Reasons to avoid false balance and fake debates

by W. Baerbel and J. Cook, Sep 9, 2022 in SkepticalScience

False balance media reporting

One of the most insidious, albeit often inadvertent forms of climate misinformation is false-balance media  coverage, where contrarian voices are given equal coverage with climatescientists. This stems from the journalistic norm assuming there are always two sides to an issue, thus giving mainstream and contrarian voices equal representation. As a result, a few dissenting scientists are given similar attention to the 97% of scientists who are convinced that humans are causing global warming.


Analysis of media coverage from 1988 to 2002 showed that newspapers often presented false balance media coverage of climate change [18]. While the situation has improved in prestige-press coverage [19], the tabloid press has shown no signs of improvement [20]. Similarly, 70% of U.S. TV coverage of climate change presents a false balance [21]. In short, much of what people learn about climate change from the media involves well-established scientific truth presented alongside groundless assertions.

To debate or not to debate

Debate is crucially important to climate science and in the case of human-caused climate change has already occurred over decades. The process of scientific debate is open to anyone—although it does require that participants subject their ideas to the scrutiny of the peer-review process, which is fundamental for the advancement of scientific knowledge [31]. However, contrarians refuse to participate in scientific debates: they do not present their views at scientific conferences, and have a negligible presence in the peer-reviewed literature. Instead, they demand special treatment by bypassing the usual scientific process and presenting unvetted ideas to the public.

How should one respond if invited to publicly debate mainstream climate science? Requests to “debate” climate science or the timing of climate impacts are for propaganda purposes and should be avoided.  Agreeing to participate in such debates run the risk of misinforming the public by conveying the false impression that the scientific community is undecided on basic facts like human-caused global warming.

In contrast, debates over solutions to climate change are worthwhile. One response to an invitation to debate is to inform the organisers of the danger of misinforming the public by debating established science, and that a more appropriate and constructive debate topic is climate solutions. If the organisers persist in hosting a problematic debate, a further option is to issue a public statement explaining that you had advised the organisers not to go ahead due to the problematic nature of the event, but they went ahead regardless.