Climate deniers get more airtime than experts

There's fairness, and then there's craziness.

Image source: SaveLightStudio/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • There's no dispute that climate change is real and we're causing it.
  • Climate coverage coverage gives non-expert outsized influence.
  • Non-scientists with mere opinions get as much or more exposure as experts.

Climate change — and humankind's role in it — is settled science. Some 97% of climate scientists have reached the conclusion that the Earth is warming and that our activities are the cause. This is a remarkable level of consensus. That anyone still harbors doubts makes little sense. Denial is one explanation. Another one is revealed in a new study led by University of California's Alexander Petersen and published in Nature Communications: Climate contrarians - climate deniers — actually enjoy 49% more English-language media coverage than climate scientists. Maybe print and electronic news editors are predisposed toward conflict as being more exciting; maybe it's just an ill-considered attempt at balanced reporting. Whatever the reason, such outlets are doing a shocking, reprehensible disservice to their audience at a critical time when there's not a minute to be wasted.

Contrarians vs. experts

The study compared the visibility of 386 well-known climate change deniers — people who question the fact of climate change or the impact of human activities on it — and 386 well-known climate scientists widely acknowledged as experts. They tracked the number of appearances of these 772 individuals across roughly 100,000 digital and print stories presented by a range of media outlets.

Of the contrarians, almost half had never published a single peer-review scientific paper — of those who had, most found their work rejected by the scientific community as having factual errors. Many were retired politicians or professional general-purpose talking heads. As for the experts, they were selected for being the most-cited authorities across some 200,000 peer-reviewed papers on climate.

Image source: kentoh/Shutterstock

Drilling down

When Petersen and his colleagues dug a bit deeper, narrowing their analysis to 30 well-regarded media outlets, they found that contrarians were still appearing more than actual experts: 2,482 to 2,463. This is better than 49%, to be sure, but it remained the case that people with no real knowledge of the subject were still being awarded just as much time and space — actually slightly larger — as people with genuine climate expertise.

Looking finally at six major media outlets — The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, FOX News, and the Wall Street Journal — things looked a bit different. Things generally tipped slightly toward the experts, but no-knowledge continued to rank as nearly as newsworthy as knowledge.

Image source: Petersen, et al

Balance, fairness, and madness

Though nothing makes for a thrilling news like a good conflict, it's likely that a great deal of of unearned weight given to non-experts on climate change has to do with media feeling compelled to present both sides of a story.

This sounds good on the face of it, and in previous times, when disagreements perpended from different interpretations of roughly the same facts, it made sense. However, today Fact itself — along with Science — are under attack by those who prefer to believe what they think, or that they wish was correct, as opposed to those things for which there's empirical proof.

In such an era, giving equal weight to opposing positions quickly devolves into madness, a madness in which today's news media often become mired. Not all opinions are equally valid just for someone having them. If someone says "up is down," do they deserve being awarded equal credibility as those who know better? In a situation where one side is objectively right and the other is wrong, must equal air time or column inches be given to the nonsensical?

If so, and this is where we apparently are, fairness in its larger sense is perverted, with equal exposure a lazy, and in this case destructive, stand-in for analysis and, well, the truth.

Image source: BeRad/Shutterstock

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

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Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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