Has Balance Warped The Truth?

May 15, 2006

 

 

 By PAUL D. THACKER
 In February of 2005 year, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story attacking the research of Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

The article cited a science journal study that questioned Mann's research. But this study critical of Mann was done by someone who had decades of experience, not in climate change, but in business. More important, I later found that he had ties to an energy company that had gone unreported by other journalists.

Mann became quite famous in the late nineties for publishing a couple of papers showing that temperatures have been fairly constant for one thousand years until the 1900s when they began a sharp rise. When you plot these temperatures on a graph, you see a flat line for hundreds of years (the shaft), until 1900 when the numbers begin to rise (the blade). Because of how it looks, the graph was nicknamed the "hockey stick."

The hockey stick graph was quite revolutionary and was quickly glommed onto by a number of government entities to prove that global warming was happening. Numerous scientists later replicated Mann's results, but critics and climate skeptics have continuously attacked the hockey stick study. The apparent hope is that undermining Mann's work will bring down the whole science of global warming.

In this case, The Wall Street Journal based its front-page feature on research by Stephen McIntyre, a businessman not a scientist. Nonetheless, the story caught the attention of Congressman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who later kicked off an unprecedented investigation into Michael Mann's research, data and funding. For good measure, Barton made similar requests to the National Science Foundation.

Before running for office, Barton worked in the oil and gas industry and he continues to rank as one of the top five elected officials to receive campaign money from oil and gas, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For instance, CRP report that Barton received $224,398 from oil and gas for his 2004 reelection.

Barton's investigation caused an uproar in the scientific community and numerous opinion writers and scientists criticized him for attempting to intimidate researchers. But the whole chain of events, kicked off by a newspaper article, raises serious questions about how poorly we journalists have covered global warming by constantly peppering articles with the thoughts and opinions of people who have no expertise in climate change.

The tip that started it off In late June, I got a call from a scientist who told me that Congressman Barton had just launched an investigation into the work of Michael Mann. "This is really scary and intimidating," he told me.

I thought it was a great story because Barton was asking to see Mann's raw data and financial records. My first call was to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which Barton chairs. I was put in touch with a spokesperson who, in typical Washington manner, did not want to be identified.

I pointed out that Barton's letter asked to see the raw data of Mann's study. "Do you guys have any scientists on staff?" I asked.

"I don't know," the spokesperson responded.

"Do you think this might have a chilling effect on scientists?"

"I don't know."

I then called around to a number of top scientists in climate change who all complained that Barton was interfering in science since both of Mann's research papers had been peer-reviewed and replicated by other scientists. But what I thought was really odd was when my sources also complained that The Wall Street Journal was at fault as well. Thinking that they were referring to the WSJ's conservative op-ed page, I just wrote it down and moved on.

About two weeks after my story, The New York Times finally wrote something about the Barton investigation. When I checked The Washington Post, they also had a story that same day as did The Wall Street Journal. Curious, I read all three stories and was struck how the Wall Street Journal gave so much credibility to Stephen McIntyre when every scientist I interviewed questioned McIntyre's credentials. In The New York Times, Andrew Revkin described McIntyre as a person "with no expertise in climate change."

Some people I called told me they had never even heard of McIntyre and lauded Mann as a great researcher.

What was going on at The Wall Street Journal?
 Starting to dig 

At this point I became very intrigued and started looking into the background of Stephen McIntyre. I confirmed that he wasn't a scientist. And I discovered he had ties to CGX Energy, Inc., an oil and gas exploration company. The company's 2003 annual report listed McIntyre as a "strategic advisor." When I called CGX up and asked to speak to McIntyre, a secretary told me I could leave my contact information and he would get back to me. McIntyre later acknowledged to me that he "occasionally consults" for the company.

On his website, I noticed that McIntyre had published two studies in the journal Energy & Environment and one in Geophysical Research Letters. But Energy & Environment isn't even a science journal. It's a social science journal found in only 25 libraries worldwide. Michael Mann had published his research in Nature, a top journal in science that can be found in over 125 libraries in Texas, Barton's home state.

Digging further, I found that Energy & Environment often published studies by climate skeptics that were then used by politicians, such as Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, to knock down the science of global warming during debates in Congress.

"Most people in my field have never even heard of this journal," Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center on Atmospheric Research, told me. "We certainly don't read it."

Just to put things in perspective, there are dozens of journals that might publish studies about climate change and hundreds of researchers are working in this field. The Journal of Climate, for instance, is the main journal in this field and publishes around 20 articles every two weeks, for a total of about 1,000 studies a year. Working with some scientists, I did some rough math and calculated that scientists annually publish at least 3,000-4,000 peerreviewed studies on climate change. From the perspective of any scientist, relying on one study to insinuate that global warming is not happening is absolutely bizarre.

"In science, you never only look at one paper," Jay Famiglietti, the editor of Geophysical Research Letters, told me.

Plus, the scientists I was interviewing were telling me that McIntyre's study was not really all that great and had its own problems. Famiglietti said that he had received four different letters criticizing the study.

Choosing to write a story about a businessman doing climate change research and then putting this story on the front page may be dismissed as mere contrarian journalism. And when you consider the audience of the Journal, which is the business community, you can perhaps see why this story was highlighted. But Frank Allen, a former environment reporter for the Journal, was far from pleased, calling the story "strange", "weak" and a "public disservice."

In October, the Journal published a story attacking McIntyre's research. The story ran on page B3. Yet, the businessman's Page-One story had already had its impact. It had set off a congressional investigation that apparently continues today.

Numerous pitfalls 

There are a number of other reasons to question the attention that The Wall Street Journal gave McIntyre. First, it's best to not grab onto studies that run counter to the consensus within a field. Sometimes, such a study might be right. If so, wait until the field has had a chance to settle down on a new consensus.

Second, during my own interviews, I heard from a number of scientists who had warned The Wall Street Journal that McIntyre's work was not that great. But the story ran anyway. Why this happened, I don't know. The Wall Street Journal reporter and his editor refused to do an interview with me.

Editors at The Wall Street Journal responded to inquiries by the SEJournal by defending the fairness and accuracy of the story.

The former Journal reporter and Page One editor, Frank Allen, now directs the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont. I had him read the WSJ story that kicked off the Barton investigation and explained that the reporter and editor were condescending when I had asked questions, and were now refusing to talk with me.

"Your hunch is correct," Allen said. "It's a strange and weak story and I don't know who's doing the editing there anymore." He added that the Journal would probably just ignore me and hope that the controversy would go away.

My investigation into The Wall Street Journal and Stephen McIntyre went on the Internet in August. It contained a quote from Mann's colleague Raymond Bradley, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In a letter written to Barton he tried to explain to the congressman that criticisms such as McIntyre's often appear within the scientific literature. "That is the nature of scientific activity. We publish a paper and others may point out why its conclusions or methods may be wrong," Bradley wrote. However, he noted, "[Science] does not move forward through editorials or articles in The Wall Street Journal or USA Today."

The final odd event in the whole McIntyre/Mann manufactured controversy occurred in early November when President Bush's Climate Change Science Program held a meeting in Washington. When I showed up at one session, I found hundreds of posters discussing future impacts to the United States from climate change. The topics ranged from redesigning conservation strategies for wildlife in the face of climate change, to the impacts of global warming on New York City's sewers, to how climate change will affect fisheries and the New Jersey shoreline.

But the first person I saw when I walked into the room was Stephen McIntyre. He was presenting a poster purporting to find errors in yet another global warming study. It was such an odd juxtaposition. A global warming skeptic was surrounded by research explaining what will happen because of global warming.

Time to move on

 Hopefully, the profile of Stephen McIntyre by The Wall Street Journal will be the last dying gasp of the skeptics. These people were created by industry money, but only flourish because of the ethic of "balance" that exists in journalism.

But scientists and experts are finally beginning to realize that the traditional journalistic sense of balance – including one voice from both sides – simply doesn't work. Jim Detjen, director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, says that the balance model works well for political reporting but fails on complex science issues and does not serve the best interests of readers. He says that the coverage of global warming brings to mind how the tobacco companies kept a debate spinning for decades on the health implications of smoking.

"You can make a similar case that the same thing is going on with global warming," he told me. "If you keep it in the mind of the public that there is still significant debate going on, then you can make the argument that you can't move forward to take action."

Numerous scientists have complained to me in similar fashion, saying that journalists are simply getting it all wrong by going for "balance" instead of truth. John Holdren, a public policy professor at Harvard and director of the Woods Hole Research Center, told me that Americans have been getting a slanted view of climate change because of poor journalism. I have heard similar comments from other scientists.

"The media's penchant for balance has failed us," he says. "They fail to point out the consensus on climate change, and any disagreement is pointed to as evidence that we scientists don't know anything."

In fact scientists are now publishing articles on this very subject. The journal Global Environmental Change has published a study by Max Boykoff, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz called "Balance as Bias." Another article by another graduate student, Liisa Antilla, examined newspaper coverage of climate change in a study that recently appeared in the same journal.

Antilla says that after looking into the media's handling of global warming that the best, most factual coverage actually occurs in the United Kingdom. "Outside of the United States, the scientific consensus is understood, and the skeptics don't have the voice in the media that they do over here," she says.

Having looked into the issue for almost a decade and with two books on the topic under his belt, Ross Gelbspan says journalist have not gotten the story right because all the lobbyistfront groups and industry-funded scientists created a controversy where none exists. Journalists, he says, "never got off their asses, so they just ran stories with opposing quotes."

Like other observers, he notes that the oil and gas industry never wanted to win the debate. In the face of scientific consensus, creating the illusion of a debate is itself the ultimate victory.

Paul D. Thacker is an associate editor at Environmental Science & Technology in Washington DC.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue