1639 Use of Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods in Climate Debates

Monday, February 22, 2010: 10:25 AM
Room 11A (San Diego Convention Center)
William R. Freudenburg , University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
Mass media continue to suggest that the science of global climate disruption may be in dispute, with actual conditions not being as bad as portrayed in scientific consensus estimates such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By contrast, work on "the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge" (ASC) suggests that such consensus statements are likely to understate the significance of the problems that need to be faced. This paper tests the difference in expectations, making use of the fact news media usually report findings from new studies in more focused and less politicized ways than they report on the overall debates -- and that results from new studies are often reported as indicating that a problem is either less severe or more severe than previously expected. In the interest of conservatism, data are drawn from four newspapers that have already been shown to overstate the degree of "disagreement," underrepresenting the scientific consensus, in their reports on overall global climate disruption. The paper also considers two time periods — one during with the time when the papers were found to be overstating the supposed "disagreement," and the other being 2008, after the IPCC and former Vice-President Gore shared the Nobel Prize for their work on climate disruption. The results show comparably strong support for the ASC perspective during both time periods. New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is "worse than previously expected," rather than "not as bad as previously expected," strongly supporting the ASC perspective rather than the usual framing of the issue in the U.S. mass media.
The findings add further support to the growing realization that media coverage of supposed debates has been strongly skewed by a tactic so widespread that it has its own name -- "Scientific Certainty" Argumentation Methods, or SCAMS. Partly because most citizens expect science to produce black-and-white certainty, rather than cumulative or "normal" improvements in understanding, well-funded special interest groups can exploit mass-media desire for controversy in stories, creating a false impression that "scientists" are still debating consensus findings. Similar SCAMs were used in fights against the regulation of cigarette smoking, asbestos, agricultural chemicals, and even the use of lead in gasoline.
There are lessons both for scientists and for the mass media. Scientists need to be more openly skeptical toward supposed "good news" on global warming. Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss "both sides" of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate "other side" is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.
Key words: media bias; conservative think tanks; climate change science; Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge
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