Sadly, False Balance in the New York Times

By Chris Mooney | February 26, 2009 4:04 pm

It pains me to blog this. I think Andrew Revkin is one of our best science journalists, and I don’t criticize him easily.

That might also explain why my taking a stand here is a bit tardy.

Nevertheless, I, like many others, think Revkin really blew it with this article, which begins with the following sentence–”In the effort to shape the public’s views on global climate change, hyperbole is an ever-present temptation on all sides of the debate”–and then proceeds to draw a false equivalence between a minor, arguable slip-up by Al Gore and George Will’s blatant, unrepentant strewing of falsehoods.

Rather than telling it like it is–Gore perhaps goofed slightly but quickly corrected himself, whereas Will has no apparent interest in the truth whatsoever–Revkin reports matters this way: “Both men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.”

Revkin has done tons of valuable reporting over the years, and broke much of the most important news about the Bush administration’s climate scandals. This piece doesn’t erase that. Still, it worries me. Just because Obama is president, that doesn’t mean journalists writing on climate now have to split the difference between Al Gore and the likes of George Will in order to seem “objective.”

Note: Joe Romm destroys the Revkin piece, in language much tougher than I would use, and in a tone that’s much more combative–but also in a way that’s, in my judgment, substantively correct for the most part. Also see this comment from Kalee Kreider, in Gore’s office, on Revkin’s article: “it conflates and misrepresents Mr. Gore’s tweaking of a particular slide in his 400+ slide presentation with someone who ignores wholesale the vast consensus that the climate crisis is real, it is caused by humans, and it will get worse unless we solve it.”

Indeed. I don’t see how to defend that.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Global Warming, Media and Science

Comments (10)

  1. There are some (e.g., Dan Sarewitz in a Dot Earth comment today) who warn that climate campaigners have an outsize responsibility to stay within the bounds of the science because their task — moving society from a fossil-fueled comfort zone — is so much harder than that of those seeking stasis. A small overstatement can have outsize effects on credibility.

    And, yes, journalism is truly a perpetual draft, and lines that would be excised through advance peer-review sometimes stay in for the ultimate peer review — by readers, and bloggers. I live with that. The next step is to learn from missteps and keep moving forward.

    In that spirit, significant news here on Dot Earth: http://tinyurl.com/dotIPCCembers2

  2. Jon Winsor

    Get ready for George Will’s column tomorrow. Looks like Will is ostensibly addressing Andy Revkin…

  3. Hi Andy,
    I do believe in holding the folks on “my side” to a higher standard for intellectual honesty. Personally and professionally.

    But that’s very different from saying that the New York Times should implicitly be trying to encode this moral in its story structure–and that this in turn justifies making Gore seem “just as bad” as Will. They’re very different things.

  4. In this case, I’m sorry to agree that Revkin fell into the false balance trap. There is no comparison between George Will’s persistent distortions, whether willful or negligent, and this gaffe by Gore.

  5. I don’t think the article really falls into the false balance trap. The article makes very clear the differences between Gore and Will both in degree of the problem and in the speed of correction. In particular see the following paragraphs from the article:

    Mr. Gore removed the slide from his presentation after the Belgian research group that assembled the disaster data said he had misrepresented what was driving the upward trend. The group said a host of factors contributed to the trend, with climate change possibly being one of them. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gore said he planned to switch to using data on disasters compiled by insurance companies.

    Mr. Will, peppered with complaints from scientists and environmental groups who claimed the column was riddled with errors, has yet to respond. The Post’s ombudsman said Mr. Will’s column had been carefully fact-checked. But the scientists whose research on ice formed the basis for Mr. Will’s statements said their data showed the area of the ice shrinking, not expanding.

  6. Eric the Leaf

    Chris,
    A little off-topic, but…stop worrying about George Will and the New York Times. Everyone’s tilting at windmills and getting all defensive. Here’s a suggestion. Come on down to the Henson Auditorium March 17, 7:00 pm where we will have one of the world’s leading authorities on peak oil speak to our entire community: students, faculty, and parents, many of whom, as you are aware, are deeply involved in the energy industry. Many of my personal friends, heavily invested in the energy industry as well (and sympathizers with issues of global warming and peak oil) will be there. There may be some fireworks, despite the semi-formal setting. I myself, as you are aware, am deeply involved in the the transition from hunting and gathering to argriculture in old world prehistory (my PhD work), the acquisition of proxy data for climate change (my graduatre minor research) and my current work in physical science (check out my textbook). Garland Robinette, “the voice of New Orleans” will be there and perhaps other representatives of the media. While our invited expert is equally well-versed in global warming issues, he will choose this occasion to enlighten our community on “Oil Depletion and Fate of Industrial Civilizations,” with perhaps a digression into peak coal and peak uranium. It has been quite an effort in time and money to attract and secure this individual. In his presentation he will address the confluence between history and prehistory, human ecology, anthropology, politics and economics in the interest in explaining the coming era of energy scarcity, which so far has been largely ignored by he enivronmental community. We’d love to have you attend because of your intimate connections, your engaging personality, and your journalistic acumen. Sounds like something you could report on, eh? Perhaps we can set up an interview bewteen you and our intvitee.

  7. SLC

    Mr. Mooney might want to comment on George Wills column in todays’ Washington Post where he spreads more lies and distortions.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/26/AR2009022602906.html?hpid%3Dopinionsbox1&sub=AR

  8. SLC

    I would suggest that Mr. Mooney demand that the Washington Post publish a column on their editorial page by him refuting Mr. Wills’ claims.

  9. In my opinion, George Will is guilty of cherry-picking data that supports his position.

    HOWEVER: he is being accused of much worse.

    For example: he picks a convenient ten-year period and says “there’s been no warming.”

    I haven’t bothered to fit a regression line to the data, but eyeballing the data it looks like Mr. Will is correct. There will be a lot of angst in the climate modeling community over the next decade if the next ten years looks like the last ten, because real world temperatures will have wandered outside of their models’ error bars.

    I agree with Revkin– the rhetoric on both sides is extreme.

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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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