climate denialism
Alan Jones and opponent of "deep green alarmism" Kevin Donnelly. (Image: AAP/Ben Rushton)

From anti-vaxxers to climate deniers to a general simmering scepticism of science, denialism in all its forms is everywhere. Crikey is presenting a four-part series on how the seeds of doubt are planted and how they blossom through media and politics. Read the first part here.

It’s hard to look at denialism without considering the role of the media. News Corp columnists and 2GB commentators are heavily associated with climate change denialism, and The Australian’s news coverage of climate change is regularly criticised.

Commentators and opinion writers have some of the loudest voices, and in some cases they’ve helped move various strands of climate denialism from the fringes of social media and the internet to mainstream media and political debate. They can be looser with journalism conventions than reporters writing for the news sections (more on that tomorrow), and will often rely on anecdotes and poor science for their opinions.

The lack of political will to take action on climate change, for example, is often at least partially attributed to the loud voices in the media that question the accepted science — in Australia, that includes 2GB’s Alan Jones and News Corp columnists such as Andrew Bolt.

These commentators might have an influence on policy. But Dr Rod Lamberts, who is deputy director at the ANU’s Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, says they aren’t necessarily driving an increase in the number of people who disbelieve the accepted science on any given topic.

“When Andrew Bolt says something about climate on his show, he has a very small audience,” Lamberts told Crikey. “He’s not changing anyone’s mind … People go to the media that already reflect what they believe, and I’m not convinced that the Tele is turning people to that belief or people who have that belief are going other news outlets.”

Lamberts says the effect of Jones and other commentators was more likely to influence politicians, rather than change minds within the general audience.

“The Alan Jones effect is quite profound but it’s more profound among politicians who believe their base is his listeners,” he said. “Alan Jones is biggest in Sydney but it’s a pretty specific and narrow audience … People go to the media that already reflect what they believe.”

Finding the right evidence

Sydney University public health expert Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman said some news outlets would only publish articles about studies and reports that fit a particular narrative. “There are some newspapers that pride themselves on running journalists who make a reputation out of going for bizarre reports based on at-best spurious studies, often published in D-Grade or worse journals, and who don’t give you any reply,” he said.

Chapman agreed with Lamberts that the loudest denialists weren’t likely to be converting their listeners: “The type of people that listen to Alan Jones, for example, they’re the people who have an appetite for those theories: that scientists are corrupt, they’ve never met a real person, they’re only dealing with statistics.”

These outlets, Chapman says, return to the same denialists for quotes on pet topics, especially climate change and wind farms: “The people who push these ideas often live and breathe their dedication to that cause … they do nothing else from the moment they wake up, but thinking about who they can use to further their message. They learn who’s going to hang up on them and the people who are going to give them oxygen, and there are outliers that do that on a wide range of issues.”

Lamberts said the issue of denialism was separate to that of whether people were anti-science. “We hear the rhetoric a lot that certain people are very anti-science, but people are more likely to be against a certain science. I know anti-vaccination people who are concerned about climate change, Mothers against GM are very pro-climate science. It’s extremely selective.”

Are ‘deniers’ really anti-science?

Professor Julie Leask from the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sydney, who has studied media representation of vaccination for more than 20 years, told Crikey that it wasn’t always helpful for the media to focus on denialism as “anti-science”.

“When there’s a narrative that questioning vaccination equals denying science, it can play into an environment that is reactionary and unhelpful,” Leask said. “With the whole rhetoric around denialism we have to think carefully about what we mean by that. The anti-vaccination activists often don’t specifically deny science, they’ll make it look like they have their own science.”

Leask hasn’t seen any evidence of a rise in denial of the effectiveness of vaccinations in Australia in her research. “Whenever I go looking for evidence that there is a rise in doubt about safety of vaccines, I can’t find it,” she said. She said that the anti-vaccination movement, while it got some traction online and in some communities, didn’t seem to have a huge influence on actual vaccination behaviour.

“Anti-vaccination activists have been there, trying to undermine public confidence in vaccination since the practice began. When I started studying this in 1997, they were already using the internet, but also using stalls at fairs, lobbying MPs,” Leask said. “But because we have social media we’re now exposed to these attempts and beliefs more than ever.”

What do you think of News Corp’s influence on scientific discussion in Australia? Let us know. Write to [email protected].