Is Scientific American Running Away From Science on Climate Change?

Has Scientific American jumped the shark on climate change? That’s the contention of Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm (10/26/10), who accuses the magazine of treating human-caused global climate change as an open question.

Romm points to an article by Michael Lemonick (11/10) about Judith Curry, a climate scientist whose critiques of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are often cited by non-climate scientists who (unlike Curry herself) deny that people are dangerously warming the Earth. The articles seems to leave the impression that the truth on climate change is somewhere in the middle:

Climate scientists feel embattled by a politically motivated witch hunt, and in that charged environment, what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason–especially since the skeptics have latched onto her as proof they have been right all along. But Curry and the skeptics have their own cause for grievance. They feel they have all been lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments.

So there are “worthy…arguments” against the idea that human alteration of the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm up? If so, Scientific American is sitting on the scientific scoop of the decade.

Perhaps worse, the article was accompanied by an online poll to determine, in Lemonick’s words, whether Curry is “a heroic whistle-blower, speaking the truth when others can’t or won’t,” or someone who has “gone off the scientific deep end, hurling baseless charges at a group of scientists who are doing their best to understand the complexities of Earth’s climate.” Among the specific questions the Web poll asks is, “What is causing climate change?”

There’s something strange about any kind of poll on questions of science, as if the laws of nature responded to public opinion. But the adjective often used alongside of Web polls–which record the opinions of a non-random selection of Web surfers–is “unscientific.” So why is Scientific American using one to gauge opinion on climate questions?

Stranger still, the magazine’s website also features an “Energy Poll” conducted “in association with” the Shell oil company. It’s hard to say whether this is an ad disguised as content or content that is underwritten and influenced by a self-interested advertiser–but either way, Scientific American has a major ethical problem. Simply taking money for science journalism from a company with a critical interest in denying science is inherently problematic–just as it’s dubious for Nova, the closest equivalent to Scientific American on TV, to be dependent on funding from climate change deniers (FAIR Blog, 9/14/10).

Scientific American has a proud tradition, and signs that it’s falling short on the most critical scientific issue of our time are distressing. I’ve been concerned about the magazine’s take on climate since last year’s article, “Another Century of Oil? Getting More From Current Reserves” (10/09), which discussed techniques for pumping ever more oil without ever mentioning climate change. It was written by oil company executive Leonardo Maugeri.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.