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John Oliver's viral video: the best climate debate you'll ever see

Posted on 23 May 2014 by dana1981

The new HBO comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently made a mockery of media false balance in its climate science coverage. Oliver was interviewed on the science podcast Inquiring Minds last week, and host Chris Mooney voiced my feelings exactly:

"I feel like they said in 4 minutes something I've been saying for 10 years with like tens or hundreds of thousands of words; what they said was that there's no debate over global warming, so to have these 'balanced' 1-on-1 TV debates is just preposterous."

Citing the 97% expert consensus result from a paper my colleagues and I published last year, John Oliver illustrated what a statistically representative climate change debate would look like, to great comic effect. A video of the show has gone viral, with over 2.8 million views. You can view it below (warning: the video includes some profane language).

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO): Climate Change Debate

In the show, Oliver made several key points:

  • Humanity's response to global warming has so far been a massive risk-management failure, or as Oliver put it, "we've all proven that we cannot be trusted with the future tense."
  • Public skepticism about global warming is irrelevant. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
  • The body of scientific evidence supports human-caused global warming: 97% of peer-reviewed scientific papers taking a position on the subject over the past 20 years are in agreement about this.
  • The media nevertheless continues to treat the subject as a 'debate', often with 1 person representing the 97% consensus and 1 person representing the less than 3% fringe minority.

John Oliver explained to Inquiring Minds why he found media false balance in climate reporting worthy of mockery.

"The stridency, and the intense comfort with a lack of scientific information, is ludicrous—it's objectively ludicrous. So I'm attracted to going to wherever the biggest hypocrisy is, and there feels like there's some good mining to be done regarding environmental issues…This world will be a complete ball of fire before it stops being funny."

Oliver's program hit the nail on the head. A recent paper published in the journal Earth's Future by Maibach, Myers, and Leiserowitz discussed the importance of public awareness of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming.

"Those who do not understand the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change are, in turn, less likely to believe that climate change is happening, human-caused, will have serious consequences, and is solvable (i.e., can be mitigated through concerted action). In addition, not understanding this scientific consensus undermines Americans' support for a broad societal response to the threat. As a result, knowledge of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change can be considered a “gateway” cognition; as members of the general public come to understand the consensus, they more likely come to the conclusion that human-caused climate change is happening and harmful."

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. I'm pretty sure this video was already posts here at SKS on May 13th, no?


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  2. This video might have some effect on the illiterate but won't do anything to change the denier's attitude as they already are aware of the science but prefer (for whatever reason) to contradict it. Posting it again doesn't re-inforce its message.

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  3. Dana writes a blog for The Guardian and copies his posts here at SkS. I expect this largely for the audience there.

    Localis - I operate on the assumption that contrarians are impervious to any factual information that contradicts their preconceived notions. Most here as SkS do so as well. Afterall, you cannot reason a person out of a postion they never reason themselves into in the first place.

    What I'm getting at is that contrarians aren't our target audience. It's probably the same at The Guardian, although they do get infested with climate trolls.  

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  4. Rob@3,

    I took to the online dictionary to find out:

    Noun 1. contrarian - an investor who deliberately decides to go against the prevailing wisdom of other investors

    Hhm, that's quite different definition than yours. More to do with economic gambling rather than science in general. Yours is better described by the term "science denier". Our dictionary is changing, and IMO degrading itself by fusing the two terms: "contrarian" and "denier".

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  5. Contrarian:

    I've no idea when this was first used as a sort of politically correct euphemism for someone who denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

    However, I first saw the term used in that context in James Hansen's book, "Storms of my Grandchildren". About 3 or 4 years ago, I borrowed the book from one of the local libraries in Devon, and its publishing date was 2009 - I think.

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  6. @localis, you're right, it won't do anything to change the denier's attitude. Recently I was involved in a discussion where somebody proudly proclaimed that Bedford & Cook were wrong in asserting that Cook et al. found 97% consensus that humans were the main cause. I agree, since it found 'only' the consensus on AGW (which means they are a cause and not necessarily the main one), but this person blew this lapse out of proportion. It was a typical penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude that you encounter in individuals that pretend to introduce rationality in the discourse.

    It makes me wonder, however, how Bedford & Cook could make such an obvious mistake.

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  7. BojanD @6, a paper assessed as reporting that 45% of global warming was anthropogenic, with the rest being natural would have been rated as rejecting the consensus on global warming.  That is made explicit by rating category 7.  As categories 5-7 do not differ on whether they endorse or reject the consensus, but only the quality of the evidence as to whether they endorse or reject the consensus, what applies to category 7 also applies to categories 5 and 6.  Similar reasoning applies in reverse for endorsement.  Consequently, I do not think it was Bedford and Cook who made the mistake in this instance.

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  8. Not sure I'm following you. I've read the guidelines on rating abstracts and they don't align well with what you're saying here. Just consider that a lot of papers are from the 90s and if the paper from that period explicitly endorses IPCC view (see 3.6), than they endorse the view of the FAR and SAR report and the SAR found discernable influence, not main one. Of course I'm aware that was the state of the climatology of that period, but we're not discussing the evidence here, but the consensus.

    I've rated some abstracts myself and there were a lot from the third category implicit endorsement that I've rated as fourth (no position) when the main cause was the issue. If I read "one of the sources of CO(2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) that influence global climate change", I can't possibly know if this influence is the main one. So Cook et al correctly worded the main findings, but Bedford and Cook didn't, which is surprising, but not that terribly important.

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  9. BojanD @8, if you are rating abstracts, your task is to assign each abstract to one of seven bins (categories).  In doing so, each abstract can only be assigned to one bin; and no assignment can be arbitrary.  These two requirements, together with the guidelines on rating abstracts and the descriptions of the rating levels themselves provide an operational definition of "endorses AGW" and "rejects AGW" for Cook et al.

    Now, suppose you have an abstract that says in part "40 to 45% of the recent (late 20th century) temperature rise is attributable to anthropogenic factors, with natural factors being responsible for 55-60% of that rise".  If we compare the abstract to rating category 7 (rejects with quantification), then we must place this abstract in that bin for it explicitly states, and quantifies, that natural factors are responsible for more than 50% of recent warming.

    According to you, however, we must also place the abstract in bin 2 (explicitly endorses without quantification), for (according to you) "endorsing AGW" means anthropogenic factors are "means [are] a cause and not necessarily the main one", and if they are are the cause of 40-45%  of the recent warming, they are certainly a cause but not the main one.

    That means by your definition, either we must place that abstract in two bins, or the bin we place it in is arbitrary, depending on which bin we compare it to first rather than any particular features of the abstract.  As placing an abstract in two bins is prohibitted, and as rating must be non-arbitrary, it follows that your definition is wrong.  Indeed, the only definition that does not fall foul of the requirement of exclusiveness of rating (only one rating permitted) and non-arbitrariness is a definition that defines "endorses AGW" as endorsing recent warming to be at least 50% caused by anthropogenic factors. 

    In one respect, this more precise definition does not make much difference in that we gain the greater precission of definition only at the cost of a potentially greater error rate in classification.  That is, with the more precise definition, it is more probable that an abstract that should have been rated 4 was rated 3.  However, even if we suppose 50% of all endorsing abstract ratings reported in the paper are in error, and should have been rated 4, that still leave a 96.2% endorsement rate among papers not rated as neutral (compared to 98% reported in Cook et al).  Such a 50% error rate is absurdly high, so whatever the actual error rate, the substantial result of Cook et al stands even with the accurate, precise defenition of "endorses AGW".

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  10. Tom, your last point is excellent. I've just checked the robustness of the consensus figure by flipping numbers between 3rd and 4th category and they are indeed very stable and well above 90% even in most extreme cases.

    The discussion about operational definition is not so compelling to me, though. I'm not even sure where the alleged problem of exclusion comes from, but I admit the methodology of such studies is not my bag. If the goal is to get a lower bound of a consensus I don't see an inconsistency. Cook et al. found an upper bound and that was my problem, but since this figure is very inelastic, that's ok for me. Looks like I've given the guy I was discussing with too much credit. ;) Thx for clarification.

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