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Falling Off the Climate Reporting ‘Balance’ Beam

By Andrew Freedman

It was a straightforward study about a unique 114-year climate record from a weather observation station in New York, yet you wouldn’t know it from the headline in the New York section of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on May 6: “Heated Exchange Over Climate.” The story, by Paul Glader, glaringly demonstrates one of the most pernicious pitfalls of climate science reporting, known as false equivalency or “balance as bias”, in which scientific experts are pitted against one another in a scientific jousting match.

The end result of such reporting, as demonstrated through social science research, is that the public is left with the impression that climate scientists disagree about what is causing climate change, and even whether climate change is occurring in the first place, when in fact there is broad and deep agreement that the climate is warming due in large part to human activities. Max Boykoff, an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has written numerous studies on the drawbacks of balanced reporting on complex scientific matters, such as climate change. Balanced reporting may work well for political stories, in which a reporter would seek out a quote from a Republican and a Democrat, but Boykoff and others have shown that by applying the same approach to science news, a reporter may distort scientific evidence and give too much weight to views that lack scientific credibility.

The WSJ article was based on a new study, published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. It details the climate record from a weather observation station in the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, New York, (about 90 miles north of New York City) where daily temperatures and other conditions have been recorded continuously since 1896.

“It is the rarest of the rare: a weather station that has never missed a day of temperature recording; never been moved; never seen its surroundings change; and which has never been tended by anyone but a short, continuous line of family and friends, using the same methods, for 114 years,” stated a Columbia University press release.

According to Benjamin I. Cook, a climate modeler at Lamont and the study’s lead author, the Mohonk record stands in stark contrast to the surface weather stations that have been moved or altered during their lifetime, and which have come under withering criticism from climate science skeptics who say that observations showing the earth is warming may simply be an artifact of inconsistent measurements and urbanization.

“[Mohonk Lake] avoids a lot of the problems that plague other station sites,” Cook said in an interview. For example, the Mohonk Lake weather station has always used maximum/minimum thermometers rather than changing to more modern temperature sensors.

An examination of the Mohonk Lake record, which was not discussed in detail in the WSJ article, shows that the climate has been warming at that location, which is consistent with regional and global trends. The largest temperature increases were observed during the summer. In addition, the number of freeze-days per year has decreased, although the length of the freeze-free season has not changed significantly.

Instead of detailing the study’s findings and the scientific value of a long-term dataset, the WSJ story chose to focus on the views of a prominent climate science skeptic, former TV weathercaster Anthony Watts, who has long made the case that long-term surface temperature records are unreliable. Studies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and elsewhere have refuted his claims, however, showing that urbanization may actually introduce a cooling bias in temperature data, not a warm one. (That fact did not make it into the WSJ article either).

In total, the article devotes four paragraphs to Mr. Watts’ views, compared to eight words for Cook. One of those paragraphs includes the following gem from Watts, who maintains the popular Watts Up With That? blog as well as the website surfacestations.org, in which he criticizes the Mohonk site for placing a brass rain gauge at the end of a boat dock.

"It makes me wonder how many kids dump Pepsi in there or peed," Watts told the WSJ.

Cook was aggravated by the false equivalency. He noted that although the reporter sought out his views in light of Watts’ criticisms, the published article did not include his rebuttal.

Kevin Krajick, a senior science writer at Columbia’s Earth Institute, said he was frustrated and taken aback by the WSJ’s coverage. “This is over the top,” he said. “They just simply laid this into their template of the false debate.”

“I do feel it was a terrible job by the reporter and his editors and they should be called to account,” Krajick added.

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