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Benny Peiser: Editorial Bias And The Crisis Of Science Communication

Paper presented at the conference Climate Change: Evaluating Appropriate Responses. Brussels, European Parliament, 18 April 2007

Two weeks ago, climate experts and government officials from 130 countries released the latest IPCC Summary for Policy Makers on the ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability of Climate Change’. The IPCC’s predictions of the future were carefully scrutinised by governments and generally accepted. Despite attempts to tone down some of the more alarming language, the latest IPCC report predicts that unrestrained warming will cause mass extinctions, devastating floods, heatwaves, storms and droughts that may trigger economic disaster and social upheaval.

There can be little doubt that scientists, science organisations and the dominant science media have been instrumental in turning doom-laden computer models into an apocalyptic consensus. For the last 10 years or so, there has been a relentless outpouring of disaster predictions that have been published with little hesitation and rising alarm by the world’s leading science journals. Any lingering reservation about looming catastrophe has been silenced by science editors and environmental journalists. Uncertainties have been conveniently disregarded and highly unlikely worst case scenarios exaggerated.

Not since the apocalyptic consensus of the Middle Ages has the prognostication of impending doom and global catastrophe on the basis of mathematical modelling been as widely accepted as today. No question about it: The IPCC’s disaster predictions have been converted into a general consensus among the world’s political and academic elites.

Ironically, these apocalyptic predictions of the future are politically sanctioned at the same time as a growing number of scientists are recognising that environmental and economic computer modelling of an inherently unpredictable future is illogical and futile (see, O.H. Pilkey and L Pilkey-Jarvis: Useless Arithmetic: Why environmental scientists can’t predict the future, Columbia University Press, 2007).

As the eminent mathematician David Orrell has pointed out persuasively: “The track record of any kind of long-distance prediction is really bad, but everyone’s still really interested in it. It’s sort of a way of picturing the future. But we can’t make long-term predictions of the economy, and we can’t make long-term predictions of the climate. Models will cheerfully boil away all the water in the oceans or cover the world in ice, even with pre-industrial levels of CO2 When models about the future climate are in agreement, it says more about the self-regulating group psychology of the modelling community than it does about global warming and the economy.” (David Orrell, Apollo’s Arrow. The Science of Prediction and the Future of Everything, 2007)

Be that as it may, the reality of the IPCC consensus should not be underestimated. Its political weight and growing demands for drastic economic intervention is posing a serious political predicament for many governments, most of which find themselves unable to control let alone reduce CO2 emissions that are rising almost everywhere.

Paradigms, Consensus and Falsification

Science based on “consensus” is a tricky business. I am agnostic about it because the history of science tells us that today’s consensus can, and quite frequently is, tomorrow’s redundant theory. There are certain types of general agreements in science that are more compelling and more durable than others. In some areas of empirical science, like solar system astronomy, there is more agreement because the data is more robust and the methods less complex. The more complex the science and the less reliable the data, the more scientific controversy you should expect to find.

On the other hand we also know that science tends to produce – and in fact needs – scientific paradigms which is perhaps a better word than consensus. So I have really no problem with the fact of a majority consensus on climate change. But science would quickly come to a dead end without the constant and necessary attempts to falsify the leading paradigm of the day, particularly those that are weak and based on contentious data, dodgy methodologies and flawed computer models. Indeed, some critics argue that climate science has almost reached such a cul-de-sac.

The scientific endeavour involves both the protectors and challengers of each and every paradigm. Both are essential to the health and dynamic of a highly competitive enterprise that is science. No consensus is sacrosanct. And it is in the very nature of science and science communication that all reasonable positions and counter-arguments should be heard.

The ongoing controversy about hurricanes and global warming is a perfect example of the predicaments of consensus science. It also demonstrates that advocates who exploit the consensus argument against climate sceptics are more than happy to oppose the consensus – if it helps to further an alarmist agenda.

For a long time, and until fairly recently, natural variability was the lead paradigm underlying the dynamic changes in hurricane frequency and intensity. In the last two years or so, a small number of papers published in the world’s leading academic journals Science and Nature have cast doubt over this long-established paradigm. Climate campaigners and science journalists jumped to conclusions and claimed: “The old paradigm is dead – long live the new paradigm!”

It is noteworthy, however, that both the recent consensus statements by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as well as the latest IPCC statements on hurricanes and global warming maintain rather than overturn the old paradigm. At the same time, they caution about the weight of the new papers. I believe this is an encouraging development because it would appear to raise the requirements for overthrowing old paradigms.

Let me also remind you about the dodgy process that removed from the old IPCC consensus the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age and replaced it with the notorious Hockey Stick consensus. A few enthusiastically received papers were able to overturn the old consensus – mainly because they undermined the important argument by climate sceptics about the degree of Holocene climate variability. Science journalists bought into the new Hockey Stick “consensus” sink line, and hooker.

However, their prejudice was evidently laid bare by the extraordinary reluctance to report (or report impartially) about its flaws and the controversy it generated.

Similar problems can be observed regarding the thorny issue of sea level rise: is it more or less steady (as the IPCC claims) or is it accelerating, as climate alarmists claim? The mainstream science media have no qualms in hyping up new papers that go against the IPCC consensus. At the same time, the same outlets ignore other studies that confirm an inconvenient consensus that climate alarmist regard as too conservative and thus pose an impediment for political action.

I could go on and on: while alarmist claims and predictions are routinely puffed up by the science media and environmental journalists, studies that come to more moderate and less alarmist conclusions are habitually ignored or discredited for being too cautious.

From editorial bias to confirmation bias

Over the last 10 years, the editors of the world’s leading science journals such as Science and Nature as well as popular science magazines such as Scientific American and New Scientist have publicly advocated drastic policies to curb CO2 emissions. At the same time, they have publicly attacked scientists sceptical of the climate consensus. The key message science editors have thus been sending out is brazen and simple: “The science of climate change is settled. The scientific debate is over. It’s time to take political action.”

Instead of serving as an honest and open-minded broker of scientific controversy, science editors have opted to take a rigid stance on the science and politics of climate change. In so doing, they have in effect sealed the doors for any critical assessment of the prevailing consensus which their journals officially sponsor. Consequently, their public endorsement undoubtedly deters critics from submitting falsification attempts for publication. Such critiques, not surprisingly, are simply non-existing in the mainstream science media.

But there is more to the problem than just editorial promoting of the scientific consensus. After all, such behaviour is not restricted to the issue of climate change. Editorial bias is often found among other science journals on many other controversies.

Much more problematic is the reality of a strong confirmation bias among science editors. While the phenomenon of confirmation bias is an intensely researched and well established form of selective thinking among medical and economic researchers, this methodological impediment is completely ignored in climate science.

Any careful examination of the publishing record of leading science journals will show that science editors too tend to favour the publication of papers that confirm their publicly stated beliefs rather than question them. That is why science editors habitually ignore or treat with contempt any evidence that contradicts their core beliefs. Many critical scientists can confirm that prominent science editors have turned down their papers and have become reluctant to the point of refusal to publish any evidence that attempts to refute their favoured theory.

Of course, climate scientist themselves are routinely accused of confirmation bias for running statistical models and framing their data in such a way that it predictably confirms their hypothesis. After all, research into confirmation and other biases has shown that the scientific method incorporates an inherent tension between hard data and their interpretation by scientists with deeply held convictions.

Good science journals critically evaluate and peer review the quality of data and the likelihood of error. This deceptively reliable process of scrutiny and quality control, however, is itself prone to confirmation bias: peer reviewers selected by biased editors are more likely to accept evidence that supports their own prior belief while rejecting arguments and data that may challenge these convictions (Kaptchuk, 2003). Any science media that ignores or fails to appreciate these inherent pitfalls of climate science can no longer be regarded as trustworthy.

The end of fair and objective science journalism

For the last few years, a number of influential climate scientists and science writers have conducted a campaign against the principles of fair and balanced journalism that epitomize open and pluralistic societies. The main accusation against impartial reporting on climate change is quite simple. An article in the Boston Globe on climate change journalism sums up the key argument:

“More and more environmentalists and climate scientists have been making the point that ‘objective’ journalists are doing as much as anyone (except maybe Hummer enthusiasts) to forestall action on global warming.” (Christopher Shea, Boston Globe, 9 April 2006)

Or, in the words of media analysts Boykoff and Boykoff: “A more subtle factor that helps explain US inaction (sic) also exists: journalists’ faithful adherence to their professional norms (like objectivity, fairness, accuracy, balance)… (Boykoff and Boykoff, Geoforum 2007, in press)

In short, climate campaigners and science activists are concerned that any doubts or uncertainties expressed in the media may hinder the political objective for drastic action. No wonder then that science editors and campaigners have employed strategies to discourage or intimidate reporters from even asking climate sceptics about their assessment.

Michael Mann (Penn State University), for instance, has warned science writers that even to quote a climate sceptic would be regarded as if they had granted “the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite.” (Boston Globe, 9 April 2006)

The editor of Scientific American, John Rennie, publicly refers to dissenters as “denialists” and said that “to give them even one paragraph in a 10-paragraph article would be to exaggerate their importance.” (Boston Globe, 9 April 2006)

Occasionally, a probing science reporter dares to challenge these forms of coercion despite the threats of mockery and intimidation. In such cases, a whole army of climate campaigners and bloggers will rush to assail the insubordinate journalist, as science writers such as Bill Broad and John Tierney of the New York Times can attest.

In Britain, it has become routine for leading science organisations such as the Royal Society to press-gang the media against publishing critical reporting on climate change. Lord May, the former, president of the Royal Society publicly censured newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for publishing sceptical articles and comments. May also tried to silence respected writers such as David Bellamy, Melanie Philips and Michael Hanlon by intimidating them personally.

In 2005, the then vice-president of the Royal Society, Sir David Wallace, warned the British media not to publish anything that distorted the official view of climate science: “We are appealing to all parts of the UK media to be vigilant against attempts to present a distorted view of the scientific evidence about climate change and its potential effects on people and their environments around the world. I hope that we can count on your support” (The Daily Telegraph, 16 May 2005).

The attacks by science editors and campaigners on critical scientists are not only fuelled by political considerations. Sometimes they are due to blind faith in an apocalyptic future, as a recent editorial in New Scientist reveals:

“One of the most corrosive contributions of climate sceptics has been to promote any uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. In truth, the remaining uncertainties should be making us redouble our efforts to mitigate climate change. It’s a fair bet that much of what we do not yet know for sure will turn out to be scarier than most of us like to imagine.”

In other words, the editors of New Scientist are certain that what we do not know today will, upon knowing it in the future, prove to be even worse than they fear. Evidently, such hyperbole has nothing to do with science but belongs to the realm of superstitious divination.

While climate campaigners are trying to frame even the political and economic debate in the traditional fashion of a conflict between consensus and dissent, the political debate is no longer about action versus inaction. The real issue today is about the most cost-effective ways of dealing with climate change: revolutionary transformation of the global economy, as advocated by climate alarmists, or gradual adaptation and adjustment as proposed by climate moderates.

The role of the science media as the maid of government policy

Climate campaigners and environmental media analysts have become convinced that their crusade against impartial science reporting has been won comprehensively. According to this view, the neo-catastrophist framing of climate change has been generally accepted by most science journalists and is now consistently communicated by most news media outlets.

Yet campaigners worry that the political battle is far from won. Thus, in a recent article published by the British Journalism Review, media researchers Eleni Andreadis and Joe Smith warn that the next contest poses an ever greater challenge to science journalism:

“We are entering a period when careful interpretation and communication of the economic, political and social dimensions of climate change will be vital. Failure to tell these aspects of the story could be of even greater significance than the painfully slow arrival at the basics of the science.

The media will offer the context within which we decide the If, How and When of transforming energy-hungry lifestyles and economies… The open terrain of these questions presents media decision-makers with a new set of challenges, and the way they handle scepticism will again be central to their performance.” (British Journalism Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, February 2007).

Andreadis and Smith underscore the role of journalists in framing the climate change debates and assisting governments to enforce drastic policies: “Their principal question should be: Will this help to reduce emissions dramatically, or is it a way of only denting the status quo?”.

Andreadis and Smith have delineated the science media’s political role in no uncertain terms. In an illuminating paragraph, they outline a new programme of salvationist campaign journalism:

“In dealing with these [climate change] stories the media will also need to marry their critical faculties to a commitment to enable debate about action and change. You can barely fill a taxi with senior mainstream politicians from Western Europe who do not believe action to mitigate and adapt to climate change is necessary. But most are frightened of sticking their necks out. They need to be given the space to think and experiment and lead public debate on action.” (British Journalism Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2007).

In other words, the role of science and environmental journalists is to provide governments with media support that will enable reluctant decision makers to enforce unpopular policies.

The crisis of science communication

Despite the majority consensus among climate scientists, science organisations and governments, there is a sizeable minority of researchers, economists and political observers who are concerned about the apocalyptic nature of climate hype and the potential risk it poses for political and economic stability. Sceptical researchers have and will continue to publish critical papers that question important parts of even some fundaments of the current climate consensus. Will the science media provide a platform for these critiques? Will they discuss the weight of their evidence and the validity of their arguments? Or will the science media continue to ignore challenges to the status quo?

The absurdity of the science media’s handling of climate science is well illuminated in this week’s issue of New Scientist. In an editorial, the editors try to square the principle of falsification (which they claim is vital for science to progress) with their belief that any such attempt would undermine political attempts to mitigate climate disaster:

“Some scientists are challenging our ideas on climate change, which is vital if we are to progress. But to overturn present thinking will need very strong evidence because, as the IPCC states, confidence in the idea that anthropogenic warming is changing our world has never been higher.” (New Scientist, 14 April 2007).

Yet, at the same time, the editor’s zealous defence of the apocalyptic climate consensus and their fierce resistance to provide critical researchers a forum for rebuttals or falsification attempts undermines their own integrity.

Let me conclude: The integrity of the science media will depend on whether they will encourage critique and fault-finding analysis by consensus sceptics – or whether they will continue their course towards unbalanced campaign journalism. Given the well-documented reluctance of mainstream science media to accept submissions by critical scientists and the aversion to report on critical papers published elsewhere, I remain unconvinced that science journalism will moderate its blinkered attitudes in the near future.

The diverse groups of critical analysts and researchers will need to develop alternative infrastructures and media outlets if they wish to provide open-minded science writers and policy makers with judicious evaluations of disaster predictions and a genuinely impartial assessment of evidence. Given the evident biases mainstream science media and environmental journalism, there is a growing demand for more balanced and even-handed coverage of climate science and debates. Scientists and science writers who are concerned about the integrity and openness of the scientific process should turn the current crisis of science communication into an opportunity by setting up more critical, even-handed and reliable science media.

See also:  Is Bias Destroying Science?