More on Gore and Global Warming

Yesterday I blogged about Al Gore blaming the media for inaction on global warming. Some of you asserted, albeit quite politely, that I am an idiot for disagreeing with Gore.

I may well be an idiot, but let me clarify a bit.

I acknowledge that I should have put a finer point on my objection to what Gore said. And it probably didn’t help that my objection was written in a glib tone: “I would argue that he is, um, wrong.” So here I will try to put a finer point on it, without the glib.

Here is how Gore was quoted in the article I linked:

“I believe that [media misrepresentation] is one of the principal reasons why political leaders around the world have not yet taken action,” Gore said. “There are many reasons, but one of the principal reasons in my view is more than half of the mainstream media have rejected the scientific consensus implicitly – and I say ‘rejected,’ perhaps it’s the wrong word. They have failed to report that it is the consensus and instead have chosen … balance as bias.”

Are we really to believe that the media’s portrayal of global warming is “one of the principal reasons” that political leaders have been slow to act? To me, the implications here are that:

1. The media’s portrayal of the issue was so compromised that it failed to sound the alarm (an implication that I would reject); and

2. Media portrayals of world problems are what typically push political leaders to react (an implication that, with notable exceptions, I would also reject).

Perhaps my objections are merely a function of my own bias as a journalist — and, more specifically, as a contributor, former editor, and longtime reader of the New York Times, which despite the claims of the academic study cited by Gore, has hardly been skeptical toward the human contribution to global warming.

I think I was also taken aback by the timing of Gore’s comments. He has just won a war of sorts (by having recently claimed, in a very big way, the global stage on the issue) only to turn around and lament a battle he feels he lost. In other words, the media is all over the issue now (as has been noted here and here and here); so I’m not sure why Gore — a guy with a a good sense of humor — chose to look back in anger rather than looking forward. Maybe his hate-love relationship with the media has something to do with it.


FWIW, Global warming is now called "climate change" because everywhere Al shows up there is a blizzard or cold snap. It's really just another means to exert more government control over the citizens of the world.


I still think you are nitpicking.
The main point Gore made, as reported in the article, is the concept of "balance as bias".

As has already been mentioned in the comments to the first blog entry, the evidence of global warming has been around for quite a while. It seems to me that during the past 20 years (perhaps more, but I didn't read much before then) the media have not accurately portrayed this issue.

It is your job as a journalist to dispute his claim of 'balance as bias' with some real evidence.

Innocent Bystander

I think you're totally correct about that. While I generally agree with Gore on the issue, that little rant sounds a whole lot like, "You're biased because you don't devote all your time to covering my side!" Which is generally something we hear from the right a lot more than the left.

Bad form, Al. Bad form.

However, I would suggest you NOT be so quick to dismiss #2 as a theory. I would say that as the traditional community breaks down and people are more and more building "communities" online with people physically distant from them, the value of the media to shape public opinion grows. Just look at the vast armies of people who repeat Fox or Limbaugh talking points. They aren't getting those from their preacher or town council any more.

And as evidence on my side, I would suggest you look into the run-up to the Iraq war. Most Americans now believe it was a bad idea all around. So why did we do it? Well, a study I read in 2004ish (I don't have the cite at the moment, sorry) stated that media coverage of "do we go to war NOW" vs "do we go to war LATER" was virtually balanced, taking up, oh, 92% of debate time on the major news outlets.

The idea of not going to war at all got the whopping 8% of time left over.

No wonder so few thought it was a valid idea.



Well Mr. Dubner, I thought that, like the guest at a dinner party that throws a dead cat on the table to get the conversation going, you were just trying to stir the pot.

Stirring the pot is good. Gore has a lot of truth in his "balance as bias". And you have a lot of truth in your belief that the media has not stopped political action on the issue.

The bigger question - if global warming is a problem what can do? - is the bigger cause of inaction today. We would have to get the U.S. and the industrial world reducing emissions. We would have to get China and India to not follow our path to CO2 production. We have to get Brazil to actually protect the Amazon for a change. We would have to....well you get the idea.

Politicos are like deer in the headlights, listening for the stirrings of the hunter lurking in the shadows, and ready to bolt away from the sweet corn laid out by the voters...uh...hunter.

That's why I say we are doomed. Doomed to relive these arguments for the next decade at least.

And in the end, the rabbit hole exit isn't big enough to hold our collective egos.


Innocent Bystander

Yay, found my source, more or less. It was a 2003 study by FAIR. Here's a pretty good summary. (I was off on the details, but hey, it was three years ago that I read this)

"The Bush administration's current claim that "everybody else was wrong too" relies heavily on the failure of the U.S. news media to do a responsible job of reporting during the runup to war and the war itself. A study done in 2003 by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting showed an overwhelming preponderance of pro-war viewpoints in television coverage of the war. It tabulated 1,617 on-camera sources that appeared in stories about Iraq according to their occupation, nationality and position on the war and found that 64 percent of sources were pro-war, while anti-war voices were only 10 percent of sources. Among U.S. sources, only 3 percent were anti-war -- this at a time when dissent was quite visible in U.S. society, with large anti-war demonstrations across the country and 27 percent of the public telling pollsters they opposed the war." Moreover, "Guests with anti-war viewpoints were almost universally allowed one-sentence soundbites taken from interviews conducted on the street. Not a single show in the study conducted a sit-down interview with a person identified as being against the war."

And of course, you also can't forget this study which showed just how much influence news outlets have on the information people think they know.

At any rate, I would argue that, at least in modern times, the media does indeed have a LARGE impact on public opinion, and through that, on political actions.




While I'm agnostic about whether Gore is right or wrong, I'm apalled by the imprecision of your logic.

You're essentially rejecting the possibility of marginal effects. You imply the media either sounded the alarm or they didn't. You've given us the choice that media coverage is what "typically push political leaders ..." or it isn't.

But Gore's claim is not that the media didn't sound the alarm, it's that they didn't sound it clearly enough. More specifically, he says they underrepresented the extent of scientific consensus on the matter.

Similarly, whether the the media is THE primary impetus for action is not the question. It is whether the newsmedia has a large effect on policy. I think you'd say the media is important; though if you think the newsmedia is nearly irrelevant to political action, I'd be interested to hear about it.

I guess I'm exceptionally disappointed in the oversimplistic straw-man you've built because it runs so counter to the standard Freakonomics theme.

It's as if you'd posted that Rowe-Wade wasn't an important cause of a decrease in crime, and that Levitt's theory implies

1) Almost everyone ran out and got abortions after Roe/Wade (which you'd reject)
2) The majority of those aborted kids would have committed crimes (which you'd reject)

Independent of whether Gore is right about the media (or whether Levitt is right about Roe-Wade's impact on crime), the class objections of objections you raise are neither convincing nor fair.



I agree that with Mr. Dubner that the media does not directly influence politicians on complex issues like this (as opposed to whistle blowing, such as the Walter Reed scandal). But, the media has a large indirect impact on politicians, since it impacts the voters (constituents, when not voting season). That is, if the media was raising the alarm, the people would be up in arms about the subject (as they are now), and the politicians would act (few politicians want to be on the wrong side of an issue). If the media plays an issue soft (or "balanced" as they call it), the average person assumes it is not an issue and does not care. Al Gore is complaining because it took a lot of action on his part and others to get the tide turned, whereas more accurate reporting earlier on could have done so more quickly. So, he has a right to complain.
It is like the smoking "debate" of the late 50s and early 60s. The media was always "good" about reporting every study funded by the tobacco companies showing that there was no "conclusive link" between smoking and lung cancer. It took much longer to get any action at all. The fact that there were 50 studies showing a link for every 1 not showing a link did not stop the media from showing a balanced story for a long time (they picked one person representing each side).



Why should anyone be "good-humored" about global warming?

We should be angry.


Mr Gore has a valid point. The media, particularly in the US, did for many years portray global warming as an issue in debate despite the overwhelming scientific consensus and an ever growing preponderance of evidence.

This misleading coverage of the issue delayed the public gaining an appreciation of the implications of climate change. It is only since the real danger has been realized through the efforts of activists like Mr Gore that public opinion has pushed politicians to take action.

This is hardly a unique situation and the public has been poorly served by the media on a long list of other issues, most notably the unjustifiable and ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, where investigative journalism, insightful opinion and full information from the press, rather than coverage based on Whitehouse press releases, could have prevented the current disaster.


Thank you, commenters, for pointing out so nicely that Dubner's Gore post is still wacko. When truth and science are accurately reported in mainstream media, it is more accident than plan. Media is about money and marketing. Politics is about media.


To escape "Balance as bias", look here.

Andy from Houston

I saw Al Gore speak in Houston. He has a point that the media framed the issue of global warming as a "scientific controversy" when in actuality, an overwhelming majority (80%+)of scientists agree that global warming is taking place.

This was mentioned in your comments yesterday, and I am surprised that you did not address this in your follow up post. It seems like journalists have thin skin these days when it comes to any type of criticism.


dsb summed it up best and points out an interesting idea. Intelligent rational people seemingly become irrational and dull when it comes to Gore. Check this out...

Why is this? What leads someone to dismiss something out of hand that obviously isn't so? As I said on the other Gore post here, "Everyone got their gris gris!"

Everyone has that one thing they believe in that they just cannot let go of.


webs, you are right (as is that article). The modern discourse seems to be personal attacks coupled with agreeing only with those you like and disagreeing with those you dislike, even if your opinion is the opposite. It is sad that so many people are so worried about the "slippery slope" of partisan politics that they cannot bring themselves to act rationally if they think it could help the other side. Likewise, they are so focused on hurting the other side, that they will act against their own good conscience.


Respectfully Mr. Dubner, I would argue that you still did not really address the central point Mr. Gore was making: The the media passes off giving equal time to both sides of an issue as balanced reporting. Thus they presented a controversy in political circles as a controversy in science. You basically said "I reject that."

One thing about this issue that puzzles me is how many people seem to be failing to recognize that our current energy use patterns are inherently unsustainable. We are using up resources that cannot be replaced, and the costs of getting more of those diminishing resources are increasing.

No one knows for sure exactly how much oil, coal and natural gas is left, but we do have pretty good estimates for how much effort is required to increase our capacity to get those resources. So we are using resources at an ever increasing rate and it is getting more and more difficult (read expensive) to get more of those resources. This is a bad situation. Furthermore, the economies that find sustainable solutions first will get the most advantage.



I'd agree with mathking's assessment of what is going on-

Gore's criticism is one with a premise in McCombs and Shaw's Agenda Setting Theory- while I am not a conspiracy person, even my undergrads know what happens when media ownership continues to calcifies. There isn't even federal mandates on the equal time since Reagan unregulated that portion of news. There is no debate in published Academia regarding GW, but there is "debate" being manufactured by think tanks and mercenary researchers (axiology is an important thing to consider).

However, mathking is also correct regarding how people fail to see our energy use as anything except unstable. Corporate capitalism is growth oriented and functions so long as there is continuous frontiers- there are not frontiers, just fewer resources to distribute among an ever growing population. This problem will not go away- we've been promised fusion power for decades, but I'm not holding my breath on that one. A wise society makes do with the resources available and should plan for the future... but that's the key phrase "plan for the future"

In a society of instant gratification, of hyper consumerism, of pathos driven entertainment and insatiable appetites... is it any wonder society, and the media which serves as society's parasocial voice isn't projecting into the future except for fantasies and self gratification... instead of sound strategies for resource allocation?



"there are not frontiers" - I am sorry, but this is just not true. In fact, when resource availability is limited, more frontiers are often created through innovation and creativity. Only in abundance do you get apathy towards innovation. In the case of energy, there are many frontiers in both the use and production side. Capitalism smells a money trail when it becomes obvious enough. Yes, it starts with Entrepreneurs and Venture Capitalists and other risk takers (since only a few winners will emerge from many tries), but once traction is reached, many will pile on.
One of the reasons many on the "Right" tend to be so snarky about these situations is that too many on the "Left" always respond with pronouncements of doom and gloom and suffering for all. Yes, these are serious issues, but people respond better to incentive and positive action than they do to regulation and negative action. Hand wringing is not a strategy.



Pkimelma- I'm sorry if I offended your ideological precepts... but this isn't "doom and gloom" but rather realism. We've got 1 planet. No other planet is within reach of our species for the next few centuries barring extreme advances in quantum theory (ie, harnessing a black hole's energy or somehow getting past that pesky lightspeed barrier). Corporate capitalism is based on forever projecting into the future- many people tie technological advances to capitalism- this is a falsity- rather, it is a bureaucracy, the effective management of resources which fosters innovation. The myth of new frontiers is just that in our case, at least for the foreseeable future. It's best to make do with what we do have instead of trusting to a dream which keeps getting pushed back to rationalize current practices which are unhealthy for the long term survival of our species.

That's just the facts, to quote from Dragnet.



y'know - as a programmer - with an interest in science - I will believe in the human influence of "global warming" when someone can convince me that the mathematical models used have no bugs in them (likely not going to happen) and that all of the variables in the mathematical model have been tested fairly rigorously.

We are at a weird point in history when computational models pass for "science". This has only been possible in the last 30 years or so of human history. I have seen enough bad examples of "science" and enough garbage to put approximately zero weight in the "a majority of scientists agree" argument.


ravager, I respectfully disagree. It is not a question of ideology (although I agree that I should not have used "doom and gloom", but rather "worse case scenario"). It is simply a factor in how the Industrialized world has grown - when resources are scarce, one of two things happen: more are found, or innovation finds a way around the scarcity. In the case of finding more, sometimes that is just economic: demand outstrips supply, so prices go up thereby opening up access to previously too expensive variants of the resource (oil is always a good example). In the case of innovation, either alternatives to the resource are found or better ways to use them. We are just on the cusp of both of those solutions. I am not a Polly-Anna, I simply recognize the response to a supply-side problem. Yes, there may be unintended consequences (some good and some bad), but that is how we muddle our way through everything. Heavily regulated and planned solutions rarely work, no matter how well intentioned.
So, I believe that we have many solutions in the pipeline which will improve the consumption side. I also believe we have many solutions in the pipeline which will improve the production side. I think demand based price increases will push those solutions in some cases, and incentives (financial, emotional, or other) will help adoption in others.
That said, I am not suggesting that the outcome will be "fair" any more than current global access to fresh water, energy, or other resources is "fair".