The Celebrity Phenomenon

It is a very small subset of people that actually reads the scientific literature on climate change.

Even publishing scientists don’t usually follow research outside of their field. Few of us climate science enthusiasts read about the role of low hepatic copper concentrations in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, so why should we be surprised when medical researchers, flipping through Nature, don’t stop to read about the sea level during the last interglacial and its relevance to today?

For the 99% of us who are not publishing scientists in any area, and do not have a subscription to Nature, and don’t really find it too riveting anyway, we get all of our climate science news from the media. The mainstream media is generally mediocre when it comes to reporting science, but when it comes to climate science they do an abysmal job.

Many people know this – you shouldn’t trust the media, especially when it comes to stories of impending disaster. ¬†You should take every such story with a grain of salt. However, it’s no good to stop there, and never do any research into its validity. Because what if it’s actually true? Then you’ll just be shrugging it off and going “maybe, maybe not” for no reason.

This happens a lot with celebrity climate science communicators, like Al Gore, or, in Canada, David Suzuki.

I’ve written about Al Gore before, and the important thing to stress is that he doesn’t matter. In general, his communication of climate science is very accurate – he has a few minor errors in his book and movie, but the overarching message that humans are causing dangerous warming of the planet is fully supported by science.

But it couldn’t matter less if Al Gore was or wasn’t telling the truth, because absolutely no scientific research rests on him. He hasn’t published any peer-reviewed papers about anything even remotely related to climate. He is purely a communicator.

A lot of people don’t like Al Gore, and therefore think that global warming is bunk. This kind of reasoning is very unfortunate. They recognize that they are hearing scientific information from a partisan source, so they assume that it’s wrong without researching what credible, nonpartisan sources say about it. All you need is a credibility spectrum, and you’re good to go.

There’s somewhat less of a problem when it comes to David Suzuki – after all, he’s not a former politician, he has more scientific training (a biology doctorate) than Gore, and according to a Reader’s Digest poll, Canadians trust him more than any other celebrity. It’s still easy, though, to find people who don’t like him for one reason or another. If it comes from David Suzuki, it has to be an extremist environmental craze, so they brush off what he says without looking at more credible sources.

Celebrities like Gore and Suzuki don’t matter. What matters, though, is people with severely limited knowledge of the scientific process, access to credible sources, or motivation to do a little research. What matters is the factors shaping society that have allowed so many of us to be this way. Why do schools frame science as answers, not questions? Why is literature vital to public communication hidden behind paywalls? And why do so many people assume that entire fields of science are dependent on one or two celebrity communicators?