Beyond ‘false balance’ in climate science writing

Posted by Michael on April 10, 2013

By Emily Fertig

Paul Fischbeck was threatening to take over our nonfiction piece. Paul is a professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon, and he sits in a large office that is shrunk by a collection of artifacts including a bomber chair from his days as a Navy pilot, a Presidential-themed slot machine, and a comprehensive display of color-sorted jelly beans. He is also somewhat of a climate skeptic.

I am the scholar-half of a TWP pair that’s attempting to tackle climate policy with creative nonfiction from a new angle, by exploring the sources and types of uncertainty inherent in climate science and what that means for policy. Most of the characters in our piece are firmly ensconced in climate science or policy—climate modelers, atmospheric scientists, policy analysts, and water managers.

Paul is different. He has made a name for himself in risk analysis, analyzing hazards such as the failure of the space shuttle, air pollutants from ships, and foodborne illnesses. As a side project, he has turned his attention to climate science. He calls out shoddy work, argues that scientists often downplay or underestimate uncertainties, and adamantly calls for better numbers before any substantial policy decisions can be made. That makes him a contrarian voice in the piece.

He hasn’t published in the climate arena and is largely an outsider to the climate science community. On the one hand, keeping him in the piece feels a bit dangerous. He could easily give a sense of false balance, the long-time bane of climate journalism, which misleads readers by placing the arguments of climate skeptics on par with those of climate scientists representing the state of knowledge in their field.  

On the other, he has an important role. His arguments on climate policy are based in risk analysis, a field to which he has contributed substantially. Risk analysis uses probabilities, either from models or from empirical data, to help policy makers get a quantitative handle on uncertain threats. Climate policy, however, is so rife with uncertainties of different sources and types that many argue it calls for different tools. Paul would help illuminate these different approaches to policy.

Brian, my communicator-half for the story, and I took a divide-and-conquer approach to the first draft, and the bulk of Paul’s section was up to me. I trod carefully around him, not wanting to get too close for fear his character would snatch too much control of the piece and I’d be left pedantically reminding readers that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say climate change is happening and blah blah even though the narrative sympathy of the piece is on a more even keel. I touched on his views and his office-cave, and quickly switched focus back to established climate science.

Unsurprisingly, the Paul section turned out boring. Our mentor, Ross, called us on it: Paul came across as a straw man. We weren’t expressing the full weight of his view.

Brian and I had to make a decision. We didn’t want to give Paul a platform on climate policy he hadn’t earned. The easiest thing would have been to nix his character, but that would have sacrificed our exploration of the risk analysis paradigm and its application to climate policy.

It also would have been somewhat of a cop-out. Paul’s purpose in the piece goes beyond his role as a dissenting voice, so that aspect doesn’t need to dominate. In a long-form piece, we can take the time to develop the context and nuance of his views on climate, and use them to help define the views of our other policy analysts and climate scientists. I want to trust us as writers enough to do this without giving the impression that his views are equally supported in the scientific community or treating him as a straw man.

More importantly, though, to focus on the dichotomy implied by ‘false balance’ is to miss the point of our piece. My postdoc supervisor, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, put it well: “In the past two decades, the IPCC’s emphasis on consensus was necessary, and has served to help shift public opinion…Going forward, …treatment of uncertainty will become more important than consensus if the IPCC is to stay relevant to the decisions that face us.”[1]

Our piece reflects a similar shift. The interesting questions are no longer ‘what do climate scientists agree on (and should we believe them or not),’ as the term ‘false balance’ implies. Our piece seeks to move forward in an acknowledgment that uncertainties in climate science are here to stay, they are not an argument for the policy status quo, and finding better ways to structure climate policy decisions under uncertainty is an active and productive research field. Paul can stay.

[1] Webster, M., 2009. Uncertainty and the IPCC: An editorial comment. Climatic Change 92:37-40.