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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

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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