Flouting scientific opinion, Stossel promoted Michael Crichton's global warming skepticism

ABC News 20/20 co-anchor John Stossel used a report on novelist Michael Crichton's new book, State of Fear (HarperCollins, December 2004), to promote Crichton's view that global warming is “just another foolish media-hyped scare.” In the 11-minute segment, Stossel did not present the opposing view, even though the summary of a 2001 National Academy of Sciences report commissioned by the Bush administration began: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.”

Stossel started his December 10 20/20 report by casting Crichton as a brave iconoclast for “contradicting something most people believe and fear” and those concerned about global warming as gullible pawns of Hollywood and environmentalists. Stossel showed a clip of a supposedly typical woman on the street saying of global warming: “I'm thinking it's like the end of the world. I don't know.” Stossel cut in: “She got her information from this recent movie The Day After Tomorrow. This movie was mocked by scientists, but serious people are worried.” While scientists found the events depicted in The Day After Tomorrow -- a nightmare scenario in which global warming causes severe and sudden weather that ravages North America -- to be implausible, as the Associated Press reported, many embraced it as an opportunity to increase awareness about global warming. And “serious people” -- including scientists -- were worried about global warming long before the film was produced.

Stossel depicted skepticism about global warming as a viable response to respectable scientific research and opinion. He explained: “Crichton was once worried [about global warming] ... but then he spent three years researching global warming. And now, he's concluded it's just another foolish media-hyped scare. And many climate scientists agree with him.” In fact, while some scientists agree with Crichton, many more believe that global warming is very real and a cause for legitimate concern. In addition to the National Academy of Sciences study, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 1996: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” A 2001 IPCC report recalled this earlier finding before noting: “Three of the five years (1995, 1996, and 1998) added to the instrumental record since the SAR [the 1996 report] are the warmest in the instrumental record of global temperatures, consistent with the expectation that increases in greenhouse gases will lead to continued long-term warming.”

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change website notes: “The scientific community has reached a strong consensus regarding the science of global climate change. The world is undoubtedly warming. This warming is largely the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities.” And in a statement on Crichton's book, the Union of Concerned Scientists declared: "[T]here is a very strong consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that global warming is under way and human activity is a primary cause."

Stossel and Crichton both misleadingly suggested that projections of the future global climate are comparable to a local news channel's “weather forecast.” Stossel showed a clip of Crichton asking: “If somebody said, 'John, I've got a nice weather forecast for you for next year, this time next year,' you wouldn't [believe them]. How about this time a hundred years from now? I mean, are you going to give that any credence at all? No.” But climate scientists' projections are nothing like “weather forecasts.” Rather, scientists use competing models to predict the average surface temperature for the entire planet, as this IPPC graph shows.

Stossel highlighted Crichton's view that climate scientists have an incentive to exaggerate global warming in order to win grants. But he did not mention that the inverse is true: many global warming skeptics receive generous funding to downplay the problem -- for example, from energy companies with a stake in opposing regulation of fossil fuel emissions. Former Washington Post and Boston Globe reporter and editor Ross Gelbspan documented the phenomenon of dubious industry-funded scientists in his 1998 book, The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-up, The Prescription (relevant excerpt here; more articles on industry-funded global warming skeptics available here).

Stossel opined that of all Crichton's novels, "State of Fear may be his biggest risk, because he points out that the people studying global warming have an incentive to exaggerate the problem to get grant money." The segment continued:

CRICHTON: Everybody gets their grant by doing that.

STOSSEL: And if you say, “there isn't a big problem,” you're less likely to get money?

CRICHTON: Absolutely.

Neither Stossel nor Crichton explained how that purported “risk” could have any bearing on Crichton, who is a best-selling author many times over. Near the end of the segment, Stossel reported: “With State of Fear expected to be another No. 1 bestseller, Crichton, the shy celebrity, will be again in the public eye.”

As Media Matters has noted, Stossel has previously been brought to task for making misleading scientific claims. In 2000, ABC was forced to correct a report in which Stossel claimed that tests were performed as part of a segment on organic foods; the tests never took place.

Crichton also promoted State of Fear during guest appearances on CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown on December 13 and NBC's Today on December 7.