Predicting Apocalypses: Lessons From Fox News on the Climate Change Debate

Whilst making people aware of the consequences of climate change and land fragmentation is important, choosing how to deliver that message is equally important (Image Credit: Backbone Campaign, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Ok, first up, I want to apologise. I know that giving Fox News any attention when it comes to scientific progress is a bad start. I’m hoping that if you’re reading this, you already know that their stance on climate change and biological degradation is… let’s say flawed.

But yesterday they released an article that is worth talking about. I won’t name it here, they don’t need more clicks. They were reporting on a blog post which had collected a series of predictions related to climate change and biological degradation, all of which had turned out to be wrong. The article, I believe, intends to show that any prediction of negative environmental consequences as a result of our actions are just more of the same sensationalist, attention-seeking stuff scientists are always spouting.

Let’s deal with the obvious stuff first – the blog does not list scientific articles. It lists random quotes from a variety of people, many of whom are scientists, many of whom (including Prince Charles and Al Gore) are definitely NOT. They’re cherry-picked quotes, although admittedly some of them are quite direct and concise (then again, some of them are from Paul Ehrlich). There’s not much scientific reasoning or citation to be found here.

So it’s easy, from a scientist’s perspective, to dismiss the article as rubbish and move on. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of people who won’t do this. They’ll see this, take it as concrete proof that scientists are just talking shit, and brush off more well-informed, tempered warnings about the effect of climate change with renewed vigour.

So what do we take from this? Well for starters, that when we talk to others, we’re careful about the claims we make. I get that there are doom and gloomers out there in the scientific community who believe that the planet will be uninhabitable in 100 years (though for more on why this is a dangerous perspective, read our interview with Nancy Knowlton on Earth Optimism), but even these people need to be careful about he certainty with which we make these statements. Yes, the public expects answers from science, but claims like Britain will be “plunged into a Siberian climate by 2020” aren’t answers. Not useful ones at least. I’ve written before about how important it is to convey the inherent uncertainty in science before (see here), and if Dan Franzen’s recent article in the New Yorker is anything to go on, we haven’t gotten any better at it*.

Our ability to confer information to politicians is also important. A lot of the claims that were mentioned in the blog that Fox News reported on were made by politicians, politicians who should have been better informed. Perhaps they would have ignored us anyway (sensationalism may not be great in science but it obviously sells in politics), and maybe they wouldn’t have reached out, but in an age when environmental degradation has almost become a facet of identity politics, I believe the onus is on us to make our own research more accessible to them.

Look, no-one deserves the Tony Abott-inspired title “suppository of knowledge” more than Fox News (although ironically they seem to pull most of their climate science out of their… you know where this is headed). But it’s important that the scientific community learn from episodes like this. We have to be responsible when we talk about the effects of climate change and land use.

*Rather than read the article itself, read Dr. Genevieve Gunther’s response to it here.

2 comments

  • “then again, some of them are from Paul Ehrlich”

    Can you elaborate a bit on what you meant by this passing remark? You don’t intend an implication that Ehrlich was some kind of fringey outlier, or somehow doesn’t count as a proper scientist, do you? I don’t share Ehrlich’s views about either the science of population growth and its effects, or about the appropriate policy responses. And there was never a time when all scientists agreed with Ehrlich. But his views were totally mainstream and very influential back in the ’60s and ’70s, which I would’ve thought would reinforce the argument of your post (an argument I broadly agree with, BTW). I feel like I must be misunderstanding the intended thrust of that passing remark about Ehrlich?

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  • “You don’t intend an implication that Ehrlich was some kind of fringey outlier, or somehow doesn’t count as a proper scientist, do you?”

    God no. Articulating my thoughts on Paul Ehrlich is a nightmare, but all I meant here is that you can’t expect a guy whose most famous tome begins with essentially saying “we lost the battle with world hunger” to not be quoted in an article that talks about grand prophecies that rightwingers perceived to have not come true.

    Tell you what though, if you want a prime example of doom and gloom getting so lapped up by the media, this quote from an interview with him is perfect.

    “Ehrlich said that he and Anne had “wanted to call the book Population, Resources, and Environment, because it’s not just population.” But their publisher and Brower thought this was too ponderous, and asked Hugh Moore, a businessman-activist who had written a pamphlet called “The Population Bomb,” if they could borrow his title. Ehrlich reluctantly agreed. “We hated the title,” he says now. It “hung me with being the population bomber.” Still, he acknowledges the title “worked,” in that it attracted attention.”

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/book-incited-worldwide-fear-overpopulation-180967499/

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