Scientific American Doesn’t Doubt Climate Change–But It Acts As If It Does

Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina (10/28/10) responded to criticism from Climate Progress‘ Joe Romm (10/26/10) and FAIR Blog (10/27/10) of the magazine’s recent coverage of climate change:

In actuality, Scientific American reports on climate-related science in depth in nearly every issue and frequently online. You can see a sample list of past print and online-only articles at “Want to Learn More about Climate Change?,” including coverage of carbon and climate back to 1959. Climate is the issue of our time. We covered the debate surrounding Judith Curry as a news event in this topic area–and as a way to foster discussion of climate issues in general. As is clear in the article, the vast majority of the scientific community–and Curry herself–believe the evidence supports the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Climate Progress and FAIR also have criticized a related reader poll about climate change: Consumer media outlets frequently conduct reader polls about content, and Scientific American is no exception…. Such polls are surely not “scientific,” and nobody claims they are, but their interactive nature promotes audience engagement. It’s unfortunate–although in hindsight not surprising–that certain people would take the opportunity to manipulate the results by repeat voting.

Last, both sites have noted a Shell poll with advertisement, and speculated about its significance. Advertisements are handled by the ad-sales department without the editorial board’s input or consent.

As the author of the FAIR Blog post that criticized Scientific American, let me clarify that my worry is not that the editorial staff there doesn’t believe that human activity is raising Earth’s temperature. Anyone who takes the science seriously believes that–anyone, in other words, who looks at the findings of climate scientists and doesn’t believe they are engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoax the public, or that the field’s scientific method is fatally flawed. My worry, rather, is that Scientific American is engaging in false balance–that is, pretending that there is a legitimate debate where they do not actually believe one exists. That is the implication when a science magazine polls its readers–whether “scientifically” or not–about “what is causing climate change.”

The message I get from Michael Lemonick’s article (11/10)–which is subheaded “Why Can’t We Have a Civil Conversation About Climate?”–is that scientists should treat the arguments of climate denialists as serious and constructive contributions to the scientific discussion: If denialists are all “lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments,” Lemonick writes, then they have “cause for grievance.” It’s hard to imagine Scientific American suggesting that similar respect be accorded to other pseudo-scientific movements: Why can’t we have a civil conversation about Bigfoot? Why can’t we have a civil conversation about Atlantis?

More to the point, why can’t we have a civil conversation–one that concedes that “both sides” have “worthy arguments”–about the link between tobacco and lung cancer? That’s an article that I trust we won’t soon see in Scientific American. But then, Scientific American doesn’t accept tobacco advertising–but it does take ads from oil companies like Shell, the sponsor of the pop-up poll that appeared on the magazine’s website. (An aside: News outlets ought to have ethical guidelines that prevent the ad-sales department from selling ads, like that one, that are designed to confuse readers into thinking they are editorial content.)

Finally, if “climate is the issue of our time,” as DiChristina says, then why did her magazine run an article last year (10/09) by an oil industry executive about the future of oil that ignored that issue altogether?

Joe Romm (10/28/10) also responded to DiChristina’s defense of her magazine. SciAm contributing editor John Rennie (PLoS Blogs, 10/28/10) defended Lemonick’s article but criticized the magazine’s Web poll. Salon‘s Andrew Leonard (10/27/10) also criticized the poll.

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.