A piece on the Panorama programme on climategate recently appeared on climate progress, a major climate blog, heavily criticising the programme for giving too much air time to sceptics. Having watched and reviewed it myself, I disagree strongly with much of what this post says and why is written below.

Agreement

First, however, let me lay out what I agree with, unfortunately not an awful lot. This is partly because honestly the last thing I want to do is get into a blogging dogfight, especially with blogs and readers from the climate consensus! If you’re reading this, I’m your team, guys.

The second is that I dislike the adversarial style of much of the climate change discussion that goes on in the news media, in the books and online, much of which has to do with cheap point-scoring, defending predetermined positions and ad hominem attacks (attacking people rather than arguments). The climate progress blog’s arguments are reported in italics.

“Representing the climate science camp, Panorama use a grey haired climate scientist (Dr Bob Watson) and a London climate policy academic (Bob Ward) who manage reasonably good communications but are weaker than Lomborg, a well trained and well presented media spokesperson.”

I don’t have much to add to this, except that I don’t think it’s Panorama’s fault that Watson and Ward weren’t as media savvy as Lomborg. Our lot need to get better at this. That said, I certainly don’t consider it Panorama’s job to adjudicate on how presentable their climate consensus interviewees are (or, indeed, to only interview hunch-backed, scarred and incomprehensible sceptics!)

The “balance as bias” thesis that underpins this article

This is the argument, drawing on the work on Maxwell Boykoff, that news media principles and other factors have produced a balanced portrayal of the sceptic vs. consensus debates when the science is overwhelming dominated by the “consensus” side (hence the name, “consensus”). Absolutely. I have some reservations in this context (see below) but I accept the general principle. There should, of course, be some role for minority voices in any discussion, but the proportion is often wrong in the case of climate change reporting

Disagreement

The piece complains that the BBC description of the show begins with the line “To some, it’s a massive conspiracy to con the public. To others, it’s the greatest threat to the future of our world.” Is unfair because “There is 0.00% chance hat global warming is a massive conspiracy to con the public…Nicely balanced “sides,” BBC.”

What the line says is that some people think it is. That’s not a comment on what the truth is, it’s a comment on public perceptions. This is a bit of excessive rhetorical flair, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that no one interviewed in the programme said anything of the sort.

The programme features the “thoroughly debunked Bjorn Lomborg”, and “the long wrong John Christy” and “the utterly discredited purveyor of hate speech” Lord Monckton.

1. Bjørn Lomborg has not been “thoroughly debunked” because a book of criticisms of him has been published, any more Michael Mann, also featured in the documentary can be considered “thoroughly debunked” because of Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion”. Criticisms are part of an ongoing debate. (Lomborg is, as many of the comments on that post point out, can only barely be classed a sceptic – he has repeatedly stated his thinks climate change is a major problem facing the world. He mostly thinks the rhetoric is out of control and that we should favour adaptation over mitigation. In the words of one of the comments “He is hated and despised by a lot of denialists who see him as insufficiently radical for their fanatical anti-environmentalism”)

2. I have to admit I don’t have a fully formed opinion about John Christy, though was pleased to see interview footage of him so I can understand his opinions in more detail. He featured prominently in “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, but that film was so riddled with complaints of misrepresenting its interviewees views that I am suspicious of what I saw of his there. Also the man was well-respected enough to be a lead author of the IPCC 3rd Assessment Report, I think it’s fair to treat him as a serious scientist. (The linked blog post criticising Christy Should you believe anything John Christy says? I also have a fair few reservations about)

3. Lord Monckton… ok, actually, I agree here. Monckton is not a serious figure. All that was shown however, was a brief clip of him arguing with some protesters. Ideally we wouldn’t see him at all, but

“John Christy, atmospheric scientist and mild sceptic (one of the only real scientist in the world out of thousands of qualified scientists who has some skeptical views), is given equal air time than climate scientists Bob Watson and Michael Mann (who is critiqued whilst Christy is not). This is balance as bias.”

I am mostly very sympathetic to the “balance as bias” argument (as stated earlier), but this is a piece about the credibility of climate science. It is right to give sufficient air-time to the critics in this context. Furthermore the piece was excellent at allowing the interviewees to explain their positions in detail, and the fact that Christy explains that he believes in anthropogenic global warming to some extent and, to his credit, explicitly says he knows he’s in the minority of scientists. This level of explanation does us more good than harm by clarifying what is agreed on.

Mann is critiqued because he has been under huge scrutiny recently. To ignore this is to ignore accurate context.

“The introduction suggests reporter Tom Heap speaks to both sides of what is a science argument yet Bjorn Lomborg (not a climate scientist), and other non-scientists appear.”

Science is not the only aspect of the climate change debates, that’s why the IPCC has “Impacts and Adaption” and “Mitigation” reports. Both sides of the science argument are represented (John Christy on the one hand and X and Y on the other), but the programme had other interests besides the science. Lomborg’s appearance is alongside Bob Ward, both of them primarily policy rather than science expects.

“Panorama gives voice to an average UK family man whose non-scientific opinion suggests global warming ‘is natural’. Research shows that large parts of the population identify with this kind of person as they do not understand climate science and look to peers for guidance.”

This part of the programme was… well, a bit dull, but the idea that a BBC programme shouldn’t interview the public on a social issue is ridiculous. I would not expect that BBC to be slammed to interviewing someone in the street for their opinions of the coalition government, for example. Yes, climate change is more complicated, but one of the main points of the programme was to honestly report the uncertainty in the general population. He was also there next to his wife, who was equally lacking in expert knowledge and believed the opposite.

“Panorama publicize Lomborg’s upcoming sceptic film ‘Cool It’ without critique but focus on negative aspects of Al Gore’s film.”

This was part of Lomborg’s biography, and a reasonable thing to do in the context of explaining who he is. It’s difficult to critique a film that hasn’t come out yet. Conversely controversies over “An Inconvenient Truth” have been part of public discourse since it came out.

“Panorama focus on UK government climate change minister saying ‘it is up to behavior [sic] change’ when clearly national and international policy must lead mitigation not individuals”

While I completely agree that national and international policy must lead mitigation, it isn’t a fact. In an ideal world there would be a counter-argument to this, but it’s a half hour programme and clearly there are limits to which these debates can all be engaged with in detail.

Conclusion

Was there a needless anti-consensus bias in Panorama? I don’t think so. As a concerned member of the public, I want to know what the disagreements are on major policy issues, even when the disagreements come from minority perspectives. The scope and urgency of climate change is a reason for rigorous debate, not for the shutting down of opposition. I also do not what sound production decisions by a documentary, where figures and controversies are given in reasonable context, good or bad, to be compromised by needlessly exacting standards on bias.

In lots of contexts with climate change reporting there is an issue where balance is bias. In a discussion of the validity of science after climategate, however, balance is pretty key.

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