A Survey of Television Weathercasters: When Politics Outweighs Science

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) has departed from the mission of its first 80 years, which was to advance and disseminate meteorological knowledge. The Society has wandered from that mission to one of advocacy related to the politics and public opinion pertaining to climate change. There has been no vote of the members of the Society on this change of emphasis.

As part of its advocacy on climate change, the AMS periodically takes a number of actions to influence the public, political leaders and its members. Those include briefings in Washington, DC, press releases, "policy statements," and even pressure on individual members to a espouse views concordant with the so-called “consensus” pertaining to catastrophic global warming.  

For example, I received a call from the Executive Director of the Society, during which he urged me to stop writing articles on my blog that raised questions about aspects of the science and politics of climate change. I declined to comply. Coincidentally, I had resigned from the Society two weeks prior to the call because of these types of activities.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss a new survey of weathercasters taken by the AMS. The preliminary version of the survey is published here: http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00206.1  prior to its formal, peer-reviewed publication in the print version of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

The survey, conducted by the American Meteorological Society and George Mason University, is designed to influence society members and the public through publication and discussion beyond the AMS and its membership. See, for example, https://blogs.agu.org/blog/2017/07/15/weathercasters-views-climate-change-dramatically-shift/  ).  

In contrast to the near-yearly polling pertaining to global warming, I was a member of the Society from 1966 to 2016 and during that time I do not recall any poll of the membership, or any subset of the membership, on scientific issues more central to the AMS’s mission that were debated in the public arena. For example, there was no poll as to whether Hurricane Sandy should have been considered a hurricane at the time it made landfall, a subject of some debate within our science, and of some importance to both policy makers and to the business community.

The title of the 2014-16 preliminary version of the survey report is,

TV weathercasters’ views of climate change appear to be rapidly evolving
By Maibach and others,
 which will be referred to as Maibach 2017. The paper begins,

For more than a decade, academic researchers and members of the 
broadcast meteorology community have been studying TV weathercasters’ views about human-caused climate change. The primary motivation behind this research has been to determine the degree to which these TV news professionals – who, in most cases, are the only scientist in their newsroom – are up to speed on the science of climate change, so they can report on it.

As we will learn, nearly half of the “newsroom professionals” who are “the only scientist in their newsroom” have no formal scientific background.

Survey Background

The Maibach 2017 paper states,
For more than a decade, academic researchers and members of the broadcast meteorology community have been studying TV weathercasters’ views about human-caused climate change.

The paper then says (lightly edited for clarity),
Surveys in 2010 and 2011 by Maibach and colleagues found somewhat higher rates of weathercasters convinced of climate change. The 2010 study – an attempted census of AMS and National Weather Association (NWA) broadcast members (response rate=52%) – found that over half (54%) indicated global warming is happening, while a quarter (25%) indicated it isn’t, and 21% responded they didn’t know. The 2011 study – another attempted census of AMS and NWA broadcast members (response rate=33%) – found that over half (54%) of weathercasters indicated that climate change “caused mostly by human activity” (19%) or “caused more-or-less equally by human activity and natural events” (35%) is happening; 29% indicated that climate change “caused mostly by natural events” is happening. Fewer than 1 in 10 felt climate change was not happening (9%), or they didn’t know (8%).

The earlier survey (“2010-11 survey”) was of television meteorologists. The 2010-11 survey found that 54% indicated “global warming is happening.” It also found that 54% is believed global warming is “caused mostly by human activity.”

Compared to the 2010-11 survey, the new survey that finds weathercaster’s “feelings” more “evolved” (the authors’ choice of words is not unbiased). However, the new poll is not a survey solely of meteorologists. The exact breakdown of the respondents’ scientific background as explained in the 2017 paper is not completely clear. Here are the paper’s words:

·        Most hold a BS (59%) or MS (8%) in meteorology/atmospheric science, or a BS or BA (8%) or MS or MA (2%) in broadcast meteorology. Other commonly reported degrees are a certificate in meteorology/broadcast meteorology (19%), a BA in journalism/mass communication (17%), and a BA or BS in other disciplines (13%).

Stated another way, 19% + 17% + 13% = 49% have no degree in atmospheric science.  However, the study’s author says 59% hold a BS in meteorology/atmospheric science and then mentions other scientific degrees. The numbers add to far more than 100%. Based on working with broadcast meteorologists for the past 46 years, it is infrequent for someone to attain a degree in journalism and then to get a degree in meteorology or vice versa. So, we will use the number 100% - 59% = 41% to estimate the number of respondents without formal degrees in meteorology or atmospheric science.

Comparing the 2010-11 survey of broadcast meteorologists to a group where nearly half have no degree in science is comparing apples to oranges.

Why would the AMS and George Mason add non-scientists to the survey? It is because non-meteorologists may be more subject to being influenced by media reports and peer pressure on this topic. In the Society’s own words (“Meteorologists’ views about global warming: A survey of American Meteorological Society professional members” by Stenhouse, Maibach and others, published in 2014):

perceived scientific consensus was the strongest predictor of views on global warming, followed by political ideology, climate science experience, and perceived organizational conflict.

So, according to the statement above, if one eliminates “climate science expertise” which would be the case for weathercasters with degrees in journalism, etc., the only things remaining are opinion and ideology. By adding non-scientists to the 2014-16 survey” the results may be skewed by broadcasters more likely influenced by “consensus” rather than their own independent evaluations of the science.

Misleading Definition

There are methodological problems as well.

The Maibach 2017 paper says,

We began these surveys by stating the AMS definition of climate change; only then did we ask respondents for their views. No prior weathercaster survey has used the AMS definition (or any science society’s formal definition) prior to asking questions about climate change.

Because the new paper does not reproduce the American Meteorological Society’s definition of “climate change,” the reader could be seriously misled by the survey’s results as, for many, “climate change” is synonymous with “human-caused climate change.”

Here is the AMS’s definition of “climate change,”
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) defines climate change as: “Any systematic change in the long-term statistics of climate elements (such as temperature, pressure, or winds) sustained over several decades or longer. Climate change may be due to: natural external forcings, such as changes in solar emission or slow changes in the earth’s orbital elements; natural internal processes of the climate system; or anthropogenic forcing.”

Under the AMS definition, “climate change” includes changes that may be entirely natural!

So, when the survey asked if climate change is occurring, and 90% replied in the affirmative, the answer is scientifically correct (the climate is always changing) but meaningless and misleading because the phrase “climate change” is deeply connected to an intense political debate, much of which has little to do with science.

The paper goes on to state,

·        More than 90% of weathercasters indicated that climate change is happening, and approximately 80% indicated that human-caused climate change is happening (see Figure 1).

“Approximately 80% indicated that human-caused climate change is happening”? Since the basis for that statement is a reference to the paper’s Figure 1, which is reproduced below, let’s examine the veracity of the “80%” contention.
click to enlarge
The percentage of weathercasters that say climate change could be “largely,” “entirely,” or “mostly,” caused by human activities is just 49% -- nowhere near the 80% number claimed. In fact, even if one adds in the “more or less” responses, the number is comes to just 70%, again short of the 80% claimed.

Given that St. Louis’ Metromex project in the 1970’s proved that human activities affect the climate, the fact that just 49% of weathercasters believe climate change is mostly driven by human activities is a low number. It is also interesting that the 49% of the weathercasters in 2014-16 who believed human activities were primarily the cause of a changing climate is a smaller number than the 54% in the 2010-11 survey. This is the opposite of the paper’s central contention.

More Inconsistency

The paper Maibach 2017 paper also states,

Indeed, in our 2016 survey, 21% of weathercasters indicated that their opinion about climate change had changed in the past five years with 82% of these people stating that they have become more convinced that human- caused climate change is happening.

Given the different sets of respondents, one of AMS members, some of whom hold advanced degrees in atmosphere science, and the nearly half with no formal academic background in atmospheric science, the above statement is meaningless and not supported by the survey results, especially the “five year” assertion since the newer survey was taken over three years.

Station Scientists

The paper goes on to say,

AMS has long championed the role of “station scientist” for broadcast meteorologists. The role of local climate educator – or local climate reporter – can add a significant new and important dimension to the role of the station scientist.

It then recommends using “Climate Matters,” which is a resource for broadcasters desiring to report on global warming. Specifically, it says,

In a recent…article…we described “Climate Matters,” an extensive set of climate education resources available to members of the weathercaster community. These resources should make it easier for broadcasters to perform this new job function well.

“Climate Matters” is produced by a de facto advocacy group, Climate Central.

Other than reproducing the output of an advocacy group, there is no advice as to how non-scientists are supposed to independently judge the quality and accuracy of the various claims and counterclaims related to climate change.

The weathercaster and broadcast meteorology communities, for more than a decade, have been subject of a focused campaign to force them to cover global warming in a manner acceptable to the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and other advocacy groups. For example, the previously cited AGU blog makes the preposterous claim, which I put in bold print below, that failure to cover climate change in weathercasts is unethical!

I can imagine a weathercaster in Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas would get a lot of feedback from angry viewers if they came out of the climate science closet. They need to though, especially my friends in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Our job as science communicators is to give our viewers good science and omission because it is politically unpopular is unethical journalism.

Concluding Remarks

The AMS/GMU 2017 survey is another unfortunate attempt by the American Meteorological Society, using questionable techniques, to manipulate opinion rather than engage on matters of science.

The AMS is of course not alone in embracing advocacy related to climate change. There are plenty of organizations involved in advocacy, on all sides of the issue. However, there are very few organizations that have chosen to stand above the political fray, and to offer a forum for the expression of diverse perspectives on science and its implications. Climate change is important, but so too is science. The decision by the AMS to become a climate change advocacy group is why I am no longer a member.

(c) 2017 Mike Smith Enterprises, LLC


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