With the fake "Climategate" scandal thoroughly and incontrovertibly debunked, the right-wing media are pushing a new round of bogus climate science accusations, and the familiar Fox Cycle pattern is again revving up. Right-wing activists and Fox News are working to push climate misinformation into the mainstream press, and the mainstream press have a responsibility not to repeat the failures of the "Climategate" fiasco.
On June 17, FoxNews.com published an article asking whether climate scientists are "doctoring the data" showing rising sea levels. The reporter, Maxim Lott, based his story on a May 11 Forbes.com blog post by the Heartland Institute's James Taylor, who accused the University of Colorado's Sea Level Research Group of "doctor[ing] sea level data." Taylor came to this conclusion after Professor Steve Nerem of the research group posted a blog entry a few days earlier explaining that they added a correction to their sea level data to account for expanding ocean basins. The correction, as Media Matters documented, is a standard scientific procedure about which there is "nothing controversial," to borrow the words of one leading climate scientist. Taylor, however, seemed to think that he caught a climate scientist announcing via the internet how he was tampering with his data.
As the story made the subtle transformation from overt right-wing activism to Fox News "journalism," important details were left by the wayside. Fox News' Lott contacted Nerem, who told Lott that "this is a scientifically well-understood correction" that is used by other groups, but that key bit of information never made it into the final story. The article quoted a climate scientist appearing to bolster Taylor's claim of "doctoring," but that same scientist told Media Matters that he "would object to making that accusation."
As we saw with "Climategate," climate science is uniquely susceptible to right-wing attempts at distortion. There is near-universal agreement on the right that climate science is either wrong or an elaborate hoax, so accusations of malfeasance against climate scientists are guaranteed to find widespread repetition. Decades of demonizing college professors and undermining the standing of academics have helped feed this animosity against climate scientists.
Also, the language of climate science is dominated by technical terminology and arcane jargon. This language sometimes lends itself to distortion (anyone familiar with the "Climategate" fiasco knows that much of it centered around a deliberate misinterpretation of the phrase "hide the decline") and it can have a certain eye-glazing effect: "He's lying about sea levels" is far more accessible than "he accurately compensated for ocean basin-expansion caused by glacial isostatic adjustment."
The latest accusations against the Sea Level Research Group show that Fox News serves not just to amplify, but to help fashion false right-wing attacks against climate scientists. As I wrote after "Climategate" collapsed, it is foolish to expect Fox News or the right-wing ideologues they use as sources to modify their behavior. The responsibility falls to legitimate journalists to see through the distortions and view Fox-hyped stories such as these with an extremely wary eye.