Beyond an Unreasonable Doubt

By Charles Alexander

Illustration ©James Fryer

If the world’s top climatologists are all convinced that the burning of fossil fuels is causing dangerous global warming, why do the media keep giving equal time to deniers? No matter how strong the scientific consensus becomes, the campaign to discount climate change—financed by the fossil-fuel industries and conservative foundations—continues. Fortunately, so does the effort to set the record straight and tell people the truth. The past year has brought three superb books documenting the paid political attack on climatology, which is nothing less than a paid political attack on science itself.

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Greystone Books) was written by James Hoggan, owner of a successful Vancouver, B.C., public-relations firm, and his colleague Richard Littlemore. They are not radical environmentalists. They are businesspeople appalled at what other businesspeople have done to discredit global warming and help give the practice of public relations a bad name. With insider knowledge of PR tactics, the authors explain how deniers, funded directly or indirectly by industry, use their powers of persuasion in advertising and in factoids and viewpoints planted in the media. Hoggan and Littlemore reach a stark conclusion: “Reputable newspapers and magazines are today acting in a confused and confusing manner because a great number of people have worked very hard and spent a great deal of money in an effort to establish and spread that confusion . . . We have lost two decades—two critical decades—during which we could have taken action on climate change but didn’t.”

The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth (Hyperion) is the work of Eric Pooley, a deputy editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and a former colleague of mine when I was an editor at Time magazine. A truly fair and balanced look at troops on both sides of the climate battle, Pooley’s book focuses on the so-far-futile effort to get tough climate legislation through Congress. We see how senators and representatives no longer represent the people. They represent the industries in their districts. That’s how the coal industry or giant utilities get a veto over particular provisions in a climate bill—sort of like Al Capone getting to help shape anti-racketeering laws. Pooley spent time with two of the deniers’ main lobbying groups, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The author didn’t need to pass much judgment, since the fallacies of the denier arguments are self-evident to any thoughtful reader. Clean coal? That’s as believable as safe deep-sea oil drilling.

The most scholarly of the three climate books is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press) by Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, and Erik M. Conway, who previously wrote a history of NASA’s atmospheric-science program. Spanning the past half-century, the book shows how a group of maverick scientists aided and abetted the assault on their own profession. Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, for example, were accomplished physicists prominent in the scientific establishment in post-war America. They were also Cold Warriors who were fervently anti-Communist, an ideology that expressed itself in suspicion of anything that interfered with free markets. Later in their careers, they began to move out of their areas of expertise to challenge all types of government regulation. Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, worked for the tobacco industry—distributing money for research that cast doubt on the scientific consensus that cigarettes were killing smokers. Singer, with many financial backers in the conservative corporate community, challenged evidence of the dangers of second-hand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone hole. Both Seitz and Singer became leading deniers of global warming. They were, in essence, scientists for hire.

It’s not surprising that business executives would muddy scientific issues to protect their livelihoods. What’s harder to explain, though, is why the supposedly savvy media keep devoting print and airtime to the deniers.

Journalism, of course, has always been a business, subject to the whims of the people who own the presses. But never before have the mainstream media been so concentrated in the hands of giant global conglomerates. Increasing competition from the Internet and from hundreds of cable-TV networks has put severe pressure on the profits of traditional news media. And that has led to a marked decline in the quality of journalism.

The heart of the problem is that the media have cut their staffs—especially correspondents in the field who do actual reporting. Science reporters are among the most expendable. Time, for example, has encouraged most of its veteran science reporters and writers to take early retirement. Paradoxically, even as the amount of digital space and airtime available for news has ballooned, the number of reporters has shrunk.

With so much space to fill, the remaining journalists are overwhelmed and have little time for in-depth reporting. The easiest way to fill space or airtime is to give it over to advocates on particular issues—to substitute opinion for reporting. Journalists simply present the opinions of advocates on both sides of an issue, regardless of their relative validity. Unsure whom to trust and afraid of getting things wrong or being accused of bias, unenterprising journalists go for “balance,” even if one side is the entire scientific community and the other side is a bunch of lobbyists.

Debates between advocates are perfectly appropriate for issues that involve value judgments, such as abortion. But science is not about opinion or ideology or values. It is a process in which the truth is gradually discovered and agreed upon. The world is not flat. It is round. Journalists will always say that they seek “balance” to maintain “objectivity,” but in reality “balance” is a poor substitute for careful investigation and presentation of the facts.

Striving for “balance” also serves the media’s increasingly desperate quest for readers and ratings. Contrarian views and loud arguments make stories more entertaining. “Just the facts, ma’am” may have worked for Detective Joe Friday in Dragnet, but it doesn’t work for Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann.

Here’s a recent example of bad “balanced” journalism. One day last May, I happened to catch NBC correspondent Peter Alexander (no relation to me) doing anchor duty at sister network MSNBC. He introduced a segment this way: “Should schoolchildren be taught that man’s impact on the climate, on global warming, is in fact a fact—or should they be presented with both sides of the debate? Mesa County, Colorado, and Grand Junction High School have become ground zero in the teaching of what some say is junk science. Others consider it settled science.” A group called Balanced Education for Everyone, Alexander explained, had gathered 700 signatures on a petition urging the school to stop teaching global warming unless it also presented the other side. What followed was a brief debate between a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists and someone from the Independent Women’s Forum, which created Balanced Education for Everyone. The Independent Women’s Forum is “independent” of everyone except its conservative funders. One of its directors is Larry Kudlow, the doctrinaire CNBC host who seems to think that free markets can do no wrong. Why should MSNBC give such a group airtime to speak about science education? Why parrot pronouncements that the findings of the National Academy of Sciences are “junk science”?

It’s a sad state of affairs when a late-night comedian has a better understanding of science than an NBC correspondent. But that may be our fate. Bill Maher also spotted that MSNBC story and had this to say on his HBO show: “Mainstream media, could you please stop pitting the ignorant versus the educated and framing it as a debate? . . . Devastating worldwide climate change is happening, whether you phone in for it or not.” ❧

Charles Alexander is a former editor at Time Magazine, where he directed the magazine’s environmental coverage. After 23 years there, he is now an independent journalist aiming to raise environmental awareness through writing, editing, speaking, teaching, and consulting.

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15 Comments

  • Willard Dunn September 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    For too long I’ve kept silent, but I can’t stand it anymore. It’s hard to stomach the wholesale abandonment of unbiased reporting regarding climate change, and more specifically its cause. The story isn’t that there have been paid studies to debunk the widely accepted claims that pin global warming to the burning of fossil fuels, but rather the $100s of millions that have gone into supporting this theory and the sanctioning of shoddy and corrupt practices of the leaders of the climate change cabal, by those in the press.

    Be real! The story is more about job preservation – the business of preserving their grants to continue studies on how to fix it and the root causes. Following your own advice and follow the money – all the money.

    As an example of bad balanced reporting I suggest you look at your own publication. Until you exercise intellectual honesty, articles such as yours will continue the march towards marginalization.

    The globe may be warming, and we need real science not politicized hype to rule the discourse. Until that happens it will continue to be a sophmoric debate between sides, and their is only one adult in the equation.

    Take your own advise and follow the money. Perhaps, just maybe, depending on your willingness to see all aspects of the debate, you’ll be ready to talk with the grownups.

    W. Dunn
    Former Member of Greenpeace and Audubon

    Reply

    • Jack Savage September 30, 2010 at 1:17 am

      Well put, Sir!

      However, you are of course just a poor deluded dupe of the oil-industry funded deniers!

      There are as I write two comments to this article. Both succinct and sane and both in direct opposition to the thrust of it.

      I wonder if “Conservation Magazine” has a decreasing or increasing subscription list?

      Jack Savage
      Ex-member of Greenpeace.

      Reply

  • Artesian September 6, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    This is an evidence based scientific issue that remains unsettled. The ad hominem approach above adds nothing to our understanding of the climate. oreover, major portions of the global database have been ignored by the CO2 cohort. There is a large body of evidence accumulating that suggests the sun, among other entities, has an influence on cooling and warming the entire solar system. Since this is not reviewed by the UN IPCC, conclusions asking for the unwinding the carbon economy need to be sceptically analysed in the interest of science. The precautionary principle is not part of the scientific method.

    Reply

  • Lloyd Burt September 29, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Just an article full of a “they’re right so you should believe them” mentality…trying to paint a picture of scientific certainty where there is none…and slander anyone that dares to disagree.

    Most people would be (and will eventually be) appalled at how badly twisted the “science” of climatology has been by green groups, political processes and media sensationalism. There are natural cycles and MOST of the warming of the last few decades was a part of that cycle. We are now experiencing 40% of whatever “forcing” we should expect from a doubling of CO2 and yet since the 1880s warm period peak the earth has only warmed .6C! Since the 1940s warm period peak the earth has only warmed .4C

    Reply

  • Sime September 30, 2010 at 4:16 am

    “This is an evidence based scientific issue that remains unsettled”

    So provide the peer reviewed scientific evidence, from qualified climatologists that back up your claims.

    “The science isn’t settled”, denier canard number 78 up on Skeptical Science

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/settled-science.htm

    “There is a large body of evidence accumulating that suggests the sun, among other entities, has an influence on cooling and warming the entire solar system”

    No there is not, the sun is at a solar minimum and just starting to become active again, what you have claimed is another denier canard, please provide your peer reviewed evidence or stop spouting stuff that has been made up by the very people the article above is discussing.

    “It’s the sun”, denier canard number 1 on Skeptical Science.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/solar-activity-sunspots-global-warming.htm
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/acrim-pmod-sun-getting-hotter.htm
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/solar-cycles-global-warming.htm
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727793.100-the-sun-joins-the-climate-club.html
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Sf_UIQYc20

    You might learn something about the subject at realclimate below, and yes it’s really complex, which is exactly why we have experts who spend their entire careers doing this stuff, strange as it may seem 97% of them agree with the science yet you don’t, and you are a “qualified climate scientist?” Or are you just repeating stuff you saw somewhere on the internet because you are angry and probably scared?

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/index/

    Question..If you or a member of your family had the miss fortune of being diagnosed with cancer would you argue with your doctor, OK so you get a second opinion, not good enough for you OK so 97% of all doctors in the world tell you you have cancer you still going to argue, after all cancer science is not settled and apparently you are better versed in climate science then the experts so why not cancer specialists…

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm

    “…major portions of the global database have been ignored by the CO2 cohort.”

    Which portions, explain what that means, and having done so please provide references to credible sources to backup what is meant by said claim or please stop inferring that scientists are in some way dishonest and part of some conspiracy of omission, quite frankly they have better things to do.

    The oil companies and their cohorts have huge sums of money, they have had 40 years to set up labs and employ the best of the best to study the science and blow it apart allowing them to continue their madness, crow like cockerels, wear their “Told You So” T-Shirts and collect their Nobel prizes. Have they succeed… no, will they succeed no… because “no surprise” the science is sound ergo they resort to the tactics of FUD as described above.

    These are the same PR firms and individuals that sat in front of the US Senate and claimed “Smoking does not cause cancer” yeah right!

    So if the scientists are wrong (and assuming we do something) we get a cleaner planet with clean reusable infinite energy and the chance of a reasonable climate.

    If you are wrong and we do nothing (means emissions will continue to increase), sooner rather than later all hell will break loose and millions, probably billions will die for nothing other than greed, stupidity and an insistence on using an 18th century energy technology, and the stupid bit is the energy source you want to continue using is finite so we will have to change over 30 to 40 years anyway.

    In the mean time perhaps you can solve this conundrum for us dumbo scientists by answering 1 and 2 below…

    If increases in CO2 are not causing modern day global warming then two things must be true:

    1) Something unknown is suppressing the well-understood greenhouse effect (and doing so during massive increases in GHGs).

    2) Something unknown is causing the warming that mirrors the GHE.

    So we can accept what we know to be true (AGW) or we accept two unknowns.

    – Proffessor Scott A Mandia 18/08/2010

    http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/index.html

    I’ll trust the lives of my friends, family and the rest off humanity and other life on the planet to the scientists rather than a bunch of greedy oil men and their hangers on.

    Reply

    • Allan Spear September 30, 2010 at 4:43 pm

      Why don’t you d a bit of real research yourself. If you had made an honest attempt to check on your assertion that “Big Oil” was funding the “deniers”, you would soon realise that “Big Oil” is well positioned to profit from carbon trading and alternative energy resources. “Big Oil” contributes far more to bed-wetting AGW alarmists than they do to “deniers”. It is pathetically dishonest or monumentaly ignorant to suggest that sceptics receive anywhere near as much funding as the alarmists.

      The entire AGW scam is based on seriously flawed, notoriously inadequate computer moddeling. Even if the modeld were perfect, the data is at best questionable! It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, AGW “the sky is falling” projections are being discredited and the retreat is gaining momentum. If the leading AGW promoters realy believed their own doomsday stories, they would be the first to reduce their own “carbon footprints” instead of living the high life with ever expanding “carbon footprints” and waistlines.

      Reply

  • humanpersonjr September 30, 2010 at 10:45 am

    The science is NOT settled.

    Too much jiggery-pokery has gone on in climate science, and now the genie of doubt is out of the bottle forever.

    Reply

  • Justa Joe September 30, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Charles Alexander, it’s clear to see how this guy presided over the catastophic decline in the credibilty and fortunes of Time magazine. It’s not even accurate to suggest that the fossil fuel industries bank roll climate skepticism, but If you had a business and people with essentially junk science and a political agenda were trying to put you out of business would you not seek to defend yourself?

    Reply

  • Untamed September 30, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Man cannot change the planet’s climate. However, the sun can and does. End of story

    Reply

  • Denis Ables September 30, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    The problem is that the major news media is paying way too much attention to the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming crowd.

    Acquaint yourself with the basics before pontificating:
    (a google-doc)

    http://docs.google.com/View?id=ddrj9jjs_0fsv8n9gw

    Reply

  • Bob Armstrong September 30, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    What’s pathetic is that someone who demonstrates such total ignorance of venerable math and physics that he cannot evaluate the “science” of AGW and recognize it as junk was paid as environmental editor for a MSM icon for over two decades . Real science isn’t a matter of presenting “sides” . It’s a matter of gaining , with much hard work a continually more accurate understanding of reality . And it is clear he has never put in the work .

    Reply

  • Brian G Valentine October 7, 2010 at 10:59 am

    If the world’s top climatologists are all convinced that the burning of fossil fuels is causing dangerous global warming, why do the media keep giving equal time to deniers?

    Because the theory behind “man-made global warming” garbage is an abject fraud, that’s why, and it has been hampering the economy and society for too long now (like about 10 years of really insane fanaticism about it).

    CO2 has been part of the atmosphere for like 4 billion years, at concentrations far higher than present, and 10 years of nothing happening but a lot of threats and bogus claims aren’t doing anything but hurting people.

    Get over your fantasy and get out of the way of other people who are sick of your sickness.

    Reply

  • Jon Binhammer October 15, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Wow, what is amazing is the vitriol that comes out of the mouths of the deniers, as these comments above clearly show. Why is that?

    Do they feel their ideology is threatened? Sadly, we are dealing with a particularly acute form of psychopathology, exacerbated by a certain media that spews the same vitriol, thereby encouraging those who share their ideology to do the same with impunity.

    As Sime (above) says: if climate scientists are wrong, but we move to a carbon-neutral economy,gradually replacing a fossil fuel based economy, where’s the harm in that? We’ll have to do it anyway, as fossil fuels are not infinite, and are increasingly much more difficult to obtain, as evidenced in the Gulf.

    Cooler heads, and tongues, are needed. Sadly, the state of discourse has declined markedly.

    Reply

  • ping ping October 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    How cute to hear the layman arguing his little case against AGW. Save science for the scientists.

    Elitist? Well if you’re so sure you’re right then how about YOU go to university and become an atmospheric physicist? Then your opinion will be worth something.

    Reply

  • Lance November 27, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    It amazes me, that when George W. Bush was president all the climate change deniers were collectively shouting, “Global warming/climate change is not happening!” As soon as Obama became president all the deniers changed their tune to say, “Global warming/climate change is happening but the cause is the sun!” or whatever catch phrase they are regurgitating from Fox news this week.

    At this rate, in about two more Presidencies all the deniers will finally believe in science! Yea for optimism!

    Then maybe we could get back to a time, pre 1970’s, when Republicans also felt the need to protect the environment and passed the legislation to do so with bi-partisan appeal.

    But alas, corporate greed has taken over the nation, as we blindly slide behind the rest of the world in math, science, and overall well-being.

    Reply

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