"There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness." DeSmogBlog
Scientific scepticism is healthy and practiced widely, by scientists. When this scepticism is dressed up and disguised in an effort to deceive the general public it is no longer scepticism, it has become denial. A climate change denier is not your average individual who is not sure what to believe about climate change, and is expressing his or her doubt. The deniers we are talking about are those people who are funded by vested interests to deliberately sow doubt and confusion, and to retard any significant progress to fix the problems we face today.
The tobacco companies successfully used denial tactics to delay legislation from being enacted that protect the public's health. By creating doubt in the minds of the public and politicians about the science that proved tobacco causes cancer, they succeeded in holding up laws that would have saved the lives of many people who would have otherwise not taken up smoking. Where scepticism is healthy, denial is deadly.
Many of the same people, organizations and PR companies that were successful for the tobacco industry are busy today, funded by oil, coal and other energy companies, creating denial campaigns based on the proven tactics used by the tobacco industry. These are the deniers we are talking about. It is their myths we will be busting.
What is a Myth?
In this section, we are not using the word "myth" in the context of an ancient Greek story or a metaphor of some underlying psychic reality, but rather in the context of a myth being a half-truth or a commonly believed, but still fictitious, story. While most myths are amusing, harmless or even profoundly revealing, the myths about our climate change and its impact upon all living beings on this planet are quite dangerous. We need to be able to see through the fictions so that we can choose the wisest course of action.
The Climate Myths being spread today fall into three broad categories. Remember the three basic scientific findings about our climate?
The climate is changing
We are the ones causing it, and
The consequences will be very bad.
For each of the above statements, there are myths being deliberately propagated to try to deceive us. In the first stage the deniers of global climate change attempt to convince us that the climate is not changing. Everything is just fine, so don't get upset and certainly don't do anything. In the second stage, the deniers give up trying to convince us that the climate isn't changing, but move on to claim that, while the climate is changing it is not because of anything we are doing. It is just part of Mother Nature's natural cycles. No need to worry ... Mother will look after us. In the third stage, the deniers give up trying to convince us that we are not the ones causing the climate to change but move on to trying to convince us that the changes are not harmful, the consequences will be small, and regardless, there are other more important matters that we should attend to before wasting our time solving climate change.
These myths are insidious. A poll conducted in the USA in 2008 (Pew Center research May/2008) showed that 71% of Americans believed that climate was changing but only 50% believed that we were responsible. Interestingly, 84% of Democrats believe the earth is warming compared to only 49% of Republicans, but only 58% of the Democrats believe we are causing it, and only 27% of Republicans believe climate change is human caused. Compare this level of belief to the top scientific institutions that unanimously agree, 100%, with the three basic facts stated above.
The climate is changing, we are the ones causing it and the consequences will be very bad. But if less than half the voters don't believe this, how can we expect our politicians to seriously address the problem? Myths are dangerous and we need to bust them whenever they crop up.
So, why does the average American not believe climate change is human caused and a real danger, while the top science organizations in the USA, like the National Academy of Science (which Abraham Lincoln founded in 1863 to be the "Supreme Court of Science in America") all agree that climate change is a huge problem? In a word, the answer is ...
Truthiness, as aptly described by Stephen Colbert, is making a truth out of whatever you want to believe, as opposed to what is a fact ... as Stephen once said, "Who is Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914?! If I want to say it happened in 1941, that is my right!"
The UK and American Justice systems require anyone swearing an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I often wondered why they were being so pedantic, until I started seeing all the myths being spread about global climate change. I realize now just how important the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is.
Let's look at one quick example of how this works. Here is a common myth that refuses to be stamped out; it is based on "a" truth, but not the whole truth.
Myth: global warming is over!
This Myth continues to be spread: ExxonMobil gave $50,000 to the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. in 2008. The Heritage Foundation, in December 2008, posted this on their web page
"Growing scientific evidence casts doubt on whether global warming constitutes a threat, including the fact that 2008 is about to go into the books as a cooler year than 2007" www.heritage.org
Well, is this true? Has global warming finally ended? Are we in fact looking at an ice age coming our way? What this site has said is actually true. No scientist will deny that 2008 was cooler than 2007. Look at this little portion of the temperature record to your right. You can see that it does indeed look as if temperatures peaked in 2005 and we have been trending downwards since then.
This is "a" truth, but it is not the whole truth. Let's look back over the last 100 years or so. Here you can see that we have had several "cooler years" and several warmer years. 1998 was a very warm year, the warmest ever up to that time. It is not unusual for a record year to be followed by a cooler year. Climate does not move in a linear fashion, year by year. You can see from the zig-zag nature of this graph that there are warmer and cooler years all the time ... what is important, as we have seen before, are the trend lines. The trend, over the last 25 years, is the fastest warming we have ever seen in the last 100,000 years!
While 1998 was a particularly warm year, 2005 was the record year, and 2007 was second to that ... any one year may be warmer or hotter, any one coin toss may be heads or tails ... it is the long term average that counts, and the direction it is going. That is what makes "climate" and our climate is heating up.
Right now, we are at what is normally a cool period, thanks to a minimum activity of the sun and El Nino. Even so, look at how warm the world is compared to 25 years ago! 2008 is the 9th hottest year on record. By the time of the next El Nino we will again be setting new records.
That the world is cooling or that we have stopped warming up are just more climate myths: I wish they weren't. This is just one example of how deniers use a truth to sound convincing, but they don't tell us the whole truth. They are subjecting us to their truthiness in an effort to confuse and deceive us.
Scientists have very strict rules that they live by. They have to give the sources of all their facts, make them available to others to verify and reproduce, and when found to be in error, correct them. The deniers do not have to play by these rules, and they don't.
Some of the Common Climate Myths ... Busted!
As mentioned above, there are three main categories of myths being spread: myths to deny that the climate is changing, myths that deny we are the ones causing the change and myths that deny that the consequences of climate change will be significant or significant enough to warrant action. We spent a considerable time already looking at the consequences of climate change (see Consequences), so let's look at just a few "it ain't happening" myths:
The climate isn't changing
We have just seen how some people like to point out that global warming is over. Look at how 2008 is cooler than 2007. Deniers said this in 2006, compared to 2005 but then 2007 turned out to be hotter than 2006, so there went that argument. They said global warming was over in 2004 and in 1999 as well. In fact, they continue to say it even in the warmer years, hoping that no one is going to check the facts.
The Hockey Stick
One prominent argument, which was rebutted years ago but is still being spread, is that the "hockey stick" is wrong. What the heck is a hockey stick? Sorry, it's not the kind we normally think of up here in Canada. This was a reference to a graph showing the temperature increase in the last 100 years compared to temperatures over the last 1,000 years.
The "hockey stick" controversy was created when economist Ross McKitrick and retired mining promoter Steve McIntyre found a few errors in one of the studies used by the IPCC. The study reconstructed the historical record of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1,000 years. The errors were actually errors. The researcher, Michael Mann, noted that the errors were extremely minor, but he redid his study and the results were unchanged. Too late: the controversy was on. Eventually, the National Academy of Sciences of the USA looked into the whole matter, came up with their own graph of temperatures over the last 1,700 years, and the results were virtually identical to the original graph by Mann. Others, using different techniques, have also found the same temperature results. Deniers have not contested these other studies; they just keep pointing to this one small error and extrapolating from that. [You can read more about this non-controversy at DeSmogBlog.]
The fact that controversy erupted is not bad. Scientific findings should be tested. If an error is found, the work needs to be redone. But the problem is ... the results were the same. Deniers love to continue to say that the "hockey stick" was proven wrong. It wasn't. The deniers also love to continue to say, "Because the hockey stick was wrong, there is no global warming." This deception is continuing to be spread: it contains a germ of truth, but it is not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
We aren't causing climate change
Here is one we have seen before ...
"The oceans emit more CO2 than mankind does! Man's contribution is tiny in comparison".
This is a truth ... but is it the whole truth? As we have seen in the Science section, the oceans do emit 90.6 gigatons of carbon per year ... but! The oceans also absorb 92.2 gigatons. We don't absorb very much at all. What we put up there, stays up there. This myth is not the whole truth. The oceans are actually a "sink" for carbon, and it is a good thing they are: they take out some of what we put up.
"It not us! It is just Mother Nature. Sometimes it is warmer, sometimes it is colder. The sun goes through phases, and we are just going through one of those phases."
We have already shown in the Science section how scientists have calculated the separable causes of warming through a measure called "radiative forcings." Certainly the sun has caused the earth to warm up over the last 250 years, and by the sun, they include the impact that the earth's orbital variations also induce. These men and women are bright people. They know that the sun and our orbital charateristics have an influence on climate. The not only know it, they measured it. The cumulative effect of Mother Nature's impact on our climate over the last 250 years is .12 Watts/meter2. However, they also measure the impact we have had over that same period. We have impacted the climate by 1.66 Watt/meter2.
It is "a" truth that Mother Nature has been warming us up lately. But her share of the total change is around 7%. Compare that to the 93% of the changes we have caused. It is for this reason that scientists are saying that global warming is predominantly caused by man. Again, this myth is not the whole truth.
We could look at many other climate myths, "plants emit more carbon dioxide than we do" or "mankind is just to small to have an impact on the whole earth." Hopefully, by now, you can bust these myths on your own: just check the science. But there is one particular myth that is causing a lot of confusion ... the myth that there is no scientific consensus on global climate change.
There is NO Scientific Consensus about Global Climate Change!
The public relations machines run by the American and Canadian think tanks and by the biggest energy companies have been very successful. Despite 100% consensus by all the major science organizations of the world, the deniers have succeeded in creating the impression that scientists really aren't sure whether global warming is happening, and if it is happening how bad it will get, and if it is bad whether it is really worth the time, money and effort to fix it. (Remember the Pew poll cited above: 49% of Republicans do not believe that the climate is changing, and only 27% believe that we are causing it.)
Who are these top science organizations that all agreed with the three basic facts about global warming, and what do they say? Let's start with the Nobel Prize winning IPCC.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a joint venture between the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program. If these two organizations don't understand climate change, who does? The IPCC has over 130 member countries but the actual "work" is done by contributors in Working Groups (WG). WG1 looks at the science of climate change. WG2 looks at the impact and consequences of climate change. WG3 looks at ways to mitigate these changes. These working groups consist of 2,500 scientific experts in the appropriate environmental fields, all of whom are volunteers!
These 2,500 volunteers are not paid for their work. It is quite funny that many people who attack the climate scientists say that they are in this for the money! They don't get paid for this at all! They are also accused of doing it for the fame and glory: and yet - how many people can name even one of the 2,500 scientists working for the IPCC? So much for personal motivations being the cause of scientist's warning us about climate change.
The process that the contributors to the assessment reports follow is very stringent. The scientists may only include peer-reviewed studies published in reputable science journals. This peer review process is the Gold Standard of the scientific process. It ensures that the study has been rigorously vetted before it is deemed worthy of being published. Unfortunately, this process takes time. This means that the information that the IPCC scientists are using is a few years old. Once the contributors have completed their studies, written it up and submitted to the IPCC plenary, it marinates while the political appointees to the IPCC edit the findings.
Many deniers claim that the IPCC process is political. This is, unfortunately, true. However this is not a good thing for our climate: the political levels within the IPCC tend to make everything more conservative, not less as the deniers would have us believe. The scientists, by their very nature, are already conservative; they tend to understate forecasts to be safe. But then the political bureaucracy adds another level of conservatism to the findings before they become published.
The delays inherent in the IPCC process can result in the final assessment reports being already out of date by the time they are published. The latest report, Assessment Report 4 (or AR4 for short), was released in September of 2007. Already scientists are seeing that changes in the climate are occurring far faster than anticipated in AR4, but again, the contributors had to rely upon only the published studies, and not the most recent observations of changes.
Despite having to work with studies that are a few years old, what does the IPCC think is going on with the environment? They issued this statement as part of their most recent 4th Assessment Report.
"Global Warming has begun and is very likely caused by man..."
Very likely? Deniers love to jump on this statement. "You mean, you are not sure! If you are not sure, why should we do anything now? Let's wait until you are sure, then we will talk about what to do."
Well, the AR4 was written by scientists and scientists love to quantify their terms. They defined what they mean by "very likely." You can see, very likely is not a statement of great uncertainty. There is a 90% chance that we are in trouble. If the weatherman told you that there is a 90% of snow tonight, you would probably think about getting your snow tires on the car. [For a more recent assessment of the odds of our climate warming up, see the Great Greenhouse Gamble discussion in our Consequences page.]
Okay, but what if these 2,500 scientists from all over the world and their government sponsors aren't really credible ... in the words of Maxwell Smart, would you believe...
The American Association for the Advancement of Science(AAAS). The AAAS is formed from 262 affiliated societies and Academies of Science and has over 144,000 members. The AAAS is over 130 years old and publish the prestigious journal Science. They stated,
"The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society."
They could not have made this statement if there was no consensus within their membership about the science.
And if the IPCC and AAAS still don't seem very credible to you, how about the National Academies of Sciences of the largest economies in the world, the G8 members. This group includes Canada's Royal Society of Canada and the top science bodies in the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Italy and the USA. The USA National Academy of Science alone is 145 years old, has 2,100 members which include 200 Nobel prize winners. (Remember, the NAS was launched by Abraham Lincoln to be the supreme court of science in the USA. They are charged with being the final arbitrators of all things scientific in the USA.)
Along with the G8 countries top scientific bodies, Brazil's, India's, China's, Mexico's and South Africa's top science organizations in June of 2005 jointly issued the following statement;
"The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action ... the threat of climate change is clear and increasing ... delayed action will increase the risk of adverse environmental effects and will likely incur a greater cost."
This statement was presented to the political leaders before the G8 summit of 2005. Unfortunately, it was ignored, so it was reaffirmed in July, 2008 before the 2008 summit.
Wherever we look, the top scientific organizations throughout the world are repeating the same message. Here is just one last example, again from the United States. The most prestigious US government bodies responsible for the environment and science presented their 2009 Climate Impact Report in June of 2009. At the press meeting they stated:
"Human induced climate change is a reality...it is happening now... The observed changes in our climate we are reporting on are NOT opinions to be debated, but facts to be dealt with! Observations show that warming of the climate is unequivocal. The global warming observed over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases."
The U.S. Global Change Research Program includes scientists from Canada and the following US Gov't agencies
NOAA - the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency
USDA - the U.S. Department of Agriculture
USGS - the U.S. Geological Survey
USDOT - the U.S. Department of Transportation
NASA - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
DOC - the Department of Commerce
And several Unversities and Laboratories
And if you still don't believe any of the above scientific experts, would you believe President Bush? He said that we will,
"fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect"
What? You don't remember him saying this? Oh ... not that President Bush. President George H.W. Bush. This pledge was made during his campaign in 1988 (Peterson, 1989). 1988 was a pivotal year. The science of climate change was starting to show that we were affecting our world in a potentially disastrous way. The IPCC was born that year. Global Climate Change became a "hot" topic in the media, and in the presidential election. So hot that presidential hopeful, George H.W. Bush, promised to fix the problem with the White House Effect.
So what happened? Why don't we know all about the real cause of global warming, how bad it is today and how bad it will soon be? Why is there so much doubt in Canada and the USA about what is happening? Well, two big things occurred: first, the oil and coal industries got very agitated, and, like the cigarette industry before them, started funding conservative think tanks and public relation companies. These organization became politically very active and created a debate, where there had been no debate before. Secondly, the news industry got a bit confused about how to do their job.
What happened was the arising of the environmental scepticism industry also known as ... the Denial Industry
The People Behind the Curtain - the Denial Industry
The following excerpt from a Science review of the book, "Doubt is their Product" by David Michaels, explains how successful companies can be at swaying public opinion, even when it is not in the public's best interests to be swayed.
The review states, "The aim: to sow doubt in the minds of the public, judges, and even regulatory scientists (if they are susceptible) about the scientific basis for greater public health or environmental protections (think global warming) or tort law actions. Because of the tobacco industry's success in obfuscating, slowing, reducing, and blocking regulatory actions, its approach has been adopted by others, has become institutionalized in presidential administrations, and has been used as talking points by some politicians. Fostering doubt and controversy and demanding high degrees of certainty postpone legal actions, keep products in commerce longer, and perhaps delay improved protections indefinitely. They can also leave the public or work force at risk."
In June of 2008, Dr James Hansen of NASA testified to Congress about climate change. On the topic of deniers, he said, "Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming."
"CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of the long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.
"But the conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation if we pass on a runaway climate to our children. Humanity would be impoverished by ravages of continually shifting shorelines and intensification of regional climate extremes. Loss of countless species would leave a more desolate planet."
In 2008, a study was completed by Jacques, Peter J., Dunlap, Riley E. and Freeman, called "The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism". The study found, "Environmental scepticism denies the seriousness of environmental problems, and self-professed 'sceptics' claim to be unbiased analysts combating 'junk science'. This study quantitatively analyses 141 English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005. We find that over 92 per cent of these books, most published in the US since 1992, are linked to conservative think tanks (CTTs). Further, we analyse CTTs involved with environmental issues and find that 90 per cent of them espouse environmental scepticism."
The study concluded, "We conclude that scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection."
The study also provided an analysis of the tactics commonly employed by the denial industry to create the impression in the minds of the public and politicians that global warming was not happening and not a threat. The ... "major tactic has been disputing the seriousness of environmental problems and undermining environmental science ..."
- calling any scientific studies that show GCC to be real, "Junk Science"
- alleging that environmental science has become corrupted by political agendas
- the prioritization of economic and social problems ahead of the environment
- promoting anti-regulation and anti-corporate liability and claiming addressing GCC will harm the economy
We will show you later how some of these tactics are being employed in the media.
Whenever you come across a serious denier of global warming, check him or her out at DeSmogBlog. The folks there work tirelessly at finding out the secret funding connections to most of the infamous deniers, and to help you bust the various myths they love to spread. DeSmogBlog are certainly not the only exposers of deniers' vested interests and faulty reasoning. Other protectors of integrity can be found in our Resources and Links page, and at DeSmogBlog as well. Once you have read about a few of the people's tactics, you can spot most of them. Most, but not all. The deniers have become very sophisticated in the Internet age.
The organizers of denial are not numerous, but their actions certainly make it appear as if there are great hordes of people who are not sure about the science of climate change, its cause and its consequences. While not numerous, they are well funded. Greenpeace has created a special website, Exxon Secrets, that exposes how and who Exxon has funded to help spread F.U.D. (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Perhaps the most extensive site detailing the who's and how's of climate denial is DeSmogBlog. As they say on their site, "DeSmogBlog exists to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science on climate change." If you hear of a prominent climate sceptic, such as Bjorn Lombard or Fred Singer, take a moment to look them up in DeSmogBlog's Research Database.
I would encourage anyone who is really keen to know how the disinformation campaigns against all of us are being waged to visit this site. You may also want to pick up and read a rather disturbing book that the founder of DeSmogBlog, James Hoggan, has just written. The book is called Climate Cover-up and it is well described at the DeSmogBlog site. Climate Cover-up exposes in detail the strategies and people who are working against the public's best interest in both Canada and the U.S.A.
Astroturf and Trolls
Democracy is based upon the voice of public being heard by our political representatives. Our politicians work to do what we want them to do. Sometimes, our voices are not heard and a groundswell of popular sentiment is needed to get the message across. This mobilizing of the masses is often called a grass roots movement, and has proven very effective at convincing politicians that they were not listening to the will of the people.
Today, synthetic grass roots movements are being conjured up by public relations companies acting on behalf of the biggest energy companies. These artificial grass roots movements are called astroturf movements. The idea is to create the impression of a real grass roots movement by simulating large numbers of people's interest. There have been many examples of these astroturf movements, and they are being used to covertly influence many political issues, not just the climate change debate. We will just illustrate one here as an example. DeSmogBlog can point you to many others.
In June of 2009, the US Congress was enacting legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions and set targets for future levels. Obviously, reducing global warming gases would cause economic hardship for some companies, even though it is absolutely essential to protect the well being of everybody on this planet. These vested interested, the energy companies, through the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) used their industry association to get their message to congress. The ACCCE decided to send this message in a variety of ways. They hired public relations firms and lobbyists to help them. One such firm was the Washington D.C. lobbying firm Bonner & Associates. Bonners & Associates tried to create an astroturf movement. They sent several forged letters to Congressman Tom Perriello before an important vote in Congress. The letters were mocked up to appear as though they were from several Charlottesville-based minority organizations. The Charlottesville Daily Progress interviewed some of the organizations that were outraged by the deception. The report in the July 31, 2009 edition of the Charlottesville Daily Progress stated that Bonners & Associates "...stole our name. They stole our logo. They created a position title and made up the name of someone to fill it."
This is astroturfing and it is an insidious form of abuse of the right of free speech. If our politicians can not tell the difference between legitimate communications from the public from deceptive propaganda by vested interests, we will all lose an important piece of our democratic process. More on this story can be found at DeSmogBlog, but the point is that the denier industry is using very deceitful and dangerous tactics in their effort to convince our governments to do nothing about an even more dangerous situation.
Trolling is another tactic that also abuses our rights to freely express our opinions.
When online newspapers first began to allow readers to respond to articles by posting comments after the article, a potentially wonderful new era dawned for public discourse over matters of the day. Now anyone could offer their thoughts in contrast to those of the reporter or the newspaper. Debate sharpens our perceptions and helps us to see clearly what is, and what needs to be done. Unfortunately, it did not take long before this promising avenue for public discourse was usurped.
The usurpers come from two main camps. Freelance trolls are people who just want to annoy others. As described in the Wikipedia definition of a troll, these people have no intention of adding to the discourse or correcting some error of fact. They just want to inflame other commentators and distort the discussion. They add no value, and actually remove the ability of others to do so. Few people now have the time or inclination to read all the comments posted after an online article due to the prevalence of trolls.
Annoying as these trolls are, there are other types are that far worse. These trolls are not the individuals who just get their kicks out of upsetting others; these trolls are the hidden deniers.
Online comments are anonymous. We have no idea who is making the comment or statement. Often these people will derail the commentary by citing outright lies as fact. They offer no proof for their statements. [For an amusing spoof of the way someone can pass off a lie as a "fact," watch this short clip from Family Guy.] If a web site is cited as proof, it is usually of an irrelevant nature or the home of equally unfounded statements and "facts". The aim of the denier trolls is to make it appear, once again, that most people do not believe the climate is changing or that we are causing it or that the consequences will be bad.
Georges Monbiot has a very good article that talks about the dangers of trolls. As a reporter, he has to live with these people every day. I would encourage you to read what he has to say here. As always, DeSmogBlog also has several articles on the dangers of trolls.
The deniers do not miss any opportunities to deceive us and slow down what needs to be done. But their power to do this is enhanced, unwittingly for the most part, by the media. It is time now to understand how the media has contributed to the confusion and delay in reacting to global warming.
The Role of Media in Spreading the Myths
Reporters are trained to get both sides of a story. This is called balance. But in matters of science, an article appearing in a prestigious journal has already gone through a rigorous vetting process. Balance is inherent in the peer review process. Reporters are rarely trained scientists who can understand either the subject being discussed in the scientific studies or the process the study has gone through before being published. In the effort to try to appear balanced in reporting on the study, reporters have opted to seek other opinions. Unfortunately, these contrary opinions are not from the same level of peer reviewed findings as the study being questioned.
The attempt to add balance to a story actually creates a bias against the science being reported upon. The 2003 study on the right evaluated articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The authors found that the attempt to present both sides of the story actually biased the facts in the minds of the readers.
If a reader of a story on global warming hears that a study has shown the number and severity of hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean increases in warm decades (as was reported in Nature in August 2009) and if this story also includes a comment from a climate denier who says he is not sure this finding is true, who is the public to believe? By including the denier's opinion alongside a peer reviewed study's finding creates the impression in the minds of readers that the science is not settled and global warming is just a theory, not a fact.
A study was done comparing reports of uncertainty about global climate change in the science journals versus the popular media. This study examined 10 years worth of reporting, which included 928 science articles. Not one of the science articles in peer-reviewed journals had any disagreement with the fact that climate change is happening and that we are doing it.
However, the study found that in the popular media, over a 14-year period, one-half of the articles gave equal weight to the denier's views that climate change wasn't happening.
No wonder the general public is confused where the scientists aren't!
If the public cannot rely upon the media to correctly inform them about what is really happening in the world, the public will stay comfortably asleep on the most important issue in our civilization's history.
The Credibility Index
Who to believe? This is not easy. There are so many voices today talking about global warming that it is no wonder people are confused. Do you believe some scientist cited in one article over another one talking on TV? What we are facing today is a credibility problem. We need to look at the whole concept of "credibility". Who is credible?
Let's define our term: Credible ... means one who is worthy of belief, one you have confidence in or find trustworthy.
Who would you find the most trustworthy when it comes to something as important as the future of our civilization and all life on earth? Well, thanks to a wonderful high school science teacher in Oregon, (see his website at www.manpollo.org) there is a way to put some order to the chaos of who to believe. Let's create a Credibility Index, or C.I. for short.
The Credibility Index
At the top of this index, let's place the creme de la creme of the science world, the top scientific organizations. This would include the national academies of science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and of course the IPCC itself. Let's give them the top CI of 6. These people are the most trustworthy scientific bodies in the world.
Then, let's rank the top science journals as the next credible sources of science information. Here we would include prestigious journals such as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The articles that appear in these journals have had the highest degree of scrutiny available, far beyond the ability of news media. These journals have a CI of 5.
Next we would list the second tier science journals that also abide by the strict peer review process. The science reported in these journals would have a CI of 4
Now we have the individual scientists themselves. This level of credibility is given to those scientists who are working in the fields related to climate change and its consequences. These fields would include climate modellers, atmospheric scientists, paleo-environmentalists, etc. We give these people a CI of 3. Notice their CI is below that of their own studies! This is because a study is peer reviewed, while the opinions of the individual scientists are not. They are still credible in their field, but just not as credible as their peer reviewed and published studies.
Scientists who are not in the fields related to climate change, or whose work was done long ago, would be ranked as the next credible. These are smart people who do know a lot, but they are not current experts in the field of climate change. Their CI is 2.
Informed individuals also have some credibility. It is possible for a lay person who is not a scientist to study and understand the basic information of climate change. These people can talk knowledgably about the issues, the consequences and the policies we should be adopting to avoid the risk we are taking. But they are not scientists or experts. Their CI reflects this, and is level 1.
But we are not done!
There are people who are not self-informed but rather simply self-important. The self-proclaimed experts who have no expertise, the trolls and web bloggers who only want to incite readers and who have no interest in facts, these people have zero credibility. They can be easily recognized: they hide behind aliases. If someone won't give you their real name, simply assign them a CI of zero and move along. Please don't feed the trolls!
Whoops ... I lied. We are not quite done. This is still one more category to look at. These are the people who have vested interests. Al Gore is fond of quoting Upton Sinclair who once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." If someone is proffering an opinion about global warming, but his or her salary or work is being funded by a denier group, their CI is also zero.
There are obviously folks who do not agree with the reports of global climate change, and debate is not only healthy, it is a requirement of science. However, we do need to be sceptical of sceptics who are not "credible" or who have vested interests. How do you find out who is who?
If you keep the Credibility Index in your mind when you are listening to people debate climate change, you will quickly be able to work out who to trust. You do not want to trust someone with low or no credibility when you are dealing with life and death matters. For example, supposed you just received the awful news that you have cancer. You seek another opinion from another oncologist. The news is the same. But you really do not want to go through the therapy that is necessary to save your life. So, you ask the taxi driver on your way home from the hospital, "Do you think I have cancer?" The driver replies, "No! You look fine to me." Are you really going to ignore the doctor's advice because a taxi driver told you not to worry? He may be a very smart taxi driver, but his cred index is still 1.
* Ask for their credentials ... are they a current practicing climate scientist? What articles has he/she published, |
and in which journals?
* Ask for sources ... check that the sources are credible and relevant. This is especially important for the lower levels of CI. Opinion, once written down, somehow becomes read as fact. It is black magic! Opinions are only opinions. Facts have sources. If these sources are not offered, you just heard an opinion, nothing more.
* Watch out for the red herring ... this is done by people who try to move the debate away from what is real and important to what is frivolous or trivial.
* Be aware of ad hominem attacks ... where the matter of global warming is ignored and instead the discussion centers around the person. The bearer of bad news is not the news.
* Be aware of a straw men ... here something other than what was said is propped up as the position of the climate scientist and that false position is attacked, instead of what was really said. If someone is attacking Al Gore for say "X", you may want to check to see if Al really said "X". He is often, deliberately, misquoted. (For a classic example of how deniers twist around other people's statements, view this video by Crock of the Week.
* Be alert for appeals to the heart when matters of the head are required!
* Be aware of demagoguery ... this someone who gains power by appealing to people's emotions, instincts, and prejudices in a way that is considered manipulative and dangerous
With all this in mind, let's look at just one media example that shows how the attempt to offer balance actually creates a bias in the mind of the reader, and that also shows the classic tactics employed by the deniers. To your left is an excerpt from an article in the Canadian Globe & Mail newspaper, dated June 23, 2008. The reporter interviewed an Alberta businessman and shown are his thoughts on global warming.
First, let's check out the cred index of the man being interviewed. Well, he is a CEO. CEOs are normally well educated, self-informed individuals, but he is not a scientist and certainly not a climate scientist. Let's give him a CI of 1. Whoops ... wait a minute, he gets his business from companies operating in the Alberta oil sands. That is a very obvious conflict of interest. His CI actually is zero. At this point, one has to wonder why the Globe would interview someone about global warming who has no credibility. This is example how the attempt to present balance can achieve the opposite effect. Let's read on.
Mr Rowe states that he is "on the fence" about the cause of climate change. If he was a climate change scientist, his position may be curious, but given that he has no expertise in this field, why is his opinion being sought? "He is not sure a link has been conclusively proved." Funny, the top science organizations in the world are convinced but this man is not. But this is one of the deniers' key tactics: deny the science. Mr Rowe is not trying to debate the science with scientists, he is try to sow doubt in the minds of the public, and the Globe, whether wittingly or not, have assisted him in so doing.
"Other issues way beyond our control ... affect the climate." Another tactic: deny that the climate is changing but then, even if it is, deny that we are doing it. Classic denialism! Mr Rowe then concludes that there are far more pressing issues such as "over-population." Certainly, over-population is a big issue, but this again is a classic denier tactic and a red herring. The deniers argue, even if the climate is changing, and even if it is us, there are more important issues we need to address. But if over-population was even more important the consequences of climate change, why isn't Mr Rowe offering some solution to that huge issue? I guess that that is someone else's problem.
The Globe & Mail, by printing this article, allows their readers to gain the impression that there is still a lot of debate about climate change, it may not be happening, and if it is, it probably isn't us and besides the consequences pale besides the other big issues we face today. The media has played a big role in the disinformation campaign being waged by the denial industry.
Why did George HW Bush not follow through on his campaign pledge to fight the greenhouse effect with the white house effect? The successful actions of the denial movement let him off the hook. The denial industry effective stalled for over two decades action on combating global climate change. This delay may prove fatal, but we can only hope that we have not passed any tipping points that irrevocably commit us to the worst case scenario.
The Dangers of Climate Myths
There is a downside to doubt. Scepticism, debate and doubt are essential to the scientific process. But when the best science minds on the planet say that there is a 57% chance that we are changing the climate and that the globe will warm up 5C or more, continuing to debate this consensus is not healthy. Continuing to doubt may prove deadly. We should not be taking this risk.
The denial industry wants to delay action. It is in their interest for us to do so, but it is not in our interest. It is not actually even in the deniers' best interest, in the long term. While they may continue to earn a bit more profit now, in the long run, once the climate does warm up 5C or more, these deniers and their companies will be facing ruin along with the rest of us. But by then it will be too late to say, "Sorry!"
The denial industry action is damaging to our climate, to our media and to our democracy. We need everyone to wake up to what they are doing and to not allow this kind of manipulation to continue.