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#01: Trust your sources: Information vs. misinformation

May 16, 2020

If I want to make up my mind about climate change, who can I ask and who can I trust? These questions are not answered easily.
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Climate change is an incredibly complex topic that has many challenging aspects and extremely diverse areas. When talking about climate change, one may talk about the global increase of temperature, about melting ice caps, about thawing permafrost soil, methane and cow farts, model predictions, coral bleaching, and many more. So who can stay level-headed about all of these issues simultaneously in order to present a holistic evaluation? To make it short: Nobody is an expert in all of these fields at once. There is not one person we can rely on to tell us everything we need to know about climate change. That would be way too easy. But don't be discouraged, because it is possible to gain a good and reliable understanding of what is happening around us in terms of climate change.

How do we form our opinions on complex matters?

To begin with we have to ask ourselves the question, how do we gain an understanding of a topic that is as complex as climate change. Lay people like myself are faced with a huge problem here: Although climate change apparently affects all of us, we are not easily capable of understanding it properly. Many people don't even have the interest to understand it (can't help you out here, sorry). Other people are interested, but just don't have the time to study the topic in enough detail to make an educated evaluation. And even if they had the time, they wouldn't know where to start given the sheer amount of available information. And even if they had the interest and the time to study it, they may lack the skill to distinguish between contradicting pieces of information. And believe me, there are many contradicting pieces to be found. So doing our own detailed research seems to be an option that is not for everyone. Not at all.

In making up our mind about topics as difficult as this, we often subconsciously rely on the opinions of others. This is neither time-consuming nor is it hard, which sounds like a neat deal. These others may be your parents, your friends, or the media outlets you choose to consume to just name a few. I can recall that my father told me in the nineties that he didn't think that humans were responsible for climate change, because science shows that the climate has been changing for millions of years and that was even before there were any humans around. So why should we be responsible for it if it changes today? I was a teen back then and pretty much looking up to my father, furthermore his reasoning seemed pretty conclusive. And it was based on science! As a consequence, for approximately the next 10 years I had made up my mind about climate change: Humans could not be responsible for it. I also shared this opinion with my friends and was pretty confident in defending it. That was a classic case of making up your mind about a complex topic by listening to someone else whose opinion you value. This must not be a parent, but can also be a friend who you may think is a smart cookie and whose opinion on many things had turned out to be correct in the past. And we all have friends like that. So that is one way of developing an opinion on climate change.

Big news: Media may have an agenda

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Another rather subconscious way to make up your mind about climate change is by being exposed to the media that surrounds us. Newspapers, TV, internet blogs (well, hello there!)... climate change is basically everywhere. And here comes a pretty tricky part - usually, you do not consume random media sources presenting diverse opinions on polarising matters. Instead, we freely choose the kind of newspaper we want to read, the TV channels we watch, and of course we move in our own internet bubble which echoes back at us what we want to hear. By making these choices, we are also buying into a bias on the topics we read about. If the newspaper I am reading keeps on bashing the political party I favor, I will read another newspaper that rather supports my choice. If the blog I have bookmarked commences to openly reject an immigration policy I like, I will probably delete the bookmark and start reading other blogs that agree with my own world view.

But by deliberately choosing the media you consume on grounds of your political leanings, you probably already have made a choice about your opinion towards climate change, too, without even knowing it. Although the reality and science of climate change are not political and its depiction should not depend on your choice of media channels, the consequences of climate change are very much political. Because if we want to acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change, we need to acknowledge the necessity to act. And actions are political. They may include putting a price on carbon emissions and thus regulating an open market that is supposed to be free. So on the one hand we have conservative media that may tend to oppose measures and market regulations against climate change, they might even question its reality, its urgency, and downplay its importance. They may also deny that humans are causing it at all. They will tell you this to convince you that no actions are necessary to be taken. On the other hand we have progressive media that are in favor of market regulations in order to battle climate change. They also acknowledge that humans may well be the primary contributors to climate change. They love solar panels and Green New Deals. But wait a minute... please do keep in mind here that there are not only these two options in reality and that previously mentioned attitudes are simplified. Of course, the real picture is not black and white. It's just to give you an idea of what the very general opinions towards climate change in today's media channels look like. Nevertheless, countries with two-party-systems (like the US, for example) pretty much reflect the picture I just drew with my loose pen.

So, here we are. We can listen to friends and family who are probably just as clueless as we are, even if they make the impression to be pretty confident about their opinion. We can listen to our media channels that probably have an agenda which corresponds to their political stance. These are two pretty bleak choices... if only there were another entity, an independent one, that we could ask for guidance. Luckily, there is. It's the scientific community. People that actually earn their living in these fields, people that are employed by independent institutions, people that drill ice cores, people that maintain weather stations and analyse their data, measure ocean levels, examine coral reef bleaching, analyse satellite measurements of ice sheets, build predictive computer models on the grounds of available data... this list is not exhaustive, not by any means. To make it short: There are experts in all of these fields. They are called climate scientists. They know what they are talking about. Their findings are being checked and peer reviewed for correctness by a huge scientific machinery (see my blog post #06 for more info (coming soon)). And they have no agenda apart from the quest for knowledge. Ok, I know, this sounds overly romantic and exaggerated, but climate scientists truly are the most reliable source when it comes to climate change issues. And why wouldn't they be? If you want your car fixed, you ask a mechanic and not a dentist. If you want your hair done, you go to the barber and not the butcher. And if you want to know about climate change? Sure thing, you ask a climate scientist.

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Look who's talking

The interested reader will now probably ask the question: "If I should listen to the scientists, what the heck do I need this blog for and who are you to talk anyway?" I can no longer withhold this important piece of information: No, I myself am not a climate scientist. I am not one of the experts I was talking about in the previous paragraph. Phew, that was the tough news. But still, I very much hope that I can be of service to people anyway, so here is some information about myself. I do have a background in science, I have a PhD in Theoretical Biophysics and spent ten years in academia, reading numerous and publishing some publications in my area of expertise (Computational Biology and Modelling). This does not make me an expert on climate change related issues, of course not. But it has given me knowledge and experience about how the scientific process works, how scientific publications can be read, how data is analysed, and how people can misinterpret data easily. Equipped with these abilities I have now spent several years reading up on many details regarding climate change. I have worked together with and learned a lot from people that work in climate science and climate science communication for decades and learned to identify and correct misinformation (see more about this in my second blog post). Does this now make me a perfect source for making up your mind about climate change? Maybe not. But on my journey towards understanding climate change and the underlying issues, I have spent hours upon hours of being lost in topics and lacking guidance. I know there are many people out there feeling the same every day. And if I can just reach some of these people and maybe make something clearer that was diffuse before, all this writing will have paid off. Understanding climate change is not easy, but it is feasible and it is important.

What I am telling you in this blog is not supposed to work like me forcing my opinions with a funnel down your throat, but rather my effort to make available scientific information easier to understand and accessible to people who have no scientific background. It's a classic case of climate science communication. I am far from the first who is doing this and I will neither be the last nor the best. But I am trying to explain these important issues as best as possible to make more people understand the urgency of the challenges we are facing today.