Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Striking Just the Right False Balance

Over at the New York Times, climate blogger Andrew Revkin has just posted a response from scientist Michael Prather, who has done an astonishing pile of fine work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) over the years. Prather takes issue with two statements from Revkin, the first of which reads: “Environmentalists assert that the reports by the panel are watered down by a requirement that sponsoring governments approve its summaries line by line.”

Such remarks, Prather says, “seem too easy, and I worry that such beliefs and accusations become propagated as facts without some serious evaluation as to their authority.”

I have profound respect for the work of the IPCC. Its 2007 report is an epoch-making, primary resource for anyone wanting to understand climate change. Nevertheless, Dr. Prather’s response seems to me evasive at best. Indeed, the statement he quotes is itself “watered down.” That governments meddled with language in the IPCC’s 2007 report is not simply a claim of “environmentalists” but of participants in the IPCC process, as reported in the mainstream press. See, for example, “U.S., China Got Climate Warnings Toned Down” (Washington Post, April 7, 2007), which begins: “Some sections of a grim scientific assessment of the impact of global warming on human, animal and plant life issued in Brussels yesterday were softened at the insistence of officials from China and the United States, participants in the negotiations said.” Before-and-after versions of specific passages are quoted.

Did these events happen, or did they not? If they did, shouldn’t journalists represent them as fact, not as something that “environmentalists assert”?

This is a case of the journalistic phenomenon of
false balance — the casting of disputed questions in an apparently even-handed form that conveys a distorted impression of fact. Climate scientists themselves have been dogged by false balance for decades, as journalists noted demurely that this or that question (on which 90+ percent of scientists doing relevant work agree) is “disputed”—as indeed it is, by a tiny handful of people with scientific qualifications plus Rush Limbaugh. Here, in a turnabout that I do not find refreshing, false balance is deployed to soften facts about the IPCC process, trotting them out as dubious “assertions.” (“Assert” is one of those inherently loaded words. If somebody is represented as “asserting” something, the reader is already three-quarters of the way to dismissing whatever it is they’re saying.)

It is obviously unlikely that powerful and ruthless governments explicitly
given line-by-line authority over the IPCC’s final reports would never use that authority. And, if news accounts such as the one cited above are accurate, they do use it — sparingly, cautiously, selectively. The IPCC’s scientific content is strong, but governments don’t care about that. They know that few people, including science journalists, actually buckle down and read the IPCC’s science. They’re afraid of soundbites — quotable passages in plain, alarming language that might go viral enough to threaten business as usual. These are the passages, it appears, that they bestir themselves to censor.

So this is not, I think, about the scientific validity of the IPCC’s conclusions. It’s about spin. Governments spin primarily through censorship, outright lies, controlling access, and spoonfeeding leaks to journalists; journalists spin — usually unconsciously, no doubt, assuming that it is simply how one stays “objective,” above the fray — primarily through false balance and selective omission. And Revkin is one of the good ones.