Climate cynics lack media literacy

CORNELL (US) — The public’s distrust of climate science is due in large part to an overall misunderstanding of how the media works and where it gets and how it disseminates its information.

Evidence shows that media literacy education would help the public critique media messages and better assess the truth behind them, says Caren Cooper, a research associate at Cornell University.

“To be climate change literate, the public must first be media literate,” since print, TV and radio reports and opinion pieces are the main ways that the public gets its information about climate change science, she says.

The researchis reported in BioScience.

Previous research demonstrates that informal science education in the United States has not emphasized critical thinking, but rather, offers one-way communication from researchers or educators to the public that assumes a deficit of information needs to be filled.

A small number of climate change skeptics—who Cooper says are often linked to corporations and the fossil fuel industry—have exploited this model by encouraging partisanship, framing climate change as an insignificant problem; and disseminating scientifically inaccurate “educational” messages.

Laypeople and the media tend to view all scientific viewpoints as equally valid and, therefore, give too much credence to the minority viewpoint of skeptical scientists.

As a result, they may frame global warming as scientifically controversial, when it is only politically controversial, Cooper says. The number of scientists who support action to address climate change far outweigh researchers who oppose it.

Climate skeptics have also effectively used multiple media formats, including the print press, television punditry, talk radio, magazines, journals, blogs, and columns, to create doubt and a disparity between mainstream science and public policy.

A new approach emerging in the field of science communication that engages the public in activities and dialogues that interpret scientific knowledge would be an effective means to counteract the trend. Citizen science, where the public actively collects scientific data, offers one such example.

Science educators should embrace media literacy education, so when faced with new information, members of the public will ask such questions as “who made this message?”; “why was it made?”; “who paid for it?”

The public might also be taught to question the content in a message, ask what information has been omitted, and question the credibility of the information as fact or simply opinion, Cooper says.

Lastly, educators would be more effective if they expanded their modes of communication beyond science centers and museums to radio, television, movies, and blogs.

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