Brulle: NY Times article on climate science hearing “fails to inform the public, and plays into the strategy of the climate denial effort.”

The New York Times has published one of its worst climate science pieces. The headline, “At House E.P.A. Hearing, Both Sides Claim Science,” perfectly captures the he-said/she-said nature of the piece.

Yes, it’s true, both sides ‘claim’ science, but in fact one side rejects actual science. The NYT mostly played the role of the stenographer here.

I asked Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT itself quoted in 2009 as “an expert on environmental communications,” for his comments:

The NY Times has failed to provide any significant context by which to judge the scientific credibility of the contending political positions. This leaves the reader adrift in competing interpretations, without any tie to the robust scientific evidence about global warming. The role of the press in a democracy is to inform the public, not just repeat the talking points of politicians. This article fails to inform the public, and plays into the strategy of the climate denial effort, which is to sow confusion and doubt about the science of climate change.

Brulle directed me to the well-known 2004 media analysis by Max and Jules Boykoff, Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press, which conducted a content analysis that found:

We conclude that the US prestige press””the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal””has contributed in significant ways to this failed discursive translation through the adherence to journalistic norms, and more specifically to the journalistic norm of balance. In the end, adherence to the norm of balanced reporting leads to informationally biased coverage of global warming. This bias, hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance, creates both discursive and real political space for the US government to shirk responsibility and delay action regarding global warming.

Plus §a change, plus c’est la mªme chose.

A content analysis of this new piece finds similar results.

I will repeat that the headline remains the single most important line in any news article for several reasons. First and foremost, it is in bigger font and thus much more memorable all by itself. Second, many NYT readers never go beyond the headline, which is doubly likely in this case since the headline strongly signals that no actual information will be communicated. Third, the way links and newsfeeds are set up, the headline is the main thing (if not the only thing) many tens of thousands of other readers will ever see. Just Google the headline (in quotation marks) to see what I mean.


While this piece treats its subject matter as if it were basically politics, where everyone’s position is equally valid, the NYT posted it under “Science” (where it should belong, given the material covered):

The first few paragraphs provide no information that would change the basic message delivered by the headline. I’d be interested to know what the statistics are on how many people actually read more than a few sentences in a typical New York Times piece, but readership typically drops off pretty steadily.

The fourth paragraph presents the he-said/she-said about the House GOP :

The measure would overturn the E.P.A.’s finding that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases pose a threat to public health and the environment and would bar the agency from writing any regulations to control them. The bill’s sponsors say that the climate science behind the finding is dubious and that the proposed rules would have a devastating impact on the economy.

The next two paragraphs contain the only slightly normative scientific statement — but it is embedded in a factually incorrect statement and in any case quickly rebutted.

In an effort to support the E.P.A.’s regulatory power, committee Democrats rounded up five eminent academic climatologists who defended the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activities like the burning of fossil fuels are largely responsible. The professors called for swift and concerted action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, although they did not endorse any particular policy means for achieving them.

The Republicans countered with two scientific witnesses who said that while there was strong evidence of a rise in global surface temperatures, the reasons were murky and any response could have adverse unintended effects. Another scientist said that the E.P.A.’s decision to ban the pesticide DDT 40 years ago had led to a huge increase in death and disease in the developing world.

In fact, the Democrats only had four witnesses. I have no idea why the NYT hasn’t corrected that pretty glaring mistake, since it makes it look like they can’t tell the difference between the real climate scientists and the disinformers.


The NYT simply repeats the absurd claims about DDT. How precisely would the EPA’s decision to ban DDT lead to bad things happening in the developing world? Surely that requires at least another sentence, even if the claim were true, which it isn’t. Anyone who believes the DDT witness has a shred of credibility should go to Deltoid (Tim Lambert) and read his posts, “Donald Roberts, “Scientific Fraud”, and DDT” and “Donald Roberts’ false testimony to Congress” and his multiple posts on DDT.

The NYT has some amusing stuff from science advocate Jay Inslee, and follows it with the best part of the piece:

The scientists themselves, when given the rare opportunity to speak, tried to steer clear of policy matters and stick to their scientific expertise. One witness, Christopher B. Field, director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, piqued the interest of members on both sides of the aisle by detailing new research on the adverse effects of rising temperatures on agriculture. Dr. Field said crops had certain temperature thresholds above which yields dropped sharply. For corn, he said, that temperature is 84 degrees, and a single day of 104 degrees causes a 7 percent drop in yield.

Dr. Field said that extreme warming could reduce crop yields by more than 60 percent. “This new information is quite striking,” he said. “Major food crops and cotton show little sensitivity to rising temperatures until you reach a threshold. That’s why people are generally not aware of these sensitivities.”

Precisely — see Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis in second half of the century.

But the piece quickly undoes that with the ending:

Representative Morgan Griffith of Virginia, a freshman Republican and an avowed skeptic on climate change, noted that ancient temperature records indicate periods of warming during the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations and again during the rise of the Vikings, and wanted the scientists to explain just how warm it got during those eras.

Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.

“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”

The scientists promised to provide written answers.

So here is the NYT, the one-time paper of record, merely repeating a bunch of long-debunked global warming denier talking points. Does the NYT know why that is a bunch of nonsense? If so, why not say so. If not, I’m more worried (see Science Times stunner: “”¦ a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity”).

The Mars myth has been well debunked — see Skeptical Science.

For the record, since the end of the last Ice Age, the temperature has been relatively stable, though generally slowly cooling globally. Here is a rough 6,000 year reconstruction that climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe put together from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) Paleoclimate archive for her new book, “A Climate for Change,” which you can see in a terrific presentation:


Yes, were it not for human activity, we would indeed be entering a slow cooling period (see Human-caused Arctic warming overtakes 2,000 years of natural cooling, “seminal” study finds).

The rate of human-driven warming in the last century has exceeded the rate of the underlying natural trend by more than a factor of 10, possibly much more. And warming this century on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions is projected to cause a rate of warming that is another factor of 5 or more greater than that of the last century.

Some 7 billion people have chosen where to live based on the relatively stable climate — precipitation, soil moisture, rivers, and sea levels — that we have had until now. What we are headed to ain’t optimal (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F and Science stunner: On our current emissions path, CO2 levels in 2100 will hit levels last seen when the Earth was 29°F (16°C) hotter).

Yes, scientists have “looked at” what happens if we stay on our path of unrestricted emissions. It is likely multiple, unmitigated catastrophes (see A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice).

BUT the way the NYT leaves it, you are left with the distinct impression that scientists had no answer to his Gish Gallup:

The scientists promised to provide written answers.

In fact, Dr. Somerville tried to explain that it was a myth that the scientific community believe in the 1970s we were entering a long-term cooling (see here). But Griffith cut him off and repeated the myth.

I will note that while the NYT says Griffith wondered “why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period,” in fact Griffith said:

If we have known for 150 years the effects of greenhouse gases then why 40 years ago, when I was in elementary and middle school were we taught that an increase in GHG effect was going to lead to a new ice age.

That is a complete fabrication. He was never taught that an increase in greenhouse gases would lead to a new ice age. He has mixed up the standard denier talking point. Even the few people in the 1970s who seriously worried we were entering a new Ice Age did not believe that GHGs were causing it.

In an email from the NYT reporter, John Broder, posted on Grist, Broder writes, “ It ends with some faintly ridiculous remarks from another freshman Republican skeptic.” Well, it’s only ridiculous if you already know that it’s ridiculous. Anyone who doesn’t follow this subject closely might think it’s reasonable since there’s no one to tell them otherwise, particularly given the final sentence.Dr. Arthur Smith writes me that:

What he’s written there is an almost completely disinformative, bias-enforcing narrative. A reader coming in thinking Republicans are idiots leaves the article feeling the same way. A reader coming in thinking Republicans are saints taking on a dastardly scientific conspiracy also leaves the article with no change in opinion. Which seems to be the purpose of his brand of journalism, apparently.

I agree with Dave Roberts that this is “unforgivable dreck.” Let me end with a scientific study that Roberts quotes:

Passive news reporting that doesn’t attempt to resolve factual disputes in politics may have detrimental effects on readers, new research suggests.

The study found that people are more likely to doubt their own ability to determine the truth in politics after reading an article that simply lists competing claims without offering any idea of which side is right.

“There are consequences to journalism that just reports what each side says with no fact checking,” said Raymond Pingree, author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“It makes readers feel like they can’t figure out what the truth is. And I would speculate that this attitude may lead people to tune out politics entirely, or to be more accepting of dishonesty by politicians.”

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