Canadians' attitudes about scientists

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant objected to comments made by the host of the Lang & O’Leary Exchange about climate change during a discussion about a poll measuring Canadians’ attitudes about scientists. There was no violation of CBC policy.

In a broadcast of the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, broadcast originally on December 28, 2012, on CBC News Network and repeated on the main network December 30, Amanda Lang and her co-host Som Seif had a brief discussion about a Nanos poll measuring Canadians’ attitudes about scientists. It measured how much trust Canadians had on four issues. The score for two of them ranged from 70% and above, but on the other two issues, that number was lower. One issue was the safety of genetically modified foods, the other climate change. You strongly objected to Ms Lang’s comments about climate change, in which she expressed some sympathy for those who were uncomfortable with the science. “She stated that there lacks scientific consensus if the global warming phenomena is real , when the opposite is true – there are no credible scientific journals or scientific societies in the world who have noted any evidence to suggest the world is not indeed warming and most lines of evidence point to an anthropological etiology.” Furthermore, you felt this was an “explicit falsehood” and was being done to further a particular “hard right bias.” You also felt she misrepresented what happened in an incident involving the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November of 2009.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Robert Lack, responded. He pointed out that expressing a discomfort, as some 28% of Canadians did in the Nanos poll, is not the same as “stating an explicit falsehood on climate change.” He states: “Ms Lang is referencing the Nanos poll here and simply saying she feels similar to the results of the poll – that conflicting stories on climate change make her less comfortable with the research in this area than the science in other issues.”

REVIEW

The segment in question was a brief discussion of the poll results. In all, the two hosts spent about 4 minutes analyzing them – mostly talking about what creates trust, and the way science influences policy. Ms Lang brought up the question of climate change because public trust was lower when it came to this issue. What she said was “It would be really nice to be comfortable about the science on this. And frankly, it’s hard to feel comfortable because you get this kerfuffle with e-mails that have been suppressed and scientists who don’t agree who are actually quite credible.”

CBC journalistic policy emphasizes the need for accuracy, fairness and balance. Journalists make a commitment to truth telling as they know it. It acknowledges that there is more than one perspective, and that facts can change and are open to interpretation. The context of the discussion can also be relevant. Achieving balance and fairness is about keeping all of these factors in mind.

Accuracy

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

Fairness

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

Balance

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

This review cannot be a definitive discussion of the science of climate change. The exchange you are concerned about was not meant to be a fulsome discussion of the issue, and it relied on shorthand in its references, perhaps to a fault, for an issue so complex.

This review can only assess whether, in context, the program abided by CBC policy. When Ms Lang said there are credible scientists who don’t agree, she was repeating facts. She didn’t specify whom she was referring to, or whether they were deniers or still skeptical of some of the findings.

You are correct when you say virtually every national science organization and peer reviewed research is moving to a consensus. But there are scientists at credible institutions who have expressed concerns about some aspects of research. For example, while NASA officially takes a strong position on climate change, some former scientists and astronauts have taken issue with that position. The arguments within the scientific community have led to public doubt. And that confusion is well documented around the “kerfuffle with e-mails.” In November 2009, there was a controversy over a large number of documents and e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit. Climate skeptics tried to use the leaks to prove that the scientists had been manipulating data, and that their conclusions were therefore wrong.The timing of these leaks was particularly fraught as it was just weeks before the United Nations Copenhagen summit on climate change.

In the wake of the controversy, four inquiries were launched. They all concluded the same thing: that neither the science nor the integrity of the scientists were in doubt. As one of them, The Independent Climate Change e-mails Review, commissioned by the University of East Anglia, said: “we find that “their (the scientists) honesty and vigor are not in doubt,” and that their behavior did not undermine the conclusions that the International Panel on Climate Change had drawn. In other words, the science was intact. There was, however, criticism of the lack of transparency in the work – not sharing raw data, and trying to stop papers that were critical of their work. So for Ms Lang to cite this incident as a reason why people are less certain of the science of climate change is accurate. At least for a time, confusion led to uncertainty.

That leaves an assessment of balance and fairness. As part of a discussion about the credibility of scientists and how that influences public opinion and policy, it meets the threshold. It would have been clearer though, if some attribution had been used, rather than broad statements. CBC’s policy on Balance states “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are (held).” In characterizing views on climate change, Ms Lang did that. While she also stated she had some sympathy for those who are distrustful, she did not advocate a position that denies climate change. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin CBC Ombudsman