Junk Science Writing

By Chris Mooney | January 30, 2006 9:16 am

Almost a year ago the Washington Post, following on my own work in Mother Jones, reported on Fox News “junk science” columnist Steven Milloy’s ties to ExxonMobil. The piece was by Howard Kurtz, and it included a reaction from Milloy:

Milloy says Mother Jones has taken “old information and sloppily tried to insinuate that ExxonMobil has a say in what I write in my Fox column, which is entirely false. . . . My columns are based on what I believe and no one pays me to believe anything.” Despite a mainstream scientific consensus, Milloy says that “the hysteria about global warming is entirely junk science-based” and that he sees no need to disclose the ExxonMobil funding in his writing because it’s not “relevant.”

I include this to highlight the following point: Milloy does not appear to dispute the information that has been reported about his funding. Instead, he merely says the information is “old”–to which I say, send us an update!–and that in any case, such funding doesn’t matter. It’s not “relevant” to his writing.

This background is very important in discussing the latest reporting about Milloy–this time by Paul Thacker in The New Republic. Milloy didn’t talk to Thacker, but the interview with Howard Kurtz certainly seems to confirm Thacker’s basic information. But Thacker goes further. He states (and documents) that Milloy “has a long history of taking payment from industries that have a stake in the science stories he writes.” It’s not just global warming; previously, Milloy had ties to the tobacco industry, and challenged scientific studies suggesting risks from secondhand smoke.

My view of this matter is not that it’s wrong for Milloy to get money from for-profit companies, be they ExxonMobil or Philip Morris. However, under the current standards of journalism, it is certainly questionable to go around attacking climate science on the Fox News website without even bothering to disclose such a connection. As Thacker puts it:

Objective viewers long ago realized that Fox News has a political agenda. But, when a pundit promotes this agenda while on the take from corporations that benefit from it, then Fox News has gone one disturbing step further.

Of course, I’m not sure I would expect much generally from Fox News’s science coverage. Consider their website’s science coverage page. “Science: A Liberal Plot,” reads one item. That leads to a free video promoting (almost entirely uncritically) Tom Bethell’s egregious Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. To be fair, at least one Fox anchor asked Bethell a semi-hard question about his “No AIDS Epidemic in Africa” conspiracy theory. Even most conservatives have a hard time swallowing that one.

Comments (10)

  1. Rob

    Thanks for this update on Milloy.

    I’ve been commenting on some of Milloy’s “Junk Science” columns in my own blog recently. Sometimes he gets the science wrong, like in his confusion between fungi and bacteria; other times, he’ll manipulate the information in subtle ways, as he did with the CFCs and OTC rescue inhalers issue.

    One of my commenters has suggested I might have found a niche. I’m not sure I want to turn deconstructing Milloy into my “cottage industry.”

  2. Yes, Fox News should be ashamed. But I find it at least a tiny bit encouraging that Fox now seems be at least not afraid to admit that climate change is real. The main headline on the Fox News Science page at the moment is: “U.K.: Global Warming Well Under Way.”

    Hey, it’s a start. The only problem is, Fox the other CC skeptics, past and present, may be too late. If even half of what James Lovelock had to say the other week about the tipping point having past, things are very bleak indeed.

  3. Rob, I have a whole category for Milloy on my blog. But I think there is plenty to go round.

  4. Walter

    One bright spot is the Fox News site is now running AP science stories and stories from LiveScience.com, a neat little pop science site that has been critical of global warming “skeptics” and intelligent design in the past. I don’t remember them doing that before, or even having a science section other than Milloy’s columns.

  5. Paul

    One thing that did not make it into my story is the link between Philip Morris (PM) and other companies that also benefit from Milloy’s writing. PM’s parent company is Altria which also owns Kraft and used to own Miller Brewing Company.

    Guess how many times Milloy has written on obesity?

    Here’s a great article from yesterday’s Chicago Tribune looking at the Altria’s sharing of science between PM and other food companies.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-0601290254jan29,1,3082179.story?coll=chi-business-hed

  6. Augh. I happened to pick up Bethell’s book over the weekend. It’s hard to believe anybody can take that malarky seriously. It’s almost a parody of itself.

  7. I contacted Fox News about their new Science & Technology sections, and they told me that they started them at the end of October/beginning of November. Their science section is mostly, no I should say primarily news fed from other websites that do a good job of it, although it seems like they have a small science staff that writes its own stories.

    Although the effort they put into science now only rivals some college newspapers, they have accomplished one thing – an end to the Milloy monoploy on “science” at Fox News. Now they have almost daily news reports that imply that Milloy is way off the mark with his “Junk Science” stuff.

    Milloy should switch to a blog that allows comments, methinks.

  8. Hey I just watched Science: A liberal plot. What a waste of 2 minutes. Still, it gets me wondering, Chris, did Fox News interview you for your book?

    I’m going to use a clip of that bull*$#% on my show this week. I think Tickle-Me-Elmo can counter his claims about HIV in Arica.

  9. No, I didn’t get any play from Fox….sob…

  10. I just read a description of Bethel’s book… apparently he seems to think that Radon Spas are healthy. OMFG.
    And he also seems to suggest that genetic engineering has failed to do anything, and that the funding to the human genome project should be cut as a result. Um, besides the dubiousness of the first part, the HGP isn’t about genetic engineering.
    You know, I actually expected that Fox would have interviewed you. Not only am I sorry for giving them the benefit of the doubt on this, but I’m also sorry that an obvious crackpot was interviewed instead. Very revealing.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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