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Climate-change discussions on social media are very influential. A new study in BioScience published by an international and multidisciplinary team researchers, among which UvA researcher Peter Roessingh, shows that when it comes to iconic topics such as polar bears and retreating sea ice, climate blogs fall into two distinct camps. With little or no overlap between deniers and the available scientific facts. The study’s first author, researcher Jeff Harvey says: ‘It’s time for scientists to counter the misinformation and engage directly with the public far more.’

Large polar bear
Foto: Ian Sterling

Polar bears and retreating sea ice have become iconic symbols of the polarised climate-change debate. By focusing on these icons, deniers of human-caused global warming cast doubt among the public about the entire body of climate change knowledge. But a new study of the underlying science used in the debate could well melt down the trustworthiness of these deniers on social media.

Science-based blogs and scientific literature

‘We found a major gap between the facts from scientific literature and the science-based blogs on the one hand, and the opinions aired in climate-change denying blogs on the other’, says the study’s initiator and first author, Jeff Harvey from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). ‘It’s a very dangerous gap, as these blogs are read by millions.’

The researchers analysed 90 climate blogs in total, alongside 92 scientific papers on the subject. Although 45 ‘denier blogs’ claim to be based on science, they failed to overlap with the peer-reviewed evidence in the papers. Instead, they relied mostly on other denier blogs. And eighty percent relied on one blog in particular, whose author, says Harvey, ‘had neither conducted any original research nor published any articles in the peer-reviewed literature on polar bears.’ By contrast, 45 truly science-based blogs do match the evidence in the scientific papers. And there’s not much middle ground.

Co-author Peter Roessingh, researcher at the UvA Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (UvA-IBED) in the research department Evolution & Population Biology, contributed to the statistical analysis. He explains: ‘Although it seems almost silly to apply statistics to a dataset with such a clear signal as this, we thought it was important to stay as objective as possible in this highly ‘polarised’ field. A large fraction of the information available to the general public has no scientific basis. The main message of the paper therefore is that scientists should get more vocal in the public domain and directly counter misinformation.’

Advice by a multidisciplinary research team

The team that studied the blogs was international and multidisciplinary, including ecologists, polar bear researchers, climate scientists, science communicators and psychologists of various ages and from six countries. Among the authors are well-known scientists such as Steven Amstrup from Polar Bears International, Eric Post from the University of California, Davis, and Michael Mann from Pennsylvania State University.

Their advice, as voiced by Harvey: ‘Scientists, climb down from your desk and start to counter the misinformation on social media directly – and via the traditional media as well. Engage with the public via the blogosphere or citizen science for example. And very importantly, adjust your focus to what is clear instead of all the uncertain things still to be studied.’

If the misinformation is successfully countered, the debate may be ‘depolarised’ while polar bears and other arctic wildlife still have a future to look forward to.

Publication details

Jeffrey A. Harvey, Daphne van den Berg, Jacintha Ellers, Remko Kampen, Thomas W. Crowther, Peter Roessingh, Bart Verheggen, Rascha J. M. Nuijten, Eric Post, Stephan Lewandowsky, Ian Stirling, Meena Balgopal, Steven C. Amstrup, and Michael E. Mann: ‘Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy’, in: BioScience (29 November 2017 online).