ABC's Stossel falsely accused Media Matters of “smearing” him, continued to misrepresent facts on global warming

Responding to a Media Matters for America item and viewer e-mails criticizing his misleading op-ed in the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader, ABC 20/20 co-anchor John Stossel claimed that Media Matters “smeared” him and author Michael Crichton, whose recent novel criticizing the scientific consensus on global warming Stossel has aggressively promoted.

In an April 13 syndicated column and an April 7 response to viewer e-mail posted on the ABC News website, Stossel quoted Media Matters' citation of studies by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which undermine his op-ed, and labeled them “a clever way to smear.” From an April 13 column:

The [Media Matters] web page calls my column “misleading” because “studies by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1996 and 2001, and a 2001 National Academy of Sciences report, commissioned by the Bush administration, have recognized global climate change." ...

Sounds devastating, as if I had ignored basic science, but when I discussed Michael Crichton's argument that we needn't worry about global warming, I didn't deny that warming was a “scientific reality.” Crichton doesn't deny it. The earth has warmed about one degree in the past 100 years. Climate changes. It always has. ... The real question is whether the warming is a “crisis,” and whether trying to “fix” it will help or just wreck the lives of the poor.

In fact, in his op-ed, Stossel never acknowledged, explicitly or implicitly, that global warming is a real phenomenon, although he did approvingly quote Crichton's dismissal of global warming as “just another foolish media-hyped scare.”

More important, the studies Media Matters cited did not conclude simply that the earth is warming, but also that this warming is occurring “as a result of human activities,” according to the NAS. In 1996, IPCC also concluded: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” (Media Matters quoted these findings in an earlier item on Stossel and Crichton, to which we linked in the item Stossel criticized.) In his op-ed, Stossel went out of the way to undermine this claim:

Crichton himself used to worry about global warming. But then he spent three years researching it. He concluded it's just another foolish media-hyped scare. Many climate scientists agree with him, saying the effect of man and greenhouse gases is minor.

In both his column and his e-mail response, Stossel attempted to discredit two other groups whose conclusions Media Matters cited -- the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Union of Concerned Scientists -- as “more leftist than scientific.” But Stossel ignores the fact that even conservatives recognize what he and Crichton deny: Beyond the NAS and IPCC studies, Dr. John H. Marburger III, science adviser to the president and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, also recently stated: “The climate is changing, the surface temperature of the earth is warming, there is a greenhouse effect, CO2 [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas, it has increased substantially since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and it is caused by human activity.”

Stossel also accused Media Matters of “such a smear” for noting that global warming skeptics are largely funded by energy interests with a direct financial stake in undermining the scientific consensus. From his April 7 e-mail reponse on

While some “global-warming skeptics receive generous funding from industry lobbyists and energy interests” it's nowhere near as “generous” as what the scare-mongers collect. And the skeptics tend to collect the funding after their research led them to skepticism. It's such a smear. And many skeptics get no industry funds.

Stossel provided no data to back up his claim about the relative generosity of research funding. But given that scientists who believe that global warming is a genuine and worrisome phenomenon in which human activity plays a significant role vastly outnumber the skeptics, it's quite likely that the former group receives more research funding as a whole than the skeptics. On a per-scientist basis, however, industry sources can be quite generous. In his book The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-up, The Prescription (Perseus Books Group, 1997), journalist Ross Gelbspan reported that prominent skeptic Patrick J. Michaels has received “more than $165,000 in industry and private funding” over a five-year period prior to 1995. Another skeptic, Robert Balling, received “nearly $300,000 from coal and oil interests in research funding” between 1991 and 1997.

Stossel also provided no support for his claims about how the skeptics “tend” to form their views and collect funding, but it's no less plausible that skeptics' initial views about global warming were influenced by the expectation that energy interests might want to fund such views than it is that mainstream scientists were influenced by expectations about potential willingness to fund their “scare-mongering.” Stossel simply asserts that the skeptics he and Crichton champion form their views based purely on where “their research led them,” while everyone else is an opportunist.

In fact, while any scientist may be influenced by the goals of funders, the energy industry has a direct financial incentive to fund questionable science that will undermine the clear consensus on global warming: Energy interests want to block passage of regulations that would curb greenhouse gas emissions. The National Science Foundation and the numerous private foundations that fund mainstream science have no comparable incentive to fund bogus research. These groups may be more likely to award money to scientists if “scare-mongering” convinces them that global warming is a genuine threat, but given that myriad other research programs exist whose scientific underpinnings (and potential for enormous social benefits) are undisputed, these groups have no incentive to waste money on a “another foolish media-hyped scare.”

Another distinguishing feature of climate-change skeptics is the scant support their views receive in the journals and publications where their work must stand up to review by their scientific peers. Science journalist Chris Mooney explained in a May 6 column for the Center for American Progress:

[W]ith a few exceptions, the views of conservative contrarians on the climate issue rarely find anything more than superficial support in the peer reviewed literature. However, the media allow these contrarians to get around this problem and keep debate alive through non-scientific channels. On newspaper op-ed pages and in he-said, she-said exchanges presented by news reporters, contrarians battle back against the scientific consensus. They're entirely in their element: Newspaper op-ed pages don't practice scientific quality control.

As for the claim that “many” global warming skeptics receive no funding from industry, Stossel offers no examples; Crichton is not a climatologist.