The Best Description of the Climate Change controversy

Last night, a show on HBO called “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” featured one of the most stunning visualizations of the “debate” over climate change I’ve seen to date.

In it, John Oliver ridicules the way cable news organizations present climate change “debates” for their viewers.  Mostly, it is one climate change denier “debating” Bill Nye (of Science Guy fame), which makes it appear to the viewer, that scientists view the issue as contentious, with experts split 50-50 with half agreeing with the idea that humans are causing climate change and the other half, well, not.  In reality, there is not nearly that kind of uncertainty in climate change research.  This paper has already been written, reviewed, accepted, and published.  Cook et al (2013), found that 97.1% of the research on the topic endorses the view that humans are causing global warming.

Oliver’s critique is, that the preference for presenting both sides of an issue equally is problematic when there really is no debate, that is, when an overwhelming majority of scientists agree on the major components.  Perhaps this convention is best reserved for issues where debate can contribute meaningfully to some process, like the selection of presidents.  Debate there is good, right?  Get each candidate on record talking about issues that concern Americans.  The deference towards covering all aspects of an issue equally, is problematic when there is no debate.  For these cases, it might be useful to ask Bill Nye and Stephen Hawking to debate which number is greater: 5 or 15.

This ridiculousness is particularly evident in cases such as causes of climate change or the non association between vaccines and autism.  The convention of illustrating “the sides” of an issue with representatives expressing their opinion becomes problematic for Americans, who are consuming greater amounts of information and opinion that masquerades as “news”.

Authors of dystopian literature often conceptualize the downfall of society as an acute event: a nuclear war with cyborgs, a zombie outbreak, or global pandemic.  What if the downfall of society, of modern civilization wasn’t such a catastrophic event, but a series of minor events?


In 50, 100, or 200 years, are historians going to look back on what happened with media and view it as the beginning of the end of modern civilization?  Is there a way that things like eroding structures of scientific and intellectual authority, consolidation of political power through changes in campaign finance (and the inevitable increases in social and economic inequality these will bring), as well as growing narcissism occurring alongside declines in community cohesion contribute to civilization?  To society as we know it?


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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