August 15, 2022 - 11:52am

If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And if you’re a media ecosystem with a fixation on hammers, you will do your best to make anything look like a nail.

This is the inescapable conclusion from the reporting around a recent study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Temperature, which looked at the relationship between climate change and children’s fitness — and reported the findings entirely backwards to fit a pre-existing political narrative.

The study pointed out that that children’s aerobic physical fitness is 30% lower than that of their parents at the same age, arguing that this is a problem because aerobic physical fitness is vital for tolerating higher temperatures. This in turn means that where climate change is causing temperatures to increase, obese individuals will find it harder to cope.

This is sensible stuff — but the study was reported as stating that climate change had caused reduced fitness in children. The study itself pointed to Covid lockdown measures, among many other factors, as having exacerbated an already-existing issue of poor fitness in children. But headlines suggested children are staying indoors because it’s too hot and that this is why they’re less fit than their parents.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that reduced aerobic fitness in this generation of children long precedes measurably rising outdoor temperatures of the kind that could be attributed to climate change. Here’s a report from 2013 on the topic, for example, that describes aerobic fitness in children decreasing every decade from 1975 onward.

Nor do you have to be a scientist to come up with multiple factors that are plausibly contributing to this unhappy situation. Anyone with young children, or just rudimentary powers of observation, needs only a moment’s reflection to think of multiple ways in which 21st-century life militates against physically active childhood, compared to the world just a few decades ago. But we mustn’t let minor considerations like the patent absurdity of a claim, or its rampant misreading of an actual scientific paper, get in the way of a clickbait mass-media narrative on a much-hyped topic.

A sensible paper discussing the importance of physical fitness in ensuring resilience in the face of changing climate has been reported entirely backwards. Obesity, discussed as a cause of difficulty in adapting to climate change, is reported as the effect of climate change itself, while ignoring politically inconvenient factors cited in the paper itself as contributing to poor fitness.

But this is only an especially egregious example of how even supposedly respectable media can’t be relied on to read even the abstract of a research paper, before editorialising on it in terms that align with established political narratives. And arguably whether or not such specious editorialising qualifies as “misinformation” mostly depends on your political priors.

Given this, the now-widespread cynicism that increasingly greets “expert” opinion in the press is perhaps understandable. It’s all very well saying “follow the science” – but the average Joe may be forgiven for concluding that “the science” is not so much a reliable source of truth as a pick n’mix array of talking-points for a pre-determined political agenda.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.