The usual news venues have been making the usual noises in the build-up to the official publication of the latest UN IPCC report on the human impacts of climate change (working group II’s contribution to the 5th assessment report, or AR5 WG2 for short). The Independent called the report an ‘official prophecy of doom’. Par for the course. The Telegraph read it as a ‘moving on from the futile focus on mitigation’. No surprises there. And the BBC fell hook, line and sinker for the false balance fallacy. Again.
For those who missed it, the BBC’s story runs as follows: Richard Tol, professor of economics and one of WG2’s 61 coordinating lead authors, decides he’s dissatisfied with the finished report, labelling it too “alarmist”. On this basis, Prof Tol asks that his name be removed from this list of authors. The end. Except, of course, it’s not, because the slightest hint of dissent amongst the ranks of the ‘scientists’ (homogenised assortment of white coats that they are) makes for a great story – the plucky maverick taking on ‘The System’. Not to mention, it gives a great opportunity for public service broadcasting to display just how Balanced they are. Balance, as far as the BBC are concerned, being the headline:
DISSENT AMONG SCIENTISTS OVER KEY CLIMATE IMPACT REPORT
With but a wave of the Balance wand, a single economist becomes a rebel faction amongst the previously-uniform ‘scientist’ bloc, and manufactured controversy rears its head once again.
The disproportionate coverage given to Tol’s withdrawal from the list of authors embodies a recurrent problem to which even many mainstream media outlets often seem to succumb – the so-called ‘false balance’ fallacy.
This is in fact a heady cocktail of several different informal fallacies and cognitive biases, all thrown together in the breeding environment of sensation-hungry and litigation-averse newsrooms, populated almost entirely by non-scientists. The ‘representativeness’ heuristic leads journalists to perceive every issue as according to the basic ‘school debate’ model of politics – where every topic is the kind of thing you can ‘pick sides’ on, and fairness involves letting each side say their piece. Having first constructed these sides, the second fallacy comes in: false equivalence – the assumption that each side has equal authority. Once this context is established, then, in comes the fallacy of the golden mean – two polarised extremes at each other’s throats, so the truth must lie somewhere in the middle, right?
It’s tempting to read the false balance fallacy as a cautionary tale about the consequences of letting arts and humanities graduates have responsibility for mainstream science coverage. This, though, is to let the real villains of the piece off the hook; ‘false balance’ isn’t just a cognitive failure in the minds of a few journalists, it’s also a very deliberate weapon of a number of wealthy and powerful people – often with strong links to high-carbon industries.
As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway highlight in Merchants of Doubt, this conception of ‘balance’ in scientific research was largely created – and then forced on the media with a mixed offensive of charm and legal threats – by the tobacco industry, desperate to protect their killer crop from the advances of epidemiology in the 50s and 60s. This same machine – down to the same tactics, down even to the same organisations and scientists-for-hire – is now working to drive climate denialism (having graduated through rejection of the sciences of ozone depletion, acid rain, and passive smoking).
In the context of climate change, false balance runs like this: a hugely complex field of ongoing research involving the collaboration of a range of physical, life and social scientific disciplines – disciplines in which, as philosopher of science Miriam Solomon highlights, dissent is the norm and vital to the scientific process – is reduced to an adversarial face-off between parties; the ‘alarmists’ on the one hand, the ‘sceptics’ or ‘denialists’ on the other. These two parties are then attributed equal authority. Then, having constructed the playing field in this way, those who set themselves up as ‘honest brokers’1 in the middle ground are permitted to carry the day, on the basis that they must be right, since they’ve clearly listened to what ‘both sides’ have to offer.
Tol is set up as just one such honest broker; as an insider to the IPCC’s workings – and a lead author, no less – he claims scientific credibility. As a dissenter from the aggregate findings, dismissing of ‘alarmist’ tendencies within the report, he gains instant ‘free-thinker’ status in our eyes. Coverage of this story from the more climate-literate corners of the internet has largely focused on questioning Tol’s credentials. He does have some murky associations, including a position on the ‘academic’ advisory council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the funding-opaque lobby group headed by Nigel Lawson (of ‘being outwright wrong on straightforward matters of climate fact every time he’s on air, and still being invited to contribute’ fame). Some, such as David McCoy of Medact, also examine the individual reasoning which leads to denialism. Whilst fascinating in their own right, I don’t think either the allegiances, motivations , or cognitive biases of individuals is the whole story in responding to the problems of false balance.
We discussed these issues in a Healthy Planet UK workshop at the publication of the last IPCC report last year. I don’t think focusing on individual failures of reasoning is a winning argument, because good scientists can fall prey to the exact same biases as the bad ones; the whole point of the structure of institutions like the IPCC, and the processes of scientific research more generally, is to factor these out of the equation as far as possible. As mentioned already, those processes inevitably involve dispute – consensus is the exception in the practice of science, not the rule. A better understanding of the practices that produce science that is able to successfully inform us about the world – that enables accurate predictions, useful explanations, and technological developments – shows how the contrarian approach differs from the principles of good science.
This isn’t news. They certainly aren’t to the BBC, who have already been warned about them via a high-profile report on bias and impartiality in science reporting, led by Prof Steve Jones FRS. Correcting for false balance isn’t just a question of letting ‘the right’ voices be heard – what’s really needed is an understanding that good science simply isn’t about polling individual voices.
Not only has the BBC been warned, it’s not short of constructive suggestions for how it could go about dealing with the problem. It’s worth us trying to ensure that it, and other media outlets, engages with those suggestions. Not only because climate change is (whatever Tol and his contrarian ilk continue to say) increasingly threatening people’s health and people’s lives worldwide; not just because health workers have fought so hard for so long to oppose the tobacco industry’s use of the exact same playbook; but because, unless we create a media culture in which science reporting does just that – report on science, rather than extracting quotable bons mots from ‘experts’ – communicating effectively on any scientific issue, including those of health and health care, will be an ever-steeper uphill struggle.
- 1. The title of a book by one of the contrarian faux-middle-ground’s finest exemplars, Roger Pielke Jr
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author and do not represent the official position of Medact.