Newsrooms around the world blamed climate change after a new study spotlighted the disappearance of five islands in the Pacific Ocean, but the study's author says those reports are exaggerated.
"All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the 'climate change has made islands vanish' angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply 'climate change'," one of the report's chief researchers, Dr. Simon Albert, told the Guardian.
The study, which was published last weekend, observed changes to 33 reef islands in the Solomon Islands over a 67-year period. Researchers found that of the 33 monitored islands, six have corroded, and five have disappeared altogether. The study concluded that the five islands disappeared due to a combination of sea-level rise and "high wave energy."
To non-scientists, sea level rise and climate change have become synonymous, even though scientists themselves see it differently, the Guardian explained. Albert said sea-level rise in the area of the Pacific Ocean he studied has risen twice as fast as the global average, and said trade winds caused by climactic cycles are also a major factor.
These details became blurred, however, as newsrooms immediately pegged "climate change" as being responsible for the vanishing act.
"Study Links Vanishing of Solomon Islands to Anthropogenic Climate Change," read National Geographic headline.
ABC News reported, "Five Solomon Islands Disappear Into the Pacific Ocean as a Result of Climate Change."
"5 Pacific Islands Were Just Wiped Off The Map Thanks To Climate Change," said Elite Daily.
The Washington Post said, "After the Pacific Ocean swallows villages and five Solomon Islands, a study blames climate change."
The Guardian also reported that climate change drowned the five islands.
But Albert, who's sympathetic to the cause of sounding the alarm of climate change, said the headlines simply don't match the study's findings.
"I understand why these more dramatic titles are used and it does help bring attention to the issue that I firmly believe will become a major issue for the islands in the second half if this century from climate change," he said, adding that a recent op-ed he co-authored could also explain why newsrooms went with misleading headlines.
Albert and his colleagues are hardly alone in having their findings badly misrepresented by the media, as the botching of scientific findings has long been a problem for the press.
"I was kind of shocked at how bad the reporting is," Dr. Johannes Bohannon, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology, told the Washington Examiner's media desk last year when he explained his personal experiences dealing with the media's handling of scientific data. "I didn't realize how bad people who call themselves proper journalists are at covering this beat."
"Right now, there's absolutely no accountability," he added. "The bulls—t is just flooding. And it's flooding out of these media venues and no one gets any push back."
Junkscience.com founder Steve Milloy added at the same time that, "The digital age has made it easier to spread junk science. The bad news is that it's really easy to get it out there."
"It's a real battle out there. It's always hard to turn the ship around," he said, adding that reporters "will take media releases from journals and institutions and basically regurgitate them."
That seems to have been the case with the press' coverage of the reef island study.
"It appears that in some cases journalists did not contact the researchers and instead quoted from a comment piece the authors wrote on The Conversation website," the Guardian reported.
(h/t Lachlan Markay)