Rick Perry’s assertions on global warming reveal reporting challenges when science, politics collide

In the course of two days last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry expressed controversial views on two politically sensitive scientific issues. The news coverage of his remarks once again demonstrated the challenge journalists face when science intermingles with politics.

Perry, the newly announced candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, suggested that man-made climate change is little more than a hoax, perpetrated by “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data.” Then, a day later, he voiced skepticism about evolution, which he called a theory “with gaps in it.”

Perry’s assertions weren’t new or terribly surprising. He’s spoken before about his doubts regarding climate change (his recent book calls it “a contrived phony mess”) and his belief in “intelligent design.” And other GOP presidential candidates, most notably U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), have expressed similar opinions.

But Perry’s statements renewed a discussion about how the media report on politically charged scientific subjects. The task for journalists can be especially vexing on issues where there’s substantial political controversy but little scientific disagreement. A 2010 National Academy of Sciences survey found that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are changing the climate, while a 2009 Pew Research Center survey concluded that 87 percent of scientists believe in evolution “due to natural processes.”

“In some issues in science, there’s really just one answer,” said Tom Yulsman, the co-director of the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism. “That makes science a lot different from our binary world of politics.”

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared in Walcott, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

It also makes reporting on scientific issues different from covering political squabbles. While many political reporters are most comfortable writing stories that evenly portray both sides of controversial issues, Yulsman said stories about issues such as climate change need to take a different approach.

“Part of the context is stating – even in a political story — that there’s very little scientific debate,” said Yulsman, who developed a Poynter e-learning course on covering climate change.

Some stories included context; some did not

Perry’s comments, especially those on the climate, provided plenty of fodder both for his supporters and opponents:

  • He disputed the premise that humans are affecting the Earth’s climate.
  • He suggested, without substantiation, that scientists are hyping the danger of global warming “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
  • He said other scientists are coming forward “almost weekly or even daily” to question the prevailing theory.

In fact, while there are indeed some skeptical scientists, there’s no evidence that their numbers are quickly growing or that they make up more than a small minority of the experts who’ve extensively studied the subject.

Many of the media accounts of Perry’s remarks attempted to reflect the scientific context. The Associated Press reported, “Perry’s opinion runs counter to the view held by an overwhelming majority of scientists.” The Washington Post noted “the broad scientific consensus” that mankind is affecting the climate, then followed up with a biting online analysis that accused the Texas governor of “made-up facts.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram told readers in Perry’s home state, “While most climate scientists believe that climate change is real and that fossil fuel combustion is helping warm the Earth, a core group of dissenters, coupled with some conservative groups and activists, has challenged that view.”

“I worked on that sentence for about 10 minutes,” Star-Telegram political reporter Aman Batheja told me in a phone interview. “That was an important part of the story, that Perry was saying something that’s different from what most experts in the field feel.”

Batheja said he heard complaints from a few readers about the story; one online comment read, “The liberal media’s attack on Perry is in full swing.” The AP and Washington Post articles attracted a fair amount of scorn from conservatives, including websites associated with Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck.

Meanwhile, a handful of media organizations chose to report Perry’s comments without any scientific context. As might be expected, Politico’s stories concentrated instead on the potential political ramifications of the remarks, drawing distinctions between Perry and fellow Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., who both say they believe in man-made climate change and evolution.

The National Journal and Agence France-Presse took similar approaches, analyzing Perry’s positions in the context of voter attitudes rather than scientific opinion. Their stories included some interesting information, including polls showing a good deal of doubt among the public about evolution and man’s effect on the climate.

But AFP correspondent Mira Oberman said in a phone interview late last week that she regrets omitting the scientific perspective from her story about the Texas governor’s remarks.

“I should have thrown a line in there saying this runs contrary to the opinion of the overwhelming majority of scientists,” said Oberman, who writes mainly for an overseas audience.

“What’s problematic for some journalists is they get caught up in the idea that you have to be balanced and you can’t take a partisan position,” Oberman said. “Once a politician turns a fact-based issue into something that’s partisan, they feel handcuffed.”

Tips for journalists when science, politics collide

In addition to concerns about balance, the very nature of daily political journalism sometimes hampers reporters from including scientific context in their stories. Reports from the campaign trail often are relatively short and filed on tight deadlines, affording journalists little space or time to provide background on complex issues.

Still, news organizations can take some steps to assure accuracy and perspective in their coverage of politically-tinged scientific controversies:

Plan ahead. You can’t anticipate every issue that will come up during political campaigns, but you can bet that scientific hot-buttons like climate change and evolution will be among them. In varying degrees, they’ve been a point of contention in each of the last four presidential elections.

Editors and newsroom managers should develop policies on how to report on such issues and how to incorporate appropriate scientific context. You can help political reporters who may lack the time or knowledge to research unfamiliar scientific subjects by coming up with some suggested language – periodically updated to reflect current scientific thinking – and a contact list of credible experts.

Avoid false equivalence in the name of “fairness.” It’s understandable that mainstream journalists don’t want to be seen as taking sides in a political conflict. But you can write a fair story while still referencing the prevailing scientific view. Hard data — like the results of reputable surveys of scientists — can add credibility to your reporting, as can a legitimate assessment of the possible holes or ambiguity in the prevailing theory.

“My obligation is to understand the nature of whatever issue I’m writing about and understand the degree of uncertainty that there is,” said Michael Lemonick, a former Time magazine science correspondent who now writes for the nonprofit journalistic organization Climate Central. “Two sides doesn’t mean two equal sides,” Lemonick said in a phone interview.

See the big picture. News accounts that merely reported Perry’s statements only told part of the story. A more informed – and useful – approach explains the scientific consensus and examines why politicians such as Perry distrust it.

Yulsman, the Colorado professor, noted that a candidate’s positions on scientific wedge issues tend to serve as a proxy for his or her values on broader topics, such as the role of government in the free market and the role of faith in American life.

“At the end of the day, that’s what the political debate is about,” Yulsman said. “It’s not about the science.”

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  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    By actually examining the data, perhaps?

    It’s all about the rate of change.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    No matter how many times the Petition Project is discredited, fools like you keep backing it. Being an oil explorer doesn’t make you a climate expert – it just makes you part of the industry that keeps denying and funding deniers because it doesn’t like what the changing climate means to their bottom lines.

    We notice, however, that you are WEST Houston – far from the rising waters.

  • http://twitter.com/questionAGW Russell Cook

    “…the view held by an overwhelming majority of scientists….a core group of dissenters, coupled with some conservative groups and activists, has challenged that view…. Avoid false equivalence in the name of “fairness.”

    Congratulations Mr Hochberg, your article is a case study in the regurgitation of the 3-point mantra that was first consolidated by anti-skeptic book author Ross Gelbspan and his associates at the enviro-advocacy group Ozone Action back in 1996. It is almost as if Gelbspan wrote your entire article for you. To ironically borrow some words from Al Gore’s movie, ‘we’ve seen this before’ – I wrote about one ex-TV anchorman’s odd twist to point #3 in my own article, “Warmist Mantra Wearing Out”  http://www.americanthinker.com/2011/05/warmist_mantra_wearing_out.html

    If readers accept what you say at face value, you’ll be just fine. If they ask you who ever quantified the so-called consensus you speak about, and ask you for irrefutable proof that skeptic scientists falsely fabricate their science assessments under direction from think tank managers / fossil fuel executives, and ask you to prove skeptic scientists actually received “too fair” of media balance….. well, let’s say you will be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

    What you are attempting to do here is no less than exactly what I described in my RedState article, “The Great Global Warming Ponzi Scheme – how the mainstream media keeps it alive”  http://www.redstate.com/russellc/2011/08/17/the-great-global-warming-ponzi-scheme-how-the-mainstream-media-keeps-it-alive/
     

  • Anonymous

    Let me make this easier for you news media.

    Stop talking to politicians about science. They aren’t scientists. The aren’t climatologists. They are not even meteorologists.

    Stop talking to people who have business interests that benefit financially from the advancement of man made global warming.

    Stop talking to research institutions or scientists that are funded by people or organizations that are vested in a business or political outcome.

    In other words, find credible people.

  • Anonymous

    Right . SB provides the temperature of a planet and its atmosphere as a whole given the temperature of the sun and the portion of the planet’s sky subtended by it and the correlation between the planet’s spectrum and the sun’s . ( The standard claim of the alarmists is that our addition of the bit of CO2 green life loves so changes our spectrum as to dangerously increase its correlation with that of the sun . ) But all 3 modes of heat transfer , radiation , conduction following Fourier , and messy convection , all transfer from hot to cold . Thus , if the ball is totally externally heated , there is no way its interior can have a higher equilibrium temperature . There are no static pressure or gravitational terms in the equations . Hoffman’s observation that the temperature profile of Venus’s atmosphere tracts the earth’s down to earth’s surface temperature , shifted by the higher SB temperature of its orbit , is very interesting , if accurate , but from my perspective remain unexplained .

    But , you and I gotta be just some anti-scientific yokels to be doubting any aspect of post-modern State establishment science on these topics . CO2 is evil , even if the building block of life .

  • Anonymous

    Stefan-Boltzmann only works outside the planet and its atmosphere..  Evidently one of the problems with existing climate science (I’m told, but it’s over my head)  is that one cannot use S-B inside the atmosphere because there’s also conduction and convection. 

  • Anonymous

    I looked up Huffman’s site , http://theendofthemystery.blogspot.com/2010/11/venus-no-greenhouse-effect.html ,  His data are interesting and worth understanding . However , he gives no complete connected explanation of it , If you look closely , you will see he calculates the same ~ 278 and 328 I give above . He correctly states that the unbiased “null hypothesis” for the earth’s temperature is the 278 or 279 temperature of a gray body in our orbit rather than the maximally cold 255 ubiquitously cited .  However it’s far from clear that he knows how a body’s spectrum effects its temperature .

    To see “problem” with Venus , see my crude graph : http://cosy.com/Science/PlanetTempPlotT250.gif , of the temperatures of the inner planets versus the StefanBotzmann calculation Huffman and I  ( and anybody else who knows the least bit of the relevant physics ) agree on .

    Unfortunately , I won’t have time to look at this further for quite a while .

  • Anonymous

    The “consensus” that the warmists site is a political fiction and always has been.  A handfull of IPCC crackpots and their grad students, assistants and clerks make up the personnel claimed (200, 1000, every reputable…).  Conflict of interest, falsifyed and manipulated data, bullying journals who publish disenting view and failure to cooperate with freedom of infomation requests, these are their tools.
    If it is a consensus you want follow the link below.  Their are 31487 scientist who DO NOT “believe” the myth and have signed a document to that effect.  I am a Geophysicist of 30 years experience, and my name is among them:

    http://www.petitionproject.org/

  • Anonymous

    (“temperature” in my above response is only dirrected at atmospheric temperature)

  • Anonymous

    Huffman is a physicist, not a climate scientist, except for a recent interest.  Also, what he’s claiming is that there is no greenhouse effect, and he shows that by demonstrating that the temperature/profile of Venus outer atmosphere can be determined by theory,arguing that only the sun’s power determines temperature on both planets. I don’t think what you’re saying is relevant, (but you can always ask Huffman).  The only temperatures under consideration are (1) radiation level from Venus relative to earth, and (2) ACTUAL temperature/pressure profile in the outer part of Venus atmosphere, from 200mb to 1000mb.  Equilibrium temperature is not even discussed. I have no idea what you are responding to ???

  • Anonymous

    You asked physics .  Learning how to calculate the temperature of a radiantly heated gray ball in any orbit is prerequisite to any meaningful analysis of planetary temperature . It’s my observation that the typical PhD “climate scientist” doesn’t even understand that how light or dark a ball is makes no difference in its equilibrium temperature — much less how to calculate the equilibrium temperature of a multi-hued ball like the earth .

    If Huffman claims the internal temperature of Venus is greater that the temperature calculated by StefanBoltzmann & Kirchhoff for a ball of Venus’s spectrum in its orbit , He ought to get a patent for his perpetual energy arrangement .

  • Anonymous

    (Not sure what to do with your comment, or whether it’s relevant.  If you can rebut, go to Huffman’s site.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    The evidence is clear that climate is undergoing a rapid change, despite what deniers claim. The evidence strongly supports that human activities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have contributed to this change.

    That’s not a consensus “belief” – its a consensus analysis of the evidence that has not been successfully refuted by anyone.

    As for Galileo… no “scientists” of the time disputed his support of the Copernican heliocentric view — because Galileo arguably was the very first real scientist, as the term is used today: someone who observes, measures, and tests.

  • Anonymous

    See my http://cosy.com/Science/TemperatureOfGrayBalls.htm ( for the most basic calculations . The
    we are about 10 centigrade warmer than the 287 kelvin of a uniform gray
    ball in our orbit . The gray temperature for Venus’s orbit is about 328
    kelvin .

  • Anonymous

    The author shows a complete failure to understand the nature of science.  It is not a voting process.  

     When Galileo noted the existence of moons circling Jupiter it was not a matter of taking a poll.  Even though the consensus of opinion was against him, his evidence is what eventually counted in science: the solar system has the planets (including the earth) circling the sun. Yet if you had polled scientists before him they would say that it was obvious that the sun “rises” and “sets.”  Clearly the sun moves around the earth.  A similar thing happened with regard to Newton’s idea of what light’s essence was.  He suggested particles with wave-like properties.  All the students of Optics in the century that followed disbelieved him and found what they felt was counter evidence to make them believe in waves alone.  Then, finally, Einstein won the Nobel prize for discovering the photo-electric effect (in lay terms, one particle of light makes one particle of electric current.” Stop trying to count how many climate scientists believe yes or no about some feature of scientific discussion. Look to see what the evidence is.  Those who believe that CO2 makes little difference in climate warming are finding tremendous amounts of evidence to support that position and finding many many flaws in warming theory.  I fully admit that the final answer is not yet in, but if you write about it, talk about the evidence and not the opinions, which have a strong tendency to become just more politics.  Since we now have enthusiasts on both sides of the question calling each other names and insults, it is clear that it is now mostly political and resembles what 5th grade boys do on the play field.

  • Anonymous

    Any physicists around?  Here’s a good exercise..

    Some time ago a couple of physicists made claims that, on planet
    earth (as opposed to a real greenhouse) the greenhouse effect was not valid.  These physicists were treated as “kooks”
    because their claim flew in the face of an existing “consensus” accepted by both
    the proponents of AGW and the skeptics. Unfortunately these physicists employed
    some powerful mathematics and physics to present their case, unlikely to be
    understood by most climatologists and others. Even those who could understand would
    likely conclude that it wasn’t worth bothering since that issue has supposedly
    been resolved.  I have no idea whether
    these physicists’ claims were valid, not even being a climatologist.

     

    But a more recent physicist, Huffman, has a very straight-forward
    theory. Even I should be able to explain it, (and have attempted to do so below,if
    after reading my very brief interpretation you believe that you have a
    rebuttal,  proceed first by reviewing (including
    the Q&A there) what Huffman himself has written and direct your rebuttal to
    him at his site which is listed below. I’ll be visiting that site from time to
    time.

     

    The proponents of greenhouse warming are very concerned that
    even a doubling of Co2 in our atmosphere will have significant consequences, so
    it boggles the imagination as to what should now be happening on Venus.  (Earth atmosphere has a Co2 level of .04%
    whereas the Co2 level on Venus is 96.5%). 

     

    Venus is closer to the sun and gets proportionally more power
    from it than does Earth.  On average,
    Earth is 93 million miles from the sun, and Venus 67.25 miles.  The sun’s intensity varies as 1 over the
    square of the distance from it, so Venus 
    receives (93/67.25)^2 = 1.91 times the power per unit that Earth
    receives.  According to the Stefan-Boltzmann
    law, the radiating temperature of an isolated body in space varies as the
    fourth root of the power incident upon it. In this case the radiating temperature
    from Venus, as compared to the Earth’s radiation level, is the fourth root of
    1.91 which = 1.176. 

     

    The temperature at any given pressure level in the Venusian
    atmosphere  should therefore be 1.176
    times the temp at the same pressure level in Earth’s atmosphere, independent of
    the different levels of infrared absorption on the two planets.  We can only compare pressure levels within the
    Earth’s boundaries.

     

    The actual temperature / pressure profile for both Venus and
    Earth between 1000 millibars (Earth sea level pressure) and 200 mb (top of
    earth’s atmosphere) is known, and it turns out that at every pressure level in
    that range Venus is 1.176 times warmer than Earth (absolute Kelvin scale). (Temperature
    reading accuracy over a 100 mb range, together with estimated average distances
    to the sun probably introduce an error level of perhaps a couple percent.

     

    The data agrees with Huffman’s very simple assumptions which have
    given no consideration to either the greenhouse effect or albedo, but only to
    the relative amount of power received by the two planets from the sun, so infrared
    is evidently fully absorbed by both atmospheres.

     

    There is therefore no greenhouse effect.  It would seem that a revision (rather than
    outright rejection) of the existing “consensus” theory must take into account
    the existing temperature/pressure profile and that approach would have to introduce
    various theoretical actions, all of  which
    must somehow cancel out in the 200 to 1000mb pressure range.  

     

    http://theendofthemystery.blogspot.com/2010/11/venus-no-greenhouse-effect.html

    .

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.mecklin John Mecklin

    Saying that almost all the world’s top climate scientists and national academies agree that climate change is real, that it is caused by human behavior (largely the burning of fossil fuels) and that it poses a serious threat to humanity is just not that hard. Reporters would do it if top editors sent out an email, saying that is the general explanation they expect to see in stories of any stripe that mention climate change. So what’s the problem? Media company managers who are afraid of the corporate pressure and right-wing rhetoric they will get as a result of having their reporters report the truth. 

  • Anonymous

    Good article, but I don’t think the story in the Fort -Worth Star-Telegram went far enough.
    Saying “most”climate scientists take one position grossly understates the level of support that the glo l warming side has. It would be more accurate to report that in the eyes of virtually all credible climate scientists there is no valid dispute.
    With regard to evolution the scientific consensus is even stronger, and reporters should not hesitate to report that although there are disagreements on some of the details there is no credible scientist who supports the factual claims of the creationists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chasrmartin Charlie Martin

    Adam, you’re making an essential mistake here: scientific fact isn’t determined by consensus.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    Limp journalistic responses to blatantly false and unsupportable statements are the reason comments like we see here abound.

    The correct response to Perry on climate change? “Perry is either completely ignorant of the science involved – which is entirely possible, given his college grades – or is cynically manipulating those gullible voters who do not want to face what a changing climate means.”

    Evolution? “Perry wishes to substitute religion for science. Again, he’s either ignorant of the science or deliberately lying.”

    Or try economics: “Perry and other Republicans who claim the only way to create jobs is to lower taxes even further either have flunked both Economics and History or are deliberately lying to protect special interests.”

    “Balance” is only appropriate when there is a legitimate balance to be made – such as “Do we spend the limited funds on schools or roads?”

    Allowing politicians to spread intellectual manure without calling them on it simple leaves everyone covered in it.

  • GST GST

    What the heck are you trying to say?  What evidence do you have to back up your claims (whatever they may be)?  I just re-read your posting for the third time and I still can’t make sense of it. 

    By the way, you do know that the term NeoCon is specific to a wing of the right, a very secular cadre that believes America’s goals are best for the world in general and that furthering these goals justifies military action if need be.

    But, the strangest thing to me is this: If you don’t believe in science, then what the heck are you using to dispute the scientists?  How do you know there are gaps in evolutionary theory?  Did you use science to or faith to find those gaps?  If you relied on science it seems odd that you would choose to believe that the scientists are right about the gaps but wrong about the topic in general – doesn’t it???

  • Anonymous

    You’re conflating issues here – the fact that the surface station warming trend generally has inaccuracies that counterbalance each other does not mean that the data shows an alarming warming trend.   You’ve taken a logical leap that’s simply unjustified (much like the rest of the unfalsifiable Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming religion).

  • Drew Phillips

    You provided a lot of words but not one shred of evidence about what data has been manipulated by scientists. Are you aware that a mega study of temperature recording stations was just completed by Anthony Watts from which he thought would prove conclusively that NOAA, NASA and HadCRU have exaggerated or manipulated temperature records? Well guess what? His own temperature records match those of the “lying” scientists thereby proving (yet again) that climate science data is accurate and it is showing an alarming warming trend.

  • Anonymous

    Reporting challenges? Are you kidding? You lazy copy and paste so called journalists were nothing but fear mongering cheerleaders who condemned billions of children to a CO2 death (catastrophic climate crisis). Boycott all mainscream media and call the courthouse for this crime of leading the world to another false war and for perpetuating 25 years of needless panic.

    Since the climate change belief
    system is based on “faith” of the scientists being honest about catastrophic
    climate crisis from Human CO2, we former believers have concluded with our “reason”
    instead of faith, that the science was exaggerated and exploited by lab coat
    consultants who betrayed all of us. After all, it was scientists who gave us
    the pesticides that poisoned the planet in the first place as all of academia
    watched and did nothing. And is any remaining climate change believer willing
    to come out and call climate change THE END OF THE WORLD? You doomers have
    called it everything but THE END OF THE WORLD.

    We smell a rat and real planet lovers
    are glad the warnings of crisis are wrong. You fear mongering neocons of CO2
    environMENTALism condemned billions of children to a CO2 climate crisis (death)
    like childish car accident rubber-neckers and history will show climate change
    being to progressivism what the Iraq War and Bush were to the republicans. Now
    who is the fear mongering, red-necked neocon?