The group also examined media sources favored by “high-political-knowledge audiences”. These included Time Magazine, The New Yorker, PBS NewsHour, Newsweek, NPR, The Nation, The National Review, and The Rush Limbaugh Show. In 2007, contrarian viewpoints expressed in The Nation, The National Review, and The Rush Limbaugh Show accounted for one third of the stories mentioning climate models among this group. When the researchers tallied up sentences instead of stories, they found that two thirds of the discussion of climate models took place in those outlets. And of course, those contrarian voices were overwhelmingly adversarial.
Interestingly, NPR’s Science Friday contained the fourth-most statements about the inaccuracy of climate models, though there’s certainly a huge difference between discussing evidence of ice sheet dynamics that could accelerate sea level rise beyond a given projection and declaring climate models to be utterly useless.
Partly because few of the voices in media are specialists, and partly because most outlets see in-depth science explanation as outside their mission of news reporting, those who spend significant amounts of time on the topic of climate models are more likely to be axe-grinders than science communicators. And they'll probably attract more attention. After all, what will draw a bigger audience—juicy, political drama or a technical dissection of the inner workings of climate models?
So what’s the upshot of this information? The dividing line of public opinion on climate change seems to be carved deeply and politically, meaning that ideological information filters insulate many folks’ opinions from the irksome effects of evidence.
But the researchers still believe that better communication can make a difference. They write, “When most of the US public is already either confused about or sceptical of the reliability of climate models in projecting future climatic conditions, providing greater access to sources of explanatory content other than opinion and political commentary may assist in helping individuals to overcome lay mental models of the science and better comprehend this form of scientific inference.”
Swings in public acceptance of climate science seem to be dominated by factors unrelated to scientific data or communication, such as political and economic events or the weather. That capricious behavior suggests that there are a number of people who don’t understand climate science well enough to form a strong opinion. Perhaps that segment of the populace could get a lot out of a more detailed explanation of the science—so long as you can get them to read it.
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