BOB: In the arena of climate change coverage, there's often a gap between science based facts and what is actually reported. This sometimes has to do with confusion, sometimes with oversimplification, sometimes with zeal. If only the errors could be quickly flagged and corrected by actual scientists. Well - aha! Now comes a project called, 'Climate Feedback,' a collective of accredited climate scientists who use a browser plugin to annotate climate journalism online. Emmanuel Vincent is the project's founder and a researcher at the University of California Merced's Center for Climate Communication.
VINCENT: Alright, so the process in our project is to have scientists go online and annotate the news and say what they think about the trustworthiness of the news right there in the same web browser. So we have new tool for that, which is called the hypothesis plugin, that allows anyone to annotate a piece of text online. And we, in our project, invite scientists to use this tool to give feedback on the accuracy of the news. But they could also provide more context and give their insight.
BOB: So can you give me an example of how the plugin might work?
VINCENT: So one of the stories, we annotated, was in the Wall Street Journal, and it was written by Bjorn Lomborg and in that case, I think, most of the scientists had serious issues with the accuracy of many scientific facts that were mentioned. For instance, he says, that the sea levels are rising but the rise is not accelerating. And this is quoted as a good news. And in this case, the scientists bring a figure saying that, if you not just look at the few last years but look at the decayed long record of sea level rise we have, you don't see much of a deceleration. You more see, the rate of rise of sea level, just keeps going up and up. If you have a problem and the problem persists, then it's not such good news to say that it's not accelerating.
BOB: Did the Wall Street Journal issue a clarification or a correction or in any way change its text, which of course lives online in perpetuity.
VINCENT: No, not that I know of. So we had more of an interaction with Bjorn Lomborg in another journal and he replied to our comments. But most of the times, journalist issues are not about getting the facts wrong, it's more for instance about cherry picking, so you can have correct facts, but you ignore another part of the data that would go against your story. And in that case, it's not just fact checking that needs to be done, it's also bringing more context. But another aspect that we would like to foster too, is to bring scientists in closer contact with journalists. So to make it easier for journalists to find resources deemed accurate by scientists and also to find experts in the field that they are speaking about.
BOB: One problem that we haven't discussed, isn't reportorial bias or ignorance, but audience bias and ignorance. The scientific truth about climate change in particular has been so successfully politicized, is there any level of annotation that will defeat preconceived notions of the reader?
VINCENT: I think in the case of preconceived notions of the reader, our project may not be the most efficient way of speaking to people who really don't want to trust scientists. Our audience is maybe more people who are willing to hear about what the scientists have to say. But maybe confused because there is so much contradictory information online. One of the objectives that we have is that indeed readers change maybe their habit when they are reading something in the news and if they see our comments once on a report, they may think, 'hey, scientists have got something to say about what I read in the news, so next time I run into a piece, maybe I will ask myself a question, has this information been checked by scientists? Is it consistent with what scientists really think?' So maybe that could be a first step that readers develop critical thinking. You want to have people critical, not just of what they don't like to hear, but about everything. And you also want them to have a reference that is the scientific body of knowledge. Not just the people that they trust and they like to hear about.
BOB: Emmanuel, thank you so much.
VINCENT: Thank you.
BOB: Emmanuel Vincent is the founder of Climate Feedback, a group of climate scientists annotated climate journalism online.