On the media’s climate science illiteracy

So I was reading a major book review of Ian McEwan’s new satiric novel on climate and energy, Solar, this week and came across this jaw-dropper:

Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject. From Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear,” which claimed that we’re being hoodwinked by faulty data, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Fifty Degrees Below,” which imagined Washington encased in ice, popular fiction about climate change has been as nuanced and illuminating as a shouting match on Fox News.

Now I don’t know what’s sadder about this paragraph.  Is it that Ron Charles, the fiction editor for the ever-shrinking “Book World” section of the Washington Post, is simply unaware of the single most established fact in the entire arena of climate science?

Or that not a single person associated with putting together the final product of the Washington Post print piece edition apparently knew this most basic of climate facts.

And it’s not just the Charles wrote this howler in a major review of a novel on global warming in a newspaper that recently editorialized:  “If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.”

He was apparently so comfortable in his ignorance that he made this mistake in a paragraph devoted to mocking novelists for writing about climate change in a fashion as unilluminating as Fox News.  Indeed, Charles and everyone else who looked at this piece before publication were apparently so comfortable in their ignorance they didn’t even bother to spend 10 seconds running some variant of the phrase “carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere” through Google.

For the record, carbon dioxide has been accumulating in the atmosphere for a very long time now thanks to human activity.  The direct measurement of that CO2 rise led to the single most famous chart of observational data in the entire climate arena, the Keeling Curve of Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2).

It is an unequivocal fact.

It is true that the media itself has worked hard to confuse people on this undisputed issue (see “Yes, the atmospheric CO2 fraction has risen at a dangerously fast rate in the past 160 years, reaching levels not seen in millions of years“).  And I spend a lot of time here documenting the poor understanding of climate science even by the reporters who regularly cover the issue (see “media” category).

And this leads to two conclusions.

First, this is a reminder to all of us who try to communicate climate science to the general public — or even to the media elite and other opinion makers erroneously labeled the “cognoscenti” — not to take the most basic fact of climate science for granted.

Second, the knowledge that the media itself is constantly making mistakes on the most basic of climate science issues means journalists need to start going to primary sources for every science-related fact they are reporting.  Otherwise media coverage will become permanently indistinguishable from the children’s game of Telephone.

A little while ago I started a cyber version of the game Telephone.

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34 Responses to On the media’s climate science illiteracy

  1. Wit's End says:

    Aauugghhhh! On Climate Progress in the last few days I have read about the disgraceful, Koch-funded Smithsonian Institute Exhibit; other denier groups funded by Koch; and a list of companies funding the Cato Institute. I’ve read (most) of John Mashey’s colossal compendium of the history of industry-funded climate change professional denialism, and the UMass Amherst 100 Top Air Polluters List which I saw at truthout.

    These Climate Criminals have to be held accountable. The media should start linking denialism to corporate profits. It is crazy for the public to be persuaded that government intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more costly that the consequences of pollution.

    Oh these endless lists are making me fume so much I am producing more than my allotment of greenhouse gas emissions right now!

  2. Ron Broberg says:

    On another board, I saw a comment posted by a guy I know is not stupid which read “Real scientists shudder at the idea of drawing lines to connect their data points.” It was a quite the “bang head into wall” moment for me. The degree of scientific illiteracy in the public cannot be overestimated.

  3. Marc Hudson says:

    Good post, JO

    George Monbiot addresses this fantastic ignorance among the most “educated” in his 2006 book “Heat”. His conclusion is that the richer you are (proxy for education, not perfect one though!) the more you have to lose from adopting a low carbon lifestyle. Rather than live with knowledge that would make you choose between low-carbon changes or continuing on as before but with added hypocrisy, Monbiot thinks people blank out the knowledge. IMHO, that’s not hard if you’re an arts graduate, since mucking around with anything as base as ‘facts’ tends to make them uncomfortable.

    A friend of mine, who is a medical doctor, often tells me that “the ignorance is outstanding”. Polls seem to bear that out. We’re toast.

  4. Leland Palmer says:

    Sowing confusion is in fact one of the most effective tactics of the paid astroturf AGW denial network. Climate Progress is very effective at cutting through that confusion.

    Of course the mystifying efforts funded by ExxonMobil, Scaife, and Koch are better funded and more widely read than the demystifying efforts.

    According to information theory, a branch of mathematical physics, increasing the noise in a communications channel is an excellent way of obscuring the signal.

    Was this “gaffe” by the Washington Post really accidental?

    After the way that the Post cooperated with the Bush Administration on the WMD scare and helped cheerlead our way into the aggressive invasion of Iraq, well, I’m not so sure that any of their output is the result of an accidental gaffe. More likely, this is an attempt to implant a conceptual frame into the heads of their readers, deliberately exaggerating the uncertainty about AGW.

    And for many people, this attempt to implant a semantic frame emphasizing uncertainty about AGW will succeed.

    We’re dealing with the liars from Hell, here.

  5. GlowingInTheDarkBoy says:

    Paul Ehrlich sometimes tells a story about when he and climatologist Steve Schnieder were over at (Washington Post executive director) Ben Bradlee’s place where they “had a knock down drag out” fight with Bradlee over the way climate is reported in the media.

    Ehrlich: “He [Bradlee] claimed that his reporters should be ignorant of science, so they could be neutral when they’re talking about it”

    Imagine Bradlee being logically consistent on this and expecting that his star political reporters, i.e. Woodward and Bernstein back before the fall of Richard Nixon, should be ignorant of Washington politics so they could be neutral as they reported it.

    Ehrlich expressed his disdain this way: “And you can see the ignorance of science throughout the media with the idea that somehow the truth often has to lie in the middle. It’s always about getting both sides of the story. Show me an historic scientific controversy where the truth lay in the middle…. Do some animals evolve and others are created? Is flogiston real, or is it half-real?”

  6. richard pauli says:

    Media news organizations covering this story have only two directions to go:

    1. Global warming is real science – explore and report it.
    2. Global warming is a hoax – explore and uncover it.

    Either way they have to dig deeper into understanding the story and report to readers. But they refuse to do basic journalism effort do either. This is irresponsibly lazy.

    They have truly reached their end of effectiveness.

    { Unless their true agenda is now changed to something else – perhaps to avoid the issue entirely. }

  7. Wit's End says:

    GlowingInTheDarkBoy, based on Bradlee’s theory, I would make an EXCELLENT sports reporter, especially football, and hockey. I will contact the Washington Post promptly so I can begin my new career as the world’s most ignorant, and therefore most qualified, sports reporter! Thank you for that!

  8. mike roddy says:

    I get the feeling that thorough and honest reporters who cover climate change have been winnowed out (not that there were a lot of them to begin with). This is because a thorough study of the scientific literature leads to some very uncomfortable conclusions.

    We don’t even have a Monbiot in this country, except on blogs. This is really inexcusable.

  9. Leif says:

    Right on Richard, #4: I took the liberty to cut and paste a portion and sent it to the NY Times in case they missed it here on CP.

  10. Leif says:

    Still Right on Richard, #6: when I first looked you were #4.

  11. Ron says:

    First let me say I have almost finished the book and am enjoying it immensely. Regardless of ones take on climate change it’s a good read which had me laughing out loud a few times.

    OT but I hope interesting.

    Is Google biased?

    A year ago my colleague and I did an analysis of popular climate blogs based on Google ‘page rank’. The page rank goes from 0 to 10. The higher the rank the more enquiries Google is likely to send to that site. What we have found is the while non-sceptic sites are more or less in balance, as many sites have moved up as have moved down, for sceptic sites this is not the case. The number of demotions is more than 5 times higher than the number of promotions.

    ( )

    It is not due to changes in posting frequency. We have also found that non-sceptical sites with few visitors (according to Alexa) sometimes have the same page rank as popular sceptic sites with 100 times as many visitors.

    It seems as if Google is biased against climate sceptics.

  12. DreamQuestor says:

    You kind of lost my generation at the end of this blog, Joe. I don’t think anybody has played “Telephone” since the 1950’s. ^_^

    [JR: Yes, well, this wasn’t aimed at your generation…. You’ve got a few years before you become the cognoscenti and stop using Google for stuff you are quite sure needs no fact-checking.]

  13. mark says:

    ” the richer you are (proxy for education, not perfect one though!) the more you have to lose from adopting a low carbon lifestyle. ”

    Won’t people with a lot of money have the first choice of the best remaining options if the worst occurs? Won’t there always be some food, and a geographical area that is inhabitable, and maybe even nice?

    Aan aside, the reviewer forgot to mention the well written interesting book written in the late fifties predicting what we now face:

    “The Drowned World” by J. G. Ballard.

  14. A Slight Addendum to #4 says:

    Re: Richard (#4) – I’ve rarely found it worthwhile to post (or read comments, for that matter) but just wanted to comment on your analogy re: the denialists’ mind-jamming techniques:

    “According to information theory, a branch of mathematical physics, increasing the noise in a communications channel is an excellent way of obscuring the signal.”

    => The underlying idea is right on, but the big news most recently on the technical side has actually been that adding the right amount of noise to a signal can actually induce stochastic resonance and *enhance* the signal. [which has no bearing on your underlying point, but it’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear noise + signal… see

    It seems like their technique is quite a bit nastier than merely adding random noise… something like:
    – Flood the channel with corrupted data (that the media obligingly launders into appearing like legitimate information
    – At the same time, increase the volume to such a degree that the naive listener hears two competing but mutually exclusive information streams…
    – Which unfortunately this situation puts the advantage strongly on their side, as they’re completely unconstrained by facts and thus can focus solely on tweaking their message + tactics to exploit emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities in the target population.

    Just a thought.. no idea how to fight it effectively.

  15. Chris Winter says:

    I think the problem here is Ron Charles. I wonder if he knows how many times he contradicts himself in that review. A Nobel laureate who’s “intellectually flabby”, yet later pulls off a stunning deception? Other than that one funny scene, McEwan’s writing in the novel is “flaccid” — yet it begins with a crisply wrought opening?No way would I expect a coherent scientific understanding in a review this inconsistent.

  16. Wit's End says:

    mark #13, here is a partial list of privileges rich people cherish: travel to low-lying coral atolls for vacations in paradise; send their children to far-flung destinations for fun and education, with a reasonable expectation that they will be safe; select from an array of restaurants for delectable gourmet food; purchase designer clothing, and luxury household goods imported from all over the world; put plasma teevees in every room of their gargantuan houses; drive gas-guzzling SUV’s and sports cars…etc.

    The rich have the most to lose, and lose it they will, one way or another. Right now they’re just hanging on as long as they can.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Possibly not sufficiently recognized is that the global warming forcing from increased excess CO2 doubled the warming rate in the last half of the 20th century compared to the first half. Check the diffs column in

  18. David B. Benson says:

    For the first time in several weeks, Climate Progress decided to eat my comment; maybe because it contained a link to Real Climate?

  19. Wit's End says:

    nah, David B. Benson!

    CP eats comments randomly, constantly, voraciously!

    Many of us loyal romm’n legion commenters have felt pangs of rejections by comment moderation and even worse, comment evaporations!

    JR has assured me it is random intertube vagaries, and it has occurred frequently enough that I believe that is the explanation.

    Persist, and persevere! The conversation depends upon it!

  20. Leif says:

    I have made a habit of saving my post before I press send. I have not lost any for quite a while an have ended up with quite a stash for pasting on other sites during the rare time I wander from here. CP was hungry for my stuff during Copenhagen however.

  21. David B. Benson says:

    Wit’s End (19) — Thanks for the encouragement.

    I was just pointing out that the CO2 forcings for the second half of the 20th century were about twice the size of those in the first half.

  22. Wit's End says:

    heh heh, comment evaporation is nothing, just wait until the zombies attack!

    Yah, duh, it’s a joke…sort of…

  23. Raleigh Latham says:

    We’re all this country has to get the word out, the truth depends on us.

  24. Richard Brenne says:

    The weakest lead in the weakest lead paragraph in the weakest major newspaper in America about the strongest threat facing humankind (with my parentheticals stating the truths that escaped Ron Charles):

    Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere (and whether or not gravity is real, my fears keeping me from jumping on a trampoline), there’s no denying (except in my first line) that novelists are warming (What a brilliant pun!) up to the subject. From Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear,” which claimed that we’re being hoodwinked by faulty data (and who also claimed that we can clone dinosaurs) to Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Fifty Degrees Below (An Acceptable Level of Journalism Here),” which imagined Washington encased in ice (as if it could possibly be any less productive than now) popular fiction about climate change has been as nuanced and illuminating as a shouting match on Fox news (or its print equivalent here in the Washington Post).

  25. Roger says:

    As I’ve said before, we all need to lobby our President/our government to get the truth out–via speeches, mail, TV and radio ads, whatever it takes to counter the likes of the Kochs, who spread misinformation.

    How about a “State of the Climate” speech on prime-time TV? I’ll bet that if he really tried, with help from Drs. Chu and Holdren, Obama could clear up a lot of confusion in a well-crafted 30-minute speech.

    Think of the suffering that that 30-minute speech could save; think of the anguish extinguished for those of us who know, but who have faint voice (despite our ranting and raving in CP comments.)

    Have YOU called the White House at 202-456-1111, M-F, 9-5 lately? It’s quicker than writing a comment on CP. It’s perhaps also more effective since Obama gets a report on White House calls, not on CP comments.

    Want to make a bigger impression? Plan to attend the Citizens’ Climate Congress in front of the White House at 1 PM on Earth Day, April 22nd. We’re expecting a number of prominent CP readers to attend and comment!

  26. Roger says:

    A new climate activists’ chant, to be introduced at the WDC Earth Day Citizens’ Climate Congress, having been succesfully field tested at a Boston rally:

    Hey, Obama, lead the nation,
    Give us climate edu-ca-tion!

    (by G. Boyer)

  27. Dan B says:

    Lead the Nation,


    My global warming fighting partner asked if a friend’s CO2 tank could start a fire.

    He wanted to know if CO2 was explosive.

    Start there. Don’t assume anything. The most powerful country ever on the planet has no clue. Well, it has 95% anti-clue to 2% clued-in.

    Do the math. The vast majority of people have no idea, zero idea, less than zero idea what PERCENTAGES mean. Start at the beginning.

    Repeat, repeat, repeat. Listen to the clueless response as well as you listen to the educated / knowledgeable (maybe) response. All children on the planet depend upon us.

  28. Ron says:

    I’ve now finished Solaris so I can now give a more considered reaction to the review and the book.

    I’ve only read two other McEwen’s – Amsterdam and Chesil Beach. I found this book more gripping than either – but the critical moment in Chesil Beach was more effective than the rather weak ending. I found it more nuanced the Michael Crichton’s Climate of Fear. I don’t agree with the rather damning criticism.

    Ian McEwen, as far as I can tell from interviews, is very much his own man. He tends to prefer spending time with friends to going to the latest play or movie. He also uses his experience of life and people to enrich his books. The attitude to climate change which runs through this book, concerned but slightly mocking, probably represents the views of the writer, many of his friends and much of the thinking British public.

    Non-fiction books on climate change tend fall into two groups: hyper-sceptic, presenting climate change as tax-raising fraud, and hyper-anti-sceptic, full of earnest entreaties to save the world. It is a shame that only in a novel can a more nuanced, balanced picture be presented.

  29. Leif says:

    Hay, Obama, Lead the Nation,
    Give us climate edu-ca-tion!

    Good one G. Boyer

    Great to see it here on CP first.

  30. kdk33 says:

    What’s really bizarre is that so many people point to industry funding. Evil industry funding, no doubt. We could argue about who has more – I’ll claim warmists are way way richer than skeptics – but that aside, why is government money pure and industry money evil.

    I’ll claim that governments have been the source of far more evil in the world than private industry. Would someone care to show that business has wrought more death, destruction, and suffering than governments. Seriously.

    The pure government money evil industry money meme is… bizarre. To say the least.

  31. David B. Benson says:

    Ron (28) — You will find that “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart:
    just presents the facts. As does Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees” despite claims in reivews that the book is “alarmist”; nonsense.

  32. JHoward says:

    There’s a danger of reading too literally here. As I read it, Ron Charles meant that phrase to be taken as a joke–see the use of the verb “denying” later in the sentence. I do not think he was trying to throw doubt on the science of climate change. Honestly.

    [JR: I’m all for humor. This wasn’t it. Yes, he wasn’t “trying” to throw doubt on the science of climate change — he just apparently didn’t know enough to understand that what he was doing. The point of my post is that he made a mistake out of ignorance, one that he or the WP could have detected in 10 seconds on the ‘net.]

  33. Leif says:

    kdk33, #30: … “but that aside, why is government money pure and industry money evil.

    I do not recall anyone saying govt. money was pure. My view is that both capitalism and the corporate manifestation of capitalism consider the increase of GDP an sacred. There is no provision recognizing the earth’s life support systems and humanities right to long term sustainability there in within the structure of capitalism.

    That shortcoming is both a testament in the power of capitalism and corporate efforts, and a failure of humanity to address and charge C&C with meaningful restraints.