We all know that misinformation and fake news are rife on social media these days, and in the professional media too. How can we distinguish the fake from the real?
Climate change denial, like the denial of the smoking-cancer link before it, uses a few well worked out tricks to fool people into believing a lie. And it’s no coincidence. The tactics have been copied and some of the players are the same.
So don’t believe everything you read. Look out for these tricks.
1. Cherry picking data
This is the trick of finding one or two facts that support an idea while ignoring the much larger amount of information that disproves the idea.
For example, in August, Craig Kelly quoted the Telegraph‘s comments on a report by a fire expert, Prof David Bowman to conclude that “The entire climate alarmist cult is founded on lies and misinformation”
However they ignored other facts in the report contrary to their conclusion, including a clear statement that the fires were unprecedented and consistent with climate predictions. The Telegraph and Mr Kelly were the ones guilty of misinformation, by cherry picking the report.
Always check the sources climate sceptics quote.
2. False facts
Sometimes climate sceptics misrepresent the facts or make statements with no factual basis.
For example, it is sometimes said that “concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are too low to cause global warming”. But in fact, it has been known for more than a century that CO2 in the atmosphere DOES raise temperatures on earth. Without it, most of earth would be too cold to be liveable. Increase CO2 (as is happening with global warming) and parts of earth would be too hot to be liveable.
We should always check apparently factual statements like these.
3. Fake experts
A favourite tactic is to claim someone is a climate expert when they are not. Just because someone is a scientist doesn’t make them an expert on climate. For example, Bjorn Lomborg is often quoted as if he is an expert, but his qualifications are in political science.
Some lists of scientists who dispute the scientific consensus on global warming include many who are not working in the field of climate science. For example, one list of 500 scientists opposing the consensus included only 14 who had expertise in climate science. The remainder were mostly academics working in other fields, engineers and geologists who worked for the fossil fuel industry, social scientists, and non-scientists.
We can generally search online to find the qualifications of supposed experts and so identify fake experts.
4. Only one source
A scientific conclusion is established by papers being written and assessed, verified or corrected, until a consensus emerges. There will always be papers contrary to the consensus, but they will end up being in the minority.
Climate change sceptics sometimes base their case on a single paper, ignoring the many papers that support climate science.
We should always be wary of claims made from a single paper, and should seek to confirm any claim from other sources.
5. Minority views
One of the most used tactics of the tobacco industry, and now the anti climate change movement, is to argue that the science isn’t settled yet, so we should see balanced reporting that reflect both views equally.
But in both cases, this was argued long after it was clearly untrue. Numerous studies have shown that more than 95% of climate scientists support the consensus. The sceptical view is a very small minority.
This tactic is simply untrue.
6. Unreliable sources
Mainstream science has checks and balances to ensure as much as possible that conclusions are as reliable as possible.
The most respected climate change experts work for independent organisations such as universities. They are actively working in climate science and have published their work in respected journals that have all papers peer-reviewed before publication.
There are also less reputable journals that have inadequate peer review. Some will accept payment so a paper can be published.
We should be wary if a source isn’t written by a reputable expert, or isn’t published in a reputable journal. We need to be especially careful if a paper is written by or published by someone paid by the fossil fuel industry. Unfortunately, it happens.
7. Conspiracy theories
It is clear that the consensus of reputable climate scientists is that the world is warming dangerously, and that urgent action is needed to address this problem.
Those opposing the established science sometimes resort to conspiracy theories to justify their opposition. Without any real evidence, they suggest that all the climate scientists are in league with forces with some nefarious agenda.
Studies have shown that these views conform to classic conspiratorial thinking, and are held despite the evidence to the contrary.
It seems climate conspiracy theorists expect us to reject the established science of thousands of scientists but not question the conspiracy theories of the few!
If we keep aware of these tactics, it is generally easy to spot misinformation on climate science.
Want to read more?
- How can we know who to believe? 10 guidelines. More details on some of these tactics. On this website.
- Understanding and countering misinformation about climate change. John Cook, George Mason University, USA, 2019.
- Climate Change Conspiracy Theories. Climate Science, in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 2017.
- Heartland Institute. A case study of a climate misinformation organisation. On this website.