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Media Creates False Balance on Climate Science, Study Shows

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NASA images show record-breaking heat across the globe.

The American media lends too much weight to people who dismiss climate change, giving them legitimacy they haven’t earned, posing serious danger to efforts aimed at raising public awareness and motivating rapid action, a new study shows.

While it is not uncommon for media outlets to interview climate change scientists and climate change deniers in the same interviews, the effort to offer a 360-degree view is creating a false balance between trained climate scientists and those who lack scientific training, such as politicians.

“It’s not just false balance; the numbers show that the media are ‘balancing’ experts — who represent the overwhelming majority of reputable scientists — with the views of a relative handful of non-experts,” UC Merced Professor LeRoy Westerling said. “Most of the contrarians are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials. They are not in the same league with top scientists. They aren’t even in the league of the average career climate scientist.”

Westerling is one of three researchers from UC Merced who tracked the digital footprints of climate scientists and deniers across about 200,000 research publications and 100,000 digital and print media articles on climate change over the past few years. Their work is published in Nature Communications today .

Data shows that about half the mainstream media visibility goes to climate-change deniers, many of whom are not climate scientists. This proportion increases significantly when blogs and other “new media” outlets are included — pointing to the rising role of customized media in spreading disinformation.

“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” Professor Alex Petersen said. “By tracking the digital traces of specific individuals in vast troves of publicly available media data, we developed methods to hold people and media outlets accountable for their roles in the climate-change-denialism movement, which has given rise to climate change misinformation at scale.”

Amplified Misinformation

There are a variety of reasons people don’t accept the results of climate science even though the science is overwhelming. These include cognitive bias and “motivated reasoning” — the tendency of people to bias their judgements by personal and group-level values, even when faced with documented facts; and external influences, including political cues, ideological biases, cultural worldviews and even personal weather experiences.

But the media’s longstanding and dominant role in empowering cultural politics, the advent of “new media” and the nearly boundless scalability of content distribution across the Internet compound the problem and amplify misinformation, the researchers said.

Even when people have complete control in choosing their sources of information, they are still susceptible to significant disparities in content production and to media coverage.

The proper counterpoint to a climate scientist would be another legitimate scientist who could show competing data from the same experiments or show where the first climate scientist has made mistakes in his or her work. Having a non-expert oil lobbyist or politician respond to a peer-reviewed study or assessment by saying “climate change doesn’t exist” is not a credible argument or a means of balancing, Petersen said.

“These results show that false balance in the media is alive and well and the growing trend toward customized media that we access via the internet is feeding the disinformation trend,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment. “This study is a wake-up call for all media to do better: to check their sources in order to accurately communicate the reality of human-induced climate change, the relevance of its impacts and the urgency of action.”

Petersen is a computational scientist who specializes in human analytics. He and Westerling, a climatologist known for his state-of-the-art modeling of climate-ecosystem-wildfire interactions, both with the Department of Management of Complex Systems in the School of Engineering, partnered with former UC Merced researcher Emmanuel Vincent to conduct a study of 386 prominent climate contrarians and 386 expert scientists’ public statements on climate change to compare the credibility given to those on each side.

“The acute misrepresentation of information aimed at misleading the public for political gain is a pressing problem that threatens various other domains in addition to climate change communication,” the team wrote in the new paper. “It requires a better understanding of the human, social and technological factors that facilitate widespread disinformation efforts.”

“Political reporting focuses its narrative around conflict and looks to highlight competing voices, rather than telling the story of the science.”

Professor LeRoy Weserling

Disproportionate Visibility

Westerling put it more bluntly:

“It’s well known now that a well-financed propaganda campaign on behalf of conservative fossil fuel interests led mainstream media to frame reporting on climate change science as political reporting rather than science reporting,” he said. “Political reporting focuses its narrative around conflict and looks to highlight competing voices, rather than telling the story of the science.”

This, he said, has led to the false balance between scientists and a handful of climate deniers who have become regular commenters.

Besides the scientists who have published work denying or downplaying climate change, many people will recognize some of the other people who are often called upon to present “balance:” Scott Pruitt, the former head of the EPA; Steve Bannon, former advisor to President Donald Trump’s campaign; Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe; White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

By featuring them as the counterpoints to legitimate, experienced and disciplined climate scientists, the media gives them a measure of credibility they do not deserve, the researchers said.

“Such disproportionate media visibility of contrarian arguments and actors not only misrepresents the distribution of expert-based beliefs, it also manifestly undermines the credible authority of career climate-change experts, and reinforces the trend of non-experts presiding over public scientific discourse, which all together hinders prospects for rapid public action on climate change,” they wrote.

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Li-ion Battery Recycling Market to Witness Rapid Growth by Top Key Players-Umicore, GEM, Brunp Recycling, SungEel HiTech – Market Research Finance

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Latest Research Summary Of Li-ion Battery Recycling Market :

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Survey says scientists mistrust a large amount of published research

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The average researcher reads less than 6 research articles a week

Cavan Images / Alamy

A survey that asked researchers to rate the trustworthiness of the studies and other “research outputs” they had come across in the past week has found that 37 per cent considered half or fewer of these to be trustworthy.

Out of those surveyed, 25 per cent said exaggerated findings, a lack of detail, and poor conclusions make research outputs untrustworthy. “There’s always someone trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Within your own field this can be easier to detect, but it’s less easy to determine when scouting subjects that you are less familiar with,” a materials scientist in the UK told the survey.

Other factors cited as diminishing the trustworthiness of research included a lack of rigorous peer review, methodological issues such as study design flaws and a lack of reproducibility or generalisability, and bias stemming from the peer review process, sources of funding, and the pressure to publish.

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The survey was conducted by Elsevier, a large publishing company that runs many scientific journals, in collaboration with the UK campaign group Sense About Science. It polled 3,133 researchers from around the world in May, and found that, on average, scientists spend just over four hours hunting for research articles a week, and more than five hours reading them.

The average researcher reads five or six articles a week and considers half of them to be useful.

When asked about public confidence in research evidence, 49 per cent of respondents said the misinterpretation of research outcomes in media, policy or public discussion was a large problem. 41 per cent said an increasing availability of low-quality research was a big issue, while 33 per cent said deliberate misrepresentation of research findings by researchers or their institutions was a major problem.

More than a quarter of respondents (28 per cent) told the survey that too much information is available to the public.

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Why are products for older people so ugly?

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On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco, people are filtering into a small conference room appointed with a whiteboard and subdued black-and-white photography. As the seats fill up around the long white table, a woman dressed mostly in red, with sparkly silver nail polish, invites everyone to her upcoming ukulele performance. A man in a blue plaid shirt passes around a container of heavily iced hot cross buns. A woman in a green turtleneck chitchats about the presidential power struggles in Venezuela. They’re here to talk about technology—a scene that should be entirely unremarkable in a city filled with small white conference rooms where people are doing exactly the same.

This story is part of our September/October 2019 issue

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“Okay, everyone ready?” asks Richard Caro, the meeting’s leader, an Australian with neatly cropped silver hair, alert dark eyes, and the demeanor of a kind professor. “Let’s start with you, Lynn. You’ve got one here”—he glances down at his notes—“that says ‘hearing aids.’”

Lynn Davis, a 71-year-old retired project coordinator, says her sister-in-law recently talked about a pair of $300 hearing aids she’d bought online and loved. Excited, Davis had Googled the product, only to find a lengthy blog post that “ripped it apart.”

“Ha!” chortles the woman sitting next to her. “A piece of junk!”

The comment sparks a spirited back-and-forth about hearing aids. Caro, at 63, is one of the youngest people in the room: the average age of the 11 women and five men gathered here is somewhere in the mid-70s. A retired computer programmer says she has considered buying hearing aids that can be programmed at home. A man with an iPhone sticking out from the pocket of his flannel jacket talks about the signal-to-noise ratio. A redhead wearing a hand brace describes her stereophonic pair, which affords her surround-sound hearing.

“Wow, you’ve got the Cadillac!” one woman cracks.

“For the money,” the redhead responds, “I have the Ferrari.”

They are the Longevity Explorers, part of Caro’s experiment to improve the way technology is developed for older adults. They’ve been meeting here since 2014. Throughout most of the meeting Caro sits quietly at the head of the table, hands clasped together, and just listens. He wishes more people—especially entrepreneurs—would do the same.

Elizabeth Zelinski has a story she likes to tell. It’s about the company that made a wearable pad to prevent people from hurting their hip if they fell. “They couldn’t sell the thing,” says Zelinski, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “Because, guess what? You know why? Nobody wants to have a big butt.”

If they had just done some user testing, she says, “they would have saved themselves from a lot of heartache.”

It’s a familiar tune to engineer Ken Smith, director of the mobility division of the Stanford Center on Longevity. He says one of the biggest mistakes designers make is to assume that around the age of 60 people lose interest in aesthetics and design. This can have dire consequences for products meant to help people with their health. No one wants to stick a golf-ball-size hearing aid the color of chewed gum in their ear, any more than they want to wear a T-shirt that reads “SENIOR CITIZEN.”

Similarly, there’s a common perception that people of a certain age simply can’t or don’t want to learn about new technologies. There is only a kind-of, sort-of, not-really kernel of scientific truth to this. Zelinski, a specialist in neuroscience and cognition, says aging causes changes to the medial temporal lobe—the part of the brain associated with new learning. And your white matter, or myelin, which helps speed the transmission of information from one brain cell to another, is going to get funky, she says. “People just need longer … they need more exposure to something to learn how to use it. It’s not that they completely lose the ability to learn.”

Experts say older adults who still work, or who spend time with younger family members who use technology, are more apt to pick it up. Also, says Zelinski, “a lot of the technology that older people are interested in has to be something that they find easy to use, that’s affordable and compelling.”

Mobility
Seismic’s body suit uses built-in sensors and robotics to give wearers extra support when sitting or lifting.

Photograph by Cody Pickens

That sounds like what anyone would want. And yet the list of lousy products for older people is long. Smith describes clunky walkers, ugly canes, and institutional-looking grab bars—although he adds that he’s recently seen some cleverly disguised to look like towel racks or other household objects.

Smith’s division has helped bring to market a number of products for the older consumer, like a line of Stanford-designed shoes for people with knee arthritis. One of the options even looks like a slick running shoe, rather than a Frankensteinian orthotic.

Engaging older people in designing for older people “is a good thing,” says Smith. “Because younger people do tend to have this picture of designing things that are functional for older people, but not really understanding what makes them happy.” Presented with products that are “brown, beige, and boring,” many older people will forgo convenience for dignity.

That’s why last year, as part of an annual global design challenge he runs at Stanford, Smith brought in the Longevity Explorers so that the designers could actually meet some older people. Smith said the workshop helped—his young finalists came away thinking of older consumers as less of a stereotype, and more as individuals with heterogeneous tastes and needs.

A handful of major companies are trying to set an example by doing something similar. Design heavyweight IDEO brought on Barbara Beskind, then 89, as a designer in 2013 to help it create products for older people. Hazel McCallion, former mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, was 98 when Revera, one of Canada’s largest providers of assisted living, hired her as its chief elder officer in 2015.

But progress is incremental, perhaps because aging still gives people the heebie-jeebies.

“Unfortunately, the first thing you hear when you say ‘Well, so much of the population is aging, they’re living older’—people will say, ‘Oh my God! What are we going to do about this problem?!’” says Smith. “And you know, if you back off a step, you realize this is, like, one of the great accomplishments in human history.”

Caro has an adventurous streak—he once heli-skiied the Himalayas—but he is not brash. He gathers his thoughts before he speaks, and when he does, he uses his hands judiciously for emphasis. He’s mastered Silicon Valley Neat Casual: Button-ups under top layers that suggest athletic activity, dark jeans, an Apple watch.

He arrived in California from Melbourne, with a stop to study lasers at Oxford University as part of a doctorate in experimental physics. After a job at a pioneering laser eye surgery firm in Boston, he spent the 1990s at startups and medical-device companies in Silicon Valley and ended up going solo as a management consultant and angel investor. Then, five years ago, he decided to take on the problem that had been nagging him for years. For older people, he says, “all the existing products were ugly and stigmatizing. It just seemed there was a fertile opportunity that was being missed.”

After he’d conducted about 100 interviews with people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, one thing stood out: many of the people he met missed feeling useful. “There’s this huge demographic of people who have sort of been put aside and told to go off and play bridge and bingo and not contribute to society,” he says. Zumba and lectures were fun, but not fulfilling.

An idea took shape: Why not get people together to talk about aging and use those discussions to pinpoint problems technologists should tackle? It would be a resource for product developers, as well as giving the target audience some influence over the companies gunning for their dollars.

“We weren’t sure we could make it interesting to them so they’d want to come back,” he says. “We weren’t sure anything useful would come out of it. We weren’t sure of anything.”

It turned out to be an experiment that paid off. Today there are eight Longevity Explorer “circles,” as Caro calls them: five in Northern California and one each in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. There are about 500 members, most of whom are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, although there are members in their 60s as well. He often gets emails from people who want to either join a group or start one, and he is gradually greenlighting circles throughout the US, run by volunteers. The circles are enabled by Caro’s company, Tech Enhanced Life, a public benefit corporation.

Circle meetings go like this: Members start by writing down topics they want to cover (like hearing aids) on sticky notes and passing them to Caro, who cycles through those suggestions before introducing a discussion topic. He uses the same topic at multiple circles, and it’s usually from a theme that has cropped up at more than one meeting. (The day I was there, the topic was “What do we do about the fact that the world seems to be shrinking around me? I’m not ready to just sit in my armchair and wait for the end.”)

Practical demonstrations are encouraged. At one point during my visit, a woman whipped out a tool she liked for opening packages (plastic clamshells are even more maddening when you have arthritis). Explorers recommend and review gadgets and digital tools—everything from ride-share apps to jar openers—and those conversations get turned into guides on techenhancedlife.com.

Personal care
Gillette’s Treo razor is designed for those who have to shave others. It has a different angle, a special razor guard, and a tube of shaving gel built straight into the handle.

Courtesy photo

One of the site’s most popular pages is a roundup of toenail clippers—it turns out the difficulty bridging the distance between your hands and toes is a common side effect of gaining years. Content for older adults and their caretakers is free; a small fraction of the information deemed of more interest to companies or researchers lives behind a $45-a-month paywall.

Today the company is funded mainly by Caro, two other cofounders, and a handful of investors, but eventually Caro wants it to pay for itself. In 2017, after feedback from Explorers that they would like to weigh in on product development, not just the finished goods, he introduced “sponsored explorations”—a paid service for companies designing products for older adults. Each Explorer gets a fee, usually in the range of $100 to $500, for taking part in focus groups, information–gathering sessions, and other projects. They’ve done them with early-stage companies, venture-backed startups, and “humongous companies that everyone in the world has heard of,” Caro says. He’s evasive, though, about who those clients are and how many sponsored explorations have been conducted, saying only that the number is “more than 10 but less than 100.” The products have involved everything from robotics to fintech—and frequently, he says, the companies come away realizing that their assumptions were “completely wrong.”

Charles Mourani met Caro at a conference in Palo Alto when he was two months into building Mason Finance, a service targeted at older adults interested in selling their life insurance policies for cash—the kind of thing many turn to when they’re hit with large, unanticipated expenses, like medical bills.

Mourani’s team still hadn’t tested its product with users beyond their own parents and grandparents: “It’s not like you can just simply show up to a retirement home,” he says. So he hired the Longevity Explorers. Over the course of 2018 they ran three different projects, and the results, he says, were “eye-opening.”

Among the things that surprised Mourani was the Longevity Explorers’ proclivity for reading the terms of service. Younger users breeze through this step on most websites by simply checking a box, ignoring the text, and clicking “next.” But older users want to read the small print. A 30-second application quickly becomes 10 minutes when someone reads every single condition.

Lots of designers have had similar “aha!” moments after talking to their older users. Take Nick Baum, who created StoryWorth, a subscription app and website that allows family members to prompt each other to tell stories about themselves. Launched in 2013, the site has collected well over one million stories, Baum says, the vast majority of them from people over 60. During the early years, Baum handled a lot of the customer support himself and often fielded phone calls from older users. Once, an unanticipated problem popped up.

“We quickly ran into this case where couples were sharing an email address,” he says. “At first I thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy. Who would share an email address?’ Then I realized that 50 years ago people didn’t have cell phones, and they had a shared phone number, right? And so of course you get email—why not have shared email?” Rather than force people to change their behavior, he adjusted to allow more than one account under the same email address, so that people sharing a single email could get individual communications from the company in the same in-box.

Designing for older users doesn’t only benefit older users, says Caricia Catalani, a design director at IDEO. The company recently worked with Los Angeles County to revamp its voting machines, with an eye toward older people who were robust voters in their youth but had stopped showing up at the polls. It turned out that designing for them led to “good design decisions for everyone,” says Catalani.

Isolation
Social isolation is real for many older people. Virtual-reality company Rendever makes headsets that let users revisit old haunts or join in activities with their peers.

Courtesy photo

Those with weak or no vision liked having audio prompts, for instance. But so did people with low literacy and young people who had never voted before, because the audio program acted as a host and guide. They also found that larger, more legible text was “desirable from everyone’s point of view,” not just for older voters with poor vision. The new machines are currently being manufactured and will be rolled out soon.

I asked Catalani if she sees companies showing more interest in incorporating the viewpoints of older adults in their design process.

“I wish that was true,” she says. While some are starting to see older people as a demographic defined by more than age, many just see “the financial opportunity,” she adds. It’s a revenue stream they may never tap if businesses continue to see their elder customers as a monolithic pocketbook instead of as individuals.

Lynn Davis—who had debunked the $300 hearing aids at the Longevity Explorers meeting I attended—first joined the group about four years ago. She’s an Apple devotee who recently learned how to use Google Docs and describes her tech aptitude as “low to middle.” But those who have worked with the Longevity Explorers know that is not exactly true of the group as a whole.

“When I’m in a room with 85-years-olds on average who all have an iPhone in their pocket, the question remains as to how representative that actually is,” says Mourani.

Caro acknowledges this. Most members are white and middle class, and many are former professionals. He describes the consulting groups as just one tool—suited to understanding early adopters, for instance, rather than all consumers. “When we have more circles in other places, we’ll be able to do even more sorts of projects,” he says.

When Davis meets me to talk about the group, she’s wearing chic purple-framed eyeglasses and guitar-pick earrings. She says she dreams of exoskeletons that will improve mobility, and cars that come on their own when you call, but for her, Longevity Explorers isn’t just about better products—it’s about better relationships. Receiving advice from, and commiserating with, her peers is a major draw.

“It’s just nice to know there’s a room full of people who also get stuck,” she says. Often, tech talk segues naturally into what she calls the “hard work” of discussing things like hospitalization and loneliness.

It’s no secret that older adults like Davis can be a boon for companies—but people I spoke to for this story told me that although businesses are eager to sell them things, they’re slow to include them in the design process.

Caro is betting this will change. He is in talks to start about 10 more circles nationwide—the beginning of what he calls a “movement”: groups all over the world where older consumers are telling developers what they want, and not the other way around. But ultimately, like the Explorer meetings, it’s not really about physical things.

“It’s about being in control of your own destiny,” he says.

 

Andy Wright is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.

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