A Deeper Look At False Balance On PBS News Hour

by Dana Nucittelli, via Skeptical Science

We have previously criticized the mainstream media for favoring false balance over factually accurate scientific reporting when it comes to climate change.  In one of the worst examples of this unfortunate and counter-productive practice, the US Public Boadcasting Service (PBS), which is funded by both taxpayers and private donations, (for example, from the Koch brothers) aired a climate story on the PBS News Hour which began by featuring the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project’s Richard Muller, “balanced” with a subsequent interview of contrarian blogger Anthony Watts.

Ultimately, Watts’ comments suffered from a double standard, dismissing Muller’s comments as not yet being supported by peer-reviewed research, but offering his own opinions despite the fact that they were not only unsupported, but even contradicted by Watts’ own peer-reviewed research.


From Brad Johnson: Over 10,000 people have signed the Forecast the Facts petition asking the PBS ombudsman to investigate the segment and recommend corrective action. You can add your name here.

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Surface Temperature Record Accuracy

When asked to describe his ‘skepticism’ about human-caused global warming, Watts went into a long discussion about his concerns that encroachment of human development near surface temperature stations has introduced a bias into the temperature record.  However, what Watts failed to mention is that the scientific groups who compile the surface temperature record put a great deal of effort into filtering out these sorts of biases.

Watts also failed to mention that there have been many peer-reviewed scientific studies investigating whether these efforts have been successful, and they have almost universally concluded that those extraneous influences on the temperature record have been removed.  For example, Fall et al. (2011) concluded that for all temperature stations classifications with regards to the influence of urban influences, the long-term average global warming trend is the same.

“The lack of a substantial average temperature difference across classes, once the geographical distribution of stations is taken into account, is also consistent with the lack of significant trend differences in average temperatures….average temperature trends were statistically indistinguishable across classes.”

The second author on Fall et al. is a fellow who goes by the name of Anthony Watts.

There are also of course many ‘natural thermometers’ confirming the warming of the globe – rapidly rising seas, melting sea ice, melting land ice, etc. (Figure 1).

warming indicators

Figure 1: Natural thermometers indicating a warming world.

Peer-Review Irony

When asked about the research of Muller and the BEST team, which has also confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record, Watts provided a very ironic response.

“Unfortunately he has not succeeded in terms of how science views, you know, a successful inquiry. His papers have not passed peer review.”

Anthony Watts himself has published one peer-reviewed scientific paper – the aforementioned Fall et al., which confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record with respect to the average global surface warming.

On his blog, Watts has attempted to defend his claims on PBS news hour by referencing a preliminary, unsubmitted, unpublished paper he has drafted  which purports to identify problems in the temperature record.  However, that preliminary paper contains numerous fundamental flaws which entirely negate its conclusions, and since it has not passed peer-review, according to Watts’ own comments it is not “a successful inquiry.”

So we have Watts dismissing Muller’s comments because his research has not passed peer-review, and yet Watts’ own comments contradict the results of his own lone peer-reviewed paper.

Global Warming Attributed to Humans

After agreeing that global warming exists, Watts shifted over to the myth “it’s not us.”

“…the ability to attribute the percentage of global warming to CO2 versus other man-made influences is still an open question.”

This comment simply illustrates a lack of awareness of the body of peer-reviewed climate science literature.  A number of studies using a variety of different statistical and physical approaches have investigated how much various factors have contributed to global warming.  These studies have universally concluded that humans are responsible for close to 100% of the observed global surface warming over the past half century (Figure 2).

HvA 50 years

Figure 2: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

There is a fairly large degree of uncertainty in these figures, primarily because the magnitude of the cooling effect from human aerosol emissions is not well known.  However, the amount of warming caused by human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is known to a high degree of certainty, and these same studies have all found that GHGs are responsible for over 100% of the observed warming over this timeframe (Figure 3).

50-65 years

Figure 3: Percent contributions of various effects to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

Political Tools

In claiming that climate science has become too politicized, Watts claimed

“some of the scientists who are the leaders in the issue have become for lack of a better word, political tools on the issue.”

It is unclear to whom Watts refers here, since the few contrarian climate scientists like John Christy and Richard Lindzen have been trotted out before US Congress virtually every time a congressional committee has held a climate hearing.  It seems unlikely that Watts would refer to his fellow climate contrarians in such unflattering terms, but they do seem to best fit his description as “political tools.”

Watts on His Motives and Double Standards

At Skeptical Science it is against our site policy to speculate about a person’s motives, but in this case, Watts volunteered the information.

SPENCER MICHELS: What’s the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there’s lots of global warming?

ANTHONY WATTS: They want to change policy. They want to apply taxes and these kinds of things may not be the actual solution for making a change to our society.

It is interesting that Watts responds to a question about a science-based opinion with a criticism about policy.  For example, Watts is not most bothered that people are ignoring or unaware of the biases that he incorrectly believes exist in the temperature record.  No, Watts is most bothered that we might implement an economically-beneficial carbon tax.

In another related piece of irony, Watts criticizes his opponents for using “scare tactics” and then claiming that if they get their way, it will mean economic catastrophe.

“Some people don’t respond well to scare tactics and there have been some scare tactics used by some of the proponents on the other side of the issue….We can’t just rip all that up or change it in the space off five, 10 or 15 years because it’ll be catastrophic to our economy.”

Watts Fails Risk Management 101

At the interview, Watts illustrates that he understands neither pragmatism nor risk management.

“I would call myself a pragmatic skeptic…I think that some of the issues have been oversold, may have been oversold, because they allow for more regulation to take place.”

Pragmatism involves taking a practical approach to problem solving.  In terms of climate change, there is no more practical approach than implementing a carbon pricing system so that the costs of climate change are reflected in the price of the products which cause them.  Without knowing the climate costs of the products on the market, consumers cannot take those costs into account when making purchasing decisions.  Yet this pragmatic approach is exactly the one which Anthony Watts most fears.

There are also two key words in the quote above – “I think.”  We know that Anthony Watts personally believes that the consequences of climate change will not be very bad.  However, Watts’ opinion is contradicted by the body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.  There is a very slim possibility that Watts and his fellow contrarians are right and the consequences of climate change will be manageable.  However, when faced with the mere possibility of a catastrophic scenario, the proper risk management approach is to take steps to prevent that scenario from happening.  In our case, catastrophe is not just possible, it is the most likely outcome if we continue in a business as usual scenario.  It is in no way pragmatic to continue along this path.

Peer Review and False Media Balance

Ultimately Anthony Watts was correct to note that peer review is an important step in ensuring the accuracy of a scientific paper.  It is fair to criticize Muller for publicizing the BEST team results prior to their acceptance in a peer reviewed journal.

However, if we apply that same standard to Anthony Watts, his sole scientific argument against human-caused global warming falls apart.  Not only has the accuracy of the surface temperature record been confirmed by BEST and Watts’ own Fall et al. (2011), but also by a number of other peer-reviewed papers such as Peterson et al. (2003) and Menne et al. (2010).  If Watts believes these studies are flawed, he should attempt to demonstrate it in a peer-reviewed paper.  Until he has accomplished this, by his own standards his argument is invalid.

It is also very concerning that PBS interviewed Watts to begin with.  Watts only has one peer-reviewed study to his name, and it was not even mentioned in the interview.  In fact, that one peer-reviewed study contradicted the main argument Watts made in the interview.  The PBS interviewer also failed to challenge Watts’ many incorrect and hypocritical statements, instead tossing him one softball question after another.

Apparently Watts was recommended for the interview by the Heartland Institute.  PBS should obviously not be contacting a fossil fuel-funded global warming denying anti-science think tank which has previously compared climate realists to mass murderers for interview suggestions on a climate story.  This also isn’t the first time that PBS News Hour has consulted with the Heartland Institute to provide false balance for a climate story.

PBS has responded to criticisms of their News Hour piece here and here, essentially by saying that they have also interviewed climate scientists and done accurate reporting on climate change.  While we applaud their more accurate and informative climate stories, it does not excuse the Heartland-consulted false balance in this particular piece.  In fact, Michels admitted that he interviewed Watts to “hear more about the skeptical perspective,” which is the very definition of false balance – presenting “the other side” for the sake of presenting it, regardless of its factual accuracy.

We do appreciate that Spencer Michels referenced Skeptical Science in his follow-up post and provided an explanation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding how we know the temperature record is accurate (which referenced Menne et al. and Fall et al., as we did in the above post).  In fact, this would have been useful information to include in the original PBS News Hour piece – perhaps an interview with NOAA scientists instead of a blogger.  Instead, PBS sacrificed factually accurate scientific reporting for the sake of creating a false perception of balance.

Dana Nuccitelli is an environmental scientist at a private environmental consulting firm in the Sacramento, California area. This piece was originally published at Skeptical Science and was reprinted with permission.

23 Responses to A Deeper Look At False Balance On PBS News Hour

  1. Sou says:

    PBS lists this as its first principle:

    Editorial integrity: PBS content should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.

    It fell down very badly. There is no excuse.

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    Watt’s sold his soul there too.

    He tries to explain that he was once on the side of science – until he realized that tackling it ment that his vision of government free intervention would be necessary. He then switches over to be a ‘sceptic’.

    His acceptance of the science is block by his politics.

    The other irony is that in the interview he actually explains that the scientist are the ones with this bias as they are overstating GW to promote political change.

    Risk management 102
    Yes, people like Watt’s are willing to gamble the world for their political beliefs. A sorry story.

  3. BillD says:

    As someone who watches the News Hour almost every night, I am deeply disapointed with this segment. The News Hour format typically has both sides presented live, so that each presenter can respond to the other. For science, they often interview the scientist alone. That format may have helped. Allowing Watts to go on and on with discredited opinions was upsetting, especially where the other main presenters–the Mullers–are not climate scientists and do not have a good understanding of the literature. On the other hand, I can’t really accept that PBS and this show are trying to appease their contributors. Maybe I should be more cynical, but my view is that they gave Michels too much independence and he really messed up.

  4. dorlomin says:

    I think too many people focus on fossil fuel funding and ignore ego when looking at denialists. There is money out there (much of it not fossil fuel just reactionary anti government regulation money) but what really keeps these folk motivated in vanity. Its the cheap easy road to being a make believe scientist. Without having to do all those boring classes, all that work and research and take those tedious exams, by simply wafting a few ideas and lots of handwaving they get too feel like they are smart and important.

    What damages them most is not being taken seriously and being laughed at.

    I doubt many will be swayed by this program, its real damage though is in making the circus clowns feel important.

  5. Lore says:

    As potential PBS funding gets put on the chopping block, how much of this is simply a feckless attempt to move towards right leaning support in order to save their bacon?

  6. pinroot says:

    …and these same studies have all found that GHGs are responsible for over 100% of the observed warming over this timeframe…

    How can anything be responsible for “over 100% of the observed warming”? Skeptics are called “anti-science”; this quote is apparently anti-mathematics. 100% of the warming (ie., ALL of it) is the most something can possibly be responsible for. But without hyperbole like this, it’s hard to generate the fear required.

  7. Doug Bostrom says:

    Watts is developing a serious personal animus against Skeptical Science. Watch for an explosive emotional outburst from from WUWT, soon to come.

    Much as these guys love to traduce other people, they simply can’t stand being an object of scrutiny themselves. Oddly asymmetric.

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    Puzzling at first glance, but here’s the scoop:

    “Tett et al. (2000) used an “optimal detection methodology” with global climate model simulations to try and match the observational data. The inputs into the model included measurements of GHGs in the atmosphere, aerosols from volcanic eruptions, solar irradiance, human aerosol emissions, and atmospheric ozone changes (ozone is another greenhouse gas).

    Tett et al. applied their model to global surface temperatures from 1897 to 1997. Their best estimate matched the overall global warming during this period very well; however, it underestimated the warming from 1897 to 1947, and overestimated the warming from 1947 to 1997. For this reason, during the most recent 50 year period in their study (shown in dark blue in Figure 1), the sum of their natural and human global warming contributions is larger than 100%, since their model shows more warming than observed over that period. Over both the 50 and 100 year timeframes, Tett et al. estimated that natural factors have had a slight net cooling effect, and thus human factors have caused more than 100% of the observed global warming.

    Easy once you think about -net- effects.

    From (where else?) Skeptical Science, <a href="

  9. Ric Merritt says:

    Since the answer to your question is all over the web (RealClimate is a great resource), your question is indistinguishable from trolling.

    The answer, for anyone out there genuinely needing one, is that the best estimate is that without human-caused increases, temperature would have dropped a bit over the last century or so. So, roughly, humans are responsible for a little more than 100% of the rise, and natural factors have moderated that a bit.

  10. dorlomin says:

    “How can anything be responsible for “over 100% of the observed warming””
    Because it is also making up for negative forcings such as sulphate cooling?

    Did you stop to think before posting?

  11. dorlomin says:

    “Watch for an explosive emotional outburst from from WUWT, soon to come.”

    Mr Watts would have found being on television a great validation of his personal importance to the world. By the cold analytic manner in which he was unpicked this would have been a personal pain to Mr Watts. Id not be suprised if a few of the luke warmer and other bloggers rally round their dear dear friend.

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    I disagree, Bill, since there is a pattern here. Koch money was conditional on the “other side” being heard from, expressed either implicitly or explicitly.

    Since PBS is a staid organization composed of timid office dwellers scared for their jobs, they were easy to intimidate.

    Reporters have gotten the message elsewhere, too. CNN laid off all of their environmental reporters, and the Los Angeles Times fired their climate reporter while she was on assignment in Antarctica. The New York Times continues to run horrible articles on climate change, with false balance always included. TV networks are worse, and let’s not even talk about radio.

    PBS used to be a beacon, which his why Koch went after them. They are now a disgrace.

    Americans are clueless about the gravity of our situation, and it’s not because we are stupid or go to church. The media is controlled by fossil fuel companies and banks.

  13. Sou says:

    Don’t be too quick off the mark. If something is acting to cool earth (eg aerosols) and/or less solar radiation is reaching earth, then it is certainly possible for more than 100% of the warming to be attributed to GHG’s.

    (The references are right up there in Dana’s article.)

  14. David Lewis says:

    Instead of having to read things like “featuring the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project’s Richard Muller”, we could be reading somethng more appropriate whenever Muller’s name comes up.

    For instance: “featuring the Berkeley Analysis Released to Ridiculous Fanfare (BARRF) project’s Richard Muller….”

    Maybe Joe could award a prize. How about an IOU that entitles the winner to an official yet to be created Climate Progress Tshirt or other such swag.

  15. Sou says:

    By my count, five separate blog posts about his promo on PBS. Starting with self-congratulations then dismay then anger. (In the middle he threw a tantrum because he made comment on their blog that was not just ignored, but not published the second he posted it!)

    Funny to see the reaction of people to him saying he accepts AGW. “You should have mentioned the sun/cosmic rays/undersea volcanoes/natural variation/ leprechauns

  16. David Lewis says:

    It would have been fun to watch if PBS had asked Muller and Watts about previous statements each has made about the other.

    Muller’s testimony to the House Committee on Science, March 2011, which Muller proudly links to from his website, contains an incredible tribute to Watts.

    Muller told the Committee he had only one recommendation to make about what the US Congress could do in the way of climate policy. He didn’t tell them to do something to limit emissions of GHGs. He didn’t say beef up the satellite network instead of letting it deteriorate. He ignored the urgent need to expand the Argo float network into the Arctic Ocean. Etc.

    Muller had one only one suggestion for Congress.

    An entire agency, to be called Climate ARPA, should be created to channel funds to deserving “scientists” such as Anthony (Willard) Watts.

    Muller gassed on: [the] “amateur” science [of Watts] is not amateur in quality; it is true science, conducted with integrity and high standards. Government policy needs to encourage such work

    And Watts famously showed his respect for Muller (as documented by Joe here) when he proclaimed to the world about Muller’s BARRF (BEST) project:

    “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.“

    PBS could have quoted these clowns to each other and asked them why anyone should pay any attention to anything either of them says now.

  17. Robco1 says:

    Watts got $80k to upgrade his website from Heartland. He is a paid PR shill working for a PR firm conducting a massive disinformation campaign. Defending his political ideology? Maybe. Defending his paycheck? Definitely.

  18. dana1981 says:

    This is simple algebra. Take the formula x + y = z. Say x = 3, y = -1, and z = 2. In this case x is larger than z. Another way of saying that is that x accounts for more than 100% of the contribution to z.

    Watts devoted a blog post to me, calling this post an “epic fail” because he couldn’t understand this simple algebra. How embarrassing.

  19. dana1981 says:

    Did you post this comment prior to Watts publishing his post calling my article an “eipc fail”, Doug? If so, nice call!

  20. Sou says:

    WUWT has been having a string of Epic Fails lately. To realise that Tony can’t do basic arithmetic perhaps explains his inability to understand temperature anomalies and baseline averages.

  21. Doug Bostrom says:

    Believe it or not, I did. But was there ever any doubt? I could have bet money on this, dang it.

  22. Doug Bostrom says:

    That is to say, I commented prior to knowing Watts had already fumbled his Improvised Rhetorical Device, dropping it at his own feet.

  23. dana1981 says:

    Well, I don’t think you would have had any takers. Very predictable, as you note. Still, good call!