Sunday, February 26, 2017

When Truth Has to Sit in the Back of the Bus: How Journalistic Conventions Undermine Consensus on Climate Change

If you're wondering how the country became controlled by a science-denying president and political party, it's worth taking a look at how climate change is reported by the mainstream press. Below is an "embedded critique" in which a Boston Globe article on climate change is examined paragraph by paragraph, to see how its structure and content sustain controversy and doubt despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, human-caused, and a grave threat to our future.

Here is a summary of what this fine-grained look revealed:
  • Controversy and uninformed, contrarian views are front-loaded--in the headline and first half of the article--while compensatory truth, good news and growing agreement (colored brown to reveal the pattern) is forced "to the back of the bus" (the end of the article, which many readers don't reach). I explain in the critique how this article structure could be serving to perpetuate political polarization and paralysis.
  • Use of the word "skeptic" in the context of climate change falsely implies a tough-mindedness in people who lack any skepticism about their own stubbornly ill-informed views. A more accurate term would be "rejectionist".
  • The article applies a corrupt form of populism, in which the opinions of highly visible but inadequately trained meteorologists are given equal weight with those of climate scientists.
  • Readers are left uninformed about the basic mechanisms that drive global warming. Just as campaign coverage focuses on the horse race, and coverage of forest fires describes the damage while offering no insights into fire ecology, coverage of climate change indulges contrarian views while leaving readers ill-equipped to resist false assertions.
The embedded critique below, of a Feb. 13, 2017 article by David Abel, an experienced journalist with the Boston Globe, shows how misleading this seemingly mainstream journalism can be. My comments are formatted left, while the article's text is indented. 

(Click below on "Read more" to access the article.)

Mish Michaels isn’t alone: Many meteorologists question climate change science

While the article's headline emphasizes doubt, the article's beginning seems harmless enough, comparing meteorologists to astronomers and climate scientists.
They observe changes in the atmosphere like astronomers study the stars, analyzing everything from air pressure to water vapor and poring over computer models to arrive at a forecast.
But for all their scrutiny of weather data, many meteorologists part ways with their colleagues —climate scientists who study longer atmospheric trends — in one crucial respect: whether human activity is causing climate change.
But meteorology, which only requires a bachelors degree, is not comparable to astronomy and climate science--professions where advanced training at the PhD level is the norm. Barely half of TV weathermen even have that bachelors degree in meteorology, and few or none publish research about climate change in professional journals. So the article begins by creating false impressions of equivalency, magnified by the word "colleague", which falsely suggests equal authority.
Meteorologists are more skeptical than climate scientists, and that division was underscored by the recent departure of Mish Michaels from WGBH News.
The word "skeptical" is extremely misleading when discussing climate change. It implies a tough-mindedness, but invariably refers to doubt aimed at others' views rather than one's own. What has made science such a useful and powerful tool to extend our knowledge and transform our lives is that it forces the scientist to be self-skeptical. In science, you are expected to apply as much doubt to your own views as those of others.

We have seen repeatedly that doubters of climate science practice only a one-way skepticism. Rather than look at the totality of the evidence, they cherry pick whatever bits of fact or fiction confirm their own untested assumptions. Their quickness to challenge scientific consensus is born not of a tough-minded refusal to go with the flow, but of their refusal to challenge their own views.

So, to claim, as this article does, that "Meteorologists are more skeptical than climate scientists" is patently false. Another article on this subject, in the Columbia Journalism Review, suggests in passing that a more accurate term for this one-way skepticism would be "rejectionism".
Michaels, a former meteorologist at WBZ-TV, lost her job as a science reporter at WGBH’s show “Greater Boston” last week after colleagues raised concerns about her views on vaccines and climate change. She had previously questioned the safety of vaccines and the evidence that human activity was causing global warming, both widely held views in the scientific community.
At this juncture, we're five paragraphs in to an article that up to this point raises doubts about climate change--in its headline, and by suggesting that disbelieving meteorologists are comparable in authority to climatologists who have far more, and far more relevant, training and experience. The article's lead photo is of Mish Michaels, a meteorologist whom many will consider a martyr who lost her job for daring to question the scientific consensus on vaccines and climate change. That overwhelming scientific consensus is portrayed weakly as "widely held views in the scientific community".
national survey last year by researchers at George Mason University in Virginia found that just 46 percent of broadcast meteorologists said they believed that climate change over the past 50 years has been “primarily or entirely” the result of human activity. By contrast, surveys of climate scientists have found that 97 percent attribute warming to human activity.
Are there really even 3% of climate scientists who don't attribute warming to human activity? The Boston Globe article actually misrepresents its source. In the study, the 97% figure refers not to climate scientists but to the articles they published. The study's authors conclude: "Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on anthropogenic global warming is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research." Even if a researcher publishes a study whose results don't confirm human caused global warming, the researcher may not pretend his or her one study refutes the overwhelming evidence pointing to human causes for the rapid climate changes afoot.

That "vanishingly small proportion" of doubt in the research nevertheless becomes an equal player in a news media eager to upset the applecart. Readers love to watch the maverick David dare to take on the status quo Goliath. This article feeds that appetite, yet by repeatedly featuring and giving false weight to contrarian views, the news media contributes to polarization unsupported by evidence.

The article portrays a Big Science that is stuffy and resistant to alternative views, but where are the news articles that report on the pressure journalists, business owners, teachers, and others feel, for instance in the conservative rural areas that voted for our science-rejecting president, to conform to the climate denying views of the neighbors they depend on economically and must socialize with daily? Climate scientists have no power to sway the news media or anyone else, but advertisers and customers do, and if those entities are against what climate scientists have found to be true, then the forces of conformity reside not in the scientific community but in the economic and political worlds.
“Weather forecasters are people, too, and their political ideology plays a role in their views,” said Ed Maibach, who directs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason and oversaw the study. “So conservative forecasters tend to be more skeptical than liberal forecasters.”
Finally, six paragraphs in, after many readers have already moved on, reason is given to question the authority of weather forecasters (shown in brown to better display how the scientific consensus only shows up late in the article--the equivalent of being relegated to the back of the bus). Even here, the issue continues to be described not in terms of overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change, but as the competing views of conservatives and liberals.

You will see the word "skeptic" used misleadingly throughout the article to refer to those who direct their skepticism only outward, and only towards specific subjects like climate change.
Among those skeptics is Tim Kelley, who has issued weather forecasts on New England Cable News since 1992. He describes himself as a “student of climate change,” but says his experience with the variability of computer models has made him skeptical that anyone can predict how greenhouse gases will change the environment in the coming decades.
“How can their computer models be better than ours?” he said. “We look at computer projections all the time, and we know how off they can be.”
Kelley acknowledges the climate is changing, but like many skeptics he questions whether rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the reason. He believes most of the changes are natural, not man-made.
This would be a good place to insert a short explanation of how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps the earth warm enough to live on, but how too much of it endangers life as we know it. Instead, Kelley's assertion about carbon dioxide, totally at odds with physical and chemical realities, is left unchallenged, and is instead offered just as one more view in a giant public soup of opinion, where all flavors have equal validity.

Where do readers actually find out how global warming works, so they don't succumb to Kelley's rejectionism? At the very least, the article could offer a link to an authoritative source. The biggest threat people face today is not Big Science or Big Government, but Big Ignorance. Against Big Ignorance, science is the David taking on the economic and political entities that profit from maintaining doubt and useful fictions.

The news media is not doing its job to protect readers from Big Ignorance. While covering controversy, the article leaves readers uninformed about basic mechanisms, just as campaign coverage, while covering the horse race, leaves people uniformed about issues.

Since the article offered no information on the mechanisms driving global warming, here's my own version:

Injecting more and more carbon dioxide into the air from our chimneys and exhaust pipes is essentially making a thicker and thicker blanket around the earth. Venus is 900 degrees not so much because it's closer to the sun, but because its atmosphere is choked with carbon dioxide. To maintain steady overall temperature, the earth must radiate off as much heat as it constantly receives from the sun. When sunlight strikes the earth, that energy is turned into heat. Carbon dioxide and other global warming gases act like a selective filter. They allow the sunlight in unimpeded, but act like a blanket to hinder the escape of heat. We need a certain amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to keep the earth warm, but as more and more carbon dioxide is injected into the atmosphere from underground stores of fossil fuels, more and more of the sun's energy remains trapped on the earth. We know how even a small change in our bodies' temperature affects its functioning, and the earth is equally sensitive to even slight changes in overall temperature.

Now, back to the article.
“I’m much less alarmed by global warming than most people,” he said. “I’d rather it be warmer.” 
What's alarming is that Kelley, as someone of influence, feels no compunction to question his own highly egocentric views. By not mentioning the vast threat climate change poses to oceans, agriculture, political stability around the world, forests, and coastline real estate, the article leaves readers helpless to discern how narrow-minded and irresponsible is Kelley's preference for "warmer".
Kelley said he was deeply concerned by what he sees as Michaels’s firing. “It’s alarming that you can be scapegoated or branded as a denier,” he said. 
Officials at WGBH did not return messages seeking comment, and earlier said simply that Michaels’s departure was a personnel matter.
The implication is that a journalist is being punished by a PBS station for her questioning of the scientific consensus on climate change and immunizations. But could it be that her contrarian views reflect a stubborn resistance to accept overwhelming evidence--a debilitating trait for a serious journalist?

Strangely, the motivations of meteorologists are never questioned. Tim Kelley is a cable news weatherman whose job depends on him being popular. He wants to reward his audience with good weather, or commiserate with them and applaud their resilience when suffering through bad weather. If he reminds them that they are both victims and participants, that their lifestyles are contributing to a destabilization of the climate upon which civilization depends, he risks losing market share.
In a statement last week, Michaels said her “personal beliefs as a private citizen have been positioned inaccurately,” and maintained that she never claimed not to believe in vaccines. “Scientific consensus does not equal complacency. It is a challenge to scientists to verify the science or push it forward,” she said.
In a second statement, Michaels said she was “not a climate change denier.” “I never stated that humans do not have an influence on our climate,” she wrote. “Scientists are trying to determine the human impact and how to mitigate or adapt to shifts in our complex climate puzzle. I have deep respect for climate scientists and their challenging mission.”
Again, in newspapers where precious little information about how climate change works can be found, valuable column inches are being taken up by a very, very minor controversy about alleged victimhood.

Finally, as if to balance all the false weight given to uninformed views at the front end of the article, the journalist explains why we shouldn't take all those doubts about climate change seriously after all. As in many articles that use conflict to stir reader interest, truth, growing agreement and good news have to sit in the back of the bus. Though the headline and first section of the article suggest otherwise, there's actually a trend towards meteorologists accepting that climate change is real and human-caused.
Maibach, whose study was funded by the National Science Foundation, said that while broadcast meteorologists are generally more skeptical of human activity causing climate change, nearly all — 99 percent of the 646 broadcast meteorologists he surveyed — acknowledged that the earth’s climate is changing, whatever the reason.
Meteorologists have grown more accepting of the scientific consensus on climate change, surveys show. A study he just completed, though not yet published, found an increase in the percentage of meteorologists who attributed climate change to human activity.
Now, why wasn't that the headline for the article? Something like: "Studies show growing number of meteorologists accept that climate change is real and human caused"
In a separate survey of members of the American Meteorological Society, Maibach found that 67 percent said they thought climate change is entirely, largely, or mostly caused by human activity. About 20 percent of the group’s members work for broadcast stations.
Despite the shift, environmental advocates are disturbed about the sizable ranks of broadcast meteorologists who remain skeptics, particularly given their public influence.
“It’s definitely concerning,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, director of Climate Matters, a New Jersey program that seeks to help meteorologists reflect climate change in their reports. The group provides broadcast-ready graphics and educational materials to 375 of the nation’s 2,200 TV meteorologists.
Placky said she tells skeptics that there’s a vast difference in the data that weather forecasters and climate scientists use in their computer models. Unlike weather forecasts, climate models are far broader in scope, she said.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out in the public, and meteorologists have a lot going on,” she said. “But they should know that climate models take into account the entire climate system.”
Paul Gross, a meteorologist with WDIV-TV in Detroit for the past 34 years, said he tries to help viewers understand that while weather is a reflection of day-to-day changes, climate change is caused by the slow accumulation of those changes over time.
“Weather is the little picture; climate is the big picture,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a politically motivated conversation that seeks to confuse the public.”
Rob Eicher, a former weekend meteorologist at WHDH-TV in Boston, said viewers shouldn’t put too much stock in weather forecasters’ views on climate change. “It’s like asking a podiatrist for help when you have chest pains,” he said. “It’s a different specialty.”
He also pointed to politics as the cause of many skeptical forecasters, especially those who work at stations run by right-leaning owners. “What people need to understand is that there’s a completely different set of physics in understanding weather and climate changes,” he said. “We can predict tides years and years in advance, but I can’t tell you what the wave heights will be in a few days from now. Climate deals with much larger issues.”

Viewed as a whole, the article seems to be divided up into two. The first half is weighted towards controversy, where those who question or reject the overwhelming evidence of human caused climate change are quoted freely. The second half explains why we shouldn't give attention to the rejectionists whom the article just gave lots of attention.

People who read more deeply, who are more apt to accept the findings of the climate scientists who themselves have delved far more deeply into climate science than meteorologists, will be validated by the article's second half. Much of the tension the article creates for these readers, wading through an article front-loaded with mischaracterizations and ill-informed quotes, is whether truth will have its day.

By contrast, people who think more superficially, who are more susceptible to superficial arguments like Kelley's "I'd rather be warmer", and who want to believe that climate deniers are being victimized, will find their views reinforced by the article's headline and first paragraphs, and likely not read further.

Thus, a large percentage of readers will come away satisfied that their views have been validated. In this way the article reinforces polarization and--because precious little information about climate change itself makes it into the article--sustains the vacuum of knowledge within which shallow controversy and false skepticism can prosper.

None of us are heroes here. We're all burning the fossil fuels, and as readers, we are drawn to controversy and intrigue. Given the financial challenges newspapers face, it's not surprising that the Boston Globe would feed our appetites with junkfood controversy. But the alarm bells for democracy and a livable planet are ringing, and journalism still thinks evil is hidden behind closed doors. It's still trying to get the scoop on the latest hidden scandal, while the greatest threats to our nation and democracy are all around us--in the form of machines releasing ever more carbon up into the air, and empowered ignorance.

Notes: I used a similar embedded critique approach with another misleading Boston Globe piece about invasive species, as well as for opeds and articles in the New York Times, and a syndicated radio program. I highly recommend the Columbia Journalism School article mentioned above (Hot Air: Why don't TV weathermen believe in climate change?) Though it uses the word "skepticism" in the above-described misleading way, it opens one's eyes to all the contrarian thinking out there.

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