Thursday, May 29, 2014

How the Media are Used to Intentionally Mislead the Public on Global Warming

The fact that humans are warming the planet is unequivocal and incontrovertible. Who says so? Well, virtually all climate scientists, all the world's National Academies of Science, and indeed, the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. Studies of the scientific literature consistently demonstrate that 97% or more of climate scientists agree our planet is warming and human activity is the cause. Who disagrees? The Wall Street Journal. More on that in a follow up post.

Which brings to light an important dynamic of the global warming debate. And by debate I don't mean whether global warming is happening, because that has been established beyond all doubt. I also don't mean a debate about whether humans are causing it, because that too has been established beyond all doubt. And yet, there are those who intentionally try to "manufacture doubt" about global warming, just as there were those who intentionally manufactured doubt about smoking causing lung cancer.

One tactic used to give the impression of doubt is to manipulate the media. Always in search of ratings, and the ad revenues that are tied to ratings, the media thrives on controversy. They like "debate." But their long history of presenting a "balance" of views has been hijacked and exploited by groups expert in managing public opinion.

Ironically, it was a media outlet video - by a comedian, no less - that provided one of the most effective demonstrations of how the media, either intentionally or unintentionally, misrepresents the science to the public. As the video below featuring John Oliver notes, most news outlets relay information on global warming by showing two people debating. One is usually a scientist volunteering to present the scientific case, the other usually a non-scientist paid to represent their client's interests. But the reality is quite different. [Note: Sound coarse language]

When most people see two people debating the natural tendency is to assume equal weight of opinion. But that isn't true. Would it make sense to debate the presence or absence of gravity by having one person advocate for each "side?" Of course not. No more than you would have a one vs. one debate on whether Elvis is alive or whether the Earth is round. The facts are clear.

So too with global warming. The facts are clear. We are warming the planet. No amount of debate between one scientist (representing virtually all climate scientists, 200 years of science, millions of empirical data points, a hundred thousand peer-reviewed scientific papers, and physics) and one non-scientist (representing oil companies and political lobbyists) is going to change that fact.

So when the media present such a "debate" they are actually misrepresenting the science to the public.

How can the media communicate the science accurately? One way is stop having paid lobbyists spouting non-facts as commentators. Instead, have a knowledgeable climate scientist, or perhaps a panel of two or three climate scientists, present "what we know" of the science. These same scientists can also present "what we don't know." For example, we know the planet is warming and that we are causing it. But we don't know exactly how much or how fast (we can present likely ranges), in part because there is inherent short-term variability that creates "noise," even though we can determine the long-term trend with great accuracy. Depending on the time allotted by the media outlet, this "what we know" and "what we don't know" can go a long way toward communicating the science to the public, and doing it accurately.