Saturday, October 20, 2012

Misrepresenting Climate Science

The question of whether human activities contribute to global climate change is not a political question. It's not an ethical question.

It's a scientific question.

The question of what we should do about it is primarily an ethical question. But if it calls for anything, it calls for collective action and public policy changes, and so becomes a political question as well. Communities need to wrestle with alternative public policy responses, hopefully through public discourse shaped by a shared commitment to the welfare of society, an awareness and respect for diverse interests and worldviews and ways of life, an appreciation of what is feasible for the society to do given its resources and its history...and an understanding of the relevant science.

The political question about public policy comes after the scientific one, in the sense that we need to know what the science tells us about what's going on before we can make informed decisions about what to do about what's going on. To invert this order can be quite dangerous.

Some scientific conclusions call for public policies that are, to put it simply, painful and hard--sometimes hard for everyone, sometimes hard for a particular constituency. Nobody likes being called to do what is painful and hard. Hence, if we let political questions come before scientific ones, we are in danger of rejecting scientific discoveries because they're unpleasant. And so we don't do the hard thing that needs doing. The result is even greater pain and hardship in the long run.

This is what it means for a scientific question to become "politicized": Sometimes a proposed public policy is found by someone to be undesirable--maybe because it would force you to make life changes you don't want to make, or stop business practices that have proven quite profitable. But sometimes that same public policy would be clearly the right one to implement if a particular answer to a scientific question were correct. And so, in order to avoid facing an undesirable public policy, you try to convince yourself and others that the unpleasant answer to the scientific question is incorrect, and the more congenial answer is right...regardless of whether or not that's the direction in which the scientific research points. It's one thing when an individual does this, something else again when a political party does it on behalf of its constituency, marshalling resources to ensure that scientists won't say the "wrong" things or, if they do, will be discredited or go unheard.

You can bet that something like this is going on any time that public views about a scientific question are divided along party lines, and the political debate about the question is far more contentious than what one actually finds within the community of scientists. When something like that is going on, its a clear sign that one political party or both are letting the policies they find most attractive dictate their take on what the science says.

This is clearly going on with climate science. And we all know this. And neither political party denies it. What they deny is that they are the party guilty of doing the politicizing. Instead, each side accuses the other of being the one that has politicized climate science. When this happens, it seems as if the media gravitates towards giving each political view equal time in an effort to remain fair and balanced. Not wanting to appear biased, mainstream media outlets will do something they simply don't do with respect to scientific questions that haven't become politicized: They given equal time to dissenters from the scientific consensus, without much regard to whether the dissenters have comparable scientific credentials or have been hired by those with a vested interest in one answer being the right one.

Of course, there are those media outlets that buck this trend. Unfortunately, some buck the trend because they care about accurate scientific reporting, whereas others buck it because they really are biased.

In short, there are media outlets the bend over backwards not to appear as if they are politicizing an issue, even at the risk of misrepresenting science; there are media outlets that really have become politicized, both on the left and on the right; and there are media outlets that want to convey a clear and accurate understanding of our scientific knowledge to the public. But how is the typical citizen, who knows very little about science and has little time to devote to the matter, supposed to tell which is which?

A good chunk of the American population believes that most media outlets are biased towards the political left and that the only trustworthy source of news out there is FOX. Another chunk believes most media outlets are pretty centrist, and that FOX is a right-wing propaganda machine posing as a news organization. These respective views reflect political party affiliations pretty closely--and they also determine where people are inclined to look to get their views on scientific questions.

So: Climate science has become politicized. Each side claims the other side is doing the politicizing. To decide who is doing the politicizing and who isn't, we need to see what the science is. To do this we turn to the media. But the media has become politicized as well--and our views about which media outlets to trust are typically informed by our politics.

Recently, a group of socially engaged scientists sought to cut through this impasse by turning their scientific eye to the media's communication of climate science. Specifically, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently investigated News Corporation (which owns FOX News and the Wall Street Journal), and concluded that there is enormous misrepresentation on FOX News generally and on the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. The following video represents UCS's attempt to communicate its conclusions in an accessible way to the general public:

But, of course, the Union of Concerned Scientists is surely going to be represented as just another left-wing interest group spinning the facts to suit their politics. After all, was there a comparable effort to study the frequency of misrepresentation on CNN? In the New York Times opinion pages? Isn't this just another politicized interest group?

In short, how is the lay person going to decide whether the Union of Concerned Scientists actually represents the scientific community's attempt to cut through thepolitics and media noise? Who do you trust as an honest voice expressing non-politicized scientific consensus, and who do you dismiss as peddling politicized misrepresentations? I suppose you could do your own journalistic investigation of the scientific community--seek to understand not only what most scientists think but also why they think it, and how the methodologies of science work to keep politicization from systematically contaminating the findings.

But not everyone has the skills needed to pursue such an investigation effectively, let alone the time. While I think research could be done by the lay person well enough to conclude that most scientists are convinced that human-induced global warming is real, I'm not sure that most lay people have the resources to be able to determine for themselves whether this is because (as some on the right will argue) the scientific community has been compromised by politicization, but for a few heroic dissenters who have the science on their side; or whether, on the contrary, the few dissenters are the ones who have been compromised by the influence of those with a political agenda.

So let me offer a suggestion. Science tends to get misrepresented when the policy implications of accepting the science are going to be costly. It is not nearly as plausible to suppose that someone sees the policy implications of the best science, discovers that these implications are unproblematic and easy to implement without demanding sacrifices...and so decides to misrepresent the science so as to make it seem as if it places costly demands on all of us when really it doesn't.

This isn't a foolproof technique for deciding who to trust. There may be reasons why someone would want to convey the false impression that we need to buckle down and make very hard, long-term social and economic changes that are going to be deeply unpopular. Under the right conditions, telling people that the country and the world have to make substantial sacrifices and radical life-changes may be a winning political strategy, a way to get people flocking to vote for you on election day.

But generally not. And when it is to your advantage to convey such a message--as a way of getting people to vote for you out of fear, perhaps, that the other guy is leading us to the brink of ruin--the advantage typically evaporates once you're in power. The political incentive to use your power to demand needless and painful sacrifices of your constituents isn't all that great when you risk getting voted out of office.

So, following this strategy, chances are that those who are telling you that human induced global warming is bunk have more incentive to politicize than those who are telling you that human induced global warming is a real problem that we have to come to grips with. After all, those who say the latter are offering an unpleasant and unpopular notion: Our transportation industry, our energy grid, our way of life is contributing to a problem of potentially dire significance. There's enrmous reason for people to want this notion to be false even if it's true. The auto industry and energy industry don't want it to be true that their businesses depend on and perpetuate practices that threaten the integrity of our ecosystems and the future prospects of humanity. Ordinary citizens don't want to be told that their way of life--their cars and electric lights and air conditioners and on and on--is threatening future generations.

There's ample reason for people to want to deny human-induced global warming even if it's true. Is there comparable reason to suppose that those who support global warming science would have strong motivation to systematically fabricate sustained warnings that call for massive changes and world-wide sacrifice, even if there is no good reason to think such warnings are warranted?

There are reasons why scientists who are convinced of global warming science might downplay findings that would be jumped on by politicized opponents, out of fear that these findings would be misrepresented and used to mislead the public who don't understand their significance. Doing so would be a bad idea--and if you were caught doing it, it would actually hurt your cause. But that's not the same as having a motive to systematically mislead the public about conclusions that the science doesn't support.

Of course, there are those who argue that global warming science has become a kind of cottage industry, and that scientists who make their living in this cottage industry would lose out if it proved that human activities aren't contributing to global climate change. But on this issue we need to consider how and why such a cottage industry would develop in the first place. Where did the idea come from, if not from the conclusions reached by legitimate science?

But let's grant that the science initially pointed to human-induced global warming. One might suppose that the egos of those scientists who first introduced the global warming thesis would be invested in it not being disproved. I suppose one might think that ego is t force here that is keeping the scientific community from seeing that the initial evidence has been overturned.

But there are egos everywhere in every field of science, and science has been very good at devising a methodology and a community in which fidelity to scientific findings does more to shape the consensus in the long run than the egos on one side rather than the other. Looking at the trend in the scientific community, it hasn't been one of egotistical defenders of global warming science one by one bowing to the weight of contrary evidence. It's been the reverse.

Let's put it another way: Who do you think is more likely to have their views on science compromised by politics: Politicians who as a whole care primarily about political questions, or scientists who as a community care deeply about the integrity of science, and who work within a system designed to maintain the integrity of science?

I suppose that modern Luddites--opponents of technology--would have an incentive to misrepresent science in favor of a dire threat cause by our technological way of life. If scientists were largely Luddites, there might be a problem here. But scientists are not, in general, Luddites. It's not just that they make use of cutting edge technology in their work. It's also that the public support for the work they do rests to a great extent in the technological innovations that scientific research and discovery makes possible. There's at least a sense in which technology just is scientific findings put to use to solve human problems.

In short, there is a presumptive reason to suppose that those who deny global warming science are more likely than defenders to be engaged in politicization. And there is little reason to suppose that this presumption is defeated in the particular case at hand. And so, if you're wondering who to trust amidst all the media clutter and political grandstanding, I'd bet on the majority of climate scientists who say that, in fact, human activity is contributing to a serious problem of global climate change.

Of course, that doesn't tell us what we should do about it. Maybe if politicians were to stop debating the science, they could get to work on debating that.


  1. Hi Eric,

    Very good post. The way you describe the difficulty of evaluating information sources is very interesting.

    Perhaps there also the question of the (poor) quality of science education. The basic mechanism of climate change is not very difficult to understand: push enough greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, it traps more heat, temperature rises. This is something every kid should know about. (Of course, the details are difficult: how much, where, when, what to do, etc.)

    Another problem with the news is that, almost by definition, it is concerned with what changes from day to day – in a sense, about “noise”. Science is not like that: it changes slowly and what is important may not be newsworthy at all.

    If anyone is looking for this, I find a very good source of information on climate change is

  2. I should have completed my thought on the news, above.

    The point is that, as a source of information, the news is strongly biased towards the transient, the temporary, the “noise”. If something does not change, it does not make the news and, in a sense, disappears from our consciousness. This may happen with subjects like climate change: no news means it does not exist anymore.

  3. While my sentiments lie with those expressed in your article, you just barely skirted around what I think is truly the belief of climate-science's populist opponents.

    Suppose that at one time science initially pointed to global warming, but that the evidence has since evaporated. Egos may have held sway for a time; that is, after all, the more humanized view of Kuhn's paradigm theory. But suppose that, within the buffer that exists before the paradigm shift, the cottage industry found fertile ground to grow. In other words, it didn't need to be there from the start. It is a little absurd to premise that any cottage industry must arise from a virgin birth.

    In fact, science has recently provided evidence of that view. Scientific studies of the modern scientific process show real problems exist, such as increasing fraud, that the peer review does not adequately address. It seems that there is a cottage industry in science as a whole. Is climate science better equipped than other scientific fields to address these concerns; and even if it is, is it equipped well enough? A single case of possible fraud (which climate change opponents will readily supply) is counterexample to the notion that we can summarily discount fears of a cottage industry or egos.

    My own view is aligned with yours. I feel the scientific process as a whole is not so susceptible to fraud that we can't trust the consensus. But admitting that there is fraud means I can't readily prove my intuitions.

  4. Hi Eric

    There is perhaps a sense in which climate change is a philosophical issue, because of the way opponents have framed their opposition. I don't know if you've come across the book Merchants of Doubt, but it covers quite well the central tactic of casting doubt upon scientific methodology, in exactly the same way the tobacco industry once opposed lung cancer smoking links.

    The claim becomes one of uncertainty. It's only a model, we can't know for sure, there's institutional bias, there's no proof, correlation isn't causation etc. In a way the population then needs not just an understanding of the basic science, but also of the philosophy of science, to be able to deal properly with this particular smokescreen.

    Changes in the structure and funding of journalism also mean there are fewer and fewer science specialists covering these stories, which allows the propaganda as press release culture to flourish.


  5. Hi Bernard,

    In addition to the deniers' tactics you mention, I often hear the argument that, although climate change may really happen, we will find a technological fix to this – no need to worry. Or: there have always been doomsayers and they have always been wrong; climate change is just the latest false alarm.

    This from people who should know better - this is really scary. But the temptation to believe everything will be all right is so strong... I have a friend, a philosopher and teacher, who can't stop worrying about deficits and economic problems but dismisses the problem of climate change precisely as I described above. (Why this doesn't work also for deficits I can't figure out...)

  6. HI JP

    Absolutely. I'm often in two minds as to how best rebut the 'technology will fix it' belief. Usually I try to point out that the technological capacity to solve a problem rarely guarantees that it will be fixed. A good example is nutrition. We have, somewhat miraculously, found a method of producing enough food to provide for the world's population. Sadly, farming technology hasn't solved starvation, or for that matter first world obesity. I think of climate change in a similar way. Waiting for technology is hopeless, because ultimately technological capacity without behavioural change solves nothing. The other argument, of course, is that there is no sign of technology advancing quickly enough anyway, but when you make that case the discussion tends to get bogged down in speculative detail.


  7. Hi Bernard,

    Yes, responding to the technological optimist is not always easy. (I find it amazing how much faith some have in technology, while at the same time expressing skepticism towards science).

    Sometimes I think that one of the worst scenarios is one in which technological “fixes” are actually implemented with some success. (For example, seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfate aerosols or building a giant sunshade in space between the Earth and the Sun). I fear partial fixes would simply encourage continuing with our destructive practices – business as usual – making everything eventually much worse. (I'm ignoring the well-known problems with these fixes. Who, for instance, would control this shade and what happens if it breaks down?).

    It would be like saying air pollution is not a problem because we can wear a mask when we go outside. Or that overeating junk food is OK because the right pills will save you.

  8. JP and Bernard,

    Thanks for these contributions. Yes, I agree that philosophy of science needs to become an important part of the public conversation. In effect, the climate science deniers are prone to exploit a general public failure to understand what science is and what it isn't--that is, the basics of philosophy of science.

    I suspect there may be a common root to the tendency both to play up the natural uncertainties of science and to exaggerate the promise of technological fixes: If the conclusions of climate scientists are correct, our modern way of life is contributing to very serious changes, and if we want to mitigate the severity of those changes we will need to change ourselves in ways that are costly and hard and feel like a major sacrifice.

    Facing the prospect of needing to make large sacrifices, we naturally resist. We will make these sacrifices only if NECESSARY. If climate scientists are wrong, the sacrifices aren't necessary--and so we focus on the possibility of error. If technology can leap in to save the day, the sacrifices won't be necessary--and so we cling to this hope.

    I share JP's concerns about technological fixes. One of my father's closest friends, Lester Milbrath, was a pioneer in environmental studies (he came to it as a political scientist), and always stressed the following principle when it came to making technological fixes to our problems: "We can never do just one thing."

    He meant by this that our understanding of complex environmental systems is sufficiently limited, and the systems in which we introduce technological fixes sufficiently interrelated and complex, that any change we make to produce a particular desired outcome will also produce a range of side-effects that we did not predict (and often could not have reasonably been expected to predict). This is why medical science does clinical trials of a medicine before it goes on the market: We can't reasonably predict in advance what impact a chemical designed to treat a particular medical problem will have on the complex biology of the human organism. That this same idea applies to the global ecosystem may be the most important take-home lesson of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

    And, of course, the more large-scale the intervention (e.g. seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfate aerosols) the more we have to worry about unintended ripple effects.

  9. Hi Jarod

    I think your point that both fraud and, perhaps more commonly, institutional bias, can affect science, is a fair one. There does seem to be good evidence of this happening (Have you come across John Ioannidis' work on medical research?) But, even if we accept this, I'm not sure this allows us to escape the need to choose between models. And, in the absence of detailed knowledge of a particular fraud, the rational move appears to be to accept the most well verified model.

    I think opponents of climate change often get away with a cheat here. They act as if their brief is only to discredit, or at least cast doubt upon, anthropogenic models of climate change. In fact, if we reject this model, we are by implication accepting one of a range of alternative models (perhaps that there is no change, or change is related to sunspot activity, or is part of a larger cycle, or whatever.) The trouble is, if we put any of the alternatives up against the data, they produce a miserable match. So, I don't think I'd characterise this as an issue of trusting or not trusting science, so much as, despite the human fallibility of the scientific enterprise, choosing which of the available models best fits what we are observing.

    Creationists often use a similar ploy, suggesting that any unresolved issue in evolutionary science provides grounds for rejecting the model, despite there being no established alternative model to turn to.