Don’t forget to mention climate change

March 16, 2015
(Ian Berry / Magnum Photos)

Two weeks ago, The New York Times published an article detailing the results of an investigation into Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, an aerospace engineer who’s published several papers questioning the link between human emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming. Soon, it was revealed, has received more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry over the course of the last decade.

It’s a story with a lot of moving pieces. There’s the funding itself, and Soon’s failure to disclose it; there’s his affiliations with both Harvard and the Smithsonian, which appears to have benefited from his questionable grants; there’s his published papers, and what to do with them; and there are questions about what all of this means for academia and the peer-review process.

But one piece that got lost is the piece that all of this is ostensibly about: science. Very few outlets—with the notable exception of The Washington Post—took the time to explain what exactly Soon claims about climate change (that it’s caused by the sun), and how his claims fit in with accepted science (short answer: they don’t). Instead, most outlets focused on Soon’s funding, and his use of the word “deliverables” to refer to studies he had completed with that funding, as something close to proof that his research can’t be trusted.

While the source of a scientist’s funding is certainly relevant, particularly in the current political context in which industry interests fund entire institutions dedicated to denying climate science, it doesn’t supersede a close look by journalists at whether the scientist is actually correct. And some recent studies give hope that even reporters who may not have the expertise, or the time, to dig into the data on solar radiation and the sunspot cycle can still have an impact on public understanding of climate science.

In the great media universe, it would be great to have at least a few instances of dealing with the science. But I kind of think it’s unrealistic.

Last summer, climate communication researchers at George Mason University and Yale University published a commentary urging the science community to reiterate the scientific consensus on climate change—that 97 percent of scientists support the conclusion that climate change is real, and humans are causing it—citing studies showing that exposing individuals to this message can increase their estimates of the scientific consensus by 10 to 20 percent. And a recent study from Yale found that simply stating this fact can induce changes in beliefs about climate change and increase support for public action on the issue in study participants from both sides of the political aisle.

“In the mainstream media, there’s really not a lot of room for a full explication of the science,” said Elizabeth Bass, director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. “In the great media universe, it would be great to have at least a few instances of dealing with the science. But I kind of think it’s unrealistic.”

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The Soon investigation, then, may have been a lost opportunity for some great science journalism, and a chance to rehash what the science community knows (and doesn’t) about climate change. And it’s not the first time this has happened.

In late 2013, for example, researchers at Drexel University attempted to trace the sources of “dark money”—money that had been donated by industry interests to dubious “research” institutions and think tanks through organizations that obscure the original donors. That news released a wave of backlash from more conservative outlets, including a Forbes contributor piece that claimed far more “dark money” went to fund “global warming alarmism.” Little of this coverage, on either side, mentioned any of the actual science being questioned.

“I think that’s very common,” Bass said. “Political reporters and government reporters far outnumber science reporters, and most of the time when science and public policy collide, or when science is clearly very important in public policy, it’s likely the government and political reporters covering it. They bring their own perspective to it.”

Industry funding is also an issue for the field of biomedical research, and the press who covers it. In February, British researchers leaped to the defense of a top UK government health official after The British Medical Journal revealed that she had received more than $2 million from companies like Coca-Cola, implying that her credibility on obesity policy had been compromised. Coverage from The Guardian’s health editor mentioned no scientific health studies, a critique the researchers were quick to lobby at the BMJ.

In areas of research where a scientist’s conclusions can shape decision making at the individual and policy levels, funding provides important context. But it’s not the whole story.

“If a doctor said that smoking is great for you and has no ill effects, and then you found out they were fully funded by Philip Morris, wouldn’t that make you a tad suspicious? And rightly so,” said Phil Plait, an astronomer and author of the Slate column Bad Astronomer. “But you have to be careful about overreach, and not going too far with it. Suspicious funding is not proof. In the end, the proof is in the claims.”

Laura Dattaro is a science journalist, writer, and producer based in New York.