Tag Archives: False Balance

Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: false balance and the perceived consensus

When I hear the complaint that there is a problem with false balance media coverage in the climate debate, then I am always surprised. False balance meaning both sides of the debate getting equal time, so the perception is that they are both equally likely, even when this is not the case. Personally, I am surprised because I hardly see this in practice. When there is a debate on climate change on for example our television, radio or newspapers, then it is between like-minded individuals from the alarmist side who might differ on some technicalities, but generally agree with each other.

Heck, when I look back to my believers years, then I can’t even remember who those “deniers” were or what they were standing for. If I heard a skeptical argument, then it came from an alarmist, who brought it in a denigrating way and then sabering it down. You know, THAT much balance.

This may differ in other countries of course. The Inoculation paper of Cook and Lewandowsky had one experiment devoted to false balance media coverage, so apparently, the authors considered it a big enough problem to devote one of the two experiments in their paper to it. I wondered in which country this is considered a problem. The study was approved by a Australian University, but the participants were recruited from the US population. Whatever the country may be, the skeptics there should be glad to have the opportunity to debate the other side on equal representation 😉

Experiment 1 in this paper investigates the effect of false balance on the perceived consensus of the participant, but also they investigated if it was possible to counteract this effect by “inoculating” the participants against it by showing in advance how a certain misconception works or by explaining in advance that there is a consensus.

There were 5 groups in this experiment:

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The lost Paradise

applebite

One of the things that changed when becoming more skeptical about global warming was my attitude towards climate. In my believers years I had a sense of (false) stability. I believed that the climate system was at its pinnacle and that we humans were adapted to it after so many centuries. But then, by emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, we added so much greenhouse gases that we are in the process of changing our climate.

Scientists in the media told us this time and time again. They are still telling it now. So why wouldn’t it be true?

Raised as a catholic this was something that sounded really familiar. We were accustomed to our specific climate and now, bang, by burning fossil fuels we were losing this safe and stable climate and we (or at least our children) will have to endure a changed, hostile climate. It has the Adam and Eve-story painted all over it. We bit the apple of emissions and now we were chased away from harmony of nature. We had it all, yet we blew it and now we have to pay for our sins.

Also from the environmental movements in the 1970s-1980s I got the image of “Mother Earth”. A poor figure collapsing under the unbearable pressure we load onto her. We humans were changing the earth. We were to blame, no doubt about that.

Another thing was my belief that the Nature was something incredibly feeble. Even a small change could knock it out of balance…

This is of course not what reality shows. I was living in an illusion. The climate is not static, it is not at its pinnacle either and it has the ability to balance. It is constantly evolving. We live in a world of extremes. The temperature difference between day and night can be dramatic. As between summer and winter. The same for other variables like precipitation. Even the climate (as an average of weather over decades) keeps on changing. It is more like a cycle than the straight line I envisioned it to be.

That poor Mother Earth image is not according to reality either. Mother Earth is also a raging mom. That feeble Mother Nature is much stronger than we are. Always have been in the past. As far as history learn us, countless (extreme) weather events killed countless humans over time. It didn’t just began to do this after we started burning fossil fuels. History is the witness we seem to neglect.

Nature and life are incredibly resilient. It should be in a ever changing world in which extreme events can and will happen. Humans have an incredible range in which they can live: from the freezing poles to the hot tropics. Gosh, there are animals and plants living there too. When looking closer, more species are living in the tropics than in the mid latitudes. The mid latitudes at its turn have more species than the poles. So I don’t really know were the fear of having less species in a warmer climate comes from. As my interest was always in Nature, I should have known such things. I guess emotions took over and abandoned reason.

In biology and ecology lessons I learned that all species live in their own niche. So even if species get extinct (happened in the past, happens now and surely will happen again in the future), those niches will be filled in by other, better adapted species.

Looking back to my not so distant past, it is no surprise that we think that by turning back the CO2 to pre-1950-levels we get back our paradise. Maybe that’s true, but that might be an illusion as well.

Consensus in, false balance out

alarmview

It is a mystery how someone can state with a straight face that there is a false balance on global warming reporting in the media.

False balanced being: the bias with which journalists present an issue as more balanced than the actual evidence supports. In Climatese this is explained like: 97% of the scientists believe that our CO2 emissions are the cause for global warming/climate change. Therefor it is not a good thing to spend equal representation on both, because this gives the impression that both are valid.

This was also the theme of Suzanne Goldenberg talk in “Crossing the 2014 Climate Divide: Scientists, Skeptics & the Media”. That’s how she explained it:

I think this is a problem when you come to the world of climate denial. Because these voices are very much at the fringe, right. And yet we are continuing to see these voices being inserted into coverage, as if they were part of the mainstream debate. And that really is not the case.

[…]

So I think, having the idea of false balance overstates the importance of what essentially are fringe groups that have thrust themselves in positions of prominence.

[…]

And yet this creates problems for journalists to a great degree. There is a false balance issue. I find, you know, if we take our traditional journalist way to cover things, that you have to take equal times on both voices. That creates a problem.

Mainly, a small, powerful, prominent group of people who make it difficult for journalists, because they have that incredible urge to give both sides equal time. Water comes into my eyes. Poor alarmists, they are so in the disadvantage in the media. 😉

Now back from the land of the unicorns to something called “reality”.

Some sort of balance on global warming reporting in the media? Huh? One needs to be seriously out of touch with reality to even consider believing that! If there is a balance, why don’t we hear more about the views of skeptic scientists, about the arctic ice for almost 1.5 year back in the 2 standard deviation, about the ever increasing antarctic ice, about the failed predictions, about the failed models, about the backpedaling on sensitivity and so on. Heck, there are people who aren’t even aware of something like the standstill in global temperatures. They think it is still ever warming. That is what the media is still telling us.

Back then when I was still a believer, I knew absolutely nothing about the views of skeptics scientists. Even when the skeptic vision was explained, it was done by the alarmists themselves, distorting it in a way they could claim that it is safe to ignore those skeptics with their wacky ideas. But when looking more deeper into the global warming issue, I came to realize that the skeptics were present on the Internet where they could talk freely. But you definitely had to search from them. The reporting of the alarmist views on the other hand is rolling unobstructed via the mainstream media. There are of course exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions. When following the mainstream media I still have the impression that there is not much improvement.

But why on earth declaring a balance that is not even there?!?!

It changes the public perception towards skeptics voices. It makes an emotional response to the public that consider the skeptic voices automatically as invalid without even looking at the issue.

Skeptical Science went into hyperbole mode and called it The epidemic of climate science false balance in the media:

Research has shown that people who are unaware of the expert consensus are less likely to accept the science and less likely to support taking action to address the problem, so media false balance can be linked directly to our inability to solve the climate problem.

For the public the consensus can be very important and without that consensus, there is no reason for excluding skeptic voices. No skeptic voices means only one united (alarmist) voice to the public.

That last part of the sentence is just a straw man. The “inability to solve the climate problem” has many other reasons than false balance. For example in our country where there are hardly any skeptic voices in the mainstream media and even an overwhelming majority of politicians who want to do “something”, there is hardly any action on climate change. There are many reasons why this is the case, but as far as I know, at least in our little country, false balance in the media is not one of them.

To me the big question beyond false balance is: What EXACTLY is there a consensus on? The answer could be very revealing.

Fair balance or censorship?

fair-balance

It doesn’t seize to amaze me when I hear people state that there is a false balance in media coverage in which a couple percent of skeptics get most of media coverage. This is a typical way in which it is being told:.

There is a false balance of media coverage where two or three percent of skeptics get close to 50 percent of the media coverage because the media feels that they have to show a balance where they are showing both sides of the issue. But in the process they are giving that two or three percent 50 percent of the coverage and actually creating a false balance and false perception that there is a big divide among climate experts about the cause of global warming.

Skeptics get 50% of the climate coverage? Really? Media that are compelled to show balance? On what planet those guys live? The realm of skeptics is mostly (specific sites/blogs on) the internet because there they can tell their story uncensored. If skeptics get that much media coverage as we are told, then we would at least hear things like:

  • The pause in global temperatures since 10-15+ years.
    In stead we learn that temperatures are ever rising.
  • The Antarctic ice cover is the largest since the start of the measurements.
    In stead we only learn that the Arctic is melting like crazy. Not a word about the Antarctic, unless there is a calving glacier (giving the illusion that it is melting there too)
  • Polar bears quadrupled to quintupled over the last 50-60 years.
    In stead we learn that polar bears are on the brink of extinction because of the melting ice
  • Positive effects of global warming.
    In stead we learn that increasing temperatures only have negative effects
  • Problems with climate models
    In stead we learn that scientists make definite statements about the results or at best admit that climate models could have problems in the past, but now are fine, yes sir
  • There are LESS storms than ever before.
    In stead we learn that number and/or strength of storms increase with global warming
  • Problems with the temperature measurements or datasets that are morphing in something unrecognizable.
    In stead we learn that scientists make definite statements based on those measurements
  • Backup fossil fuel power is needed because of the intermittent character of wind and solar energy.
    In stead we learn that solar and wind power could perfectly replace fossil fuel power if we want to
  • There are LESS forest fires than before.
    In stead we learn that forest fires are increasing because of global warming
  • Food production is increasing year by year.
    In stead we learn that global warming has a bad effect on food production
  • and many, many more.

These are the things that I wanted to learn from the mainstream media, but instead I had to look for them on the internet. When I found these thing out myself, I felt betrayed that the media doesn’t report on them and instead bring one sided stories or were the writers obviously didn’t check the data.

Another thing I found out by checking the messages in the media was that the scientists use a lot of weasel phrases. For example: the first time I checked a media story there was the statement that “the number of detected thunderstorms in the previous decades did increase comparing the 1980s to the last decade”. At such not a false statement, but when you don’t know there was a change in instrumentation in the beginning 1980s (which was able to capture more thunderstorms than ever before) this would add a different color to it. You have to be very familiar with the data to spot the weasel wording. What they say is not a lie, but it is not the truth either. There is truth in there, but for the layman it will be impossible to dissect it out of the statements. They will be put on the wrong leg reading it. This is no different with the “consensus” statement.

In a way, I can understand what they are saying (when giving a minority view the public perception could be that both have the same strength). But is this how science works?

Sure, when a minority view get as much coverage as a the majority view, it would give a perception that it is bigger than it is. But my experience is if something is told about skeptics, they are portrayed as villains that are wrong anyway, but keep on bickering on the scientists. That’s a completely different picture. This gives the perception that there are no legitimate skeptic scientists or skeptical arguments. That is as false as the first alarmist quote in the beginning of this post. This also gives a emotional response of the laymen if they encounter skeptical arguments, therefor ignoring them without even listen to the merits of their message (been there, done that).

I for one was really surprised to find out that there are scientists that don’t follow the party line. Even more surprise to hear they don’t really question the physical science, but the degree of effects of CO2, the level of certainty in statements, the abilities of the models,… They are basically saying: “Hey, not so fast” in stead of the assumed hindrance of the science. Suddenly it seemed to be a completely different story, but because of my emotional response I was not able to listen to the message previously.

In a chaotic system with scarce data and a lot of uncertainty, who is the expert? In a situation where climate scientists seem to take a political standpoint or act like advocates, who to belief? We hear time after time that the science is solid, but we don’t hear about the complexity and uncertainty, the lack of data, the over representation of models and that science is not ruled by consensus in the first place. In this case, who has to decide what is fair balance, what are the criteria and how to enforce it? And probably here comes the consensus theory of Cook et al and previous attempts into play. How is that 97% being counted? In Cook’s case it was 97% of scientists that had a opinion on global warming as assumed by Cook and his coworkers by reading the title and abstract, providing there was an abstract and it was 1,000 words or less. Why the media doesn’t bring some background and just criticalness write what they have been told?

Why all this effort to convince the people of the “consensus” among scientists?

As scientists become more overwhelmingly convinced that climate change is man-made, why do politicians and the public give credence to global warming skeptics?

A review of scientific literature published this week has found that 97 percent of peer-reviewed papers taking a position on global warming say humans are causing it. Yet, a large proportion of the US public still seems unconvinced.

That is the point. To me this is just a transparent way of seeking a carte blanche to censor the skeptic arguments. First stating a problem that doesn’t exist and then bring the solution by censoring the opposing voices. They want to convince the public (and among them politicians who depend on the voters) that there are no legitimate skeptic arguments. That is not a scientific way of seeing things. Although such statements can be made by (climate) scientists, the message is obviously not scientific, but political in nature. It could well be a smart way of eliminating opposing views.

Let’s look at it from the other side: if one tries to hide behind the consensus, stifle criticism and avoid debate, how sure is one that this science is really correct? Why not just prove it? That shouldn’t be a big deal if the science is soooo clear and the evidence soooo overwhelming.