Americans face many important issues where an understanding of basic science is important.
In a democracy, we, the people, need to be able to judge which of these issues warrants our support … or opposition.
The mere quantity of misleading information spewed forth by the media about climate change and energy makes it very difficult for Americans to evaluate claims about the dangers of climate change caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (GHG).
Every time a silly or preposterous claim about CO2 is exposed by honest science, the media spews forth a new claim.
It has become a never-ending cycle.
Trying to beat back the preposterous claims about CO2 is like playing Whack-a Mole. No sooner is one claim beaten back into the hole from which it sprung, than a new claim pops up demanding attention.
The same is true with preposterous claims about energy usage and development.
Energy is a climate change issue, because energy development and usage is affected by efforts to cut CO2 and other GHG.
It’s only necessary to look at California to see how misinformation has distorted the energy industry with harmful economic consequences for all California’s citizens.
It’s rare that a day goes by without a misleading story appearing in the media about climate change or energy usage and development.
A few years ago, the National Geographic Magazine published a story about sea level rise putting New York City underwater.
The story was wrong on two counts. First, it ignored subsidence, where the New York area was sinking as the result of the removal of ice after the last ice age. (I.e., isostatic depression and rebound.)
Second, it overstated recent satellite sea level measurements.
This year, the Economist Magazine made similar errors in an article about sea level rise, where it elected to use a forecast that was three times greater than recent satellite projections.
Both stories were what could now be called Fake News, but the average reader, without the time needed to research the flawed data, could easily accept the stories as fact.
Every time the media publishes a misleading story, it requires someone to do the research to determine whether the story is factually correct, and if not, publish the truth.
But, by the time the truth is published, the original story has taken root. Some people may never see the article containing the truth, while others will remember the misinformation as fact.
Another example of how a misleading story takes hold of public perception is the claim that 97% of scientists believe CO2 is the cause of global warming.
This is a myth, but it is an outstanding example of effective propaganda.
The claim is easy to understand and is repeated endlessly by the media, but it’s not based on facts.
One of the papers leading to the 97% claim was by John Cook, an Australian blogger who claimed his review of abstracts of peer reviewed papers from 1991 to 2011 found 97% of them explicitly or implicitly suggested that human activity was responsible for warming.
Cook’s paper was quickly debunked by Legates et al. (2013) in a paper published in Science & Education. They found “only 41 papers i.e., 0.3% of all 11,944 abstracts or 1.0% of the 4,014 expressing an opinion,” endorsing CO2 caused global warming. Not 97%.
In addition, Cook had included abstracts of papers by scientists such as Nir Shaviv, an Israeli scientist, who said Cook had misrepresented their work. Nir Shaviv, for example, has demonstrated the effect of cosmic rays on global warming.
A better indication of how scientists feel about the effect of CO2 on global warming is the Oregon Petition, where over 31,000 scientists and engineers said CO2 was not the primary cause of global warming.
Nuclear power was fatally damaged by misinformation published about radiation and the few accidents that have occurred. The most egregious of these stories were those with misinformation about Chernobyl, a reactor design that was unique to the USSR, and not used in Western nations, and where the reactor was not enclosed, as are reactors in the West.
The damaging images created by the media about Chernobyl, and later about Fukushima, remain as a stumbling block to developing nuclear power. Recently the media reported, breathlessly, that radiation from the Fukushima disaster had reached the West coast of the United States. The headline read:
“Fukushima radiation has reached U.S. shores”
It required considerable effort and study by government agencies to prove to people that Salmon and other fish weren’t harmed by this radiation, and that fish were safe to eat.
Misinformation about radiation has created unnecessary, and unwarranted fear.
The Internet has allowed individual scientists and bloggers to refute the misinformation and Fake News perpetrated by the media, but this has merely been a haphazard approach to the problem.
Unfortunately, there is no immediate solution to the problem of misinformation and Fake News from the media.
Broadly speaking, there are two solutions.
- First, the media must restore trust, by restoring good journalistic practices.
- Second, fundamental scientific principles must be taught throughout the educational system, from kindergarten to the university level, so that people are better equipped to question what they read, and also perform more efficiently in a technologically advanced society.
Until then, the game of whack-a-mole will have to continue.