What about climate scientists? Are their findings biased by politics and other factors?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about bias in science. And this subject leads naturally to questions about bias in journalism, including my own.
So as a Democrat, am I hopelessly biased in my coverage of climate change and other environmental issues?
I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let’s look at some recent claims about bias in science.
Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, wrote this in Slate recently:
Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?
It’s not my intention to take on Dan’s argument. I want to note it, and then move on toward the role of bias in science journalism, including my own. So please keep reading. But if you’d like to hear a good rebuttal, check out what Paul Raeburn wrote at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker site.
Another recent case for bias in science has been made in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer. In this case, it’s non-political “selective reporting of results” as a result of “subtle omissions and unconscious misperceptions, as researchers struggle to make sense of their results.” The story is behind a pay wall, so I won’t provide a link. But Keith Kloor has written an excellent post about it, with extensive excerpts.
What about possible biases among those who cover science as journalists and commentators, including yours truly? Here’s what the Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit has to say about that:
A bit of ‘Democratic’ climate news?
I am betting that, while I don’t know, the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has more liberals asssociated with it than conservatives. Just guessing. And I’d apply that to its director Tom Yulsman. Just guessing, again. But here’s a post to ponder at its website:
- CEJournal – Tom Yulsman: The heat goes on… ; Yulsman digs up data hinting strongly the globe is about to finish the warmest year in the modern, recorded era, and warmest in millenniums if one goes by proxy data like tree rings and ice cores used to make hockey sticks. Dunno if liberal bias is at work here in skewing the numbers. My guess: no.
Well, that got my attention. So I penned a response that I posted at Charlie’s site. But I thought readers of CEJournal should see it too.
So basically, where am I coming from? What are my true biases, and how do I try to make sure they don’t blind me? Here goes:
SHOCKING BUT TRUE!… By way of full disclosure, and as Charlie suspected, I am indeed a Democrat. Over the course of more than 30 years as a voter, I have opted for a Republican candidate maybe a few times at most. Jacob Javits comes to mind. And no doubt I would have voted for John Lindsay if I had been of voting age as a resident of Brooklyn back in the ’60s. (Alas, I was just a tot, so what did I know?)
It is also probably true that I wound up in journalism, as opposed to business or finance, because my mom was a good Lefty who read the Sunday New York Times over bagels and lox every week.
But do my political beliefs influence how I cover science, particularly climate change and other global environmental issues?
Those views no doubt had some influence on my preference to focus on these issues. As does the fact that I have children who will be grappling with the potential environmental impacts of my generation’s actions. But do my political views predispose me to being less skeptical than I should be of scientific claims?
Well, nothing would please me more than to wake up tomorrow to learn that scientists had just discovered some huge, heretofore unknown natural factor nullifying any possibility of a human impact on global life support systems. Would that not be the science story of the century?
And wouldn’t it be fabulous if instead of being the first person to report that by NASA’s accounting the past meteorological year was the warmest on record, I was actually the first to report that global warming IS bunk? Like, for real? I can only imagine what THAT would do for my page views.
And what an amazing and fun challenge for a science writer: having to explain how physics, paleoclimatology, observational climatology, and climate modeling — not to mention more than 100 years of scientific research — all were wrong.
Alas, this is exceedingly unlikely to happen. (Because Andy Revkin is likely to beat me to the story.)
In all seriousness, I know that I am biased; all human beings are. And so as a journalist I struggle constantly to acknowledge those biases to myself and do the best that I can to circumvent them in my reporting.
So, for example, next week I am hoping to carve out the time to write a piece (that could be cross-posted at Climate Central; stay tuned) examining why NASA GISS, NOAA-NCDC, and the UK’s HadCRUT all come up with somewhat different readings on global temperature anomalies. Speaking of WUWT, what IS up with that?
My intention is to scrutinize in particular NASA’s technique of filling in observational gaps in temperature data up in the Arctic with modeled temperatures — something that, as far as I know, the other two science groups don’t do. Is this legitimate? Does it tend to inaccurately inflate global temperature anomalies? I would like to know.
A knowing cynic might suspect that my true bias here is that I secretly hope there IS a problem in the way NASA does its temperature analyses. After all, that would simply be a much better story. And at the end of the day, isn’t our biggest bias as journalists the fact that we are, in fact, looking for the best, most newsworthy, most impactful story we can find?
That is so much more satisfying than writing, “Nothing of much importance happened today.”
And it would be so much more satisfying than reporting, as I did yesterday, that, “Yes folks, it looks like the world is still warming.”