Thursday, September 8, 2011

Here's what happens with "balanced" journalism

Here is a rather shocking post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. I don't normally do this, but I'm going to post the whole thing. Well, it's short and it's really quite important.
Brad Plumer points us to a new survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and the news is grim. As usual, plenty of people don't believe in global warming, and tea partiers really, really don't believe in global warming. But in a way, that's not the most appalling result of the survey. This is:

(click to embiggen)
Holy cow. This is a straightforward factual question, and the correct answer is something in the neighborhood of 98%.1 But even among Democrats, only 42% think that most climate scientists believe global warming is happening. [Hmm,... that's not precisely true, according to the figures, but close enough.]  It's even worse among the other groups.

Hell, if it were really true that 60% of climate scientists believed in global warming and 40% didn't, I probably wouldn't believe in it either. But nationally, that's what a large majority of Americans think. They think that within the scientific community, there's roughly an even split among believers and deniers.

If this were limited to the far right, we could blame it on Fox and Drudge and Limbaugh and all the other usual suspects who peddle climate absurdities just because they conveniently buttress their worldview. Chris Mooney describes here how this kind of "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal.

But it's not just a phenomenon of the right. It's a phenomenon of everybody, including those who get their news from the mainstream media. It's what happens when reporters insist that every story about climate change has to include a quote from at least one or two skeptics to "balance out" the other scientists. [my emphasis]  Is it any wonder that the public is so wildly misinformed?

1I wasn't going to bother with this, but a reader emails to point out that, actually, 100% of climate scientists believe global warming is happening. Something like 98% of them believe that it's mostly caused by humans. But I'm giving our survey respondents a break, since I suspect most people automatically think "human-caused global warming" whenever they hear "global warming."

Incredible, isn't it? How could the American people be this ill-informed? As Drum points out, the original post focused on the Tea Party:
Self-identified Tea Party types make up just 12 percent of the country, but they tend to be the fiercest global-warming deniers: “Majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening. By contrast, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening.”

Even though their views are at odds with the vast majority of climate scientists, Tea Partiers are also by far the most confident in their beliefs — more likely to say they are “very well informed” and that they “do not need any more information about global warming.” Note that this dovetails with earlier research finding that when you give those dismissive of global warming more information, it only serves to harden their doubts.

But none of that really surprises me,* since I already knew that Tea Party types were completely off their rocker. (I do think it's funny that they claim to be "very well informed" on the subject.) No, I'm most astonished by the poll results from everyone else, how ignorant we are about the scientific consensus.

If you don't "believe" in the scientific consensus, that's one thing (which shows a faith-based, rather than an evidence-based, mindset - or just a real eagerness to believe what you want to believe, regardless of the facts). But to not come even close to understanding how widespread that consensus is, with even Democrats being so far off the mark, that's just incredible!

And it's very much an indictment of American journalism these days. No one should be this poorly informed on such an important issue. As I say, I'm just astonished by these poll results. How about you?

* Note that one thing which does surprise me about the original post is that even Tea Party types support some environmental politics. But as the column states:
Highly popular even among Tea Party types: research and subsidies for renewable sources [of energy]. Of course, this support could prove floppy once tested. Tea Partiers, for one, seem prone to getting whipped into outrage over seemingly uncontroversial green policies — note that “Tea Party members are more than twice as likely than any other group to say they don’t want to change the light bulbs in their house to energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights.”

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