Weathermen, scientists and the lack of uncertainty about climate change

Traversing the snake pit of flaws and functional shortcomings that is the media’s ability to effectively communicate any message that veers from a position of so-called common sense or conservative opinion (note the little c) is a fun, if often fruitless, game. While such an exercise brings many opportunities for raging rants, getting to the root cause of why they are so fundamentally useless at their, almost, singular role in society is surprisingly difficult.

In the case of climate change and, in particular, how it relates to the decidedly un-warm weather in the UK, you can hardly be surprised that such noteworthy columnists as (ahem) Gerald Warner and Janet Daley get confused about the science when, reportedly, so do the meteorological magnates across the pond.

In a survey of U.S. weathercasters, 41% said their biggest obstacle to reporting climate change was “scientific uncertainty”. I’m sure many of the most vocal ‘sceptics’ (as they like to be called) in the media would agree. This appeal to doubt as justification for their failure would be more understandable if another survey didn’t show that 96% of climatologists agree that man is having an impact on global warming.

To see the bizarre discrepancy in acceptance of AGW (human-caused global warming) between climate scientists and those who could arguably be called their most public voice, I’ve cobbled together this graph based on the results from a number of surveys*…

This is a worrying disconnect. It’d be interesting to see how newspaper journalists (or specifically columnists) would respond to the same question.

But what about this rumbling of “scientific uncertainty”? As we’ve seen, there’s no such uncertainty among climate scientists. Well, it’s reassuring, if statistically incongruous, to see such strong belief in the science among non-scientists as well. Let’s take a look at what percentage of respondents reply “I don’t know” (signifying uncertainty) to the same question of whether they agree that climate change is happening and it is largely man-made:

Whether certain about the science for or against man-made global warming, you can see all respondents (scientists, British, weathercasters or American in descending order of intelligence – cheap shot, I know) appear highly knowledgeable on the subject. Again, I’d like to see where journalists fit in – you would hope, with their unique view of “balance”, they would be the most honest about any uncertainty there may be…

Of course, it’s easy to poke fun at surveys because of the apparent supreme knowledge of the respondents. If such surveys were honest, 99% would have to answer “I have no fucking idea but persist in strongly clinging to my ill-informed beliefs regardless” to most questions.

However, in the case of the weathercaster survey, there’s an even more obvious logical fallacy with the results. If 41% point to “too much scientific uncertainty” as the biggest hurdle in climate change reporting, how can only 25% answer saying they don’t know?

Still, at least the weathercasters were the most honest. According to the results I looked at, the British public presume the same confidence of knowledge about climate science as the top climate scientists. This, I can only assume, is because they believe themselves so well-informed by the media: column space full of spurious claims and unscientific assumptions written by non-scientists (and I’m talking about representatives of both sides of the argument) with an agenda to sell readers to advertisers.

On what other topic would we ignore the opinions of 96% of the experts in the most relevant field?

Oh. Crime and drugs. That’s right. Forget I asked…

*In this article, I reference the following surveys:

UK population (Dec 2009) – source

US population (Dec 2009) – source

Climate scientists (Jan 2009) – source

Weathercasters (Oct 2009) – source

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One thought on “Weathermen, scientists and the lack of uncertainty about climate change

  1. T. Caine says:

    Great post. I read a similar article by Eric Berger who writes for the Houston Chronicle.

    While I would not call him a proponent of Climate Change, he reports honestly and impartially.

    He points out that many “scientists” have successfully swayed public perception of consensus by throwing their name on the pile of the debate while not actually being climatologists. A scientist himself, he notes that in truth, climate scientists are in considerable consensus about climate change and that humans are the cause. This kind of public misconception really has to be corrected.

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