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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.

Mathematical 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".

Fig3

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.

Fig2

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 and Richard 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 interview:

"[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 climate models.

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.

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