“Scientists” and the media

Via Climate Progress, I see that the right wing news outlet Politico has an unconscionably misleading headline “Scientists urge caution on global warming” for a story that reads like a warmed-over Inhofe press release.  Several people are quoted in the article, including Senate aides John Hart and Marc Morano. But who are the “scientists” of the headline? Apparently retired meteorologist Joe D’Aleo and anti-regulation think tank favorite Patrick Michaels (along with a reference to the laughable Oregon Petition). So the headline is technically correct in the sense that “scientists” can mean “scientist +1″.

This reminded me of the Daily Mail’s deliberate misdirection when reporting Crowley and Hyde’s recent Nature paper. The headline and lede of the Daily Mail article were:

Global warning: We are actually heading towards a new Ice Age, claim scientists

It has plagued scientists and politicians for decades, but scientists now say global warming is not the problem.

We are actually heading for the next Ice Age, they claim.

Emphasis mine. The reporter is quite deliberately equivocating on the word “scientists” in order to give the impression that what in reality was a vigorously challenged single paper by two scientists (again, “scientist +1″) actually represented a sea change in mainstream scientific opinion.

These sometimes deliberately vague references to “scientists” as a stand in for scientific opinion on climate by the press are nothing new. They helped create the well-debunked myth that there was a scientific consensus on catastrophic cooling in the 1970s. The oft-cited TIME Magazine article “Another Ice Age?” is a classic example. Nowhere in the article are scientists actually quoted as predicting a new ice age. Rather the writer implies it by switching terms:

As they review the bizarre and unpredictable weather pattern of the past several years, a growing number of scientists are beginning to suspect that many seemingly contradictory meteorological fluctuations are actually part of a global climatic upheaval. However widely the weather varies from place to place and time to time, when meteorologists take an average of temperatures around the globe they find that the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing. Climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age.

Emphasis mine. The conflation of “scientists” with “Climatological Cassandras” is the same kind of reporting, either sloppy or intentional, that makes it so difficult for the lay reader to discriminate between mainstream scientific opinion and the opinion of a handful of scientists on the fringes.

It would be nice if in the future journalists and/or their editors would be clear in naming scientists and their organizations explicitly rather than using the blanket term “scientists” (or researchers, experts, -ologists, etc.) in order to avoid the impression, deliberate or accidental, that mainstream science is being substantively challenged rather than strengthened.

Of course “Two noted shills for the fossil fuel industry urge caution on global warming” wouldn’t generate nearly as much traffic and thus ad revenue…

[LATE UPDATE: Politico has done a bit of damage control, publishing a rebuttal letter from Grist, as well as offering an apologetic editorial comment on the stories. Aside from using this gaffe as a springboard to make a larger point about climate reporting, I didn't have a dog in this fight, so I consider the issue closed.]

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6 responses to ““Scientists” and the media

  1. Pingback: Wonk Room » Politico’s Erika Lovley Promotes Toxic Stupidity About Global Warming

  2. Pingback: Lovley Display of Scientific Ignorance

  3. Pingback: Lovley’s day for a climate bunfight - global warming petition project, weather channel, huffington post, carbon emissions, trade legislation, climate change, david roberts, gristmill, global cooling, aleo, national academy of sciences, american scientis

  4. See further discussion at Deltoid.

    I tentatively think that Politco screwed up, realized so, and have done a better-than-average job of recovering, and hence should be helped if possible via education.

  5. Pingback: Scientists Call AP Report on Global Warming 'Hysteria' - Page 2 - Trackpads Community

  6. Pingback: Global Warming Impacts On U.S. Coming Sooner Than Expected, Report Predicts - Trackpads Community

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