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What the Akin Incident Can Teach the Media About Science and Climate Change Reporting

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For once, the media's explosive reaction to a politician saying something idiotic is completely justified and proportional. Congressman Todd Akin's remarks on rape, pregnancy, and abortion were ignorant and hurtful, and it's been oddly comforting to hear and read every reasonable news outlet and talking head agree on that point.

What in the heck does Akin or the media's reaction to his verbal rake-stepping have to do with climate change? In a word: science. Let's set aside the insensitive and downright offensive nature of Akin's statement for a moment and examine the medical crux of his claim: if a woman is forced to have sex against her will she won't get pregnant. According to Akin, a rape victim's mental and emotional will produces a physiological response that prevents impregnation.

This is, of course, a ludicrous assertion with absolutely no basis in modern medicine or biology. Kudos to the media for addressing this fact. In the last three days, dozens of articles and reports have been published on exactly how far Akin's claim strays from scientific reality. The Globe and Mail reported that the concept is literally medieval; the New York Daily News rightly dismissed the idea as "science fiction"; the Los Angeles Times called the fact that a congressman on the House Science Committee could hold such opinions "scary"... the list goes on.

What is interesting is that most of the news reports illuminating the gross scientific inaccuracy of Akin's statement have been separate from reports on the statement itself and its political ramifications. For example, this report from National Public Radio that aired on Monday morning includes the audio clip of Akin's full comment and summarizes the media and political reaction, but makes no reference to its total lack of scientific veracity. The gist of the report, and many others like it, is "this person said something controversial and other people criticized him for it." And while that is certainly accurate reporting, it omits the crucial contextual detail that the statement in question was objectively incorrect. A better report, in my opinion, would go something like, "this person said something controversial that has been clearly disproven by centuries of scientific research, and other people criticized him for it."

This is what Representative Akin's absurd statement and climate change denial have in common: a lack of clear and immediate classification as bunk science by the news media. To be clear, the scientific theory of man-made climate change is just that: it has not yet, and probably never could be proven as, incontrovertible fact. In contrast, the scientific fact that rape results in pregnancy just as often as consensual sex is one hundred percent iron clad. Nevertheless, the theory of man-made climate change, like the theory of evolution, is about as close to scientific fact as a theory can get, and this detail should be included in every climate change-related news story. Take this passage from a New York Times story on expected Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan:

In Congress, [Ryan] emerged as a skeptic of mainstream climate change theory -- opposition to which has been a top priority of Koch-affiliated activists and research groups -- and a reliable vote against energy efficiency standards, including a House vote to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

The article rightly identifies Ryan as a "skeptic," but stops short of giving any explanation of what "mainstream climate change theory" is or the decades of scientific research and broad consensus of experts that support it. This important omission gives the impression that Ryan's skeptical view is equally valid as its opposite, which is simply not telling the whole scientific story. If I may be so bold as to re-write a New York Times article, I propose the passage be amended as follows (my addition in italics):

In Congress, [Ryan] emerged as a skeptic of mainstream climate change theory -- opposition to which has been a top priority of Koch-affiliated activists and research groups -- and a reliable vote against energy efficiency standards, including a House vote to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Ryan's position is at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change, which holds that man-made emissions into the atmosphere are a leading cause of shifting climatic patterns.

The editor at the Times who approved this article might respond to my suggestion by pointing out that the piece is about Ryan's close relationship with wealthy right-wing political donors and not climate change science or environmental issues. But to me, the focus of the article is beside the point. The news media's job is to present the truth in the most complete and accurate way possible, and this should always include pointing out when someone (be it a politician, a movie star, or pro sports coach) says something that is just plain wrong.

So I urge the American media to take this lesson away from the Akin fiasco as it burns itself out over the next few days: include scientific fact in your reporting whenever it is part of the story, and don't be afraid to identify statements as incorrect when substantial scientific evidence supports such a classification. Don't get me wrong -- I deeply appreciate the quality reporting by the Times, NPR, and other leading news outlets. But in a world where science-based issues and policies relating to climate change are becoming more and more critical to our environmental and economic stability, the media has a responsibility to separate good science from bad in their reporting whenever it is part of the story. Political and ideological balance is an important component of good reporting. But despite oft-repeated rhetoric to the contrary, scientific fact is not conservative or progressive, it is objective truth. Only when it is presented as such to voters and policymakers can they make well-informed decisions about how to address issues of science in ways that will make our country and our planet a better place to live.