False Objectivity in Science Reporting

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Last week Sen. James Inhofe, a staunch conservative Republican from Oklahoma and chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, received an award for his support of "rational, science-based thinking and policy-making." This is the same Inhofe who has suggested that human-caused global warming is a "hoax" – a fringe view that should hardly form the scientific basis for policy decisions. But no matter: Inhofe's award came from the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy, a group that received 80 percent of its funding from the National Association of Manufacturers as of 1997, according to a contemporary expose in the Wall Street Journal, and that today receives funding from ExxonMobil. For these guys, Inhofe is a regular Einstein.

The astonishing spectacle of Inhofe receiving a science award points to a disturbing truth of American politics today. Science is a highly partisan and politicized issue, and both sides in the climate debate claim scientific support for their positions. In fact, during last year's Senate debate over the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, Inhofe's arguments against the bill were as much scientific – or rather, pseudoscientific – as economic= You can hardly blame him: A wide range of industries, most notoriously tobacco, have realized that sowing doubt about science is a great way of preventing policy action. Given that scientific findings are never absolutely definitive and always open to subsequent revision, this game is almost too easy to play.

Unfortunately, many journalists have been slow in learning how to deal with the strategic manipulation of science to serve political ends. In fact, they're still hooked on an outmoded concept of "objectivity" that science abusers regularly exploit to their own benefit.

In its most simplistic version, journalistic objectivity means that both sides on an issue should be balanced out against one another. But this definition collapses when it comes to scientific issues. Science isn't a democracy, and in practice, one side in a scientific debate is often much more reputable than another. Findings that have survived peer review, been published in leading journals, and replicated or confirmed by other scientists tend to have much stronger weight attached to them. The current consensus view of the climate science community – that humans are heating the planet through greenhouse gas emissions, though it's debatable exactly how much – is a good example of a robust scientific conclusion. It arises from the highly rigorous global peer review process conducted under the auspices of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and has been confirmed by the United States' own National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

By contrast, with a few exceptions, the views of conservative contrarians on the climate issue rarely find anything more than superficial support in the peer reviewed literature. However, the media allow these contrarians to get around this problem and keep debate alive through non-scientific channels. On newspaper op-ed pages and in he-said, she-said exchanges presented by news reporters, contrarians battle back against the scientific consensus. They're entirely in their element: Newspaper op-ed pages don't practice scientific quality control. And while career science writers may be well informed about the issues they cover, they may also feel compelled by journalistic canons to present the "other side" even when scientists themselves have stopped taking that side seriously.

For example, in the past year both the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have published op-eds by James Schlesinger, a former Secretary of Energy, Defense, and director of the CIA who has now taken to emphasizing the uncertainties of climate science (as a way of diminishing what scientists do know). In the Post, Schlesinger discussed limitations to the IPCC's analysis – a scientific critique launched not in a scientific journal but on an op-ed page. Indeed, when asked by Inhofe at a hearing to comment on Schlesinger's writings, University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann responded, "I am not familiar with any peer-reviewed work that he has submitted to the scientific literature."

In short, his history of public service notwithstanding, it's hard to see why we should credit Schlesinger's views on climate to the detriment of the IPCC or our own National Academy of Sciences. In addition, it's worth bearing in mind that Schlesinger sits on the board of directors of Peabody Energy, the biggest coal company in the world.

Reporting pieces on the climate issue often suffer from a similar problem. Consider a recent Associated Press article on the apparent effects of climate change in the American West. The piece devoted an entire section to the views of climate contrarians at conservative think tanks partly funded by industry. George Landrith of Frontiers of Freedom and Jeff Kueter of the George C. Marshall Institute were both quoted critiquing the notion that anything unusual is happening to the climate of the western United States. But readers were presented with far too little information about who Landrith and Kueter actually are and the role they play in the climate debate.

The article merely identified Frontiers and the Marshall Institute as "public policy" groups. In fact, both think tanks tilt conservative and receive funding from ExxonMobil to work on climate issues; and neither Landrith or Kueter appears to have advanced degrees in climate science (see here and here for their online bios). Landrith, for instance, is an attorney who, improbably, specializes in "constitutional law and jurisprudence, federalism, global warming, and property rights."

It's questionable whether a responsible reporter should quote non-experts at all on a topic such as whether climate change is impacting the United States. But at the very least, if industry-connected contrarians must be cited, you'd think they would be properly and completely identified. Yet all too often, that's not the case. For another example of the Marshall Institute's ExxonMobil ties going unreported in a story on climate change – this time in the Washington Post – see here.

In short, at a time when the use of rival "experts" has become a primary political strategy on scientific issues, reporters rarely seem to bother investigating who these experts actually are or to question their authority. There are many reasons for our current epidemic of politicized science, but one is that the media doesn't seem to care.

Chris Mooney is writing a book about conservatives and science. Visit his Web site at

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