Polar Bear Blogs Denying Climate Change Are Being Used to Spread Conspiracy Theories Around the Globe

Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region, on November 4, 2017, above Antarctica. NASA's Operation IceBridge has been studying how polar ice has evolved over the past nine years and is currently flying a set of nine-hour research flights over West Antarctica to monitor ice loss aboard a retrofitted 1966 Lockheed P-3 aircraft. Getty

Polar bears and melting sea ice have become iconic symbols among mainstream climate change discussions—filling the pages of climate and science blogs attempting to separate fact from fiction. But a new study reveals that climate-denying blogs that target the poster topics of polar bears and sea ice, use almost no peer-reviewed scientific literature. Even worse: most rely on other denier blogs. The science blogs that did not deny climate change largely aligned with formal scientific literature.

"It's a very dangerous gap, as these blogs are read by millions," Jeff Harvey, lead author and researcher from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology said in a statement.

Giant tabular icebergs are surrounded by ice floe drift in Vincennes Bay on January 11, 2008 in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Australia's CSIRO's atmospheric research unit has found the world is warming faster than predicted by the United Nations' top climate change body, with harmful emissions exceeding worst-case estimates. Getty

You could call it—as the researchers do—a polarized debate. Researchers analyzed 90 climate blogs—half of which were denier blogs. They used all the scientific papers they could find that investigated both polar bears and sea ice, which added up to 92, and scored their positions on sea ice extent and whether it is decreasing significantly and the threat of extinction versus adaptability of polar bears.

A striking 80 percent of the climate-denying blogs that were analyzed relied on one blog in particular written by Susan Crockford—a source that the authors said "had neither conducted any original research nor published any articles in the peer-reviewed literature on polar bears."

Harvey was surprised at the sheer number of blogs that relied on Crockford exclusively—creating a "colloquial echochamber."

"She's saying what they want to believe, and it's kind of a confirmation bias," Harvey told Newsweek. "To me, it's kind of frightening."

A polar bear sits on the Hudson Bay fresh ice next to a hole in the ice and close to the shore waiting for a seal meal for, 15 November 2007, outside Churchill, Mantioba, Canada. Polar bears return to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, to hunt for seals on the icepack every year at this time and remain on the icepack feeding on seals until the spring thaw. Getty

The findings reveal how even one person without scientific credentials can spread disinformation, he said. Blogs will turn to other bloggers to hear what they want to hear—rather than worrying about accuracy. It "suggests that something is wrong in our science communication," Harvey said.

Crockford has published "briefings" on conservative think tanks and has been described as a polar bear expert, but uses a "scientific uncertainty" and "public accountability of science" framework to criticize scientists' findings. The authors use an example based on a peer-reviewed paper written by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey that Crockford described as "bogus," "lame" and "dangerous."

"Rhetorical devices to evoke fear and other emotions, such as implying that the public is under threat from deceitful scientists, are common tactics employed by science-denier groups," the authors wrote.

Peer-reviewed literature, which the climate-denying blogs do not rely on, is a gate-keeping system where other scientists have the opportunity to evaluate a paper prior to its publication for its authenticity.

"It's not a perfect system, but it is a kind of filter," Harvey said. Blogs are great in some ways and allow freedom for people to voice what they believe since anyone can set one up, he said. But climate denier blogs are often organized by those who are not experts and who have political affiliations and agendas.

"The problem is how do we evaluate the scientific authenticity of what they say," Harvey said, which is why he set out to write this paper.

The study, published in BioScience on Wednesday, also spells out methods to determine the credibility of climate and science blogs, including following the data, money, credentials and language. Climate deniers often do not have relevant expertise and use insults such as "eco-fascists" and "green terrorists."

Polar bears have become a "poster species" for human-caused climate change, the study notes. Retreating sea ice is associated with polar bear populations, which makes it another symbol for climate change.

"It's like they're the quarterback on the football team," Harvey said. Climate-deniers use this to try to knock down evidence of how climate change will affect polar bears and sea ice, since they believe if they can disprove one tiny aspect of climate change, it will result in a domino effect. The study called them "keystone dominos," which are used strategically, Harvey said. If the public knew the extent of evidence on all the ways climate change is affecting the Earth, Harvey said, "then maybe they would be more convinced."

Harvey called on scientists to fill the climate-denying gaps on the corners of the internet. He said scientists have a moral and ethical duty to counter disinformation.

"Scientists," Harvey said in a statement, "climb down from your desk and start to counter the misinformation on social media directly—and via the traditional media as well. Engage with the public via the blogosphere or citizen science for example. And very importantly, adjust your focus to what is clear instead of all the uncertain things still to need to be studied."