CNN Just Went a Full Year without Debating the Reality of Climate Change

, former science communication officer | May 6, 2015, 9:30 am EDT
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It’s been exactly a year since CNN hosted a misleading debate about established climate science. I hope it was the last one for the network and that CNN and other news outlets can move on to debates about how society is responding to climate risks.

Climate science isn’t a political position

In our 2014 analysis Science or Spin?, we found that 30 percent of CNN’s climate change segments included misleading representations of science. More often than not, inaccurate statements about climate science aired during debates between science communicator Bill Nye and spokespeople from advocacy groups opposed to climate policy, including some with a history of fossil fuel funding. Indeed, the last debate the network aired featured Nye facing off with a Heritage Foundation economist.

If you watch the segment, you’ll see how problematic such televised debates are. The economist makes a number of cherry-picked claims about climate science that Nye isn’t given time to rebut. Indeed, the entire debate format is premised on the idea that discussions about climate science can be reduced to yet another 50 / 50 political dispute. Ironically, that particular debate was premised on the release of a major federal climate science report, which laid out the science as clearly as possible.

Naturally, our first recommendation for CNN in our report was as follows:

The biggest step that CNN could take to increase the accuracy of the information it provides to its viewers is to stop hosting debates about established climate science and instead host debates and discussions about whether and how to respond to climate change through climate policy.

Our supporters stood up for science

After we released our report, 27,000 UCS activists and more than 1,000 members of our Science Network wrote to CNN’s head of standards and practices to ask that programs stop hosting debates about established science.

It seems like the network listened.

Comedian – and UCS celebrity science champion — John Oliver certainly pitched in, too. His parody of Nye’s debates, which included having 96 scientists join Nye on stage, has been viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube.

Better climate coverage

We deserve a robust debate about how society should respond to climate change; but debating established climate science is often just as misleading as debating whether or not smoking causes lung disease (yep) or vaccines cause autism (nope).

And, of course, there’s more to climate coverage than simply avoiding misleading debates. For instance, CNN’s John Sutter is doing an entire series on climate change based on the 2 degree (C) global warming limit at the heart of international climate negotiations.

Jake Tapper has also been leading the way on holding politicians accountable for misinformation. For instance, after Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) criticized mainstream climate science during a live interview, Tapper simply and straightforwardly reminded the senator – and viewers — that the vast majority of scientists don’t agree with him. Fact-checking politicians can truly be that simple. Similarly, Tapper asked the candidates for Florida governor to debate climate policy rather than whether or not climate science is valid.

Jake Tapper interviews Sen. Inhofe

“Well, the overwhelming majority of scientists disagree with you…” Tapper told Sen. Inhofe during a November segment. (Source: CNN, via Crooks and Liars)

What’s next?

Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential contest, I hope CNN continues to make clear distinctions between what scientists know about our climate and what politicians say about it. As NYU’s Jay Rosen has noted, it’s hard to justify treating misinformation about established science as yet another political position.

Similarly, it’s also a mistake to reduce climate change to the single question of whether or not candidates accept the evident scientific reality that industrial activities are causing recent climate change. Politicians and media media outlets are catching up to the reality that communities around the United States are already dealing with the costs and consequences of a changing climate, especially people and businesses on our coasts who face rising seas. I hope journalists ask politicians how we should be responding to such climate risks. And I hope they ask presidential aspirants what role the federal government should play in protecting the places where we live and work from climate change.

Those are the questions we deserve answers to and the type of coverage we should expect from national news outlets.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , , ,

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  • 3GSimpleton

    Yes, of course…the effort to stifle this debate must continue. “The Science is Settled” must be pushed as a meme, because the positions taken by the True Believers cannot withstand much scrutiny, and debate needs to be avoided in order to accomplish The Greater Good.

    So let’s all keep working harder to shut down any debate about whether or not climate change is an issue, and let’s just proceed blindly with the recommended prescriptive agenda. While we’re at it, let’s just do away with the whole free speech thing…more trouble than it’s worth, frankly…and let’s move to implement thought control by legislative statute.

    It’s about time we start punishing those who refuse to change their minds until convinced by empirical evidence instead of political consensus.

    • Not at all. Feel free to read the report linked above at your leisure.

      • 3GSimpleton

        “After we released our report, 27,000 UCS activists and more than 1,000 members of our Science Network wrote to CNN’s head of standards and practices to ask that programs stop hosting debates about established science.”

        Let’s be clear about the objectives:

        Suppressing scientific debate with political pressure by activists.

      • Maggnum

        Actually the objectives are already clear. The objective was to point out that the scientific community, including 97% of climate scientists, agree that global warming is happening, is the result of human activity, and is something that should concern us.

        The suppression of scientific evidence is strictly in the realm of denierville. It is the stated purpose of the Heartland Institute, the GWPF and other right wing, anti-science, fossil fuel funded organizations to obfuscate and delay any science they see as being damaging – not to people, but to their bottom line.

        They spread their lies not through the use of independent scientists nor by utilizing peer reviewed science, but rather by paying for studies that they can control the findings of and then relying on bloggers and the dupes that believe them to spread their lies.

        You are allowed to say whatever you want, the same as I am allowed to howl in derision at the hypocrisy and vacuousness of your comments. But lets be clear here – asking the media to provide the scientific evidence clearly and with a true balance which acknowledges the real scientific consensus is not suppressing free speech any more than demanding that any report of NASA sending men into space includes comments from a moon hoaxer.

      • 3GSimpleton

        The scientific invalidity of your so-called “97% consensus” has been repeatedly shown to be nothing but a big fat lie. Everyone knows this now, but in truth, your options are limited. You can either admit flat out to speaking untruth, or you can continue to scream the lie louder and louder, hoping that if you are vehement enough, someone will believe you.

        Either way you reveal yourself as a deluded individual.

      • Maggnum

        Well, at least your handle is accurate.

        A reasoned person would argue the facts of the study and offer refutations. Something like: “the study was wrong because of their sampling technique” or something similar (that was tried, BTW, and debunked).

        A simpleton says it was a big fat lie.

        A reasoned person will discuss the facts of the issue at hand, in this case how the coverage of a scientifically agreed fact is portrayed in the media.

        A simpleton claims it is a conspiracy.

        A reasoned person will refrain from insult and hyperbole.

        A simpleton will screech childish insults and attack the individual.

        Yes, you have picked your handle well.

      • 3GSimpleton

        Hi Maggdum…

        Refer to my other comment where I make fun of your name same as I do here.

        You’re welcome.

      • Maggnum

        Hahaha this is great, I hope you keep posting! You make my case for me.

      • I don’t think you’ve read the report or that you will read the report. Anyway, scientific debates are not the same as media coverage of science. The report is here: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/fight-misinformation/cable-news-coverage-climate-change-science.html. Enjoy.

      • 3GSimpleton

        “Anyway, scientific debates are not the same as media coverage of science.”

        They have some striking similarities. For example, there are concerted attempts by this organization and others to suppress scientific debate by making claims like “the science is settled…”, “97% of scientists say so…”, and likewise, there are concerted attempts to control media coverage of the scientific debate, such as the example I quoted in my previous comment above.

        There are many scientists and individuals who disagree with the so-called consensus view, despite insults from individuals like Maggnum below who dismissively says:

        “The suppression of scientific evidence is strictly in the realm of denierville.” (Hey Maggdum, it must be nice to be so smugly arrogant.)

        In the end, like all scientific debates, this one will ultimately be settled by empirical evidence, and not by politicizing the issue as this article does. It doesn’t matter that there is a “consensus”. The data will speak for itself. Always does.

      • As someone who has analyzed cable news coverage of climate science for two years and who has worked with scientists and journalists for nearly a decade, all I can say is “not really.” If you’d like to read the report, which also includes a discussion of how outlets and guest can sometimes exaggerate the risks of climate change, you’re more than welcome to. If not, I’m not sure there’s much more we can say to each other. I hope you have a nice day.

      • 3GSimpleton

        As someone who has analyzed the progress of climate science (if such a thing even exists as its own form) for over a decade, it is clear to me that the AGW movement has shifted from a focus on scientific argument to a fetish involving language/media manipulation using social/political arguments designed to preclude any further scientific debate on technical/fundamental principles.

        Not only is this arrogant to say the least, but notions like “no further debate is needed” because the “science is settled” display a complete disregard for the principle known as uncertainty. There is so much we barely understand, and our knowledge base and tools are in many ways woefully inadequate to the tasks at hand. I could list numerous examples involving magnetism, vulcanism, plasma behaviour in the interplanetary domain… How anyone in their right mind can blindly assert that we know all we need to know is beyond my comprehension.

        To suggest that the answer is to curtail debate of the scientific basis for our understanding, as you clearly do here…

        “We deserve a robust debate about how society should respond to climate
        change; but debating established climate science is often just as
        misleading as debating whether or not smoking causes lung disease (yep) or vaccines cause autism (nope).”

        …with your implied ad hominen attacks on those who still feel such a debate is appropriate, shows your true objectives quite clearly. And they are not a concern for the validity or acceptance of any science, but rather to support your blind faith and acceptance of a politically motivated dogma.

        Your thoughts lack originality. All you are proposing is what Orwell already warned us about, and everyone knows it. But you go ahead and keep working on shutting down the scientific debate in order to manipulate mass opinion, and please document further cases of success/media cowardice. Historians will be interested later.

      • That’s not what I believe at all. If you want to argue against straw men, be my guest; I suppose that’s easier than reading the report. Cheers.

      • 3GSimpleton

        “Naturally, our first recommendation for CNN in our report was as follows:

        The biggest step that CNN could take to increase the accuracy of the information it provides to its viewers is to stop hosting debates about established climate science and instead host debates and discussions about whether and how to respond to climate change through climate policy.”

        Those are your words. It is not a strawman argument to quote your own words. You are free to now state clearly that you DO think that debate on climate science should continue. But that is not what you wrote.

      • Biologyteacher100

        The debate won’t end when an anti-science type cherry picks data and presents a zinger one liner. The problem is that scientists have to consider all of the data. That’s why the IPCC reports consider 1000s of data rich studies. If someone wants to debate against the current science, he or she needs to publish a peer reviewed paper with their evidence. The current strategy in politics of taking isolated statements out of context has nothing to do with science. I can tell you that any scientists who attenpts to cherry pick data or to give misleading interpretations of previous studies will see his or her manuscript rejected very quickly.

  • Maggnum

    An anniversary worth acknowledging! Now if only people could get through to Fox News.

    • You know, it’s interesting because Fox is a lot less monolithic on climate than most people think. A few producers there were responsive to us when we released the report (I called every program we examined, which was slightly awkward at times). I think Bret Baier and Bill O’Reilly do the fairest job on the network. The Five seems pretty hopeless; I’ve never been able to get a response from them or anyone associated with the show. Oddly, Sean Hannity never interviewed anyone who endorsed mainstream climate science in our original analysis, but he finally did have one panel this year that included an environmental journalist.

      • Maggnum

        I think at least some of them are beginning to see that their dogmatic denial of the science is simply beginning to come across as it really is – an ideologically driven position without scientific support or merit. At least, I hope that is true.

        While they are finally beginning to accept the obviousness of global warming, I also see they are regrouping to now argue the fallback position that there may be warming, but it’s not that bad.

        On many of these comment streams I am seeing that position. While it could be argued that this is a step forward (and it is) it will still not lead to the discussions of what needs to be done to fix the problem.

        In other words, it’s just another way to delay taking action. And, as far as I can see, Fox leads the charge.

        I do suggest, however, that they are getting lonely out there.