one component do not necessarily threaten the big picture any more than the solar neutrino problem falsifies current theories of astrophysics or nuclear reactions.

    Since Peiser loves the word “paradigm,” I’ll point to Kuhn’s notion that the departure from normal science to revolutionary science requires big problems in the extant theory, not just a collection of small anomalies. Until a crisis emerges, anomalies—such as the tropospheric lapse rate—remain, in Kuhn’s terms, puzzles to be solved within the dominant paradigm. Skeptics seeking to dislodge the current consensus have failed to provide an alternative paradigm that has useful quantitative predictive (or retrodictive) power where AGW theory fails. Until they do or until discrepancies between theory and observation reach a crisis, it’s intellectually sensible to stick with the consensus and work within the puzzle-solving mode of normal science.

    Returning to Roger’s comments on media coverage, with which I agree, I’m reminded of a talk Daniel Greenberg gave in the late 1990s on criticism of media coverage of science. Greenberg said that scientists often have unrealistic standards for how they’d like their field covered in the media and that if you compare coverage of science to coverage of other areas, such as tax codes or the courts, science both receives a disproportional share of attention and scores well above average in the quality and accuracy of explanations. In this vein I would suggest to Peiser that skeptics about the climate consensus receive far more press in the science pages than skeptics about market economics do in the business pages even though thousands of decisions taken each day on the assumption that consumers act as rational self-interested fully-informed homines economicos (c.f., the US real estate market or hyperbolic time preferences in the market for insurance) have far greater effects on life and death than do the economic consequences of any measures we are likely to take on GHG mitigation.

    Peiser’s dominant message—that apocalyptic climate predictions are not certain—is clearly true, but tying this message to the dubious proposition that AGW itself is questionable, distracts and confuses the reader and weakens his argument.

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  5. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Jonathan -

    You say “AGW” and assume it will be apocalyptic, which is erroneous. That assumption is part of the problem. The “consensus” of AGW is not of “apocalyptic AGW”.

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  7. tom Says:

    Can somebody explin to me why the term climate change is being used??

    The climate always changes. Always has and always will.

    Thus the term is irrelevant IMO.

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  9. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Tom -
    It’s the anthropocentric attitude. Kind of like the Luddites at the start of the industrial revolution. “Change is bad” Stagnation is good. That kind of thing.

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  11. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    I don’t think anything I say suggests consensus that AGW will be apocalyptic. I certainly don’t believe that apocalypse is certain.

    My complaint is that Peiser goes beyond commenting on apocalyptic prognoses and starts trying attacking consensus on diagnoses of past warming (e.g., MWP vs. hockey stick and suggesting that denialists—although he doesn’t name names, the quotations by Mann and others that he selects to criticise suggest he means such people as McKitrick or Lindzen—need significant media coverage if the general public and policymakers are to be well-informed).

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  13. Lupo Says:

    Hunh? Why would how Benny Peiser does or doesn’t do things or how he says or doesn’t say them bother anyone? There must be a lot of truth to what he says, given how many times he’s been in the news from everyone jumping all over him for no reason and never talking about the points he brings up, just what they don’t agree with, in a very agressive manner. I guess fear does that to people.

    To answer the other question, “Climate Change” is used instead of saying what’s meant, something along the lines of “catastrophic anthropogenically-caused climate warming due to carbon dioxide emissions”

    We should use that. AAGW: Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Global Warming

    Maybe even a little better, AAGW-OMGRAN.

    Yes. Oh My God! Run Away NOW!!!!

    I get tired of hearing how the Earth is going to burn up in 10 years every 5 years or whatever. Just like I get tired of hearing how everyone’s going to starve because food can’t keep up with population, or any other number of doomsday predictions that surprisingly don’t seem to happen regardless of how many people over how many decades or centuries keep saying they will if we “don’t do ’something’” about it.

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  15. Benny Peiser Says:


    Please read my arguments carefully. I am not criticising the emphasis that’s placed on scientific consensus. In fact, I argue that it is in the very nature of science it develops and then relys on smoe sort of paradigm (or consensus).

    What I am criticising is the organised media campaign to silence a seizable minority of scientists sceptical of the climate consensus, inparticular those sceptical of the IPCC’s disaster predictions which are based on extremely contentious computer models.

    Neither am I saying that the current AGW consensus is wrong. What I am saying is that it is vital for the integrity and trustworthiness of science that attempts to falsify the consensus, or to find faults, should be treated as a valid and essential part of the scientific venture – and not as a political problem that science editors and journalists should ignore or try to suppress.

    This prudent approach is even more important when it comes to computer models that predict future climate disasters.

    Regarding minority views on medical research, I see no difference on providing consensus-critical researchers with open access to publishing in scientific journals. Their findings have to be assessed and weighted in the same way as any other falsification attempt. Obviously, a single sceptic or a single paper will not have the same weight as a large group of researchers or a seizable list of consensus-critical research papers.

    I fully agree when you write: “AGW theory is not a single hypothesis that can be either confirmed or falsified by specific observations. It’s a messy conglomeration of many different pieces and problems with one component do not necessarily threaten the big picture …”

    I also agree with your interpretation of Kuhn. The current anomalies of the AGW theory are small and may or may not be solved in the future. As long as they remain small they won’t seriously undermine the consensus. I guess only the failure of the current warming trend to keep rising or – even more so – a climatic downturn would eventually cause a paradigmatic crisis.

    The point I am making is not about the validity of the sceptical criticism of the AGW consensus. The key argument I am advancing is that the mainstream science media is treating any of these doubts as a political problem and not as a valid and necessary challenge to the scientific consensus. As long as this is the case, the mainstream science media will justifiably be accused of bias and will continue to lose credibility.

    Finally, I have attached below a comment by David Whitehouse, the former science editor of BBC news online which was posted on CCNet today. David provides another important perspective on the crisis of science communication.


    David Whitehouse []

    Dear Benny,

    With reference to the following article in the British Journalism Review which you mentioned in Thursday’s CCNet

    Whatever one’s views of the process of journalism, and I think sometimes journalists (especially those who have gone into management and are increasingly removed from the craft of producing copy) overintelectualise the subject, one thing must be sacrosanct. Journalists must relay as truthful an account of any story as they can being aware of any factors and prejudices that might influence them and not ignoring factors that mitigate against simple explanations. They must simplify language and jargon but be aware that simplifying a science story can cause distortion.

    By saying that the science of climate change is settled and that the story of climate change is now a story that is fundamentally about risk the authors of the British Journalism Review article have short-circuited the science behind the subject and are doing what many in the media are doing – taking the position that the science of global warming is established and the evidence for that is as good as its ever going to be. This is obviously not the case.

    They are confusing the opinion of scientists with facts and promoting models to reality. They are doing what many journalists do when faced with science, they treat it politically – they turn it from a story about the gathering and interpretation of evidence into a story about opinions and opinions means taking sides. Journalists who say that the science is settled and will not on principle, even occasionally, report sceptical opinion as to the causes of climate change are failing to report the entire story, misunderstanding the nature of science and even misrepresenting the statements of the IPCC with its qualifications “most” and “very likely.”

    Based on the IPCC reports the most scientifically respectable statement that can be said, I believe, is that CO2 induced global warming is neither certain nor settled but is a good working hypothesis and although very likely true other explanations are possible. Nowhere is there any journalistic justification to say the science is settled beyond doubt. When this is said what we are getting is a journalist’s opinion. It is the journalist’s and many scientist’s OPINION that the cause is settled. What is happening here is the journalist imposing a judgement in-between the science and the reader/listener. When this happens journalists become campaigners. A sure sign of it is when they decide that the public are not getting the message they want to get across and step-up their coverage.

    It is worrying that the BJR article talks of the traditional mindset of the journalist, integrity, anti-establishment, regard for the underdog,as being politically inconvenient when it comes to getting the message of global warming across to the public.

    For some journalists and scientists in the media eye the qualifications of the IPCC report and the very nature of science are being ignored and instead they point to the numbers and rank of scientists in the two camps as being some kind of proof. I am not saying that the “head count” or the consensus on this issue is wrong just that it is not the whole story, not definitive and not certainly not science. This is politics and the scientific establishment should recognise it as such. History warns us about implying that science is settled as a result of the head count.

    But most worrying in the article is the implication that only a certain cadre of scientists are qualified to be bona-fide sceptics “a scientist having made a serious contribution to climate science or the science of climate change” they suggest. Although it is true that in general expert assessment requires some experience, to restrict those who are “qualified” to dissent would have resulted in, a century ago, a series of revolutionary papers about physics being returned unconsidered to a unqualified patent clerk (technical expert third class) working in an office in Bern.

    David Whitehouse

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  17. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response to my comment. I’m pleased to learn that I had misconstrued some of your points and that we agree far more than I had thought on the big picture of AGW science and consensus.

    I’d still challenge your assertion that the media are too restrictive as to who gets to be portrayed as a serious critic. Skeptics whom I see as responsible (e.g., Landsea, Pielke) and even those I see as irresponsible ideologues (Lindzen, Singer, McIntyre) have little difficulty getting lots of press coverage in major venues (Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.). In fact, if you look at the number of column inches skeptics get compared to their representation within the scientific community, I’d assert that skeptics receive significantly greater coverage per-capita than mainstream scientists do.

    Myanna Lahsen’s fine paper “Technocracy, Democracy, and U.S. Climate Policy: The Need for Demarcations,” [Science, Technology and Human Values 30(1) 137-69 (Winter 2005), presents a more thoughtful and substantiated brief for a similar position to mine than I am prepared to do in this forum, although Lahsen’s focus is more on Ulrich Beck’s call for radical democratisation of the science-policy debate than on media coverage per se.

    Lahsen’s major argument is that within the U.S., the disproportionate financial resources available to public relations for ideologically based AGW-denial tend to cynically swamp open discussion with a large volume of nonsense masquerading as science and that a strong measure of technocracy is needed to edit this debate so the public and decisionmakers receive a representative picture of where things stand.

    To connect this more directly to your position, you and David Whitehouse complain that the media treat scientific skepticism as a political problem but you both fail to engage the history of certain political interests who wish to deny AGW actively politicising the debate by presenting clearly political arguments in the guise of science (e.g., the Fred Seitz document formatted to look as though it had been published in PNAS and claiming to be “peer reviewed”).

    I loathe ad hominem arguments that because some AGW deniers have been cynically funded by industrial or political players, therefore any skeptic must be an industry stooge. But without stooping to such, it’s still reasonable to ask that reporters work within a realistic understanding that the scientific debate has indeed been politicised and that many players, particularly on the denial end of things, are indeed using science or pseudoscience to advance predetermined political aims.

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  19. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Jonathan- Careful with that “skeptic” label ;-) I can’t speak for Landsea I am have never questioned IPCC WGI. And Chris is on record expressing concern about and the reality of human-caused climate change. And on hurricanes and climate change, Pielke/Landsea anticipated the current consensus;-) Thanks!

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  21. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    Peiser was challenging the WG2 statements about impacts and I meant to focus on those. I absolutely did not mean to assert that Landea or you were skeptical about WG1.

    I was also trying (badly, it appears) to distinguish healthy skepticism about details (such as hurricane effects and detailed predictions of future impacts) from those who are more properly called denialists, such as Lindzen.

    If in any way my comment might be construed to suggest that either you or Landsea questions the reality or seriousness of AGW (or the WG1 consensus), I apologize to both of you for my sloppy writing.

    To step in a “meta” direction here, it’s a real sign how polarized and politicized things have become that I have a very hard time finding words with which to communicate clearly and concisely without running into political connotations that distort my intended meaning. It would be nice to have some vocabulary that doesn’t function as shibboleth!

    I should have spent more time editing my comment to clarify the distinction I was trying to draw and to emphasize that although my first comment discussed both WG1 and WG2, in the latter comment I was focusing on WG2 matters and my reference to you and Landsea was in regard to your reservations about AGW/hurricane connections and your doubts about the WG2 pronouncements on trends in coastal storm damage. These doubts are reasonable given the current state of knowledge, and I intended to contrast them with irresponsible and ideological blanket denials.

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  23. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Denialist is a vague term. It perhaps applies more to those who deny anything other than CO2 causes “global warming” to a static climate…

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  25. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Jonathan, no worries … the language issue is indeed a sign of how hyper-politicized the climate issue has become.

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  27. Svet Says:

    Jonathan, you referred to Lindzen and McIntyre as “irresponsible ideologues”. That puzzles me. I have been following the debate as an interested observer and I have not come across any statement from either that
    1) would indicate that they are ideologically driven or
    2) that I could call irresponsible.
    Rather, I get the impression that they both simply believe that some of the science being used to support the idea of catastrophic AGW is oversold and/or deeply flawed.

    At ClimateAudit, Steve McIntyre has repeatedly stated that he not yet made up his mind about AGW. For example, at he says “I still don’t have an opinion on whether there is a crisis or not. I am still prepared to allow for the possibility that there is a real problem.”

    Richard Lindzen doesn’t have a blog so I cannot give a similarly clear cut reference for him. However, all the public statements that I have seen from him are consistent with him trying to argue the science. I see signs of him getting more and more frustrated and impatient but I have not yet seen signs of ideology.

    Can you point me to something that would support your contention that they are “irresponsible ideologues”?

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  29. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Jonathan, you referred to Lindzen and McIntyre as “irresponsible ideologues”. That puzzles me.”

    Yes, I’m curious about that, too. Particularly for Steve McIntyre.

    I consider an “ideologue” someone who essentially knows the answer to every question, because the answer must fit in with his existing worldview.

    I haven’t seen any real evidence that Steve McIntyre even HAS a world view. His only interest seems to be that he thinks the data/analyses that went into the “hockey stick” aren’t scientifically valid.

    So I don’t understand the “ideologue.”

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  31. Sylvain Says:


    I think that in this video Richard Lindzen make his position very clear:

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  33. jfleck Says:

    Jonathan -

    Your assertion about Lindzen, McIntyre, et al. “hav(ing) little difficulty getting lots of press coverage in major venues” such as the New York Times, Newsweek, etc. is not supported by the facts. For example, I didn’t recall the Times covering McIntyre’s arguments at all. In fact, I was wrong. Andy Revkin wrote a single story back in 2005 when McIntyre’s work came up in a debate between Sherwood Boehlert and Joe Barton. Similarly, I can only find Lindzen quoted four times in the Times in the last four years. Andy Revkin has written more than 70 climate stories and quoted Lindzen once in the last year. Fred Singer has been quoted in a single New York Times story in the last five years. I can’t find a single example of Singer being quoted in Newsweek. Newsweek did publish Lindzen’s op-ed, but I can’t find him quoted in any other stories. I can’t find a single McIntyre quote in Newsweek.

    My point here is that the “false balance” problem, while real in some cases, is frequently overstated, and I think you’ve strongly overstated it here.

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  35. Svet Says:

    Sylvain, you linked to a video of the IQ2 US debate and said that in the video “Richard Lindzen make(s) his position very clear”. I cannot access YouTube from where I am at the moment but I did read the full transcript of the IQ2 US debate. (The full transcript is at

    Now you didn’t actually say that the IQ2 US debate demonstrated that Lindzen was an irresponsible ideologue but can I assume that was the implication of your comment? Anyway, I couldn’t find anything Lindzen said in that debate which suggested that he was irresponsible or ideologically driven. On the contrary, he appeared to be addressing the science as he understands it. The bottom line appears to be that Lindzen is deeply skeptical of the veracity of the computer models upon which predictions of catastrophic AGW largely depend.

    Could you please give me a quote from the debate in which Lindzen displayed an irresponsible or ideological bias? Perhaps I have missed something but it could also be that one persons “irresponsible ideology” is anothers “addressing the science” depending on where you sit in the debate.

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  37. Sylvain Says:


    It wasn’t the implication of my comment. I only implied that from this video Richard Lindzen made is point of view perfectly clear.

    I usually agree with Lindzen.