Saturday, October 23, 2010

Climate Change Ignorance

Majority of Americans Flunk Basics

Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication
Yale University Project on
Climate Change Communication
In a survey by Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, 52% of Americans fail the basics in their understanding of climate change. The ignorance, however, does not stop many Americans from holding strong positions on what climate change is, whether it is happening, the extent it is caused by human activity, and whether scientists are credible. Worse still is the faulty belief that there remains a scientific rather than opinionated controversy:
...39% of people believe most scientists think global warming is happening while 38% believe there's a lot of disagreement between scientists. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in the field of science where it matters most: climate science. Poll after poll has shown that almost 100% of climate scientists accept the evidence of climate change and believe we're the main cause. This shows a deep failure by the media to show the true nature of the debate.

The two percent of researchers who aren't in agreement deserve to heard. But they do not deserve equal time in the media. Imagine if you owned 98% of a business but your less-knowledgeable partner with only two percent had as much sway as you. It's a ridiculous way to approach business and a ridiculous way to present such an important issue.
Among other findings of the study:
  • 63% believe climate change is real; 19% think it is not happening and 19% aren't sure
  • Half understand that climate change is primarily anthropogenic
  • A third think that because the climate changed in the past, humans aren't causing it to change today
  • Majorities still confuse "climate" with "weather"
  • 35% think most scientists in the 1970s were predicting an ice age ("global cooling")
  • 15% think the Earth is cooling today
  • 18% think record snowstorms last winter disprove global warming
  • 1 in 10 consider themselves "well-informed"
  • 75% would like to know more about climate change
  • 75% would like climate change taught in schools
  • 88% get their information about climate change from TV
The public's feeble grasp of the state of the science is certainly due in part to a lack of critical thinking, but is not helped by a gullible and stenographic media that values controversy over clarity. Promoting a false uncertainty is in the direct interest of groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce, who shill for the profits-over-people principles of their paying members and pursue a deep commitment to stymieing any change to energy policy. Maintaining the bogus narrative also serves the political interest of wingnut welfare entities like the Heartland Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, who fund and field a phalanx of faux "experts" but who are generally anything but.

Lift their veil and they typically are funded by the fossil-fuel industry, long-retired climate scientists who have not published peer-reviewed papers for many years, or scientists who are experts but not necessarily in climate science.

"If a doctor recommended that you undergo an innovative new surgical procedure, you might seek a second opinion, but you'd probably ask another surgeon," writes [James] Hoggan, a public-relations veteran who is also chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation [as well as co-author of Climate Change Cover-Up and founder of].

"You wouldn't check with your local carpenter, and you certainly wouldn't ask a representative of the drug company whose product would be rendered irrelevant if you had the operation."

Still, many journalists under deadline and without the time to verify credentials, journalists who do not follow climate science and the news around it, continue to give these so-called experts a soapbox to stand on. Even those with time to spare often offer up the soapbox out of some misplaced attempt at balance, giving the impression that the scientific community is deeply divided.
The occasional op-ed is helpful, but the media needs to do a better job on the news pages, not the opinion pages. Science is not an opinion, and, as a country, we have little hope of addressing the many pressing and complicated problems we face if we continue to grant ideology the same epistemic weight as we do evidence.

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