Bad Balance

The BBC recently took the somewhat radical step – at least compared to American media – of reducing the voice of climate change deniers in its climate change coverage to accurately reflect the scientific consensus.   In other words, rather than giving climate change scientists and climate change deniers an equal footing to debate their positions, they will attempt to reduce the airtime given to deniers to reflect the 97% agreement among scientists that climate change is happening.

This is a major win for rational policy making.  For a long time media organizations have struggled, and in America generally still struggle, with the notion of false balance.  That is, in order not to seem politically biased, when they discuss politically charged issues they give equal air time to each side of the debate.  Sometimes this is appropriate.  When the issue at hand is one where there is no clear, scientific solution – questions over the appropriate role of government for example – given equal airtime to both sides of the issue does represent balance.  On issues where there is clear scientific evidence for one side, however, this is terribly inappropriate.  Giving equal airtime to both sides obscures the fact that there is a clear scientific consensus and traps the political process in debates over the existence of facts that are (a) effectively settled and (b) the politicians have no qualifications to assess.

There is undeniably a role for politicians to play in the debate over global warming.  But that role is to debate what should be done about it, not to decide whether or not it exists.  Politicians have no place in arguments over its existence.  That debate is, for the most part settled.  It is time media organizations reported on it that way rather than suggesting climate change deniers represent an equal position to the scientists who have demonstrated that climate change is occurring.

More accurate reporting and media coverage of scientific issues leads to more rational policy making because it allows politicians to get down to the real work of developing solutions. Climate change is happening.  Republican denials will not change this fact.  Now, Democrats and Republicans alike must start weighing the needs of many different present day constituents as well as those of future generations.  Politics is meant to grapple with these complex challenges because science provides no answers about whether today’s generation is more important than one ten or a hundred years from now.

When media organizations report facts as facts it brings clarity to this process.  Politics, by its nature, is easily hijacked by those with a vested interested in maintaining the status quo.  When debates center around whether a fact is a fact, rather than what should be done about that fact, nothing changes.  Anyone who would like to maintain the status quo thus has an interest in spreading misinformation and ensuring that debates never progress to an action stage.  This incentive structure is part of the reason why people refuse to change their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence they acknowledge to be true.  If people identify with a public figure who claims one thing to be true, they tend to believe that in the name of maintaining that identity even when they are made aware of factual evidence to disprove the claim.

Media organizations cannot, on their own, overcome the power of self-identity and belief.  Simply presenting facts as facts to an audience is clearly not sufficient to change their opinions.  However, it does make it more difficult for elites to make non-factual claims in the first place.  If the public is well-informed about science before it becomes politicized, it is much more difficult to politicize simple facts.

That is a far more constructive outcome.  It keeps a separation between science and politics and allows for the politicization of the right questions: not what the facts are but rather what we should do about those facts.  Media, science and politics all have an important role to play in the policy creation process.  The BBC has stepped up to the plate for the media. Let’s hope more organizations follow their lead.



Image Credit: Dan Taylor via Wikimedia Commons


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