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The Sciences

False Balance in Matthew Nisbet's Climate Shift Report

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApril 21, 2011 6:10 PM

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It's quite the irony. In his contrarian report entitled "Climate Shift"--a report Joe Romm and Robert Brulle have seriously challenged--Matthew Nisbet claims that falsely "balanced" coverage of climate change is no longer a problem. Huh. Then in chapter 4 of the report, Nisbet goes on to provide falsely "balanced" coverage of an issue I happen to know a lot about:

During the Bush administration, many scientists mobilized in response to what they perceived as attempts by the administration to control the public statements of government scientists and to interfere with the conclusions of government reports. This debate received heavy attention at science-related blogs, from science journalists and via several top-selling books.

Here Nisbet is referring to me--although not by name. But note the language: "many scientists mobilized in response to what they perceived as attempts by the administration to control the public statements...." Actually, all these things were extensively documented (see below). There is no "perceived"; these are facts. Why is Nisbet applying phony balance to them? Nisbet then proceeds to discuss the alleged biases of scientists in classic balance-as-bias fashion:

Among AAAS members who had heard of the claims, ideology was strongly associated with evaluations of the allegations. On this matter, 57 percent of conservative AAAS members said the claims were true, compared with 87 percent of moderates and 97 percent of liberals. Those answering true were also asked whether the Bush administration engaged in greater levels of political interference than past administrations, with 68 percent of conservatives answering in the affirmative, compared with 88 percent of moderates and 96 percent of liberals.

Again, Nisbet seems highly uninterested in the truth of these allegations. That perceptions as to their veracity varies by politics isn't surprising--far more surprising is that nearly 70 percent of conservative scientists thought the Bush administration set a new record for interferences with science. Go conservative scientists! After Kerry Emanuel's recent showing before Congress, you guys are my heroes. In any case, the allegations were true, and were proved to be true, repeatedly and in a multitude of ways. That includes journalistic investigations, by several great reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post. It includes multiplesurveys of agency scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Most of all, it includes several official agency InspectorGeneral reports (links are to NASA and DOI)--none cited or mentioned by Nisbet. These aren't "claims." Nisbet continues:

The difference in awareness and perception of political interference is likely reinforced by diverging patterns and attention to science-related blogs, outlets where the Bush allegations were frequently discussed and lamented. Among strong liberal members of AAAS, a combined 50 percent say they read science blogs often or occasionally, compared with 37 percent of conservative members.

These allegations weren't confined to blogs. They were all over the national, mainstream media; some even predated the birth of science blogging as we now know it. They were covered repeatedly in the Washington Post and the New York Times over the entirety of the Bush administration. Sometimes these were cover stories; sometimes the allegations appeared in editorials and columns. They were also all over scientific publications like Science and Nature, and frequently editorialized about in these venues. This is "likely" a primary place where scientists as a group would have learned about them. Indeed, Nisbet is studying members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of Science, which every member receives, regardless of political views. Another place scientists would have learned about the allegations is from...conversations with fellow scientists, who experienced these things firsthand, some of whom even became whistleblowers--like NOAA's Tom Knutson, who even had the courage to testify before Congress about what had happened to him. "There have been instances where my ability to communicate with the national media has been hindered or interfered with...." But of course, that's just his opinion, right? The claim about blogs, then, is just...strange. The bigger point is that without any evaluation of the substance of what happened, Nisbet nevertheless seems confident enough to claim that scientists' partisanship and liberal biases led them to believe...the truth. A truth that even most conservative scientists accepted, apparently. That's the real revelation in the data--nearly, but not quite, obscured by false balance.

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