- Climate Communications
Climate Scientists Launch Brainy Attack On Inaccurate News
January 27, 2017
Climate scientists have volunteered by the dozens to review the accuracy of stories about climate change. Now they're collaborating with computer experts to develop ways to scan the internet for fake and misleading stories about climate.
"The concept is to try to bring the scientists to have a voice of their own in this media environment, and the way we are doing it so far is by asking scientists to review articles for accuracy and credibility of information," Emmanuel Vincent, founder of climatefeedback.org, said Thursday in Chicago.
The project alerts the writers and editors of the articles, and it posts its reviews publicly, displaying copies of the original stories annotated with scientists' comments, links to reliable background sources, and a credibility score.
For example, six scientists gave their lowest rating to a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “The Phony War Against CO2.”
"The commentary relies on claims that are not supported by any evidence, like the assertion that more CO2 in the atmosphere has helped to reduce poverty," the scientists said. "The authors invite the reader to 'check the facts' but do not apply that maxim to themselves."
In their review of Taylor's “2015 Was Not Even Close To Hottest Year On Record” they note that Forbes science editor Alex Knapp wrote an accurate story titled "Climate Scientists Report That 2015 Was The Hottest Year On Record," but that "the inaccurate article has been read 15-20 times more (26k) than the accurate one (1.5k) as of Jan 22, 2016."
Vincent is a former NOAA and MIT fellow who paused his work on hurricanes to launch Climate Feedback at the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California Merced.
He told an overflowing crowd at the University of Chicago's Computation Institute Thursday that his website's purpose goes beyond fact checking, because there are other forms of misleading information, such as cherry-picked half truths, biased information, rhetorical manipulation, and ill-defined terms.
"I don't really like this word of fact-checking, but that's how people understand it," he said.
And the site reviews more than just fakes.
For example, 12 scientists gave a "very high" rating to Chris Mooney's Jan. 18 story in the Washington Post, "U.S. scientists officially declare 2016 the hottest year on record. That makes three in a row.”
Mooney's story, they said, "accurately conveys the US agencies' declaration of 2016 as the hottest year on record. It provides some good background material on why the agencies' numbers differ slightly (treatment of the Arctic) and the contributing roles of El Niño and man-made global warming."
Mooney usually scores high, but one of his stories barely escaped the neutral zone—“Thanks to climate change, the Arctic is turning green”—because the eight scientists who reviewed it thought it could mislead some readers.
The project currently lists 183 scientists as reviewers or contributors. An average of six of them evaluate each viral climate story. Climate Feedback has reviewed about 50 stories since its launch and serves as a kind of prototype for a more ambitious effort.
"I think there are a lot of things that we do now manually that could be made more automatic in a way that allows us to scale up," Vincent said.
Computers could do the work of scanning the internet for stories, identifying which concern climate change, identifying the specific topic of each (glacial ice, greenhouse gases, polar bears, hurricanes, etc.), and identifying the most relevant expert reviewers, Vincent said.
"The most wrong stories—the ones that are really crazy—are usually not written by journalists," he said.
The most viral climate story of 2016, titled "Tens of Thousands Of Scientists Declare Climate Change A Hoax," was published on Sept. 2 under the byline