After a series of violent hurricanes battered our coasts two years ago, gloom-and-doom stories blaming the supposed uptick in the storms on global warming became all the rage among journalists.
Any scientist who published a study supporting that thesis was treated like a rock star by the media, with guaranteed interviews and television appearances to follow. A review of hundreds of these stories from this period shows that most media outlets didn't bother to acknowledge that there was a lot of dissent on this issue in the scientific community. On the occasions that reporters buried a short quote from a single dissenting scientist at the end of their pieces, the scientist was almost always made to look like a lone voice in the wilderness.
The Charlotte Observer was no different in how it slanted its coverage. That's a shame, because if the paper had been more evenhanded, it wouldn't be eating crow on the issue now.
Over the last two years, the paper reported the link between global warming and increased hurricane incidence as if it were fact more than a dozen times -- in several of these cases using the phenomenon to justify policy changes to combat global warming.
Here's how the paper's strongly worded September 2006 editorial on the "problem" started: "Researchers in a new study of global warming and rising sea surface temperatures have drawn some conclusions that ought to compel the attention of policymakers, public officials and taxpayers in the Carolinas: Increased hurricane intensity, they concluded, is almost certainly related to manmade pollution."
The editorial and an article that ran before it cited a series of studies that claimed rising sea temperatures supposedly caused by human-induced global warming had caused the increased hurricane activity. Contradictory scientific viewpoints, and there have been many, were virtually ignored. The editorial even went so far as to admonish those who deny the link or who believe hurricane activity is cyclical, even though this group includes many scientists. Nonbelievers must be looking at this from an "ideological" standpoint or must be looking out for their wallets, the Observer suggested.
Over the two-year period, only one Observer reporter, Scott Dodd, accurately described the state of opinion in the scientific community surrounding hurricanes, sea temperatures and global warming when he wrote in June 2006 that "there's a debate raging over whether global warming is partly to blame" for the increase.
Dodd was right. There's actually a vibrant debate going on among scientists over this issue, and the question is far from settled. The public has heard little about this debate thanks to the media's determination to ram one "ideological" viewpoint on global warming down our throats.
The Observer and the national media were forced to acknowledge another viewpoint this week after a new study concluded the opposite of what reporters had been preaching for two years -- that increasing ocean temperatures are actually decreasing hurricane activity.
Given the sheer, enormous scope of the media's one-sided, global-warming-induced-hurricane spike coverage following Katrina and Rita, this amounted to something of a journalistic crisis.
The Observer handled it similarly to the way other papers did. An article on the study was buried on A16. This time, the article had an honest lead sentence, which acknowledged that the study "intensified one of the hottest debates in science," a debate that until now the media has barely acknowledged. As of deadline, the Observer's editorial board has been silent.
Had science merely reversed course as new information came to light, the media couldn't be blamed. But that's not what happened. Dozens of studies in the world's leading journals by prominent scientists have contradicted every aspect of the global-warming-causes-more-hurricanes line the media has been parroting. The media has simply ignored most of them. The problem this time was that this study was just too big and its authors to prominent to ignore.
In reality, there are many scientific camps on the hurricane issue, each of which has prominent names attached.
One camp insists that hurricane activity is increasing. Another insists it isn't, and that what looks like an increase is actually the product of the better data on hurricane numbers and intensity. Since we didn't fly planes into hurricanes before the 1940s and didn't have sensitive satellites before the 1970s, our data on earlier hurricanes is incomplete and less detailed, they say, so it's hard to make accurate comparisons.
Another faction says that rising ocean surface temperatures affect hurricanes, but its members don't agree on how. Some say it has increased hurricane numbers and intensity while others insist that it has had the opposite effect. Yet another camp says that ocean surface temperatures play only a miniscule role in hurricanes, if any at all. Other camps are debating how much ocean temperatures have actually increased, when it started and what caused it. They don't agree either.
Part of the problem here is that these scientists aren't studying global warming. They are debating hurricane, ocean and geophysical science. Reporters have simply been diving in and scooping up studies that enhance their global warming arguments without bothering to understand the larger, unsettled debate these studies are part of.
So who are the mindless ideologues now? Hmmm.