First the sad news: A study released yesterday by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that only about half of approximately 570 television weathercasters surveyed believe that global warming is occurring and fewer than a third believe that climate change is caused by human activities.
Now the news media coverage, primarily following a story on the front page of today’s New York Times, used the study as a podium for expressing the view that there is still controversy over if there is global warming and what might cause it. The bulk of the article tries to substantiate a broader opposition of meteorologists and climatologists on global warming beyond what is in the survey of TV weather personalities. By pitting the meteorologists against the climatologists, the media coverage serves to keep the debate on global warming alive. Of course among climatologists and other environmental scientists there is no controversy on this issue, as virtually all now do subscribe to the theory of global warming.
The media coverage makes a number of logical mistakes and the study itself has a small flaw. As the Times article points out, only half of all TV weatherfolk have degrees in meteorology. When I was a television news writer and reporter in the 1980’s, the TV weather people were for the most part entertainers, and that still seems to be the case to a great degree. These TV stars are entitled to their opinion, but have absolutely no standing as experts on scientific issues.
Now the purpose of the study was to see how TV weather personalities were contributing to science education, especially when it comes to global warming. In fact the mission of the George Mason group is admirable: “to conduct unbiased public engagement research – and to help government agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies apply the results of this research – so that collectively, we can stabilize our planet’s life sustaining climate.” The group knows that global warming is occurring and wants to create a body of research that can help us communicate more effectively to the public about this grave threat. Obviously TV news weather personalities could contribute to that effort so understanding their attitudes is very important.
But the professors make one small flaw, a very surprising one to someone with some familiarity with consumer research. When we do consumer research, we try to divide our target market into significant segments, for example, sex, income level, size of company, education level. We try to differentiate the segment by the factor that will give us the most information about the group, for example, when we did a survey for a maker of industrial seals, we segmented the survey respondents by size of company and customer versus noncustomer. The George Mason study does absolutely no segmentation. For a study with the goal of uncovering information to help improve science education, you would think that the professors would ask the survey respondents if they had degrees in meteorology or another scientific field, and then present one version of the findings with those with degrees separated from those without.
Because of this small flaw by a well-intentioned group of researchers, the news media has an opening to conflate meteorologists with TV weather people and turn what should be a story on the sorry state of education of TV weather personalities into an argument that global warming might not be taking place.
There is also the issue of what a meteorologist’s expertise really is. As the National Severe Storms Laboratory states, “While meteorologists study and forecast weather patterns in the short term, climatologists study seasonal variations in weather over months, years, or even centuries.” And according to Joseph Romm on The Energy Collective website, meteorologists don’t even have to take a course in climate change, because it’s not part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service certification requirements.
So to have meteorologists chime in on the global warming debate is as helpful as having civil engineers, sociologists or theologians say their piece: It’s not their area of expertise, and those who have developed the expertise virtually all say the same thing: our planet is warming and our species is at least in part to blame.