Case Studies in the Failure of Journalism: Iraq, and Climate Change

December 11, 2013

I sat next to Stephen Lewandowski at dinner last night. Dr. Lewandowski is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol.  He has compared the 21st century’s two (so far) overwhelming and utter failures of journalism – the runnup to war in Iraq, and climate change.

If you’re in a rush, make sure you read the last paragraph.

Stephen Lewandowsky in the Guardian:

Iraq is developing a long-range ballistic missile system that could carry weapons of mass destruction up to 700 miles.” Iraq is progressing towards “dirty bombs that spew radioactivity, mobile bio-weapons facilities, and a new long-range ballistic missile.” An Iraqi defector “tells of work on at least 20 hidden weapons sites.” It is an “undisputed fact” that September 11 attacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague.

Those claims appeared in mainstream newspapers during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. All those claims were false. The nonexistence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq immediately prior to the invasion and the absence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida eventually became the official U.S. position with the Duelfer Report and the report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

A decade later, those media failures are relevant not only because of the war’s six-figure death toll and because the Iraqi per capita GDP has so far failed to return to prewar levels, but also because they remind us that the media, including highly reputable newspapers, can sometimes get things quite wrong.

A similar media failure is arguably under way this very moment with regard to climate change. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded with near certainty that human economic activity is responsible for ongoing global warming, and some of the largest insurance companies on the planethave blamed the increase in losses from extreme weather events to climate-related disasters.

This has not kept some newspapers from reporting that Arctic ice is “recovering“, a rather adventurous claim in light of the fact that the Arctic has lost 40% of its ice cover since 1980 and that ice extent is now lower than during several millennia preceding 1980. A recent quantitative analysis of climate coverage in the Australian media confirmed thatmisreporting of the science is widespread.

There are some interesting similarities and differences between the media failures involving Iraqi WMDs and climate change.

One notable difference between pre-invasion reporting on Iraqi WMD and climate change is that, in contrast to the near-hegemony of war-supporting reporting (at least in the U.S.), the public has a broader choice now when it comes to climate change: While there is a large supply of disinformation that threatens the public’s right to being adequately informed, there is also no shortage of actual scientific information, both in the mainstream media and beyond.

The diversity of sources empowers the public to select their information wisely, but it also provides a playing field for the dominant influence of people’s cultural worldviews or “ideology”, which can override even education. People whose core personal values are threatened by possible responses to climate change, such as a price on carbon or regulatory measures, are known to rely on media sources that are more likely to create confusion about climate change than disseminate scientifically accurate information.


Worldviews may also explain another cognitive difference between Iraq and climate, which concerns the asymmetry in the evaluation of evidence in the two cases. In the case of Iraqi WMDs, we now know that the media—and politicians among the “Coalition of the Willing”—used weak and insufficient evidence to call for a pre-emptive war against a largely imaginary risk. In the case of climate, by contrast, a mountain of scientific evidence pointing to a risk far greater than that posed by Saddam Hussein is ignored, and mitigative action refused, on the basis of similar worldviews.

There are also similarities. In both cases, a link can be drawn between misinformation and the likelihood of warfare. Together with colleagues, I reviewed the literature on this relationship in a recent paper using the Iraq War and climate change as case studies. We report a reasonably clear link between the acceptance of misinformation and support for the Iraq War, both before and after military action commenced. In one U.S. study, belief in misinformation—that is, the existence of WMDs—was the most powerful predictor of support for the Iraq war. Belief in WMDs quadrupled the likelihood of support for the war.

There is also increasing evidence of a link between climate change and violent conflict, with a recent study suggesting that the risk of violent conflict may increase globally by upward of 30% by 2050 if human-caused warming continues unabated. The link between climate change and conflict is of a statistical nature and not entirely certain, but it should alert us to the possibility that any further delay of climate mitigation, whether based on dissemination of misinformation or other factors, may cause unnecessary future deaths.

Another ironic similarity is that the same newspapers and the same journalists who beat the war drums a decade ago are now also frequently misrepresenting the risk the world is facing from climate change. After WMDs failed to materialize in post-invasion Iraq, this led to occasional anguish among journalists who regretted that they used “‘evidence’ now known to be bogus” to push for war. The lethal fallout from misinformation a decade ago primarily affected the people of Iraq. The fallout from misinformation about climate change is likely to affect us all.

74 Responses to “Case Studies in the Failure of Journalism: Iraq, and Climate Change”

  1. John Havery Samuel – I have noticed your excellent comments for some time. I think I misspelled before, forgive me. Yes, trolls can be addictive, particularly omni, because he uses psychology. Not a good thing. Andrew, on the other hand, has been making some prescient, on topic comments regarding media’s influences being a nexus of its failure. Fortranprog made some interesting comments re Murdoch. Money seems to have a corrosive effect on truth in media.

  2. Now I see some great comments! Here’s some ammo for combatting David Rose. Also connects him to Iraqgate. Nice thread start fortranprog !

  3. omnologos Says:

    dumboldguy – you’re competing in some post-facto rationalization contest, I see.

    And I am afraid there is scarce evidence to present. As you know, Recursive Fury isn’t exactly “published” as of now. Have you asked yourself why.

    I’d rather not spend time on disappeared papers.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “you’re competing in some post-facto rationalization contest, I see”
      No rationalization, just explanation and exposition—did you read and comprehend it? I doubt it, but it was offered in the spirit of helping you.

      “And I am afraid there is scarce evidence to present. As you know, Recursive Fury isn’t exactly “published” as of now. Have you asked yourself why”.
      Of course not, who but you cares to go down a meaningless rat hole?

      And “I’d rather not spend time on disappeared papers”?
      Really? YOU are the one that has been “spending time” on it, the rest of us are trying to get you to stop.

      • omnologos Says:

        The rest of you are hypocritically keeping both eyes shut on Lew’s awful biased pathetic pseudoscience self-contradictory psychologizing. He’s just another example of the climate chance cause being too ready to attract the worst kind of ‘supporters’. The rest is immaterial.

  4. climatebob Says:

    I have been studying climate change for some years now and as a result I have come to have a very poor view of journalists and newspapers. If they can’t get simple easily verifiable facts right on a subject that you know what else are they getting wrong. They did not get the financial crash right but did they see it coming and lie? Journalists it seems write a ‘story’ to get it published and fact and accuracy are of little interest.

  5. Geebus, 59 comments, and they’re all about Maurizio’s ridiculous efforts at derailing the conversation away from anything and everything to do with the original topic at hand.

    Pete, end the agony already buddy.

    • And please make no mistake, confounding him and exposing his chicanery is necessary and a good read, but it’s probably time to declare that dead equine ready for burial.

      • Like a drowning man drinking seawater he is desperately trying to avoid irrelevance with the dispatch of a fountain of intellectual barbs.

        • omnologos Says:

          why, Christopher, thanks, but I am not as good in rhetorics as you describe me. I simply made two simple points very simply demonstrating that Lew’s science just isn’t. The usual salvo of pointless personal attacks simply confirms I am very simply correct in my assessment.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          That’s IMAGINED intellectual barbs. Remember that O-Log is delusional and a legend in his own mind (or is it in his spare time?—-I get so confused sometimes)

          • omnologos Says:

            At this rate my lew-style invented analysis that you so embarrassingly took for real will soon become real for real.

            Ps remember people all you have to do to rescue lew’s reputation is show where he discusses how his activism affect his papers where he writes about how activism affects what people write; and elucidate where and when he showed his papers’ data wasn’t made up net-based telepsychologizing

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yep, delusional is the right word for him. O-Log is having conversations with himself yet again on Crock.

            He still “so embarrassingly” believes that anyone took for real his “lew style” foolishness. Perhaps the English language really is not the same on the other side of the pond, because comments have been made that should have disabused him of that particular delusion.

            PS Remember O-Log, Lew’s reputation is not a problem for any of the rest of us. YOU are the only one who has questioned it and you really haven’t done anything but make unsubstantiated broad brush comments like “his activism affect his papers where he writes about how activism affects what people write”. (Which statement is a rather Tweedle-dee or Duchess sounding comment in its lucidity—LOL).

            I haven’t read much of Lew’s work, but the piece that is the topic of this thread is well stated, and it is “telepsychologizing” only to people like you who truly need to be subjected to much telepsychologizing yourselves.

  6. Some of the regulars here may recognise behaviours characterised by Recursive Fury: Conspiracist Ideation in the Blogosphere in Response to Research on Conspiracist Ideation (

    Funny lot, one way sceptics are. Quite odd.

  7. […] Case Studies in the Failure of Journalism: Iraq, and Climate Change (Climate Crocks): […]

  8. […] Case Studies in the Failure of Journalism: Iraq, and Climate Change (Climate Crocks): […]

  9. […] Case Studies in the Failure of Journalism: Iraq, and Climate Change ( […]

  10. […] Since greens want to impose solutions on the rest of us, the onus is on them to answer questions, not on deniers to investigate.  Deniers just stand in for  failed journalism. […]

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