Americans get the most information about climate models from Rush Limbaugh
- 20 May 2012, 18:00
- Ros Donald
Limbaugh (right) with Marc Morano
The Rush Limbaugh Show provided the most
explanation of climate models to Americans in 2007. Limbaugh
devoted more time to talking about climate models than The New
Yorker, The Nation or Time magazine, more than NPR's Science Friday
show, and more than any of the US outlets generally considered to
be on-board with mainstream climate science.
That's according to
new research in Nature Climate Change which highlights the
generally shoddy job the US media has done of explaining climate
models, and the effects the media's tendency to emphasise the
inaccuracy of climate models has had on public opinion.
Researchers from George Mason university looked
at media coverage to try to understand why the majority of the US
population (polled in 2010) appears to believe climate models are
too unreliable to predict future climate.
models are the primary tool scientists use to understand
the climate and predict its future behaviour, and are of particular
significance because they're essential to inform decisions about
policies to mitigate the earth's CO2 levels, the authors say. Their
results have some unedifying implications for the state of US
science journalism, which seems to be avoiding reporting models
like the plague. The most information on model science in 2007 came
with a decidedly negative spin from sources like right-wing shock
jock Limbaugh, who believes climate change to be a "hoax". Perhaps
it's no wonder people are confused.
The researchers looked at 2007 in particular
because of the "importance of models for policy decisions regarding
future risks from climate change". 2007 was the year the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its
fourth assessment report, the most recent
comprehensive report on the state of the climate, impacts and
mitigation. Analysing the outlets preferred by people with
high levels of political knowledge in the US, researchers
found more than one-third of the coverage of climate models that
year came from political commentary outlets - "particularly ones
with politically conservative viewpoints".
More coverage is devoted to criticism of models'
reliability than positive write-ups. In 2007, almost twice as many
of the media outlets analysed contained negative evaluations of
climate models' reliability than those that said they were likely
to be accurate. And the amount of sentences that suggested models
were accurate was smaller, too.
The researchers also conducted a wider study of
model coverage between 1997 and 2010 in the US's top selling and
most influential print outlets: the New York Times, the Washington
Post and the Wall Street Journal. The science of computer modelling
gets barely any mention. The researchers say that over the 13 year
period they studied, articles mentioning climate models "never
exceeded 100" in any year.
The New York Times produced the most articles
mentioning climate models - 45 per cent of those analysed -
which the researchers say reflects the paper's "historically
strong" science journalism.
The paper also has an interesting snapshot of
who's writing about climate models - according to the study, few
journalists contribute regular articles about them. Former New York
Times journalist Andy Revkin wrote 80 of the 521 non-opinion
articles on the subject. Only another 10 journalists covered models
regularly, all of whom are - like Revkin - specialists in writing
about science, the environment or technology.
Twenty-five per cent of the coverage the authors
analysed was opinion content. Although the cross-section of opinion
writers is more diverse, they note that climate skeptics Fred Singer
Lindzen are two of the three most prolific authors
writing opinion pieces about climate models. Their articles'
headlines include 'Earth's climate is always warming or cooling'
and 'Sure, the North Pole is melting. So what?'. Of the four
newspapers the study examined in detail, the traditionally climate
skeptic Wall Street Journal carried most opinion pieces which
mentioned climate models - between 20 and 33 per cent more opinion
pieces on this subject than it did articles in other sections, over
13 years of coverage.
Coverage of models as part of broader reporting
of climate science is also decreasing - an early sign, the authors
suggest, of a media so badly-equipped to cover complicated subjects
that outlets would prefer to avoid them altogether, or present them
only as the subject of controversy. Lead author
Karen Akerlof expands on this in an
"[A]s newspapers have
downsized, they've gotten rid of a lot of their science reporters.
It takes experience and familiarity in order to put modeling into a
story, yet we're losing the people who do it best."
The researchers point to studies that show the
better a scientific concept is explained to us, the more likely we
are to trust the source - not unquestioningly, but with an
understanding of its merits and limitations. The authors call for
greater public access to "explanatory content other than opinion
and political commentary" to help promote greater understanding of
Nice idea - but without a way for the media to
revitalise under-resourced science reporting, that suggestion
sounds like a tall order. As it stands, it looks like most people
are going to carry on getting their information on climate models
from people like Rush Limbaugh, while alternative voices aren't
even trying to fill the vacuum.