Well it would seem that a group blog idea with a weather and climate theme has fallen apart, and so I’ll have to do my blogging about it here instead. Several months ago I began what I hoped would be a 3 part series, themed around the John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” Episode on the climate change debate. In my first blog post I wanted to try and investigate what type of people don’t accept the evidence on climate change, based on my own experience in getting into various discussions on the topic with people outside my discipline. In this blog article I’d like to take a look at the actual media portrayal of the problem which was more the central theme of John Oliver’s segment.
If you haven’t watched the clip, John Oliver critiques the media for having one person who accepts the scientific evidence, with one person who denies it, saying that this gives an unfair representation of the scientific consensus on the issue. Over 97% of the scientific literature from over 10,000 scientists across earth and biological sciences have concluded that human induced climate change is a fact, making it appear as though it is a split issue is quite simply dishonest. And this absolutely true, but it is in fact even worse than that.
The 50-50 split looks even more in favor of the deniers when the media is always using the same person to represent the scientific side. If you watch many interviews on the subject you might actually get the picture that it seems to be only one guy who thinks human-induced climate change is real while many other people don’t think it’s happening. If you always saw the same guy “for” an issue and many other people on TV saying they are “against” it would be somewhat natural to think that the “against” side had a better argument. Of course you’d be wrong in thinking that. This is called the “Appeal to Popularity Fallacy” (or ad populum for you Latin Lovers). An extremely common one used nowadays. Of course as it turns out, it is the logic of the arguments and the strength of the evidence that makes for who has taken the correct issue on the stance. Of course there are many biases and fallacies that we naturally gravitate towards because it is in our evolution. Being the outcast in a group didn’t get you very far early in our evolution and the same is in a large part true today. Although generally today, no matter how different you might be, with a large population you are likely to find a group to connect with. But in terms of genetic history being an outcast in a group of social animals who may be relatively isolated from other populations doesn’t really give you anywhere to go, and since survival on your own is more difficult “following the herd” is part of who we are. Of course, in this instance, there is no real punishment for accepting scientific evidence but sometimes I think our wiring doesn’t really care.
The 50-50 perception unbalances even further when you consider who Bill Nye. Now don’t get me wrong. As a scientist, I know he’s
a scientist, and that he has the ability to not only understand the issue, speak intelligently about it, and accept the hard work done by so many scientists to reach the conclusions they have about climate change. But to the public there are a lot of negatives about Bill Nye that would make his credibility more suspect, especially to people who are on the fence or deniers themselves. First of all Bill Nye is not a climate scientist. He is not an expert in the field of climate science and as such this will weaken his credibility as an advocate. In fact Bill Nye is most famous for his use of science concepts for educating children. Climate change is a very adult issue that will require adults in government and voting adults to accept the scientific evidence and put forth appropriate policies to address the issue. Bill Nye is also a celebrity and many people have negative attitudes towards celebrities who get involved in issues that are political. In Canada, David Suzuki is a very famous scientist and naturalist, but is not very knowledgeable about the issue and so while he has tried to be advocate for climate change, he has not done very well when addressing even the most common fallacious criticisms put forth by deniers in a debate format. He was hoping his popularity would help change the minds of people, but in fact it has likely hurt those who might be willing to listen to a well reasoned debate on the subject. So I think Bill Nye may have similar impacts.
Now don’t get me wrong, because I am not convinced that the media is intentionally using Bill Nye for the purposes of misleading others. For them, he is a celebrity and known and will add a few viewers whether people have grown to hate him or love him. He is also an excellent public speaker, and he is also eager to break away from his previous persona as a scientist for children (honestly go back to getting children excited about science, I think it’s too late for congress now!). So what is the solution to making the debate fairer? John Oliver’s suggestion is not a bad one, but of course they are unlikely to get 100 people on the stage for a debate. We nerdy introverted scientists simply need to become better communicators. We need to get involved in educational outreach and scientific discourse at regional, state, and national levels. Since there are literally 1000’s and 1000’s of people researching this field and concluding that man is impacting the climate just as we hone our research and analytical skills we must also hone our communication skills so that we aren’t just contributing through the publication of an article in a scientific journal. And media, you could do a better job of finding actual experts to have on your programs. You could do a better job also by being honest and saying we know this is not even close to a split issue in the scientific community and have more debates about what the best way about addressing the issue is, rather than trying to debate whether it is an issue at all.
If you are interested in learning more about climate science, learn about what the common myths are about climate change and why they are not well reasoned arguments, and be able to investigate climate change science at various levels of complexities I strongly recommend this site called Skeptical Science.