Polar bear blogs reveal dangerous gap between climate-change facts and opinions

4 December 2017

Climate change discussions on social media can be very influential. A new study in BioScience published by an international and multidisciplinary team of researchers, including AUC lecturer and tutor Dr. Bart Verheggen, shows that when it comes to iconic topics such as polar bears and retreating sea ice, climate blogs fall into two distinct camps that see 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."

Polar bears as symbols

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.

Gap between denier 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."

For their study, 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, their data, evidence and sources relied mainly on other denier blogs, with around eighty percent relying 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. 

Co-author Dr. Bart Verheggen, lecturer and tutor at AUC, explains: “There is a lot of misinformation about climate change on the internet. About half of the blogs investigated promote viewpoints that are diametrically opposed to the scientific knowledge. That is not conducive to a well-informed public debate.”

Work by a multidisciplinary research team

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

The resulting message from the research team is a call for scientists to engage with and start to counter the misinformation being spread on social media directly, both on the platforms themselves and via traditional media as well. Especially with an issue such as climate change, time is of the essence for researchers and scientists to take a more prominent role in actively countering misinformation. 

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). Doi:10.1093/biosci/bix133

Published by  Amsterdam University College