Are newspapers willing to mislead the public, for a price?

Should newspapers sell advertising space to those who propagate misleading or demonstrably false information about scientific issues? Is the paper’s desire to earn “a little extra cash for depleted print coffers,” as the New York Times’ public editor put it, a good enough justification for doing so?

These are questions raised by the recent decisions by the Times and the Washington Post to publish in their print editions full-page, paid advertisements filled with misleading statements about climate change.

The papers published advertisements paid for by the Samsung Chemical Coating Co., titled “A New Theory for the Origin and Evolution of the Universe” (the Post on Feb. 28) and “When Global Warming Ends, about the year 2060, The Ice Age will Begin” (the Times on March 7.)

These two advertisements present as “fact” misleading statements that directly contradict scientific consensus.

For example, the ads state that “There is no relationship between [the] amount of carbon dioxide emission and the global warming” (the Times) and “A tight regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is useless to prevent warming” (the Post).

A screenshot of the ad in the New York Times on March 7.

But scientific research over the last several decades has generated overwhelming evidence that carbon dioxide levels are linked to warming global temperatures and are increasing due to human activity. Furthermore, lowering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas production would slow global warming and other forms of climate change.

How are advertisements about science judged to be fit for publication? One of us wrote to the Times to question their decision to publish the ad. The response is illuminating. Steph Jespersen, the director of the Times’ advertising acceptability department, referenced the First Amendment as justification for publication of opinion advertisements, or “advocacy advertising,” including advertisements commenting on “controversial issues.”

Yet, Jespersen states that there are limits to what the Times will publish: “We expect opinion advertisers to avoid inaccurate or misleading statements of purported fact.” He also states that it’s likely that the March 7 ad “included assertions that are subject to debate.”

We would argue that the claims in the advertisement are not “subject to debate” in any meaningful way. Rather, the claims defy the current scientific consensus, and publishing them misleads the reader.

The term “subject to debate” can be applied in a narrow sense (for example, a single person’s dissension constitutes a debate) or in a broad sense (when groups of well-informed people have different opinions and the jury is still out). This dual meaning is pernicious for discussions of science. If “subject to debate” is interpreted to mean that scientists have not reached a consensus opinion, it implies profound uncertainty — and confidence in those scientific findings is reduced.

Scientific research is a laborious process where ideas and experiments to test them are developed, conducted and evaluated by multiple people, often over decades. When new data emerge, scientists revisit their field’s established conclusions to ensure that they still hold up, and when they do not, they revise their theories. As data accumulate to support a conclusion, the scientific community moves toward agreement about that conclusion, known as scientific consensus. The more data underlying a conclusion, the stronger the consensus.

Unfortunately, scientists’ shared reluctance to call something “certain” is routinely seized upon and exploited to confuse the public about well-established and well-tested scientific ideas. In the case of the established link between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and climate change, we must now focus on mitigation and adaptation — and not on a debate that has already been laid to rest.

The relationship between emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, and global temperatures has been demonstrated by numerous studies and is thus agreed upon by an overwhelming majority of climate scientists (97 percent), representing remarkable scientific consensus. (As a comparison, imagine having a serious disease for which 97 percent of doctors agreed on the treatment; would you choose a treatment backed by the other 3 percent?)

The advertisements in the Post and the Times are misleading and deny scientific evidence. Propagating false information about climate change may affect people’s health and well-being; doubt about human causes of climate change may slow down our efforts to adapt to and mitigate its effects, which include the spread of infectious diseases, extreme weather events and changes in agricultural production.

Given the potential impact of publishing such an advertisement, we are particularly dismayed by the Times public editor’s comment that “If the material is clearly marked and looks like an ad, I say it’s a little extra cash for depleted print coffers.” Is the Times willing to mislead the public, for a price?

Given that scientific evidence is crucial for nearly every aspect of our daily lives — health care, technology, criminal justice, energy policy — we must deepen public understanding of the scientific process so citizens can be well-informed about pressing issues facing our society. The media have an obligation to provide an accurate context for their readers when publishing statements that purport to be scientific facts.

We suggest that all major media outlets reexamine their guidelines for publishing paid advertisements that make scientific claims. Paid ads must be very clearly labeled as such, and ads should be reviewed by the outlet’s science editors or by external experts; if the ad contains false or misleading claims, it should be revised or rejected.

Americans across the political spectrum are concerned about the damaging impact of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and require reliable news sources to help us differentiate between facts, opinions and falsehoods. Media outlets must help restore public trust in rigorous science and well-founded scientific debate, to support evidence-based decision-making throughout our society.

Nira Pollock, Pamela Templer, Jagesh V. Shah, and Jenny M. Tam are scientists and members, Massachusetts FACTS Team (Fostering Advocacy and Collaboration Through Science).  This article originally appeared in WBUR’s CommonHealth.

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