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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Defamation as Tactic: Promoting Global Warming Alarmism by Misleading Readers

I offer here a case study in the way journalists serve the cause of global warming alarmists -- in this particular case, by claiming scientists are associated with the fossil fuel industry using "evidence" even a superficial investigation would have rendered void, and by misleading readers in other ways.

In June, columnist Tom Hennessy of the Long Beach Press-Telegram wrote a laudatory column about Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Two readers whose critical letters were published by the newspaper included the Australian scientist Dr. Bob Carter (letter published June 29), and Canadian scientist Dr. Tim Ball (letter published June 26).

Hennessy responded with another column, "Sense Wins in Heated Debate," published July 5, in which he ignored the substance of both scientists' letters, preferring instead to lead readers to believe two things for which he had scant-to-zero evidence: 1) both scientists had received funds from the energy industry, and 2) in exchange for these funds, the scientists have agreed to espouse views they otherwise would not.

Hennessy's July 5 column reads, in part:
My new best friend is reader Kevin Powell. He won me over with an e-mail which, in part, said this:

"Sheeeeeesh! What's going on at the P-T editorial room? You write a nifty, inoffensive piece on Al Gore's new film and the anti-global warming dingbats explode with atomic force."

Powell was referring to Tim Ball, retired University of Winnipeg climatology professor, and Bob Carter, a professor at Australia's James Cook University. Both wrote to the P-T last week, chastising me for suggesting that Gore's film and book, "An Inconvenient Truth," carries a message we should all consider.

Asked reader Powell, "Isn't the editorial board supposed to be on alert for that kind of thing and not let the P-T be used as part of a propaganda campaign?"

It's a valid question. Hand in hand with industry polluters, Ball and Carter seem to be caught up in a movement to debunk Gore and global warming...

...Who are these guys?

Let's start with the Australian global warming skeptic, Bob Carter. Melissa Fyfe, who writes for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, notes that Carter is a member of the so-called Lavosier Group, a collection of global warming skeptics who are discredited by "the vast majority of scientists."

Debunking climate change, says Fyfe, "has also been taken up by right-wing think tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs," which "receives funding from companies such as ExxonMobil." Carter et al., she writes, constitute a "sophisticated machine that has successfully created the impression that climate change science is mired in uncertainty."

In British Columbia, where skeptic Tim Ball lives in retirement, The Tee, an online publication, says "ExxonMobil has been astonishingly successful in delaying action on global warming for more than a decade."

Tyee also says Ball "is in high demand by the front groups sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. Ball's particular niche is the argument that since 1940, the world's climate has actually been cooling."

The online publication says Ball is promoted by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which has received funding from ExxonMobil, and Tech Central Station, which is supported, by, among others, General Motors...
Hennessy's not-so-subtle message: Dr. Carter has been bought by industry, therefore, his views should be disregarded. Hennessy, however, shows no evidence linking Carter to industry, let alone that Carter's views are for sale.

Hennessy's attack on Dr. Tim Ball caught my eye because Hennessy dragged this institution, the National Center for Public Policy Research, into the fray.

Dr. Ball's published letter to the Press-Telegram said, in part:
I have seen the movie [An Inconvenient Truth] and, as someone with a doctorate in climatology, have studied the subject so long that when I began, the scientific consensus was that we were heading for another ice age. But Gore doesn't understand that consensus is not a scientific fact. It is also clear he doesn't understand how science works.

The global warming theory assumed carbon dioxide (CO2) traps heat in the atmosphere, and if it increases because of human additions to the total, then global temperature would rise. Unfortunately, environmentalists and people who saw human use of energy to develop technology and industry as wrong saw it as an opportunity to undermine Western development and civilization.

They politicized the issue and converted a scientific theory to a fact. Scientists like myself who tried to ask questions were called skeptics or more recently deniers with all the holocaust connotations.

The real inconvenient truth is that the fundamental assumption that CO2 causes warming has proven incorrect. Not only is the human portion not the cause, but CO2 itself is not the cause of global warming or climate change. Ice core records covering 420,000 years show temperature changing before CO2, not the other way around as implied by Gore.

In the 20th century most warming occurred before 1940, when production of CO2 was low. From 1940 to 1980, global temperatures went down while human addition of CO2 increased most dramatically. Since 1998 global temperatures have declined while human production of CO2 continues to increase.

I would gladly sit down with Mr. Hennessy and go through Gore's movie, scene by scene, and explain how it is distorted, taken out of context or otherwise manipulated.

Tim Ball
Victoria, British Columbia
On July 7, I wrote to Tom Hennessy, for reasons the letter makes clear:
Dear Mr. Hennessey-

Via Google, I happened upon your July 5 commentary, "Sense Wins in Heated Debate."

With all due respect, isn't it just a bit misleading to report that "[Dr. Tim] Ball is promoted by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which has received funding from ExxonMobil"? This makes it appear as though Dr. Ball received cash from us, and by extension ExxonMobil, when in fact all we did was reprint a small amount of his writing on one of our websites.

By that standard, every newspaper that publishes an op-ed by an outside pundit is a "promoter" of the pundit, and the pundit becomes associated with the beliefs and practices of the newspaper's advertisers.

Google also reveals that Dr. Ball has had his writing published in a number of newspapers. Are they "promoters" as well? I wouldn't be surprised if some of those papers have from time-to-time run ads for the fossil fuel industry, or, perhaps, from automakers. Horrors.

As it happens, Dr. Ball has never received a penny from us, and our support from ExxonMobil amounts to less than one percent of our budget. This leaves Dr. Ball with zero percent of less than one percent. Not much! Yet, apparently, worthy of note in the press.

Even though I've never met, talked to, or otherwise communicated with Dr. Ball, I know he has extensive scientific expertise. Possibly his ideas should be evaluated on their merits, instead of on the basis of his supposed association with us?

Just a thought.

Cordially,

Amy Ridenour
President
The National Center for Public Policy Research
Hennessy's response:
July 10, 1006

Dear Ms. Ridenour

The next time you "happen upon" one of my columns, via Google, I hope you will read it more carefully than you did the last one. You wrote:

"With all due respect, isn't it just a bit misleading to report that '{Dr. Tim} Ball is promoted by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which has received funding from ExxonMobil.'"

That comment did not originate with me. It came from the Tyee, an online publication based in British Columbia. The sentence clearly attributed the thought to the online publication. I assume you have written to them as well.

You also said, "As it happens, Dr. Ball has never received penny from us...” I never said he did.

Since you seem to present yourself as something of an expert on climate change, I assume you are well aware that Dr. Ball's views are among a minority in the scientific community.

Although we seem to be on opposite sides re this change, I appreciate your having written me to share your views.

Cordially,
Tom Hennessy, Columnist
Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Ca
I responded, somewhat less cordially:
July 11, 2006

Dear Mr. Hennessey,

Thank you for your reply. I appreciate it.

I hope my reference to "happening" upon one of your columns was not taken as an insult, as none was intended. If I lived in your area of the country, I am sure I would be a subscriber and a regular reader.

As to the column we are discussing, I read it quite carefully, several times, and again after reading your recent correspondence. I am unable to draw any conclusion other than that you intended to undermine Dr. Ball's credibility as an honest scientist after a letter by him disagreeing with you was published by your newspaper.

You refer to Dr. Ball and another scientist, Dr. Bob Carter, as acting "hand in hand with industry polluters" and say "some readers appear to have been taken in by them."

You use juxtaposition to imply a connection between Dr. Ball and ExxonMobil: "In British Columbia, where skeptic Tim Ball lives in retirement, The Tyee, an online publication, says 'ExxonMobil has been astonishingly successful in delaying action on global warming for more than a decade.'" Whether ExxonMobil has been successful in influencing public policy in British Columbia actually says nothing about Dr. Ball, but a casual reader will infer from your construction that the two are connected.

You further write: "Tyee also says Ball 'is in high demand by the front groups sponsored by the fossil fuel industry...'“ In the Tyee, author Donald Gutstein identifies two organizations as having received "policy briefings" by Dr. Ball. These, presumably, are the "front groups." The first is one of the most respected think-tanks in the world, the 32-year-old Fraser Institute, which receives one percent of its funding from ExxonMobil. It is best known internationally for its work on health care and economics. According to its website, Dr. Ball spoke there in 2005 and co-wrote a paper for them in 2004 on "limitations that hinder the usefulness of climate models." The other "front group" is the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which, according to its website, receives less than 20 percent of its income from all corporate sources combined, and which does not appear to consider energy policy/climate change among its top priorities. Based on a search of their website, its one connection to Dr. Ball is that he delivered a lecture there in 2004.

The best that can be said in your favor is that these facts paint a far more nuanced picture than what your readers learned from you after you chose to run an unchallenged quote that Ball "is in high demand by the front groups sponsored by the fossil fuel industry."

A more factual description more likely is that, over a two-year period, a retired academic spoke once time each to two of Canada's most prestigious think-tanks, and co-wrote a paper for one of them. I can understand why this latter formulation would not strike a propagandist as a good way to undermine Dr. Ball's professional credibility, but the fact that the Tyee's formulation was stretched beyond reason should have been obvious to a professional journalist, if that professional journalist was doing any fact-checking whatsoever.

Then your article asserts a connection between our group and Dr. Ball: "The online publication says Ball is promoted by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which has received funding from ExxonMobil...” I explained why this is simply silly in my earlier e-mail to you. In your reply, you essentially disavowed responsibility, blaming Donald Gutstein's article in the Tyee for any errors, as that was your source.

I am unwilling to let you off the hook so easily. Donald Gutstein and the Tyee misled its readers, but you misled yours. First, you used juxtaposition and implication to undermine a scientist's reputation for honesty. Then you found and quoted another columnist who was doing the same thing -- tarring a man's reputation by misleading readers. You had the choice of checking the Tyee's facts, and apparently did not take it (let us hope that you did not). Yet, it is your professional responsibility to check your facts. You write a professional column for a significant newspaper. When you write about serious issues, your readers expect more fact-checking than they would from a drunken sophomore posting his personal views for his frat buddies to read on MySpace. They didn't get it. Depending on the sophomore, they may have gotten less.

You could have picked up the telephone. You could have done something even easier, and Googled the terms "Tim Ball" and the name of our group. The #1 entry when one does this is a May 3, 2006 blog post by me demonstrating the unreliability of Donald Gutstein's Tyee article. Likewise, a joint search for "Tim Ball" and "Donald Gutstein" brings up the refutation of the Gutstein piece in #1 position. Even "Tim Ball" and "ExxonMobil" will do it, or "Tim Ball" and "coal."

I realize this e-mail may be considered harsh, but imagine how your column made your targets feel.

Sincerely,

Amy
Columnist Tom Hennessy did not respond to my second e-mail. I checked the Long Beach Press-Telegram later to see if a correction or clarification had been run to acknowledge that the Press-Telegram, through a staff column, had defamed two scientists, but I found no acknowledgement or apology.

Posted by Amy Ridenour at 12:57 AM

Copyright The National Center for Public Policy Research