Climate v. weather and false balances

Once again science denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla) and chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, doesn’t understand the difference between a data point and a trend.

And once again, the media look at the senator’s absolute ignorance about the difference between climate and weather as a circus event. the two samples linked above help represent what has been wrong with American reporting on issues involving science and science deniers.

Philip Bump at the Post did note the following:

Now, global warming skepticism skeptics might argue that Inhofe, the author of a book about global warming called “The Greatest Hoax,” is using one bit of weather-related data to try to disprove a well-established, very long-term trend. They might note that temperatures in February are supposed to be cold in the Northern Hemisphere since it is a season called “winter.” They might point out that at the same time D.C. was very cold, the West Coast was very warm, which is less expected during “winter.” And they might note that the government did indeed declare 2014 to be the warmest year on record, a detail that is not disproven by a snowball in the year 2015. (The sad irony of that, though: Much of the eastern U.S. recorded colder than normal temperatures — and that is where Inhofe goes to work.)

Bump’s piece is in The Fix, a commentary section of the online post, not a straight reporting article. The writers in The Fix appear to be encouraged to be snarky and witty in their analysis of issues of the day. (And let’s face it, Inhofe and his team of deniers have always been prime targets for snark.)

The Time magazine piece is not commentary but a straight report. It is also an example of how the reporter did not put the story into context and show how off base the senator is. The piece just mentions Inhofe’s comments, included the Vine feed of him tossing a snowball and leaves it at that. (Granted, everyone is running that Vine feed. Even me.)

Anyone who understands the difference between weather and climate — or a data point and a trend — could just laugh at the simple-minded nature of the senator from the Sooner State. But what is needed is a challenge to the simplistic and erroneous position being put forth by Inhofe.

Context is key to good journalism. Make sure the reader/viewer knows what the situation is around the story. Show the facts and the credentials of the key players. That means giving weight to experts in a given field and using anecdotes to personalize the issue at hand.

Too many journalists seem to think that if they just treat the deniers and the fact holders as equals, they have done their job of explaining the debate. Doing straight “he said/she said” journalism does not provide the context readers/viewers need to understand the issue. (Bump did this, but again, his is a commentary, not a news article.)

Journalists need to call out the deniers with simple words that show how their beliefs (matters of faith, not fact) are not sustained by the facts. Journalists need to continue to point out — in simple, easy to understand words — how science works.

And scientists need to wake up and understand how to communicate with use mere mortals who do not a dozen or so academic initials after our names.

And to be sure, this issue is more than just climate change. By giving an uncritical voice to the anti-vaccination crowd — a group usually associated with wealthy, liberal elites (but now being picked up by the right) — U.S. media outlets have done a disservice to their readers/viewers and society as a whole.

More scientists are rising to the occasion. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are two of the current crop. But more need to understand how to communicate with the rest of the world. (Especially journalists.)

Just to show how simple it is to explain the difference between climate and weather, here is a clip from COSMOS:

It can be done.

Oh, and the connection to the rest of the world?

News organizations in other democracies understand the need to stop treating deniers and scientists equally.

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

“…emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences…”

Anti-vaccination activists should not be given a say in the media

The Australian media, to their credit, have moved away from false balance in vaccine stories over the last few years.

Maybe U.S. news organizations need to catch up with the science reporting standards from across the pond. It needs to realize there is no scientific debate over vaccinations, climate change or evolution. There are only deniers who have gut feelings and anecdotes to support their positions, not science. Treating beliefs and facts as equals does not serve the public the way good journalism should.

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Filed under Connections, International News Coverage, Science

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