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Think Again: Blame the News for the Public's Ignorance About the Climate

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In a blog post titled, "Scientists agree on climate change. So why doesn't everyone else?," The Washington Post's Brad Plumer covers a new survey by John Cook and Dana Nuccitelli of Skeptical Science. According to the survey, "Among abstracts [of published scientific papers] expressing a position on AGW [anthropogenic global warming], 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming." Cook and Nuccitelli, who read 11,944 climate-related abstracts, confirmed the findings of earlier studies such as a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which came up with similar numbers that supported the expert consensus on man-made global warming.

In the blog post, Plumer confesses his confusion as to why the world needed another such study. The survey's authors explain that the general public remains misinformed on the issue of climate change, with about half of respondents believing that scientists are evenly divided on the question, as a recent Pew poll clearly demonstrates. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, meanwhile, has argued at length that people tend to arrive at these types of debates with their own pre-existing cultural values. Plumer believes that this explains the generally misinformed public view.

The view that Americans hold, however, looks more rational when one considers the misinformation they regularly receive about the issue from conservative pundits and politicos and via the frequently lazy repetition of their arguments by members of the mainstream media.
This happens in a trivial way almost every day. As this Grist report notes, for instance, it happens when Sarah Palin says it's snowing in Alaska, ergo "Global warming, my gluteus maximus," without much pushback from the mainstream media. This is a pretty common -- and ridiculous -- refrain, which unfortunately is not limited to American news outlets and politicians. A recent London Review of Books article on the subject quoted a Channel 4 News anchor asking, "Should scientists admit that the drastic temperature rises they predicted have failed to materialise?" The article also notes that, "a few days later, Nature Geoscience published a paper showing summer melting on the Antarctic Peninsula at a level 'unprecedented over the past thousand years.'"

I've written in the past on the myriad components of purposeful climate illiteracy in the media. Many U.S. meteorologists, for instance, who have no particular expertise in climatology, play the role of climate deniers to the general public in part because, according to meteorologist and writer Bob Henson, "There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions." He explains, "There are meteorologists who feel, 'Just because I have a bachelor's degree doesn't mean I don't know what's going on.'"

Alas, researchers at George Mason University found that more than a quarter of television weathercasters agree with the statement "Global warming is a scam," and nearly two-thirds believe that if warming is occurring, it is caused "mostly by natural changes." But even the American Meteorological Society has stated that warming is occurring, and that human activities are very likely the cause. Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media.

Moreover, as I discussed in an earlier column, the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS, decided to take a hard look in September 2012 at the coverage of climate science on Fox News and in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. In the case of Fox, UCS found that 93 percent of segments dealing with climate science were "misleading" and designed to downgrade the danger of man-made global warming with foolish and discredited arguments.

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