A case study in biased reporting: FOX news and global warming

FOX News ran an article today on their website, called Global warming skeptics as knowledgeable about science as climate change believers, study says.  It's a good example of how an article can be heavily misleading without actually telling any lies -- the way a story is told is a major factor in what people come away believing about it. First, the organization of a story matters.  The things that are in the headline and first few paragraphs pack a much stronger punch than what comes later, and a lot of the readers of a story don't bother reading past that point, feeling they've got the gist of it as long as they read a bit.

This is from the start of the FOX article:

 Are global warming skeptics anti-science? Or just ignorant about science?

Maybe neither. A study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that people who are not that worried about the effects of global warming tend to have a slightly higher level of scientific knowledge than those who are worried, as determined by their answers to questions like:

"Electrons are smaller than atoms -- true or false?”

"How long does it take the Earth to go around the Sun? One day, one month, or one year?"

“Lasers work by focusing sound waves -- true or false?”

Compare with this, the abstract of the study in question:

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

The abstract is the part of the paper at the start where they summarize the key points in the report.  In this one, they're saying that relatively more scientifically literate people tend to be more polarized -- they have stronger views in both directions -- and they think that's the case because of the social pressures of their peer group, and how that might conflict with the evidence.

Further along in the FOX article, in paragraphs 8 through 10, they acknowledge that this wasn't the point the study focuses on:

Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, the lead author of the study, cautioned that the survey results are not evidence for or against climate change.

"This study is agnostic on what people ought to believe," he told FoxNews.com. "It just doesn’t follow to say this finding implies anything about what people should believe on this issue."

Kahan said that he thought another finding of the study was more important: That people’s cultural views – how much they value things like individualism and equality -- affect their views on global warming much more than actual knowledge about science. Regardless of how much they know about science, individualists were relatively unconcerned about global warming, whereas those who value equality were very concerned.

These paragraphs appear next to a large-text quote from the study, which reads:

'As respondents’ science literacy scores increased, their concern with climate change decreased.' - Study

In those paragraphs above, Kahan points out that the cultural views aspect was the most important part.  That was in paragraph 10 of the FOX article, and in the abstract of the study.  The study had an accompanying graph, which illustrates much more clearly that, while they accurately expected people who valued community to accept evidence for climate change, they were surprised by the results of individualists.  People who value individualism and power tend to get more skeptical as their scientific knowledge increases.

This is similar to a cognitive bias I've written about before, Escalation of Commitment, but it's a better example of one I haven't written about yet:  the Backfire Effect, which describes the fact that people tend to hold more strongly to their beliefs when confronted with evidence that they're wrong, rather than letting go of them.

In paragraph 11, FOX offers an equivocation to preemptively counter criticism that they're obviously misrepresenting the study to support their case:

Both sides of the global warming debate say the study's findings support their views. Those who worry about global warming say it shows that cultural biases blind even smart people to the “scientific consensus.”

Note the scare quotes.

Following that, the article offers a juxtaposition in which a scientist pointing out that the study is about how global warming gets politicized, immediately followed by a reference to 16 scientists who disagree.  (I'm finding it difficult not to be sarcastic about how they were able to find a whole 16 scientists who don't agree with the broader consensus.)

"Kahan’s research is so interesting,” Aaron Huertas, a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told FoxNews.com. “Over the last few years, the policy issues surrounding climate change have become increasingly politicized, and that’s bleeding over into people’s perceptions of climate science.”

"What we need to remember is that we have a number of excellent non-partisan scientific resources… [They] all tell us that human activity is altering the climate in ways that are disruptive to our economy and way of life."

But some of the 16 scientists who signed a letter this January titled "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" disagree.

Dr. Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT, was one skeptical scientist who signed the letter. He said that the finding that skeptics know as much or more about science surprised him "not at all."

"MIT alumni are among my most receptive audiences," he added.

Like I said at the start, there isn't anything technically untrue about this article.  But they've managed to take a study that raises a very important and significant issue, that culture and politics are having a huge, undue effect on perception of climate science, and presented it in a way that sounds a lot more like "Smart people everywhere believe global warming is bull████."

To wrap up, here's a link to the SourceFed video about how people who watch FOX tend to know less than people who don't watch any news at all.  (MSNBC also does worse than non-news-viewers.)