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Between Skeptic And Denier: Has The Media Contributed To Public Skepticism On Climate Change?

Emily Lundberg

A falsely balanced discourse between public opinion and climate science in the US has allowed decision-makers to take little action in addressing the very real dangers of climate change, says Emily Lundberg, a Ph.D. communications researcher. Here, she charts this issue from its origins, taking a close look at the media’s role in propelling doubt and stalling change.

18 July 2016 | In the United States the issue of global warming is marked by a divergence between scientific and public opinion. While the vast majority of scientists have concluded that global warming is occurring and a major proportion of the cause is assignable to human activities, only half of the American public agrees. “Between Skeptic and Denier” explores how the media have contributed to public skepticism toward climate change. I use the recent decision by the Associated Press, the recommendation against journalists’ use of the terms climate “skeptic” and “denier,” to illustrate the depth to which a disingenuous idea of “fairness” and “balance” has undermined the media’s portrayal of, and hence the public’s ability to assess, the risks of climate change. This falsely balanced discourse has made it easy for the American government to do little to address the very real danger of climate change, just as it dampened public support for such an intervention.

Consensus and Resistance

Twenty-eight years have passed since climate scientist James Hansen addressed the U.S. Congress with the warning that global warming was happening. The industry’s reaction to Hansen’s announcement was immediate. What started up was a public relations denial machine—think tanks linking up likeminded researchers and eventually online pundits and bloggers—that argued a lack of sound scientific evidence. That denial machine participants were all well-paid by the fossil fuel industry and their hanger-on industries was somehow cast as at most a side issue, but more likely irrelevant.

Media-propagated doubt on climate change—generated from traditional news outlets, alternative media groups, interest groups and individual bloggers—altered public perception and stalled decision-making on the issue of climate change. Under a misguided strategy of contrived balance, the American mainstream media contributed to the generation and maintenance of a misinformed public constructed via the strategy of developing a prevailing sense of scientific uncertainty where there was in fact little.

Environmental historian J. Donald Hughes identified three stages in the history of our climate change knowledge. The first, from 1825 to 1945, was characterized by the development of major theories. The second, from 1945 to 1975, was a period of “accumulating evidence.” The third, from 1975 to present day, has been marked by a strengthening scientific consensus that the world’s climate is changing because of the build-up of heat-trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide, which are primarily the result of humans burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. A 2010 paper found that 97 to 98 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field believed in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. This is the “Consensus” portion of what Hughes labelled our current and third stage of climate change knowledge—one of “Consensus and Resistance.”

While the scientific community was marked by consensus, Hughes identified “at least three fronts” where “determined opposition to efforts to halt or mitigate global warming emerged.” That is, the “Resistance” part of our current period of “Consensus and Resistance.” Hughes lists the first front of opposition as makers of “bona fide scientific critique,” the second as the industries whose activities cause climate change, and the third as political right-wing organizations that fight the role of government intervention on principle.

Hughes did not address lay public opinion and the studies showing a divergence between it and scientific opinion, many of which suggest that “determined opposition” successfully created doubt in the American lay public’s minds and diminished their perception of the degree of scientific consensus behind man-made climate change. Indeed, in 2010, the same year that 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists claimed to believe in anthropogenic climate change, a study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that while 63 percent of Americans believed that global warming was happening, only 50 percent understood that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.[5] There was, and over half a decade later, still is, a pronounced divergence between lay and expert opinion.

Crucially, Hughes downplayed the way these three fronts of opposition used a compliant media and its norm of objectivity to look far more popular, scientifically sound, and influential than they actually were. Attempting to abide by the industry norm of “objectivity,” the American press has until only a few years ago presented climate change within a “he said”/“she said” framework whereby opposing views of supposedly equally-weighted arguments clashed. As a result, a contrived two-sided “balance” was strategically used to muddy the public’s perception of the clarity of scientific understanding and to downplay the strength of the scientific community’s consensus. As climate change media scholar Simon Cottle describes it: “For too long the shrill voices of a minority of powerful voices and lobbies framed public debate and debilitated political action in some of the world’s worst polluting countries, led by the United States.”

The norm of objectivity and the idea of “balanced” coverage, whereby one person presents a “pro” argument and another a “counter” argument, is a byproduct of the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas. The metaphor of a marketplace of ideas, in which unfettered expression of ideas necessarily leads to the ultimate discovery of truth, has deep roots in Anglo-American political philosophy. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued for the utility of open debate to advance truth based on Enlightenment ideas of the fallibility of traditional truths and the ability of rational thought to determine truth and falsity in an arena of competing ideas. Mill, along with other writers, qualified this idea with the stipulation that truth will prevail in “the long run.” The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately adopted this marketplace of ideas metaphor as a foundational value underlying freedom of speech and continues to apply it in first amendment cases. Most recently, the Supreme Court relied on the marketplace of ideas metaphor in the Citizens United vs. FEC decision striking down restrictions on corporate election expenditures.

The metaphor of the marketplace of ideas implies that skepticism must be protected. Preserving the diversity of ideas is tantamount in an open market where the breadth of innovation must be wide and where, like water to stone, the will of the market is left to identify among the many alternatives that which has solid and enduring value. The sanctity of skepticism was emblazoned in American jurisprudence by the words of Justice Holmes’ dissent in Abrams v. United States, where he echoed Mill’s infallibility premise over the long run in an open marketplace of ideas: “time has upset many fighting faiths…the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” In a later dissent, Holmes expounded upon the market’s special power to eventually lead to the maximum discovery of truth. He stated: “If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.”

Sociologist Anthony Giddens recently restated the sanctity of skepticism argument in light of the climate change debate: “Many scientists believe [the skeptics’] writings are irresponsible, since they convey to the public that there is extensive space for doubt about the origins, and probably consequences of warming, when in fact there is little.” On the contrary, Giddens argues, “the skeptics do deserve and must receive a hearing. Skepticism is the lifeblood of science and just as important in policymaking. It is right that whatever claims are made about climate change and its consequences are examined with a critical, even hostile, eye, and in a continuing fashion.”

The Sanctity of Skepticism

While Hughes identified three fronts of determined opposition to climate change action, he failed to draw out the connections between the three—some monetary, others discursive. Most importantly, the Trojan horse of the “sanctity of skepticism” renders impotent the argument that monetary motivation matters. The sanctity of skepticism philosophy dictates that the world must turn a blind eye to the fact that the first front, the bona fide doubters, though their doubts may be honestly held as infirmity allows, are often on the payroll of the second front of industry. Similarly, we are to ignore the fact that the third front of right-wing politicians is often reliant upon financial campaign support from the fossil fuel and associated industries—again, on the payroll of the second industry front.[13] Vocal bona fide critics of Hughes’ first front are only the tip of the spear in the heart of public knowledge and action. All but the tip of the spear is built from the latter two fronts of political and economic self-interest.

The sanctity of skepticism philosophy fails to separate the constructive skeptics of Hughes’ first front and the economically, politically, and ideologically motivated of Hughes latter two fronts. Indeed, it allows for a conflation of the two. Constructive skepticism to further future knowledge becomes in the marketplace of ideas skepticism of any kind and is prima facie a social good that must be protected. In the case of climate change, the sanctity of skepticism was conflated with the right to consumer choice, granting a small but vocal dissident minority a megaphone to blast their outdated views into an inflated and hence seemingly well-supported viable alternative to the status quo climate change consensus. This, in turn, left the lay public perceiving a greater degree of disagreement within the scientific community than actually existed. Arguably, then, for decades less than one percent of the scientific community was allowed to represent what the public perceived as deniers in an almost 50-50 match up against believers. This is quite a public relations coup, making less than one percent of the scientific community appear to represent something closer to fifty percent.

Along with the marketplace of ideas metaphor, used for both the press and science, the Trojan Horse of sanctified skepticism—what Hughes calls “bona fide scientific critique”— effectively floats the notion that policy ideas should be accepted at their face value; they are not categorically dismissible on any ground other than the value as tested and borne out by the all-seeing market. In a “marketplace of ideas,” no idea can be wrong or bad until the market has extracted its true worth. Just unleash market forces as the ultimate and optimal decision-making mechanism. If the idea is bad, the market will not buy it and it will be discontinued. In this framework, any prima facie test for the worthiness of an idea outside of the market itself is seen as the cold dead hand of at best bureaucracy and at worst totalitarianism. The all-cleansing market will whittle its way down to the idea’s true worth. For example, in 2007 the Carter Center issued the statement that “[t]ruth in science does not depend upon who pays for it. The question is not ‘where is the money coming from but ‘is the science sound.’”

The sanctity of skepticism and the suspension of guile in the marketplace of ideas have together allowed for the continuation of a well-coordinated campaign by a tiny handful of contrarian scientists and free market think tanks, all funded by incumbent fossil fuel industry largesse to create a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. First climate change deniers argued through op-eds, lobbying, and advertisements that the world was not warming, second that the slight warming was not caused by human activities, and third that the looming warming will be beneficial at best, and harmless at worst.[18] “They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry,” said former senator Tim Wirth, who organized around environmental causes as an undersecretary of State in the Clinton administration. “Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That’s had a huge impact on both the public and Congress.”

On the bright side, in the last few years the mainstream American press has started to internalize the existing scientific consensus on climate change. At the close of the first decade of the new millennium, reporters began to spurn the “he said”/“she said” format of false equivalency. “The era of ‘equal time’ to climate skeptics is largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television,” wrote senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Cristine Russell in a 2008 article in theColumbia Journalism Review.

Same Tactics, Different Fronts

Now, with the supposed end of “equal time” in the mainstream news, the public relations denial machine, Hughes’ politically and economically motivated climate change naysayers, took their echo chamber of denial to more receptive shores. In the second decade of the new millennium, ripe for the fog of doubt were journalistic norms and the blogosphere. On September 22, 2015, the Associated Press (AP) announced a change to its ubiquitous stylebook, thereby demonstrating that though the simplistic norm of journalistic “balance” in climate change sources had largely been relegated to talk radio, cable, and local television, it was nonetheless alive and well, nesting now in the fundamental guidelines for journalistic style. Because AP’s styleguide is used by news outlets worldwide, the decision affects how climate change is discussed.

Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute, a fossil fuel-funded think tank that questions the reality and import of climate change, started to pump money into the blogosphere. The Institute funded the career of blogger and climate change denier Anthony Watts and his blog WattsUpWithThat.com, voted the Best Science Blog for 2008. According to Alexa internet statistical analysis, in 2015 WattsUpWithThat.com was heavily trafficked, ranking No. 11,668 in the U.S. and 27,425 worldwide.

Watts launched his blog in 2006, nine years prior to AP’s stylebook change, joining the ranks of the many climate deniers echoing the machine’s longstanding argument that the moniker of “deniers” is offensive as it places skeptics in the same camp as holocaust deniers.

Putatively, the AP’s decision to change its ubiquitous stylebook, discouraging the use of the terms “climate change deniers” and “climate change skeptics” in favor of the alternative “climate change doubters,” was a response to complaints from the likes of science luminaries Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye that “skeptics” is a time-honored term that should be reserved for those who are guided by scientific evidence. However, in order to achieve a false balance, the AP then turned to the “counter” arguments of the denial machine. Along with the term skeptic, the AP gave the denial machine what they had long been asking for—they also threw out the term “denier.” Instead, the AP came up with “doubters.” And, when there’s space for more words, which any ex-reporter can tell you is rare, an approved alternative is “those who reject mainstream climate science.”[23] AP science writer Seth Borenstein revealed the simplistic norm of false balance at the root of AP’s compromise when he said after the announcement: “We’re getting good and bad from both sides, which is just about right.”

Anthony Watts and his popular blog was only the latest yammering addition to the denial machine’s near decade-old mantra that the moniker of “deniers” threw them in with the likes of holocaust deniers. As Watts describes it, syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman conflated climate change deniers with holocaust deniers in the Boston Globein February, 2007. She wrote, “I would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.”[25] In 2012, and many times before and after, Watts used his web platform to complain about the widespread use of the term denier, “which is deemed offensive by many people in the climate debate due to its being associated with Holocaust denial.”

After providing a concession to the believers, AP hedged on the side of false balance and provided the long desired concession to the other side—to the now dubbed “doubters.” “The reason we don’t use ‘denier’ is that there is a connotation rightly or wrongly and a complaint by some that it has the concept of ‘Holocaust denier,’” said Borenstein in a chat with the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple Blog. While the true skeptics celebrated the liberation of their prized term, others questioned the downfall of the term “denier.” “This change in terminology would give an increasingly marginalized minority of mostly nonscientists and crackpots new credibility,” wrote Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Center in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog. “It would also satisfy the wishes of the ‘deniers’ not to be called ‘deniers.’” Climate scientist Michael Mann expressed similar sentiments, saying: “Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science deniers. To call them anything else, be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate.”

So what about Mill’s and Hughes’ marketplace of ideas infallibility principle? Did the truth prevail in the long run? While the mainstream media have largely adopted the consensus view in its sources, no longer pressing for a false balance of views, it has now adopted a false balance in its description of sources. Meanwhile, the fragmentation of the media, both traditional and online, has meant that while science enthusiasts are in many ways enriched, the value of expertise is diluted. As science communications scholar Sheldon Ungar notes, “The internet teems with so many competing claims and myths that the public has little shared basis for assessing evidence… Virtually everyone can join discussions, leaving ‘experts’ without any trump card.” As it is, the marketplace of denial did not close shop; it simply traded one storefront for another.

If “[t]ruth in science does not depend upon who pays for it” and the “question is not ‘where is the money coming from but ‘is the science sound,’” how in the world is the public to judge the soundness of the science? Clearly, bona fide climate scientists have to penetrate through the internet fog of competing claims and myths. On June 28, 31 major scientific groups presented a unified front and delivered a joint letter to Congress urging the political body to accept the evidence and face the climate change challenge. While many involved recognized the unlikelihood that such a plea would persuade the intransigent climate deniers in Congress, the move is part of a campaign re-invigorated by what climate change communicators have learned from climate change deniers. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication cited Ed Maibach of George Mason University that “…Simple, clear and compelling messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted messengers are most effective.” Noting the deniers’ prize weapon of the echo chamber, he added, “We forget the repeated often, repeated often, repeated often at our peril!” If facts don’t carry the day, if the infallibility principle of the marketplace of ideas is indeed fallible, we need more than a unified front and greater pressure behind the right ideas. If the Resistance has taken their funding and fog of doubt to the asymmetrical information war that is the internet, the Consensus must do the same. And it is.

Earlier this year, a group of climate scientists used open-source web annotation software to comment on specific passages in a particularly misleading Wall Street Journal editorial. It was part of a project started by Emmanuel Vincent in 2014 called “Climate Feedback,” whereby a community of actively publishing scientific reviewers specializing in climate change comment on and annotate articles on the web, creating a “reliability index” for news outlets’ climate coverage.[32] Now, if we can’t do anything about the sanctity of skepticism and the willful naiveté mandated by the open marketplace of ideas, at the very least we can give the public the tools it needs to separate bad science from good. Web annotation software might just be the trump card that experts need in a media environment teeming with misinformation. The marketplace of ideas now has a fact checker.

Emily Lundberg is a writer, researcher and analyst. She holds a doctorate in Communications from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.  

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  • Bart_R

    Notice how little climate communication in the media addresses real, practical, direct action to solve it?

    In place of “denier”, try “debtor”; in place of “skeptic”, try “dumper”. Remember to say “fossil”, because it’s fossil waste disposal that is the cause of the problem, and failure to put a Market price on it that made it happen.

    Try the PIE:

    + Privatize fossil waste disposal at a Market price (determined by the Law of Supply and Demand), with revenues paid to each citizen with lungs, as a way to send a price signal for fossil intensity. This is definitely not your grandmother’s carbon tax. In North America, the British Columbia Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax Act and the Whitehouse-Schatz American Opportunity Carbon Fee Bill are a good start in that direction. If government won’t see this as much its duty as administering weights and measures, then do it yourself by telling those who sell to you that you only buy from those who have paid their CO2 debt by offsets; it’s not the ideal of charging real Market rents, but eventually we will get there one step at a time.

    + Indict those racketeers whose payments to obscure, perjure and lie about fossil waste liability to stakeholders are provable in court, diluting the fossil carbon price signal. If your government won’t do it, then get a class action going to balance the unfairness we all feel. Let the Law of Supply and Demand determine the price, not some lying liar.

    + End subsidy to fossil, that the Market might choose the winners by price signal by the Law of Supply and Demand, not the donors of elected officials. We need no subsidizer or supporter of tax deferrals for fossil.

  • socalpa

    This article is an example of a political attempt to limit discussion of science to a “show of hands” or pounds of papers test of the validity of a hypothesis ..this is not the scientific method ..

    And of course ,limit discussion to the side of the hypothesis the author agrees with ..

    The author should be aware that scientific progress relies on the overturning of “consensus” theories and disproven hypotheses ..

    Two quick points.

    1. The author should be aware that last century, the entire scientific community supported the false idea that the continents were fixed,and the matching coasts a “coincidence”. .a view held by all the specialists, (geologists) Wrong, but clung to for fifty years after the meteorologist Alfred Wegener proposed Continental Drift (now Plate Tectonics ),well supported by geologic and archaeological evidence ignored or suppressed .

    The authors approach would have us still believing a false theory .

    2. The claim that skepticism of century ahead temp/weather/sea level rise forecasts is solely due to FF Cos funding disinformation is ludicrous ..It implies the billions in tax dollars expended on climate change research provides immunity from confirmation bias or error .. It does …not .

    The fact is that skepticism of century ahead climate forecast is common sense .And..the public is aware the actual observations for over two decades don’t match the hype ….

    I am afraid I have to file this under C .. for ; Call for Censorship . .

    • Q: What’s the difference between a skeptic and an denier?
      A: A skeptic says, “Show me the evidence,” while a denier says, “Show me only the evidence that supports my bias.”
      The same process that led to the science of plate tectonics led to the science of climatology: namely, hypotheses were tested against evidence, false hypotheses were discarded, verified hypotheses were kept, and now we arrive at a point where all the evidence says that the climate is changing in dangerous ways and that man is the cause. For a thorough history of the process, read Spencer Weart’s “The Discovery of Global Warming”.

      • socalpa

        Sorry, I think you missed the point; in the case of Continental Drift (now Plate Tectonics)…

        …the entire geologic society qualified as “deniers” under your definition.. for over fifty years the matching archaeological and geological evidence supporting Wegener was ignored..

        as to “all the evidence” that the climate is changing in “dangerous” ways and that man is the cause is patently untrue.

        There is a large and growing body of evidence that runs counter to both assertions.,the “danger” is that as occurred in Continental Drift controversy, vital evidence will be ignored ,or as the author seems to suggest, suppressed .

        I will look into the book ,thanks for the reply.