“Experts say”: or how the media privileges outlier views

One man's view

One of the traps the media regularly falls into in the climate debate is privileging minority, or non-consensus, views in science and presenting them as a genuine alternative ‘in the debate”.

A recent article in the English language version of De Spiegal is a very good example of this (titled “A superstorm for global research warming research):

Plagued by reports of sloppy work, falsifications and exaggerations, climate research is facing a crisis of confidence. How reliable are the predictions about global warming and its consequences? And would it really be the end of the world if temperatures rose by more than the much-quoted limit of two degrees Celsius?

The author strives to present climate science as being in a “state of crisis”. However, the recent inquires and investigations in the UK have easily dismissed those claims. What is now clear is just how much of an ersatz “scandal” Climategate really was.

What is interesting is how the article tries to create further controversies by interviewing well known sceptics and scientists with minority opinions on climate change. These are the “outliers”, the individuals outside the “norm”. By doing so they confuse the public, presenting a “false balance” in their reporting.

Where there is no controversy, one is created.

Privileging outlier views

The article is almost a roll call of minority opinion. No mainstream climatologists or scientists are interviewed.

Steve McIntyre, the noted critic of climate science,  is presented as a “rebel”.  The article goes so far as to claim he “broke” the hockey stick:

McIntyre put the Mann curve to the arithmetic test. He accuses Mann of having filtered out the hockey stick graph more or less arbitrarily from the fluctuation noise of his tree-ring data. To prove his contention, McIntyre programmed his computer using Mann’s methodology and entered completely random data into the program. The results, says McIntyre, “was a hockey stick curve.”

The “broken hockey stick” is one of the myths of the denial movement. Originally created by Michael Mann, this now famous graph clearly shows rising temperatures over the past 100 years. Sceptical Science provides a good dissection of this myth:

A critique of the hockey stick was published in 2004 (McIntyre 2004), claiming the hockey stick shape was the inevitable result of the statistical method used (principal components analysis). They also claimed temperatures over the 15th Century were derived from one bristlecone pine proxy record. They concluded that the hockey stick shape was not statistically significant.

An independent assessment of Mann’s hockey stick was conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (Wahl 2007). They reconstructed temperatures employing a variety of statistical techniques (with and without principal components analysis). Their results found slightly different temperatures in the early 15th Century. However, they confirmed the principal results of the original hockey stick – that the warming trend and temperatures over the last few decades are unprecedented over at least the last 600 years.

McIntyre’s entire fame within the denial movement rests upon finding one tiny error. It did not “break the hockey stick”. And yet the De Spiegal article allows McIntyre to repeat outright falsehoods.

Indeed, the review of Mann’s work by the National Center for Atmospheric Research reconfirmed his conclusions. In addition there are multiple lines of evidence that support the “hockey stick” (again see Sceptical Science).

It is important to note that McIntyre is not a scientist.

McIntyre is the owner of “Climate Audit“, one of the premier “denialist” blogs on the Internet. He spent most of his career in the mining industry.

The are many other errors and misrepresentations in this article, in fact too many to have to go through and correct.

However this single example shows how sloppy research on the behalf of the journalist and a lazy approach to “fair and balanced” reporting can mislead.

5 thoughts on ““Experts say”: or how the media privileges outlier views

  1. Nescio says:

    Absolutely. The pernicious view held by *journalists* that when science tells us the earth is a sphere we need to balance that by introducing some *sceptic* pointing out the eart actually is flat is the hardest to overcome.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Indeed: the problem is compounded by the fact that the majority of people won’t take the time to critically examine such claims by researching them. As a consequence there are more likely to adopt the viewpoint of the journalist.

  2. manuelg says:

    But they are unlikely to change because they get rewarded with readership (because those who can tell the shit from Shinola will be already reading scientific blogs) and rewarded with access to employees of funded think tanks who supply sound-bites and copy, and rewarded because they slow down the change that terrifies their advertisers.

  3. sailrick says:

    I don’t think this problem is limited to the media, it may be happening in bookstores too.

    I was at Barnes and Noble today to buy a copy of “Climate Cover -Up” for a friend. They didn’t have any copies in the store. They said I could order it. Later, browsing the shelves, I didn’t see “Hell and High Water” nor Ross Gelbspan’s two books, “The Heat Is On” or “Boiling Point” nor “Science as Contact Sport”. They did have Hansens’s New book. There seemed to be more denier books than mainstream. That includes a few books by Roy Spencer, a book called Climate Gate and other skeptic books. The had both of Lomborgs books, but not “The Lomborg Deception”.

    A similar thing happened in Feburary when I was in LA’s San Fernando Valley. The local Barnes and Noble store didn’t have “Climate Cover-Up”. When the clerk looked it up on the computer, it showed that only one store out of five in the area had a copy of the book.

  4. Watching the Deniers says:

    That’s an interesting observation – I checked out a few book shop in Melbourne last week, and it most of the titles where “pro” AGW (or at least, pro science). I wonder how the US and Australian markets might differ in that respect?

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