University of Texas at Austin

Friday, March 6, 2009

Clarifying a climate debate

LeeAnn Kahlor

LeeAnn Kahlor

Those tracking the Earth’s temperatures might want to make a notation of a heat spike in February 2009.

That’s when newspaper columnist George Will wrote about his skepticism on global warming and the role of humans. He cited scientific data that he said supported his conclusions. Others said that Will misread, misinterpreted and mischaracterized the data, not least of all the scientists who compiled that data. More about the ruckus can be found at

Argument, some of it heated, ensued in newspapers and on blogs. The controversy was not only about how he interpreted the data, but how the news organizations that support him checked the facts the cited.

Then, just in time to help people make sense of all this, came a paper from LeeAnn Kahlor, an associate professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Texas at Austin, and Sonny Rosenthal, a Ph.D. student in the department. The paper was published in a special edition of Science Communication.

In the paper, Kahlor and Rosenthal say that you have to go to several sources if you want to be well informed on complex issues such as global warming. And they emphasized the “go to” part in that people have to actively seek out the information from reliable, authoritative sources.

So, what to do in the Will case when apparently smart people cannot agree on what the science says?

“I think the first thing we need to acknowledge is that an op-ed or editorial column should not be a final destination for anyone in the search for information – regardless of the topic,” Kahlor said in an e-mail message. “This is especially the case when the editorial is offered by an ideologue (conservative or liberal). This particular controversy is really just an ideologue pitted against scientific consensus.”

Kahlor offered as an example of consensus the recent report about Antarctic glaciers melting faster than previously thought, which ran as a centerpiece on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman (

If you want opinion on foreign and domestic policy or even the Chicago Cubs, then you might check in with George Will, she said.

But not if you’re looking for facts about science.

“His work is fact-checked by the editorial team at his home news organization. But the expertise of Will or his fact-checking team does not extend to science,” Kahlor said. “Additionally, neither party has a vested interest in the integrity of the scientific endeavor.”

That integrity, however, is the currency of the scientific process.

Legitimate scientists don’t release their findings until they have been vetted through the rigorous peer-review process.

“The problem, however, is that most people don’t know how to access scientific publications – and, even if they did, low rates of scientific literacy in the U.S. mean most people would have trouble making meaning of the work,” Kahlor said.

She said to go beyond the editorial pages and talk shows.

“They reside in the pages of a newspaper or the segments on a broadcast or the sections of the Web site that regularly deal with special topics such as health, science and the environment,” Kahlor said.

She listed Asher Price of the Austin-American-Statesman, Michael Grunwald of Time magazine, or Alan Boyle at as trustworthy reporters.

“They do a good job interpreting the nitty-gritty of the science for us and helping us weigh the various viewpoints on the myriad topics that scientists have to offer,” she said.

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