Study Finds 5 Ways Conservative Media Erode Trust In Scientists

A new study shows five ways conservative media decrease trust in scientists, leading their audience to doubt climate change.

Former Fox News host Glenn Beck once declared “Do I believe scientists? No. They've lied to us about global warming.” But the study, by the Yale Project on Climate Communication, concludes that it's actually the other way around: conservative media consumers don't believe in scientists, therefore they don't believe in global warming.

The study suggests that watching and listening to outlets like Fox News and The Rush Limbaugh Show may be one reason that only 19 percent of Republicans agree that human activity is causing global warming, despite the consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists. The Yale researchers depicted five tactics used by conservative media to erode trust in scientists, which Media Matters illustrates with examples.

1. Present Contrarians As "Objective" Experts

Conservative media typically turn to a roster of professional climate change contrarians and portray them as “experts” on the issue. What they don't mention is that most of these climate “experts” don't have a background in climate science and are often on the bankroll of the fossil fuel industry.

A Media Matters study detailed how certain climate contrarians have been given a large platform by the media, particularly Fox News.

For instance, Fox News cut away from President Barack Obama's recent climate change speech to host Chris Horner of the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute -- giving approximately equal time to Horner and the president.

2. Denigrate Peer-Reviewed Science And Scientific Institutions

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) brings together thousands of the top climate scientists to review and summarize the mainstream scientific understanding of global climate change. Yet conservative media often portray this UN agency as non-credible -- or even akin to terrorists. Fox News once tried to dismiss the work of over 1250 authors who contributed to the 2007 IPCC assessment report because one of the authors was a graduate student.

Fox News host Sean Hannity similarly claimed the IPCC has “stopped at nothing to sell its agenda”:

3. Equate Science With Simply A Liberal Opinion

A leaked email obtained by Media Matters in 2010 showed that a managing editor ordered Fox News journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.” This directive is consistent with conservative media coverage that treats even the basic fact that the earth has warmed as merely an opinion up for debate.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, for example, asked if Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was “too liberal” because he says “global warming is real and it's manmade.” On The O'Reilly Factor, Juan Williams and Bernie Goldberg argued that reporting on the global warming without false balance is “liberal” “global warming propaganda.” And Rush Limbaugh believes that “manmade global warming ... it's an ideological issue,” and that scientists who accept the consensus on global warming are "political advocates" spreading “misinformation.”

4. Claim That Scientists Distort Data In Order To Obtain Funding

In 2009, conservative media distorted hacked emails from climate scientists to suggest that they were falsifying data to show a warming trend. In the end, every investigation into the so-called “climategate” controversy cleared the scientists involved, and a study funded in part by the conservative Koch brothers confirmed the accuracy of the temperature record. But that didn't prevent conservative news pundits from seizing on this “scandal” and claiming that it debunked the science behind global warming, and revealed scientists' intent to “hide the real inconvenient truth that the evidence supporting manmade global warming is far from conclusive.”

To explain why scientists would do such a thing, some in the conservative media speculated that climate scientists were deceitfully manipulating their research in order to obtain funding, “turn[ing] global warming hysteria into a multi-billion dollar industry.” Rush Limbaugh, for instance, swiftly waved off the consensus of scientists by saying “a majority of people have been paid to say that man is causing the climate to warm up,” adding “they only get the money if they come up with the right result.” Hannity had a similar theory:

Right. Because scientists make a living by performing research, “the temperature record of the earth is clearly rigged" to keep up the “multi-billion dollar industry” of testing tree rings and sampling ice cores.

5. Characterize Climate Science As Simply A “Religion”

Climate science has been described by conservative media as a "religion," an "indoctrination" into socialism, and a "cult." Limbaugh has claimed that “belief in man-made global warming is a lot like believing in Santa Claus." Al Gore was compared more than once to fringe preacher Harold Camping, for supporting the acclaimed IPCC reports showing the threat of global climate change -- or, in conservative jargon, the "Climate Bible."

By framing climate change science as an orthodoxy, contrarians implicitly characterize themselves as what the study called “brave dissidents against an oppressive set of beliefs.”