Try this. Type the following question into Google’s search engine: Is global warming…. After the first 6 letters, Google offers you this choice of questions: Is global warming real? And, Is global warming a hoax? Even worse than the biased questions is the stream of ‘fake news’ and climate sceptic web pages you are directed to. How did the climate-denying right come to dominate Google’s space so effectively? It’s a bun fight out there on the web, and climate science is losing hands down.
As the Greener Jobs Alliance reports in its latest Newsletter, 7 of the top 10 sites Google offers in reply to the question Is global warming real were in denial, or at best climate sceptic. Only one was a reputable climate science research centre, the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA provides a wealth of online, peer reviewed information. It was the only site to report that, ‘Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal,’ quoting evidence from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Google ranked these pages above NASA:
- A misinformed article in the Daily Express in June 2015, reporting that, ‘Global Warming is the greatest scam in history…because it has been categorically proved not to exist.’ Apparently, polar ice is ‘increasing.’
- ConserveEnergy, a climate sceptic site with the headline, Is global warming real: Top five arguments in favour and against it? This website manages to nicely mash up the data and lead the reader to believe that there is as much doubt as certainty about the very existence of global warming. It fails to mention the key fact that rising levels of CO2 are linked to our consumption of fossil fuels. But then you notice ConserveEnergy links across to oil company ConocoPhillips, which, to hazard a guess, and forgive the scepticism, may fund it. And that’s where you find handy links to troubling US-based sites like TownHall.
- TownHall: which offers ‘scientific reasons’ why global warming isn’t happening. ConocoPhillips advertises on this site
So how did Google fail to give due and appropriate prominence to any of the reputable climate change research centres based in the UK, like the Grantham Institute, the Hadley Centre, or the Committee on Climate Change, or the daily bulletin from the Energy and Climate Information Unit?
And when the Greener Jobs Alliance began a similar search, Is climate change … ? It was offered the choice of Is climate change a hoax? All of Google’s 11 answers were climate sceptic. Try this one:
- GlobalClimateScam: Top Ten Reasons Climate Change is a Hoax – ‘Arctic sea ice has also made a nice comeback in 2014. If you look at the satellite data, 2014 was not the warmest year ever, in fact there has been no global warming for over 18 years.’
Google tells us that its search engine uses a computer programme with an algorithm, or set of rules. Google says it looks:
‘for clues to give you back exactly what you want. For a typical query, there are thousands, if not millions, of web pages with helpful information. Algorithms are the computer processes and formulas that take your questions and turn them into answers. Today Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for. These signals include things like the terms on websites, the freshness of content, your region and page rank.’
Page rank is the number and quality of links made to a web page. It estimates how important the website is.
My conclusions are these:
- It’s a bun fight out there on the web, and climate change science is losing out badly. The hundreds of climate sceptic or denying web pages include a stream of ‘news’ reports from the likes of The Telegraph, The Express, Breitbart, International Business Times and Huffington Post, to sites with a mission to rubbish climate science, like Conserve Energy Future, TownHall, GlobalClimateScam, Friends of Science, skepticalscience, quota, naturalness, and americanthinker.
- Sites seem to get top ranking because they advertise, so Google gets their revenue, or because their operators game the rules by constantly cross-referencing each other, boosting their daily hit rate.
- I’m totally confused about the rules Google used to steer search questions towards the climate sceptics.
- And, worse, the rules Google uses to ‘guess what you might really be looking for’ Because, being an environmentalist, Google has pointed me away from my usual round of internet sources of trustworthy information on climate change and the green economy, towards a landscape peppered with make believe and fake news.
If I was handed this kind of material at my local library, I’d know who to complain to, the head librarian. Or failing that, the democratically accountable local council who funds it. How does Google intend to match that standard of transparency and public accountability? Or to justify its lamentable failure to provide informed answers to one of the most important questions of our time?
For balance, these two websites draw on peer reviewed science:
National Aeronautics and Space Administration: NASA’s Science Mission is to ‘lead the nation on a great journey of discovery, seeking new knowledge and understanding of our planet Earth, our Sun and solar system, and the universe out to its farthest reaches and back to its earliest moments of existence.’ See: Vital signs for the planet
Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services: Provides world-class guidance on the science of climate change and is the primary focus in the UK for climate science. Helping the UK prepare – UK flooding.
Meanwhile, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), is a global platform for trade unions from all sectors that sparks debate on the democratic control of energy policy, with reports on vital issues such as the Keystone Pipeline, anti-fracking movements such as Standing Rock, carbon pricing, carbon capture and storage and public energy policy.
Philip Pearson chair, Hackney Energy