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The Asymmetric Media War on Climate Change: No Cause for Alarmism?

September 27, 2010

Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge is a theory that attempts to quantify bias in media reporting, and the effect it has on the science itself as well as public opinion. Freudenburg and Muselli 2010 examines this phenomena and finds that far from the predictions of climate science being exaggerated, there is a systematic bias that may diminish or conceal the true potential dangers we all face, and that this bias may seriously affect the work of bodies such as the IPCC. This is an analysis of the paper, the full text of which can be found here (PDF).

The epithet ‘alarmist’ is often used by climate contrarians to describe those who support the findings of climate science and the IPCC sythesis reports that summarise those findings. Contrarians claim that the findings of climate science are exaggerated and dramatised. Some go so far as to suggest the science itself is faulty, displaying confirmation bias or methodologies that favour ‘warmist’ outcomes to the exclusion of competing theories. It is equally common to hear claims that ‘non-conformist’ science is suppressed, that the mainstream media systematically excludes dissenting voices, that the reporting of climate change is not ‘balanced’ because one side of the argument (Anthropogenic Global Warming, or AGW) is being favoured while ‘other explanations’ are ignored.

Two accusations then: the future implications of climate science, both cause and effect, are exaggerated, and media coverage of climate change is biased, in favour of the AGW theory. Both claims are testable, and falsifiable. There is also a third hypothesis; if the media displays a bias, what effect might this bias have, if any, on the science itself. Could media coverage influence the work of a body set to study and report on that science, like the IPCC?

The Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge

We are all aware that the media reports overwhelmingly in favour of bad news in current affairs. There is no attempt at balance e.g. a nice story for every horrid one. Over time, the public perception may change, unduly influenced by the unremitting tide of bad news with little or nothing to balance its depressing implications. The same may be true in the context of scientific enquiry; the potential for influence on the science itself has been considered in light of a theory called Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge (ASC). In a 2010 paper by William Freudenburg and Violetta Muselli at the Environmental Studies Program, University of California, they explain ASC in terms of potential bias :

“The bias that is expected by the ASC perspective… involves systematic error, rather than individual prejudice. [The] Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge — attacks on new findings or hypotheses that might push scientific consensus in one direction [‘alarmist’], combined with an absence of comparably vigorous challenges to new findings or hypotheses that might have the opposite effect [‘contrarian’] — can lead to an initially imperceptible but cumulatively significant bias in what comes to be taken as the prevailing scientific consensus”.

‘What comes to be taken as the prevailing scientific consensus…’ – that’s what the IPCC were formed to report on. If the theory of ASC could be shown to apply, this would have profound implications on the IPCC reports, because it would suggest that far from exaggerating the effects of climate change, it becomes entirely possible they’ve been severely underestimating the dangers. It is this possibility that Freudenburg and Muselli set out to investigate, by comparing the conclusions of scientific papers with media coverage of them. 

To avoid any taint in their own work, the authors chose to study four newspapers “…whose work consistently displayed bias against the findings of climate change science, usually expressed by repeated claims that findings are ‘in dispute’”.

After analysing two discrete time periods, this is what they found:

“During both periods, new scientific findings were more than twenty times as likely to support the ASC perspective than the usual framing of the issue in the U.S. mass media”.

By ‘usual framing’ they mean the way that the papers in question claim findings are ‘in dispute’, when in fact there is little or no dispute at all (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Boykoff, 2008). This artefact in the reporting may be claimed to represent ‘balance’, a notion of ethical journalism normally applied to adversarial arenas such as politics and that has only a rather tentative role in science journalism. (A frequent comparison for context is evolution, where the media would find it necessary to give creationism equal space for reasons of ‘balance’, where in fact the two views are not comparable and cannot be debated under the same terms). The authors comment on this supposed ‘balance’: 

“The findings indicate that supposed challenges to the scientific consensus on global warming need to be subjected to greater scrutiny, as well as showing that, if reporters wish to discuss ‘‘both sides’’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate ‘‘other side’’ is that, if anything, global climate disruption may prove to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date…”   “Precisely because of the ongoing pattern of criticisms toward climate science in general, and the IPCC in particular, work on the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge (ASC) predicts that the overall effect on science will be precisely the opposite of the usual charges in the U.S. mass media—that is, that scientific consensus estimates such as those from the IPCC should be expected to underestimate the severity of climate disruption taking place”.

But the authors note the effects of ASC are not confined to media reporting   of science, but may actually affect the interpretation of results:

“The ASC expectation, more specifically, is that the scientific outcome is likely to be precisely the opposite of the one that is most often feared — in the case of global climate disruptions, a bias toward underestimating rather than overestimating likely climate disruptions — precisely because so much of the prevailing pattern of scientific challenge has had the opposite focus and concern”.

By way of example, the authors considered the difference between the IPCC assessments of putative disruption and the more recent 2009 UNEP report:

“The expectations for global climate disruption in the UNEP Climate Change Compendium (2009) are noticeably more grave than those presented in earlier IPCC assessments. That Compendium analyzed more than 400 major studies that were published after the IPCC’s most recent Assessment Report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007), and as noted earlier, it concluded that climate disruption appears more severe than would have been expected on the basis of the earlier appraisals from the IPCC. Particularly in the U.S., however, IPCC assessments have been portrayed, repeatedly, as having overstated the scientific evidence on climate disruption”.

The  authors also referred to previous  research supporting the assertion that there  was a consistent and deliberate  reframing of climate science to suit contrarian  agendas:

“Investigative journalists (see e.g. Harkinson, 2009) have noted the potential for contrarian attacks to be seen in a wider range of countries in the future, due to ‘‘a loose network of some 500 organizations in dozens of countries,’’ bankrolled by organizations such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation — a ‘‘thinktank incubator’’ that receives financial support from fossil-fuel corporations such as ExxonMobil. “Other research has focused on the contrarian literature, in particular. The most careful study of this research, to date, found that almost all of the English-language books expressing environmental skepticism have come directly from a small number of what Jaques et al. (2008) characterize as ideological, ‘‘conservative think tanks.’’ Of the 141 books they identified, 130, or 92%, came directly from a handful of ‘‘conservative think tanks’’ such as the Heartland Institute. The criteria of Jaques et al., moreover, were unambiguous — the books’ authors worked at those think tanks, the books were published by those think tanks, or both (see also Dunlap and McCright, 2010).”

Unequal and Opposite Reactions

While media bias and pressure groups may affect the public perception, how can ASC affect the science itself? The authors ascribe the possibility to the traditional scepticism of the scientific method, which demands constant re-evaluation and open-mindedness – qualities again said by its detractors to be lacking in climate science: 

“Mainstream scientists are strongly motivated by norms of ‘‘being fair,’’ even to points of view with which they personally disagree. Ironically, if such individual commitments to ‘‘fairness’’ are exercised within a broader context where views on one side of an issue have been subjected to substantially greater challenges than those on the opposing side, the net result may well be a collective bias — an excessive readiness to accept the views that have not been examined as carefully. The bias that is expected by the ASC perspective, accordingly, relates to one typical dictionary definition of the term, but not to another — it involves systematic error, rather than individual prejudice”.

Another form of bias is the ‘old news’ effect, where results confirming the consensus receive little or no attention since they are not topical:

“An additional, potentially complicating factor is that scientific journals prefer to report ‘‘findings,’’ rather than ‘‘non-findings,’’ and that new evidence on any issue may be more likely to receive attention if it indicates that the problem is ‘‘worse than previously thought,’’ or ‘‘not as bad as previously thought,’’ rather than simply concluding that ‘‘past estimates were roughly correct.’’ 

Real World Results

If ASC was distorting the popular understanding of climate change, and the widespread bias had an element that was clearly deliberate, what purpose would be served by, for example, paying lobbyists to promote an anti-science agenda? The answer, the authors suggest, is likely found in the murky corners of commercial interest:

“If most scientific articles end by concluding that ‘‘further research is necessary,’’ and if regulatory action can be delayed until there is no longer any need for further research, then it may well prove possible for an industry to delay effective regulation for years, or even indefinitely, while waiting for research findings to become definitive. One article has even concluded that such a pattern is so widespread that it deserves its own name — ‘‘Scientific Certainty’’ Argumentation Methods, or SCAMs — and it is clear that U.S. policy regarding the regulation of global warming gases has been consistent with the expectation for effective regulations to be delayed (Freudenburg et al., 2008; see also Michaels, 2008; Dietz and Rycroft, 1987; McCright and Dunlap, 2000, 2003).”

Conclusions

The authors identify clear indications of Asymmetric Challenge to Science, but they also caution against over-interpretation. None the less, the last line of the conclusions presented here is emboldened to highlight the implication:

“Overall, it would be premature to consider the present study’s findings to be definitive. It is not too soon, however, to conclude that, based on the best evidence available to date, consensus statements such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are highly unlikely to represent the kind of ‘‘exaggerated fears’’ often claimed by those who deny the reality or scientific credibility of findings on global climate disruption. There is significantly stronger support for the testable prediction from work on the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge — namely that, far from overstating the degree of change that is likely, scientific consensus statements such as those provided by the IPCC are more likely to understate the actual degree of climate disruption taking place. “These findings need to be considered in conjunction with other recent findings in the peer-reviewed literature. Particularly noteworthy are two sets of findings — those of Oreskes (2004), showing that any supposed ‘‘debates’’ among scientists were remarkable mainly for their absence from leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, and those of Jaques et al. (2008), demonstrating that almost the entire English-language literature expressing climate denialism was produced by a small number of ideologically oriented ‘‘think tanks’’ that in many cases received significant fractions of their funding from fossil-fuel companies. When considered in conjunction with one another, the accumulated findings in this paper and in the broader peer-reviewed literature have clear implications, as well, for credible reporting on ‘‘climate debates.’’

“If the intention is to offer true balance in reporting, the scientifically credible ‘‘other side’’ is that, if the consensus estimates such as those from the IPCC are wrong, it is because the physical reality is significantly more ominous than has been widely recognized to date”.

Freudenburg, W.R., Muselli, V., Global warming estimates, media expectations, and the asymmetry of scientific challenge. Global Environ. Change (2010), doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2010.04.003

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. King In Yellow permalink
    September 27, 2010 7:26 pm

    Thanks for highlighting this paper.
    Very interesting !

    All the best.

  2. Dr. Tom permalink
    September 28, 2010 12:04 am

    Thank you very much for calling attention to this paper and for your analysis. It made my day! We need more of this.
    Tom

  3. September 30, 2010 8:01 pm

    Thanks for this Graham. It’s a shame I find scientific papers so devilishly hard to understand. Important stuff nonetheless, I promise to keep reading it until I can pass a coherent comment 😉

  4. adelady permalink
    October 1, 2010 12:59 am

    Is the latest Royal Society statement an instance of this process in action?

    hengist, I know what you mean. If it’s something I’m not competent on I read the conclusions over and over again until I’m sure I’ve got that straight. Then re-reading the meat of the paper you can see where they’re going. It may not be the “correct” way to analyse papers, but it’s a quicker way to get the arguments. I get very frustrated reading something the whole way through and then feeling mystified or confused when I get to the conclusions.

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