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Coming full circle: from study to comedy sketch to study

Posted on 1 August 2018 by BaerbelW, David Kirtley

Over five years ago, our team published "Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature" (Cook et al. 2013) which caused quite a stir - and that, even though it wasn't the first peer-reviewed paper to find a 97% consensus on human-caused global warming. In 2014 we learned, that our study had been voted ERL's best article of 2013 and as of right now it has been downloaded a whopping 829,000+ times.

Last Week Tonight: Climate Change Debate

One of the best and arguably funniest treatments our study received, was a sketch put together in 2014 for John Oliver's HBO show "Last Week Tonight". In the segment, John Oliver illustrated to great comic effect what a statistically representative climate change debate would look like. You can view it below (warning: the video includes some profane language).

From sketch to study

As of this writing, the video has been viewed 7.8+ million times. With this many views, it's not too surprising that some researchers got curious and wanted to find out if a comedy sketch like this could have an impact on how people think about human-caused climate change. And this is exactly what Paul R. Brewer from the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware and Jessica McKnight of the School of Communication at Ohio State University set out to do at the end of 2014. Their study "A Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate: Satirical Television News, Scientific Consensus, and Public Perceptions of Global Warming" was published in the Atlantic Journal of Communication on June 30, 2017.

Here is the study's abstract:

Satirical television news programs provide the public with potential sources of information about climate change. This study uses a segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as a test case for exploring how coverage from such programs that features consensus messaging may influence viewers’ perceptions of global warming. The segment presents a “statistically representative climate change debate” to affirm the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change and satirize television news coverage “balancing” this consensus with skeptics’ arguments. Results from a randomized experiment demonstrate that watching the segment increased viewers’ own belief in global warming, as well as viewers’ perceptions that most scientists believe in global warming. The latter effect was stronger among participants with low interest in the environment and global warming than among those with high interest. The segment’s impact on perceptions of scientists’ views may have mediated its effects on viewers’ own beliefs about global warming.

For the study, students in a course at a mid-Atlantic public university were each responsible for recruiting at least 20 participants. In all, 288 participants completed the survey and of the participants, 45% were students at the researchers’ university, 26% were students at another university, and 29% were not students. With a median age of 21 the participants were fairly young - not really suprising considering the method used  to recruit them. The authors are aware that the sampling method can be considered a shortcoming and discuss this in their paper as it raises the question how much the results can be generalized.

The participants in the study were divided into a control group (150 people) and a treatment group (138 people). The control group watched a "Last Week Tonight" video clip unrelated to climate change, while the treatment group watched the "Last Week Tonight" clip shown above. After the viewing, each participant answered questions to gauge their views on climate change, their perceptions of scientists' views on climate change, their interest in the environment and global warming, and their political party identification.

Some important take-aways from the paper

1) Brewer and McKnight's study builds on the idea of "gateway beliefs" where it says:

Here, the present study builds on the “gateway belief model,” which posits that messages highlighting the scientific consensus surrounding climate change can promote belief in human-caused climate change by fostering perceptions of scientific agreement on the topic (van der Linden et al., 2015).

Simply put, when people realize that there is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that climate change is real and human-caused, they too accept that climate change is real and human-caused. Brewer and McKnight point to a 2014 study (van der Linden, et al. 2014) which "found that the message, '97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening' — the same central message illustrated by Oliver’s staged debate — influenced public perceptions of the scientific consensus when presented in the form of text, metaphors, or a pie chart." Of these three, the pie chart had the greatest impact among Republicans.


This portion of the paper, describing a snippet of the Oliver sketch, gets to the key point that the usual depiction of the 50:50 "debate" in the media is very powerful misinformation, but Oliver's "statistically representative" debate with 97 vs 3, completely skewers the 50:50 misinformation:

[Oliver says,] "I think I know why people still think this issue is open to debate, because on TV it is, and it’s always one person for and one person against, and it’s usually the same person for.” Here, the segment cuts to a montage of video clips from cable television news programs, each of which features a debate between a climate change skeptic and Bill Nye, the Science Guy (the former host of a popular children’s science television program). Oliver comments, “Yeah, that’s right, more often than not it’s Bill Nye the Science Guy versus some dude, and when you look at the screen, it’s 50-50, which is inherently misleading.”

A visual depiction of "the 97%", like a pie chart, is a simple, clear way to communicate; the visual depiction of 97 scientists on a stage versus 3 deniers, as in the Oliver sketch, is an even more striking representation, which is why it is so effective.

2) For participants who were disinterested in the environment or global warming — the "disengaged"— the study's "treatment" had the greatest impact. And the greatest impact was on participants' perception of scientists' views about global warming:

Put another way, watching Last Week Tonight’s coverage of climate change narrowed a “belief gap” between those with high levels of interest in the topic and those with low levels of interest.

People with high levels of interest in climate change have, most likely, already encountered "the 97%" statistic. But for disinterested people, this statistic may be brand-new information; and seeing the statistic in such a dramatic fashion, as in the Oliver clip, has an even greater impact.

And this is obviously good news as it shows or at least hints at an effective way to reach the "undecided" / "disinterested".

3) Humor may be able to counteract partisan motivated reasoning!

[T]he results yielded no evidence that partisanship moderated the impact of the segment on viewers. This finding suggests that viewers did not engage in motivated reasoning in response to satirical consensus messaging, a result that is consistent with previous research on nonsatirical consensus messaging.

Everyone has biases, often unconscious, which color their view of information. This "motivated reasoning" (as opposed to totally open-minded reasoning) is often difficult to overcome. If someone reads about "the 97%" in a news article/blog from a newspaper they deem to be "liberal" or "conservative" then their own view of the information may be skewed based on whether they self-identify as "liberal" or "conservative". Brewer and McKnight found that the humorous treatment of "the 97%" in the Oliver sketch may have offset the participants' motivated reasoning.

More good news for science communicators: don't be afraid to "make 'em laugh".

Last but not least, the authors' conclusion contains this important take-away:

[...]Oliver may have led viewers to express greater belief in anthropogenic climate change by leading them to believe that an over whelming majority of scientists agreed on the topic. This result, which extends van der Linden et al.’s (2015) gateway belief model to the context of satirical television news, reinforces the argument that consensus messaging can be an effective tool at fostering belief in global warming.

We'd like to thank Paul Brewer and Jessica McKnight for conducting and publishing their study as we think that it provides some interesting and encouraging results. What could be better than having a situation where people can actually learn something while watching a fun and enjoyable comedy sketch? And this is as good an excuse as any to highlight John Oliver's statistically representative climate change debate yet again via this blog post!


Brewer & McKnight (2017). “A Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate”: Satirical Television News, Scientific Consensus, and Public Perceptions of Global Warming. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 25(3), 166-180. Link to abstract

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Great video. The climate change issue has become politically tribal, and this means people form rigid views. People will deny compelling scientific evidence like the IPCC reports, in order to agree with those around them.

    Humans are hardwired to be politically tribal here and here.

    Humour is well known to break down social and cultural barriers, so might help break down some of this political tribalism.

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  2. Interesting observations on perceptions and polemics!

    I have on various occasions served as an "expert witness" in litigation. There are two sides, the plaitiff and the defendant (altho there may be several parties on each side). If the data overwhelmingly favor one side, the other will almost always settle or drop out before the case goes to court. Litigation is generally better than war, because in the latter case, there is a common tendency of the losing side to fight to the bitter end. So having a dicotomous view of conflicting views is generally healthy; what is unhealthy is a situation that prefers a dicotomous view of a situation in which dicotomy fails to represent the data distribution.

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  3. '...disinterested in the environment or global warming — the "disengaged"...'

    There's disconnect here - by 'disinterested', don't they mean the 'uninterested'? Surely those with neutral views, the disinterested, are a very small minority?

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  4. Mike @3 - Yes, I probably shouldn't have compared this paper's "disinterested" to Yale's Six Americas' "disengaged". I think if you look at the Six Americas, you will see that their "Disengaged" category is only 7% of Americans. But I'm not sure how the Yale survey would track to this paper's accounting of "disinterested". I think for this study, "disinterested" would be a broader catagory: there may be people in any of the Yale categories who are just disinterested in the topic of "the environment/global warming". From the paper:

    All participants were asked to rate on 5-point scales, from 1 (not at all) to 5 (a great deal), how interested they were in information about the environment and information about global warming. [my emphasis]

    Whereas the Yale studies measure Americans' beliefs about whether AGW is real or not, etc.

    So, slightly different things. Does that clear things up?

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  5. David @4 , the point Mike is making is that "disinterested" was completely the wrong choice of word.

    Disinterested means one thing, and uninterested means another thing — and there is really a huge gulf of difference between the two.  Yes, they are often seen to be used interchangeably in the careless heat of the moment, just like some "workman" will grab a chisel instead of a screwdriver to turn a screw.  Ain't good practice though, because the chisels lose the edge they were designed for.  And one day you really do need a chisel for a precision job . . . and all you've got left is a boxful of good and bad "screwdrivers".   The same with scientific conventional jargon : it is worth making the effort to preserve useful distinctions of meaning, to achieve clear communication of ideas.  Even though it's an uphill battle, at times.

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  6. Eclectic@5, the trouble is disinterested has two meanings. It can firstly mean uninterested (as in bored and disengaged) and secondly mean impartial, or unbiased, so with no stake in an issue. Both Merriam Webster and Cambridge say this. 

    It appears to be up to inferring the meaning from the context! 

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  7. Nigelj @6 , 

    ~ Quite so.  I'm not surprised that Merriam has given up the battle to preserve disinterested in its special [sharp, chisel-like] meaning, but it is disappointing to hear that the latest editions of English dictionaries have abandoned a very useful differentiation of meaning.  Essentially it is degradation of the language which we use to communicate thoughts and ideas and concepts.   "Disinterested" really only lingers on in the old (but chisel-like useful) phrases: disinterested advice and disinterested party.  ~They are concise and important concepts, and our language/thought is much poorer if we allow disinterested to be equivalent to uninterested.

    To a small degree, it demonstrates the "1984" NewSpeak-ization of language, where it becomes more and more difficult for the citizen to think about important (and/or subtle) ideas.   Didn't you just love the quote: "We don't do nuance in Texas" ? 

    Look at what's happened with the word democracy — it is almost meaningless nowadays.   Think of the degradation implicit in Democratic Republic of Germany, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or in the democratic elections in Cambodia, or in Russia, etc.   Closer to home, think of the degraded trumpizations such as "Fake News Media" and the deliberate divide-and-conquer policies all concealed under hate speech & NewSpeak blather.   To discuss real and important ideas, it is often now necessary to make use of overlong circumlocutions which are clumsy and won't survive a 5-second televised "grab".

    Excuse me for wandering so far Off Topic . . . but I was sure that you, Nigelj, would be "interested" in the ideas expressed.

    And not entirely Off Topic: for those battling against climate science & good public policy, are making it a rhetorical war of words (since they have no science or common sense to support their position).   We need to have our wits about us in dealing with their careless or deliberate abuse of the English language.

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  8. Eclectic @7, I dont like it either. Disinterested should be used just for its proper meaning of being dispassionate.

    Having said that, I avoid the term and try to use terms like the person is relatively impartial. Perhaps the problem is its easy for people to confuse the terms disinterested and uninterested.

    Sometimes its ok for language to evolve towards better clarity and simplicity. Sometimes. And I say only sometimes,  because the strength of English is indeed its nuance and subtlety.

    But I agree about the Orwellianisation (is there such a word?) of language and the rest of your comments.

    I would even say calling America a democracy is dubious, given the wierd business of the electoral college, and how preference is given to rural states regardless of their actual population...And the peoples republic of North Korea has always amused me as well. 

    As to Trump and his  over simplification of language, and his insanely hypocritical accusations of fake news, and mostly ridiculous policies,  its probably not good for my blood pressure, and I hope this ridiculous virus of nationalism doesn't spread any futher.

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  9. And I notice young people now use the term ridiculous to mean something insanely good, (in NZ anyway) a most annoying and confusing development!

    Language evolves of course, because none of us talk like Shakespeare and that's probably a good thing, but I think its evolving too fast! 

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  10. The term believe is used too generically in the article. Aware and understand should be used when appropriate.

    It is important to differentiate between 'belief and faith' and 'awareness and understanding'.

    Awareness and understanding relate to things that people can independently verify based on the reasoned evaluation of available evidence. They relate to explanations of physical Reality including how the human mind works (Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture" provides a very good summary of developed awareness and understanding).

    Belief and Faith are not based on the reasoned evaluation of available evidence (spiritual stories and rules written a long time ago are not 'evidence' or a reasoned basis for anything). They relate to potential reality, with the probability of their potential being a function of developed awareness and understanding of reality.

    This is a challenge for science. Pursuit of improved awareness and understanding is destined to develop awareness and understanding in ways that will reduce the potential for belief in faith-based claims like the ones that people trying to resist the increased acceptance of climate science keep making up. And when the rich and powerful got what they got unjustifiably there is trouble ahead.

    Al Gore's book the "Assault on Reason" provides the following awareness and understanding:

    “The derivation of just power from the consent of the governed depends upon the integrity of the reasoning process through which the consent is given. If the reasoning process is corrupted by money and deception, then the consent of the governed is based on false premises, and any power thus derived is inherently counterfeit and unjust. If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears, or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished. If the suspension of reason causes a significant portion of the citizenry to lose confidence in the integrity of the process, democracy can be bankrupted.”

    In that book Al Gore also wrote about America's founder's concerns about religion intruding on government including the following:

    “They were also keenly aware of the thin and permeable boundary between religious fervor and power-seeking political agendas. “A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction,” wrote James Madison, but the new American nation would nevertheless be protected against the ungovernable combination of religious fervor and political power as long as the Constitution prohibited the federal government from establishing any particular creed as preeminent.
    This principle was so well established that in 1797 the U.S Senate unanimously approved, and President John Adams signed, a treaty that contained the following declaration “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan Nation.””

    Understanding that is contrary to powerful interests can be expected to be fought against viciously, because Good Helpful Altruistic Reason based awareness and understanding is contrary to what they want to be believed.

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