False Balance Lives: Media Biased Toward Fringe Climate Scientists Who Reject Global Consensus


A new study finds that the media disproportionately favors scientists who reject the basic scientific consensus on climate change. By consensus, I mean the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), which are already overly cautious and watered down.

Some — though not most — analysts have declared the media’s era of false balance in climate coverage is over. But the truth is that the media continue to present the public a misleading picture on climate science, giving fringe scientists more attention (disproportionate to their actual number) than the leading climate scientists.

A new study in Environmental Science and Technology by Bart Verheggen et al, surveys “more than 1800 international scientists studying various aspects of climate change” and finds:

  • There is widespread agreement that global warming is predominantly caused by human greenhouse gases.
  • This consensus strengthens with increased expertise, as defined by the number of self-reported articles in the peer-reviewed literature.
  • Self-reported media exposure is higher for those who are skeptical of a significant human influence on climate.

So what did the study find about false balance? It found that scientists who say that the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is below the consensus range report getting the most frequent media exposure.

Similarly, some “30% of those few who said that greenhouse gases have caused an insignificant amount of global warming (or even cooling) reported frequent media coverage, compared to just 15% of climate scientists who said greenhouse gases have caused strong global warming,” as the Guardian put it.

Self-reported frequency of media coverage, broken down by scientists’ answer to question of the qualitative contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. Source: Verheggen et al.
Self-reported frequency of media coverage, broken down by scientists’ answer to question of the qualitative contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. Source: Verheggen et al.

For the record, the answer to the question, “How much of warming since mid-century is due to greenhouse gases,” is “all of it — or more”!

What is the consequence of this false balance? As I’ve written before, false balance and media miscoverage have left the public with a serious misperception about the degree of scientific agreement on climate change. The public thinks 55 percent of climate scientists agree on global warming, but the agreement is beyond 90 percent for the most published climatologists.

And as Skeptical Science has noted, this “consensus gap” matters: “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.”

As long as false balance lives in such distinguished news organizations as the New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, PBS NewsHour, and Reuters, we should remember the summary findings of the late Prof. William R. Freudenburg in a 2010 AAAS presentation:

Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss “both sides” of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.

Also in 2010, Michael Tobis and Stephen Ban gave us a graphic representation of that point:

It is definitely time to update that chart, since our inaction has shifted “most informed opinion” to overlap even more closely with “Considered Unreasonable: Not reported.”

Finally, for those who wonder what a climate discussion on TV would look like if there were no false balance, one cable news show was bold enough to stage a “statistically representative climate change debate” back in May. Sadly, it was a fake news show, John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” on HBO: