Was a Washington Post poll published last week that asked Americans how they felt about major environmental problems biased in a global-warming direction?
A sharp-eyed reader raised that question after pointing out that Jon Krosnick, the Stanford University professor who has helped The Post conduct its polling on environmental issues, sat on the board of a group called Climate Central.
Climate Central began in 2008 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brought together news professionals and scientists whose main goal was to disseminate straightforward climate data and studies to the public.
But in recent months, the group got new leadership and changed into more of an advocacy group, aiming to get people to do more about what the group now sees as “a clear and present danger” — global climate change. As its rewritten Web site now says, its mission is not just to inform people but also to “inspire Americans to support action to stabilize the climate, prepare for a hotter world, or some combination of the two.”
Glenn Merritt, a close reader of The Post, who writes frequently to me and other journalists at The Post, pointed out that Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology, might have a conflict of interest because of his seat on the Climate Central board.
As Merritt pointed out in his e-mail: “The Post aligns itself with an academic who is a board member of a global warming advocacy organization, doesn’t reveal the potential conflict of interest to its readers, and doesn’t see a problem with co-producing a poll without mentioning Krosnick’s advocacy on the subject. Even if Krosnick’s involvement with an advocacy organization didn’t affect the crafting of the poll, the Post has an obligation to reveal his advocacy role on an issue that the Post is not only covering but has cooperated with in producing a poll.”
Upon seeing the e-mail from Merritt, Jon Cohen, head of The Post’s polling unit, raised the issue with Krosnick, who promptly resigned from the Climate Central board.
I spoke with Cohen, Krosnick and Richard Wiles, Climate Central’s vice president for strategic communications.
Cohen said,“We've worked with Professor Krosnick for years, benefiting from his deep expertise in polling methodology and his neutral, scientific take on substantive issues.” He added, “The current study is a follow-up to a 2007 poll we conducted in partnership with Stanford University and ABC News. Prior to the reader's complaint, I'd never heard of Climate Central."
Krosnick is a survey research specialist who has done work for the Census Bureau; he also studies the psychology of survey research. “My life is surveys,” he said in an interview. “Climate change is a tiny part of what I do.”
“I joined the Board of Climate Central when it was first formed,” Krosnick said in a statement. “The organization's mission at that time was to conduct objective natural science research related to climate change and to disseminate that research and others' research findings to the news media for distribution to the wider public.
“The Board helped the organization to be an objective science-informed journalistic organization.
“Recently, the organization has chosen to change its mission, explicitly seeking to inspire the public and decision-makers to take action to address climate change. For this reason, I have resigned from the Board.”
Krosnick said that, at the last board meeting of Climate Central he attended in May, he and others were asked about the direction of the organization. Krosnick says, and Wiles confirms, that Krosnick spoke out against the group moving toward advocacy. Krosnick says he did not know that a decision had been made to go in a new direction nor that the Climate Central Web site was rewritten to reflect the new direction and new mission statement.
“That is very disappointing to me,” Krosnick said.
Wiles said that Climate Central remains “a nonprofit science and journalism organization; we are not an advocacy group.” But he did acknowledge that the group is “evolving.”
Climate Central is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Such groups are allowed to advocate as well as educate, and Climate Central doesn’t need to change its legal status to do that. Wiles said the group doesn’t have a Washington office, doesn’t do much “education” on Capitol Hill and won’t change that much.
Still, I’m with Glenn Merritt on the need for complete disclosure. Everything on the Climate Central site points to it being an advocacy group. And Krosnick’s association with it needed to be pointed out.
Krosnick is not a climate scientist; he’s a social scientist, expert in survey research. I imagine he’s more in the climate-change camp than the climate-skeptic camp. Most scientists are. His polls have been controversial among pollsters for generally showing more public concern about global warming than have polls conducted by Gallup, Pew and other polling organizations.
Polls in recent years have shown a decline in public concern over climate change; and this one The Post just published, assisted by Krosnick, parallels that trend.