Max and Jules Boykoff wrote a widely quoted paper back in 2004 that has been used as a cudgel to bludgeon the news media for providing a sort of false balance in coverage of climate change that amounts to a hidden bias. The argument is that mainstream U.S. media, in its instinctive search for “balance,” in fact creates a sort of hidden bias, quoting outliers among a tiny minority of scientists and thus elevating their minority view to a status it does not deserve.
The argument is not without merit, but (as I have written previously) the Boykoffs took it too far.
Max is back with an update of sorts in the 21 February Nature Reports Climate Change. But a close reading of the two papers shows that this new effort has the practical effect of quietly correcting the mistake that undercut the thesis of the earlier paper.
In the new paper, Boykoff opens with a quote from the Dec. 12, 2007 Republican presidential debate, during which the Des Moines Register’s Carolyn Washburn asked the candidates:
How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?
The problem with that question, as Boykoff correctly points out, is the conflation of the positive (what science has to say) and the normative (what we should think and do about it). Here’s Boykoff:
Washburn’s question contained the crucial mistake of conflating two distinct questions into one: whether climate change is a ‘serious threat’ and whether humans contribute to it.
Whereas the latter aspect is one of clear scientific consensus, the former is a judgment call, worth legitimate debate and discussion.
That conflation, Boykoff argues, creates a fundamental confusion that obscures useful discussion of the complex issue of climate change.
The irony is deep here, because that conflation is precisely the mistake that underlies and therefore undermines the analysis in the 2004 Boykoff paper. In that paper, the Boykoffs conflated all over themselves. What is today “legitimate debate and discussion” was, in 2004, false balance. Here are the Boykoffs circa 2004, committing precisely the same mistake as Washburn:
With increasing confidence, the IPCC has asserted that global warming is a serious problem that has anthropogenic influences, and that it must be addressed immediately. (emphasis added)
And later (again from the 2004 paper):
[T]he scientific community has reached general consensus that immediate and mandatory actions are necessary to combat global warming.
In the 2004 version, the conflation of the scientific and the normative response is utter and complete. Science on climate change compels action, according to the Boykoffs, and to quote people who felt otherwise apparently was to engage in false balance.
Fast forward to Boykoff 2008 where, far from being “false balance”, such discussion about the nature of the threat resulting from climate change, and the societal response, is now a good thing:
Legitimate disagreement and dissent, however, have value in shaping understanding. All aspects of climate change should not be treated equally by the media; there are facets of climate change where agreement is strong, whereas for others contentious disagreement garners worthwhile debate and discussion.
To be clear, I am not trying to argue here that there is not a “false balance” problem in media coverage of climate change. Boykoff 2004, in its analysis of the way journalists characterize the science, found significant problems. But the analysis is clouded by the paper’s conflation of what the science says with the separate question of what ought to be done. Again, Boykoff 2004:
In light of the general agreement in the international scientific community that mandatory and immediate action is needed to combat global warming, US prestige-press coverage has been seriously and systematically deficient.
I much prefer the new improved Boykoff. I hope the old one can now be cited with a little less enthusiasm.