Beware False Balance in Climate Science: All Voices Are Not Equal


OK, not quite the type of balance I was talking about... Image credit: Sami Grover

John covered the topic of false balance in climate science a while back, but given the influx of angry skeptic commenters of late, it's a topic worth revisiting. As I argued in my post on science, evidence and the importance of action, it is vital that we environmentalists align ourselves with fair and rigorous debate. The only trouble is, 'fairness' is sometimes confused with 'balance'.
Ever since Al Gore declared the debate "over", skeptics have been crying foul—arguing that the environmental movement (if we really are a movement at all) is pursuing a dogmatic agenda and is incapable of listening to alternative points of view. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true that most environmentalists take the existence of man-made climate change as a given. But that's only because the vast majority of climate scientists do the same. (Polls show as many as 97.4% of active climatologists believe humans are a significant force in changing the Earth's climate.) Yet your average Joe would be forgiven for thinking that anthropogenic climate change is still very much just a theory, maybe even a gigantic socialist conspiracy.

The trouble seems to lie in the media's insistence on presenting both sides of the argument 'equally'. Which can be a very misleading thing. Unless you take into account the credibility of a particular commentator or point of view, pursuing balance can lead to an impossibly skewed debate that leaves everyone confused. And someone is likely to say it (most probably in ANGRY ALL CAPS), so it may as well be me, the recent hacked emails did damage the credibility of a small number of scientists somewhat, but that's why Dr Phil Jones has stepped down temporarily, pending an independent inquiry. They did nothing to dent the credibility of climate science in general.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer frames the problem thus in an excellent editorial entitled Truth is a higher calling than fairness:

"Here's a typical script for a news account involving global climate change. A scientist (or more often, a group of scientists) rolls out new research for a congressional panel. Then someone, usually at the hearing, often a member of Congress, disputes the science. The story becomes one of conflict. The scientists said this, while the critics said that. The conflict overwhelms the research, reducing it to a sentence or two, reported without context."

RealClimate picks up on this same argument, with evident frustration, in their piece on false balance in climate reporting, pointing out that journalists are now asking political scientists to explain surface temperature readings of the Earth.

Contrary to what some 'skeptics' (I've been asked nicely not to use the term denier, and I'm trying hard) will tell you, I for one would be delighted if new evidence emerged that proved climate change a hoax, or even just that the consequences of climate change are likely to be less catastrophic than they currently appear. The trouble is, that kind of evidence seems to be rare to non-existent these days.

Sure, science is not a democracy, and new evidence may emerge that disproves, or revises, our understanding of climate change. And should that prove to be the case, I'm as likely to be rejoicing and shouting from the rooftops as the next man. But any such research will need to be evaluated and debated according to the rigors of science, not the media machine or professional lobbyists.

But if you do know of evidence that climate change isn't as bad as we thought, please post in the comments below. But please, be specific. If you're going to refer to hacked emails, please explain which quotes prove what facts in what context. If you're going to argue that solar activity is to blame, please explain why the scientific consensus says otherwise. If you're going to claim that my statement that the majority of climate scientists believe in man-made climate change is BS, as one commenter did recently, please tell me how so—and offer up some evidence so we can evaluate that claim.

Believe me, after a short period of red faced embarrassment, I'd be delighted if you could convince me that climate change is all a hoax. I really don't relish the prospect of my new daughter and her generation having to face the challenges we're creating. But until someone can prove that we really are playing Chicken Little, I'm going to keep on working to make sure she doesn't have to.

Tags: Activism