Primary tabs

When Facts Don’t Matter: Proving The Problem With Fox News

My two posts about Fox News and misinformation are probably the most popular items I’ve contributed here. They’ve been widely linked, Tweeted and Facebooked hundreds of times, and viewed well over ten thousand times. That’s because they perform a simple task that, at least as far as I had seen when I wrote the first one, hadn’t been done elsewhere: They list studies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) showing that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed about an array of factual—but politicized—issues.

In these posts, I’ve tried to be as dispassionate as one can be on such a matter. I’ve repeatedly said that the studies don’t prove that Fox causes people to be misinformed; they just show a correlation, but the causal arrow could run in either direction (or both). I’ve also said that there may well be other studies out there than the 6 that I’ve found; and there may even be studies out there showing some cases where Fox News viewers are not the most misinformed. Indeed, I could design such a study myself–though it would have to be politically skewed by only asking about topics where liberals and Democrats are likely to be misinformed.

It is interesting, though, that no contrary studies have yet been produced.

“A Little Knowledge”: Why The Biggest Problem With Climate “Skeptics” May Be Their Confidence

Last week, an intriguing study emerged from Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale and elsewhere–finding that knowing more about science, and being better at mathematical reasoning, was related to more climate science skepticism and denial–rather than less.

Kahan’s team simply structured a survey in a way that no one—to my knowledge, at least—has done before. In a sample of over 1,500 people, they gathered at least four different types of information: how much scientific literacy they possessed (e.g., how well they answered questions about things like the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun and the relative sizes of electrons and atoms), how “numerate” they were (e.g., their ability to engage in mathematical reasoning),  what their cultural values were (how much they favored individualism and hierarch in the ordering of society, as opposed to being egalitarian and communitarian), and what their views were on how serious a risk global warming is.

The surprise—for some out there, anyway—lay in how the ingredients of this stew mix together.

Jon Stewart 1, Politifact 0: Fox News Viewers Are The Most Misinformed

I have a lot of respect for political fact checking sites. I think they play a critical role, especially in our misinformation-saturated political and media environment.

However, sometimes these sites fall for the allure of phony bipartisanship. In other words, in an environment in which conservatives are more inaccurate and more misinformed about science and basic policy facts, the “fact checkers” nevertheless feel unduly compelled to correct “liberal” errors too—which is fine, as long as they are really errors.

But sometimes they aren’t. A case in point is Politifact’s recent and deeply misguided attempt to correct Jon Stewart on the topic of…misinformation and Fox News. This is a subject on which we’ve developed some expertise here…my recent post on studies showing that Fox News viewers are more misinformed, on an array of issues, is the most comprehensive such collection that I’m aware of, at least when it comes to public opinion surveys detecting statistical correlations between being misinformed about contested facts and Fox News viewership. I’ve repeatedly asked whether anyone knows of additional studies—including contradictory studies—but none have yet been cited.

Stewart, very much in the vein of my prior post, went on the air with Fox’s Chris Wallace and stated,

“Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.”

My research, and my recent post, most emphatically supports this statement.

The Fox News Effect: Sea Level Edition

Climate scientists–and other scientists–are always improving and updating their methods. That’s how science works. And it’s a very good and honorable thing–or at least, it is until conservatives catch on to some particular methodological change and argue that it’s political, rather than part of the normal course of scientific events.

And until Fox News–whose viewers are far less likely to accept climate science, as well as various other well known facts–joins in.

In the latest case, a group at the University of Colorado at Boulder added a new correction to their estimates of global sea level rise. What they did is pretty technical, but before going further I’ll have to briefly explain it—more details can be found here.

When It Comes to Expertise, You Can Always Fight a Guerilla War

You know how conservatives always have those big sign-on letters, listing X number of experts who disagree with evolution, or don’t think global warming is human caused?

You know you know what I mean. You know it drives you completely crazy.

In this post, I want to tell you why it works. To do so, I’m going to build on a recent article I did in The American Prospect, explaining how the Democratic Party in the U.S. today has become the chosen party of academics and experts–but that conservatives have more than enough allied experts of their own to keep it…interesting.

Rush Limbaugh Seizes--and Freezes?--on "ClimateGate"

For some time, it has been clear that “ClimateGate” has a dramatic meaning for the political right in the U.S. Somehow, “ClimateGate” gave those conservatives who had long been resistant to dealing with global warming a new license to dismiss the problem entirely. As a non-conservative, it’s hard to wrap your mind around how this could have occurred—after all, “ClimateGate” wasn’t a real scandal–but recently, I’ve come up with what may be a better understanding.

The inspiration came from checking in on Rush Limbaugh and noting, in more detail than I usually do, the particular flavor of his dismissiveness. Limbaugh took a call recently from one Michael Hillinger, a New Hampshire resident who had made news by asking GOP candidate Mitt Romney a question about whether he accepts the science of climate change (Romney said yes). Based on these statements, Limbaugh bade “Bye By Nomination” to Romney; he also had this “exchange” with Hillinger:

Debating Michael Shermer (and Bjorn Lomborg) on Climate Risks

On my latest podcast, I had the fortune of hosting Michael Shermer, who is the founder of Skeptic magazine and author of the important new book The Believing Brain. Shermer is also a self-identified libertarian, but one who drew much attention in 2006 when he dropped his global warming skepticism and embraced the scientific consensus that we’re causing climate change to happen.

However, oddly, Shermer still isn’t really worried about global warming. He falls into roughly the same camp as Bjorn Lomborg, arguing that it isn’t likely to be a big deal and will be something we can manage. Here is Shermer’s summary of Lomborg’s answers (in the film Cool It) to two key questions that one must confront if one accepts global warming is happening and caused by humans.

Q: How much warmer is it going to get?

A: Probably a little, very unlikely a lot.

Q: What are the consequences of a warmer climate?

A: Debatable depending on how much warmer it will get, but very likely the consequences will be minor.

Now, this baffles me. I don’t understand how anyone could be so confident warming would be on the low end of the projections, and not that big a deal.

When I had Shermer on the show, it was not my goal to debate him about global warming…

Will Republicans Attack Climate Preparedness Even at the Cost of National Security?

Recently, House Republicans—constantly trying to frustrate all manner of climate change measures by the administration—took a clear step too far. Here’s the June 2 story, from E&E News:

The House voted today to prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from participating in the Obama administration’s Interagency Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation.

The amendment by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) was added to the House’s fiscal 2012 Department of Homeland Security spending bill. The vote was 242-180.

The Carter amendment would likely prohibit DHS staff from coordinating with staff from other agencies to assess the risks climate change poses to domestic security and to find ways to adapt to it, an administration aide said.

The alleged justification for this measure is to save a few bucks. But honestly, if climate change is a potential threat to our homeland security, do Republicans really want to prevent the department of Homeland Security from assessing that risk?

Will the IPCC Be Ready to Communicate About Its Fifth Assessment Report?

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world authority on the science of climate. But at the same time, it has been increasingly beset by controversies that call into question its approach, and its preparedness, when it comes to communication.

Essentially, the IPCC releases highly technical reports, fairly infrequently, that get an initial flurry of mainstream media attention and then get attacked viciously until the next report comes out. And when attacked, IPCC has opted for an ill advised strategy of “hunkering down,” as Andrew Revkin puts it. Indeed, following “GlacierGate”—when a very real error was found in one of IPCC’s reports—IPCC came off as defensive and was very slow to admit the mistake.

Following the various “-Gates” of 2009 and 2010, a cry went out in many circles that we need to improve climate science communication. As a result, all kinds of communication innovations are now going forward, many of which are ably summarized by Revkin in a recent article in the Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization (which was central to creating the IPCC itself in 1988).

But where does IPCC fit in the context of this innovation wave? It still seems to be dragging.

The UVA Emails and Confirmation Bias: Seek and Ye Shall Find

You have to hand it to the American Tradition Institute. Unlike Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, they’ve found a way to get the University of Virginia to release at least some emails and other documents from climate researcher Michael Mann’s time working there–by using freedom of information requests for “public” documents. (News here, scathing Washington Post editorial here.)

The University of Virginia is complying, although its president says they will take advantage of every exemption allowed by the law. Still, though, it sounds as though a lot of documents are going to be released. So what will happen next?

For an answer, we can look to an important new book, Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. In it, Shermer discusses the phenomenon of confirmation bias, invoking the biblical line “seek and ye shall find” to describe this pervasive cognitive flaw. 

The American Tradition Institute–and indeed, conservative climate skeptics across the board–have gone seeking scandal among the ranks of climate scientists. That’s what Ken Cuccinelli did. That’s what happened in “ClimateGate.” That has been the strategy for some time.

So does anyone think that that, whatever these documents say, they are not going to be treated as a scandal by those who went searching for them?

Pages