Sunday 30 March 2014

The BBC will continue fake debates on climate science

Nigel Lawson
Nigel Lawson, not a scientist, but confuses public about science helped by the BBC.
David Rose wrote in The Daily Mail that Mr MacLeod, head of editorial standards and compliance for BBC Scotland, sent an email to his colleagues:
"When covering climate change stories, we should not run debates / discussions directly between scientists and sceptics. If a programme does run such a discussion, it will... be in breach of the editorial guidelines on impartiality."
Anthony Watts wrote a response in his usual elderly statesman manner; it was titled: "Climate change campaigners fear debate, can’t face climate skeptics anymore, so they rig TV news shows". No link, you can find the cesspit yourself. Note the word fear that is so important to the conservatives and the concealed message that climate scientists are climate change campaigners.

The Daily Mail is not the most reliable source around. The only article missing in the side bar is "Britney beheaded two-headed baby in satanic ritual". Thus I have asked the BBC for confirmation. They replied:
[I]t is not the case that “the new policy of the BBC is to no longer have debates between climate scientists & climate "sceptics"” as you state – our policy is and remains that all views are given due weight in BBC coverage of the issue.
Sounds like the bad news for Watts' blood pressure and the good news for science and democracy is wrong. The BBC will continue having fake debates on climate science. Or at least there does not seem to be a BBC-wide consensus opinion yet. What I found especially worrying is that the BBC does not distinguish between false balance ("due weight") and fake public debates. They are related, but separate problems.

What is wrong with the media?

Why is this a problem for democracy? I would like to explain the importance of accurate media reporting on climate science using a great new video that was just released called Can we trust scientists? h/t The New Anthropocene.

It reminds us of the huge trust the public has in science and contrasts it to the large percentage of people holding opinions that deviate from the scientific consensus. Not only when it comes to climate change, but also evolution and vaccination.

It argues that people who know of the consensus generally accept it. This makes sense because a consensus opinion is much more reliable as the opinion of single persons. However, many people have the wrong impression that scientists are not sure yet whether climate change is a problem. Also the climate dissenters often claim there is no consensus.

As a consequence climate scientists are forced to state that there is a consensus on the basics. A somewhat awkward position as the job of a scientist is to refute existing hypothesis and there is nothing more beautiful for a scientist to refute a consensus idea. That means you are better than all the others. Or more modestly, that you were lucky and had a better idea. :-)

The video argues that vocal individual dissenters and the press are responsible for the misperception of how sure scientists are that climate change is real. The problem with the press is that they like controversy and that they present both sides as equal.

I think that the press is just part of the problem. Some people seem really determined not to understand what science has found. And I am not so sure whether the solution presented in the video, reading and watching bloggers and YouTube v-bloggers, will help. But maybe WUWT and Co. have damaged my trust in blogging. Apart from that, this is a video well worth watching and sharing.

False balance

I have this vision of a few theoretical physicists leaving the Large Hadron Collider after a long night of experiments, and stopping in at the local pub for a drink, where a few of the rowdier locals decide to challenge them on the fundamentals of quantum chromodynamics and a nonsense argument (debate) ensues.
David Sanger

As reason to give climate dissenters airtime, people often refer to balance or due weight. For example before the above mentioned quote the BBC wrote (my link):
The BBC covers climate change fully on all its outlets with analysis from specialist journalists. As part of the BBC's commitment to impartiality, a number of global warming sceptics will be interviewed across the BBC's coverage.

This is consistent with the BBC's response to the Jones report in which we said all viewpoints would be given due weight in our output. The email was merely clarifying this notion of “due weight” in that with there being well-established fact and opinion and a general scientific consensus on the premise of climate change, it would create what’s described as a “false balance” were the BBC to give “equal weight” to sceptics. Put simply, the amount of airtime given to sceptics should accord with the prevalence of their views on the subject matter.
The problem with framing the problem in terms of balance or weight is that this emphasises quantity, whereas the main problem is quality. Normally this is clear, when it comes to science, normally another independent scientist is asked for a second opinion. Everyone that reads the science section at BBC news will have noticed that they do this very consistently. The exception is somehow climate science, where scientists, activists and politicians are freely jumbled.

Journalist like to personalise stories and thus focus on single scientists. In this way a single fringe idea easily gets as much weight as a consensus position with a huge amount of evidence behind it. Preventing such a wrong impression requires the journalist to explicitly write about the credibility of both positions, to put everything into context.

The problem with balance is not so much how much of the time is spend on fringe ideas versus mainstream. Reporting on the ideas of the dissenters is no problem as long as it is put in perspective. The most effective way HotWhopper ridicules dissenters is by simply quoting their nonsense and explaining the fallacies. Also at this blog I currently write more about climate change dissenters as about science. That is fine, as long as you put it in perspective.

The problem of false balance is not making clear that one position is at best a fresh interesting idea and the other one established science with a huge amount of evidence behind it. Unfortunately, journalists have the infuriating habit of ending such a conversation claiming that the truth is probably in the middle.


The quality problem also comes back when it comes to fake debates. After a fake debate between a climate scientist and Andrew Montford, a blogger and accountant, or Lord Lawson, a former politician without any scientific background, Shiv Malik tweeted cynically:

The largest problem with fake debates is called the Gish Gallop, after the strategy of the creationist Duane Gish, may God have mercy on his soul, to spew such a gallop of misinformation, that the other side would not have enough time to correct all the falsehoods.

In the recent EconTalk debate of John Christy and Kerry Emanuel on Climate Change. Christy used this strategy in this opening statement, combined with a strawman argument about restrictions to energy for poor people in Africa. [UPDATE: Please be warned that all half-way scientific statements are wrong, but that debunking all these claim would be impossible in this post, which is exactly the intention of such a gallop.]:
Ultimately the question before us is a moral question, not a scientific question. Is it good to enhance human life? Today and for the foreseeable future, the reliable energy that enhances human life and which is economically viable comes from burning carbon. That will continue no matter what our country decides to do. Does extra CO2 cause climate problems? The observations tell us not much is happening to the climate that hasn't happened before. Now, a fundamental aspect about the scientific method is that when we understand a system, we can predict its behavior. That has not happened for our climate system. It is true that we have an expensive climate modeling industry that shows scary changes. But they are unable to replicate the actual climate system today. In fact, 100% of the latest climate models overshoot the key target variable of climate change detection. And there is no model that has been rigorously validated for reliability.
In a debate you would need a few minutes for every sentence to show the errors, in this time several additional errors will be added. A time-limited oral debate is not well suited to find the truth. Blog discussions are already a bit better, that gives you time to look up information and all questions can be answered in depth. Down to the level of detail where it becomes clear the the dissenters are simply and plainly wrong with their crude thesis. For more complicated and interesting challenges one has the scientific literature. That is how one improves scientific understanding, not by debates.

The irony is that there is quite some evidence of climate change dissenters not wanting to debate climate science on blogs. For example, some time ago, a "moderator" at WUWT challenged William M. Connolley to debate Monckton. However Monckton was not interested in debating WMC on WUWT.

Both Dumb Scientist and I are still waiting for an answer by Eric Worrall and are already waiting for a long long time.

Dumb Scientist:
Since this is just a re-run, I'll wait for Eric to critique my statements on quantum physics and relativity, which he was apparently too busy to bother with the first time.
And I wrote:
Interesting. I am also still waiting for an answer from this busy guy. At my blog he asked: "How do you know the climate didn't actually cool?" I gave him multiple lines of evidence and since he did not show up any more.
Another reason why public debates and live interviews with climate change deniers do not work is that often you have to check the facts, look information up or make a calculation to show where the climate dissenter goes wrong. This is possible in a blog debate or in the scientific literature. A climate dissenter has no reputation to lose by presenting misinformation, his followers do not care as is evidenced by nearly every post at WUWT as shown by HotWhopper. A scientist has a reputation to lose and is used to formulating carefully, which makes it difficult to produce the strong statements that would be warranted when someone misinforms the public.

If Kerry Emanuel did not know in advance what the error was that corresponds to Christy's claim: "100% of the latest climate models overshoot the key target variable of climate change detection.", it would have been nearly impossible to understand the error Christy made to shift the model results up during a debate.

In a scientific discussion among scientists falsehoods are not common as both sides stick to the facts and are interested in understanding the problems better. Normal scientists are not experienced in the adversarial character of public debates that are aimed at scoring points, rather than understanding. While climate dissenters feel qualified to comment on any topic, a normal researcher will often only feel qualified to talk about his area of expertise. In many cases, a normal citizen who follows the public/blog "debate" is likely more familiar with the weird thoughts of climate dissenters and better able to respond as a scientist that only knows the scientific debate.

Finally, such debates are also not of much use. As Phil Plait aka @BadAstronomer wrote:
My own stance on this [public science debates] is complicated; personally I’d rather not do it, as I have done it in the past and find it unsatisfying. In general even when I destroy my opponents, they still claim victory. It has the risk of elevating someone with marginal and/or fringe beliefs to something worth debating. And it can also be used by your anti-science opponent to fundraise … which is precisely what Ham did [in his debate with the science guy on creationism].
This argument is likely valid for almost any type of communication with a contrarian audience that is determined not to be convinced by any argument, that did not come to their position based on arguments and will thus also not change its position based on arguments.

Concluding, I hope that the mail of Mr MacLeod, BBC Scotland, was real and that he can convince the rest of his colleagues that fake debates and live interviews are not a good way to improve our understanding of the climate system, nor that they are a good way to educate the public on science.

How to fix it

Analysing the situation is just a first step. What can we do to improve the situation?

Bob Ward, Director of policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, suggest that science literacy is the problem:
“The BBC has a problem. It is an organisation dominated by people who don't have a science background and think that everything is a matter of opinion. The laws of physics are not a matter of opinion…"
I think it is good to improve science literacy among journalists, if only because all the errors in science reporting are annoying. However, I do not think that a lack of science literacy explains the bad reporting of climate science. False balance is far from universal and fake debates on television are mainly limited to climate science. This suggests that journalists are able to get it right for most topics.

When a new member of our solar system was discovered, there was no debate with an astrologer claiming there was no empirical evidence, because you could not see VP113 with the naked eye.

When gravity waves from the big bang were discovered, there was no debate between a cosmologist and a young Earth creationist claiming that the universe is only six thousand years old and those polarization patterns were drawn by God.

Thus, I would argue that the journalists know what they are doing and will not improve their ways if only we explain that science is something else as politics or by making appeals to their moral values. The ones that uses these methods know what they are doing.

An important step would be if scientists refuse to participate in such fake debates. We should not ignore the dissenters. Responding to their claims after having had the time to study them is fine. The misinformation they put into the public's head already needs to be challenged. If the public chooses not to respond to the problem, I feel that that would be foolish, but that is democracy. If this choice is based on misinformation, that would be a catastrophe.

A caveat might be that this leads to more interviews of dissenters. Interviews with journalists that are even less able to see through the misinformation than a scientist. However, I would hope that this is a less attractive alternative for the media and that the media produces documentaries and news items instead.

For newspapers a step everyone can make is to cancel your newspaper subscription if they publish nonsense. For online news, you can disable AdbLock for good resources. (Firefox: Tools|Adblock Plus|Disable on ...) That could be effective, newspapers are commercial companies after all.

More ideas are welcome. How can we make sure that climatology is treated like any other science?

[UPDATE An anonymous coward using the name "dh7fb" at the forum of Wetterzentrale summarizes this post as: "Und nicht mit Laien diskutieren!". Translated: do not discus with amateurs. Disingenuous nonsense, expecting that people will not read the post well. I clearly wrote that I have noting against discussions on blogs and in the scientific literature. That is also the main way in which professional scientists communicate. Public debates are, however, not a good way to discover the truth. Especially when dealing with pseudo-sceptics who often have no hesitation to pervert the truth.

For what it is worth, I feel that amateurs can contribute very well to science. Especially to climate science as so much data is openly available and many studies consequently only need a computer with free analysis software such as R. I am currently working on a study with an amateur, Zeke Hausfather. An amateur that is interested in understanding the climate better.

[UPDATE of UPDATE: dh7fb Feels that the use of the term "anonymous coward" is: "Traurig, traurig, traurig". Sad, sad, sad. I fully agree. It is the favourite term of Anthony Watts for people that want to contribute to the discussion, but would prefer to avoid harassment by pseudo-sceptics.]]

Related reading

BBC climate coverage singled out for criticism by cross-party parliamentary committee

'BBC News sticking two fingers up to management' says prof behind Trust's science impartiality report
An article on a discussion of the BBC policy around debates, making many of the same arguments. Definitely worth reading.

BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science. With an independent assessment by Professor Steve Jones and content research from Imperial College London.

The Independent - The BBC must not confuse climate change with politics

The value of peer review for science and the press

On consensus and dissent in science - consensus signals credibility


  1. I was wondering were did Christy get his numbers from. I was surprissed that he was as dishonest as he was.

    Debate or not debate, that's the question. I would go to the National Center for Science Education for good guidelines to this conundrum. They have extensive experience with the evolution debate which is really similar to the climate debate. Basically is another representation of science denial. Their position is: don't debate.
    I would also recommend Skeptical Science's Myth Debunking Guide that has very good advice regarding presentation and argumenting style.

  2. Yes, reading the explanation at Our Changing Climate, it is hard to imagine that Christy's mistake was accidental.

    It would be nice to have something like the NCSE for climate change. People who professionally study the "arguments" of the climate dissenters. As I wrote above, scientists are often not aware of this alternative universe.

    When they study it, they can find the problems, but it is not their job to do so. I do the blogging about the dissenters in my free time. Only the scientific posts are sometimes partially written during work time. As far as you can distinguish this. Science is not a 9 to 5 job.

    Found the handbook. Thanks. The shortest version is: "Fight sticky myths with stickier facts."

  3. And there is no model that has been rigorously validated for reliability.

    This statement from John Christy is wrong. I know of at least model that has been rigorously validated and shown to be remarkably accurate. It's this one: Test of a decadal climate forecast.

    I do somewhat agree that debates between "Skeptics" and climate scientists are probably not a good idea. Although someone recently posted this video to my blog of a debate between Roy Spencer and Gavin Schmidt. Only Gavin Schmidt refused to debate Roy Spencer, which is perfectly reasonable, but I don't think it worked so well. I'm not sure how he could have better handled it but I don't think this approach would have done much for the cause.

    If you're someone like George Monbiot, with good debating skills, then it's probably worthwhile going ahead with the debate, but if not, then it's best avoided.

  4. Rachel, you are right. Naturally climate models are all validated. That is a main part of the work, you do not just run a model without studying how well it does. How would you know who to improve the model if you had not idea in which respects is performs well and in which respects it does not. Maybe I should not have quoted him, because doing so requires one post to debunk every claim. Which is why I could not do so here.

    That claim of Christy is insane. His only defence would be: "well I do not call that rigorous." But given the enormous amount of errors in his UAH satellite product found by the scientists of RSS, he's better be a bit more careful.

    The models used in the last IPCC report, we not only validated by the modelling groups themselves, but also in a community effort called CMIP, coupled models intercomparison project.

    That Gavin Schmidt does not want to debate him, I can understand. That would not be much different from a fake debate with Anthony Watts.

    That it did not work so well is because it was still more or less a debate and because Fox is a hostile environment that tries to squeeze the most controversy out of the situation.

  5. "But given the enormous amount of errors in his UAH satellite product found by the scientists of RSS, he's better be a bit more careful. "

    OMG, let me quote Christy's statement about his dataset compared with the surface temperature record:
    "Now, to measure at least what the temperature is doing, the way Roy Spencer and I have done it is through is through the fact microwaves in the atmosphere from atmospheric oxygen, up well and are captured by satellites and the intensity of that radiation is proportional to the temperature of the atmosphere. That's fairly straightforward. And you are talking about measuring the thermometers on the surface--it's a much more murky process because a thermometer is commonly go[?], the instruments change, a lot of places aren't monitored, the setting around the thermometer changes with parking lots or farms or so on. So that's kind of a bit more of a complication there"

    I almost laughed out loud in the bus when Christy claimed that constructing a record based on local measurements was "much more murky" than using satellites. His dataset had multiple problems that when corrected only got it closer to the other products. Where does he get the cojones to claim that measuring temperature with satellites is "fairly straightforward" when orbits decay and satellites change all the time, is beyond me.

    I really think Christy misinformed the whole audience and I was a bit disappointed that Emmanuel didn't call him on his BS.

  6. Here is something I think you will like Victor, and which I think makes a similar argument to yours.

    It is an essay by the late philosopher of science, John Ziman -a beautiful bit of writing, which eloquently contrasts socio-political debate and scientific debate.

    I lean towards an idea that the terms of debate with pseudoskeptics need to be turned around. Their Gish Gallop always sets the agenda and traps scientists into a defensive response...but the shoe should really be on the other foot.

    I think the best response is to call it out - to say "You throw in dozens of spurious half-facts, which make you look to the newcomer like an expert, but why is it the only people you can't convince are the actual experts?

    "Why is it that the only qualified people who agree with you share the same political views as you?

    "You claim (or imply, depending on the person) that the science of climate change is political. Why is it that all of the people who promote your views are from the political right?

    "I am Skeptical of you. Explain to me why you are smarter than thousands of other people in your field. And explain to me without resorting to a conspiracy theory, that thousands of climate scientists, in dozens of countries, across more than a century, have somehow conspired together to get grant money so they can luxuriate on the average wage?"

    The argument needs to be turned around.
    The focus of legitimate skepticism needs to be this:

    Who in their right mind would believe people who explicitly start with a political objection, then set out to build a supposed scientific framework to justify it? It isn't like this is speculation, it's exactly what most of the opponents of climate science freely admit they did!

  7. The BBC's treatment of the WGII release this morning was symbolic. Hundreds of authors involved but when just one decides to set himself apart he gets equal billing, even top billing as it turned out.

    Part of the issue is that "the story" is prized above accuracy and relevance in news media. 'Climate change a problem' isn't a story at this point. 'Dissent on climate change report' is a story.

    The way the BBC in particular tend to report on things encourages false balance too. They want point and counter-point. That's why you often get some real barrel-scraping when it comes to commentators on climate change stories - Lawson and Montford for example.

    The GWPF know all this of course, which is why Tol "accidently" informed reporters of his dissent on the eve of the report being released despite the actual incident apparently occurring six months ago.

  8. The quote from Christy makes me wonder, by the way, if there could be a more blatant case of a scientist failing to be an 'honest broker'. I wonder if Roger Pielke Jnr will criticise him...

    Public debates are not really ways to build knowledge; they are really means to build some kind of impression of authority -which is what the Gish Gallop was designed to do. It is very difficult to beat, but here are a couple of quick links that point towards ways to combat it:

  9. Daneel Olivaw: "I almost laughed out loud in the bus when Christy claimed that constructing a record based on local measurements was "much more murky" than using satellites. His dataset had multiple problems that when corrected only got it closer to the other products. Where does he get the cojones to claim that measuring temperature with satellites is "fairly straightforward" when orbits decay and satellites change all the time, is beyond me. "

    :-) Yes, you are allowed to present your own work in a positive light, but the Christy quote on his own dataset really goes way too far.

    Emmanuel works on hurricanes, he probably does not know of all the problem the RSS had and possibly has. That is where a player of ClimateBall(TM) has an advantage over an average scientist.

    Mark Ryan, thank you for your wonderful reading suggestions. The Ziman article looks like a wonderful document, have printed it.

    These suggestions are another proof that the players of ClimateBall(TM) are better at the game than most scientists.

    I am somewhat uncomfortable with appeals to authority. Maybe that is because I am too much a scientist and it is my job to topple science. Maybe it is because I am myself sceptical of nutritional science (although, I guess they do not have a strong consensus) and economics.

    That almost all climate change dissenters have a market fundamentalist view, is a clear give away, but often not very useful in a discussion as you do no know this of your discussion partner. Similarly that the percentage of dissenters varies so much from country to country, while science is universal, is a clear sign that it is ideology and not scientifically driven.

    A caveat about this argument is that disproportionally many climate scientists are greens or at least progressive. Still there are also many conservative climate scientists. It is not as black and white as among the dissenters.

    In the case of Christy, it is enough for me to know that he is a creationist. The case for evolution is so strong, much stronger as for climate change. There are so many independent lines of evidence. I would not be surprised to see quantum mechanics toppled in my life time, I would when evolution would be toppled.

    If you are able to believe in creation, you have proven that scientific arguments do not mean much to you and that it will be basically impossible to convince someone like that climate change is real using "just" arguments. Unfortunately that is also not a very good debating argument in the USA, given the high percentage of people that take Genesis literally.

    Paul S., The Tol story was even on the German radio news, which is only a few minutes and only presents the most important news. :-( That is what you get for the IPCC trying to be inclusive. Being inclusive is good, but especially then you should watch that the person is able to communicate professionally.

    Biden quickly calling every lie a lie and Obama calling attention to such disfunctional debating strategies are probably good reactions. At least it got them re-elected.

  10. Sorry, you are right, Daneel. Roy Spencer the direct colleague of Christy is the creationist.

  11. Re Update: Fully agree with your point. My efforts over there at Wetterzentrale have a rather long-winded history ... in particular my correspondence with dh7fb (met him twice in person if this helps to put things in context a bit). The full story once we meet somewhere (sure this is gonna happen sometime soon ;-)).

  12. I have been searching for any kind of data regarding the spread of political beliefs in the climate science community, but am not aware of anything. Do you know of any such work?

    Glad you like John Ziman's article, Victor. Sadly, I discovered Ziman posthumously. This book is one of my all-time favourites in the philosophy of science:

  13. KarSteN, would be nice meeting you. The coming year, I will probably only visit small meetings on homogenization, but maybe later at a larger conference. Or if you are Bonn, just drop a note.

    It did give the impression that the two of you had a long history and were no longer able to have a constructive discussion. If you know the guy then I had better followed the rule of Anthony Watts according to which people who attack mainstream science are never anonymous cowards.

    Mark, I was just giving my own impression. If you find something, I would be interested for a post on ideological bias, scientific bias, model bias, trend bias, etc. The pseudo-sceptics call all of these simply bias to act as if they are the same.

    The book teaser sounds promising. And I fully agree that science is not uniformly reliable. There are huge differences in the weight of the evidence between various ideas, methods and hypothesis.

    Why believe in the findings of science? John Ziman argues that scientific knowledge is not uniformly reliable, but rather like a map representing a country we cannot visit. He shows how science has many elements, including alongside its experiments and formulae the language and logic, patterns and preconceptions, facts and fantasies used to illustrate and express its findings. These elements are variously combined by scientists in their explanations of the material world as it lies outside our everyday experience. John Ziman's book offers at once a valuably clear account and a radically challenging investigation of the credibility of scientific knowledge, searching widely across a range of disciplines for evidence about the perceptions, paradigms and analogies on which all our understanding depends.

  14. I'm interested in your impressions of other climate scientists' political views, Victor -it is a question I tend to ask everyone I chat to from the atmospheric/environmental sciences domain. I have met a few, including many ecologists; my impression is that the distribution of political views in that domain is a little more liberal than in the general community, but much more diverse than in the social disciplines -which are definitely more towards the left-liberal end of the spectrum.

    I suspect tertiary education has a slight liberalising effect on one's social values, Plus, there is a mild selection effect in the choice of degrees in the first place -of course, nobody enters a career in the natural sciences for the money and power!

    Just a quick story about my copy of John Zyman's "Reliable Knowledge": I bought it second-hand through AbeBooks, and was pleased to see that it arrived in perfect condition. It originally came from the library of the Grand Rapids Baptist College; since the book was donated to the library in 1978, it had been borrowed times.

  15. You guys are obviously not physicists

    " have this vision of a few theoretical physicists leaving the Large Hadron Collider after a long night of experiments" :)

  16. Oops! :-) That one slipped. And I even studied physics. But don't worry: no one will allow any theoreticians near such an expensive piece of equipment. On the other hand, contrary to popular opinion, some do visit bars.


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