Plimer, “Balance as Bias” Back in Climate Coverage

That old nuisance, “balance as bias,” cropped up in the press again on Thursday in an article in the Telegraph about the theories of climate skeptic Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist.

There isn’t even the pretense of a news peg. For some reason, the paper’s environment correspondent, Louise Gray, decided that Plimer’s controversial opinions needed airing (despite the fact that they’ve already had plenty of attention, and been thoroughly rebutted). And that was enough for the Drudge Report to give it even wider exposure.

The article reported Plimer’s belief that “carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, widely blamed for global warming, is a natural phenomenon caused by volcanoes erupting.” Apparently, Gray saw no need to double-check that assertion. If she had, she would have quickly discovered the United States Geological Survey’s assessment that “Human activities release more than 130 times the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes.” She also might have come across the British Geological Survey’s conclusion (pdf) that “the contribution to the present day atmospheric CO2 loading from volcanic emissions is … relatively insignificant, and it has been estimated that subaerial volcanism releases … just 1 % of anthropogenic emissions.”

Instead of going into all that, however, Gray decided to play it safe the old-fashioned way by “balancing” her piece with the statement, “Most mainstream scientists agree that the recent warming period was caused by an increase in carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.” Unfortunately for her, that just won’t cut it. Despite the fact that Gray mentions that “most” scientists disagree with Plimer, her article is no better the one-scientist-said-this-one-scientist-said-that stories that plagued early climate coverage and have, thankfully, receded over the last few years. Moreover, at only 450 words, it seems like a careless, throwaway piece at any rate.

Not to be outdone, however, Gray’s colleague, Stephen Adams, posted a strange follow-up story on Friday morning that laid out a few more “tenets” of Plimer’s climate skepticism. They include a number of skeptical scientific and quasi-scientific tropes—that carbon dioxide has not had any effect on climate above a certain threshold; that solar cycles are the drivers of climate change; that belief in global warming is secular religion—that scientists, reporters, and bloggers have dealt with many times before. Unfortunately, Adams didn’t think it was necessary to provide any checks of his own.

These lazy articles are throwbacks to days when journalists knew much less about the fundamentals of climate science and climate coverage. Today, they should know better.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.