Is climate change 100 times more threatening than gain-of-function research?
Mentions of climate change in news media vastly outnumber other existential threats
Previously, I documented the scant attention that the lab-leak hypothesis received in news media during the first 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some reason, interest on this hypothesis only started to emerge post January 2021 and exploded in May 2021.
Nicholas Wade extraordinary essay about the origins of Covid-19 might have played a role in bringing the lab-leak hypothesis to the limelight (see green vertical dashed lines in charts below).
Recently, I updated my previous charts about the prominence in news media of the lab-leak hypothesis. Despite the burst of media attention in May and June of 2021, interest quickly waned after the summer of 2021.
I also examined news media attention to the dangerous gain-of-function research, a possible culprit of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is obvious from the chart below, that other than Fox News, the New York Post and marginally the Wall Street Journal, in 2022 most news media outlets have mostly ignored this topic.
This made me wonder about the comparative prominence in news media of different existential risks for humanity. The chart below shows that climate change vastly overshadows other existential risks by a wide margin in terms of prominence in news media.
The chart is striking in the sense that it reflects a world where the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps caused by gain-of-function research going astray, killed millions of people worldwide and disrupted the lives of billions. Yet, mentions of climate change were 50 times larger than mentions of gain-of-function research and related terms.
The chart above is also misleading in the sense that most mentions of gain of function research occurred in Fox News. If we remove that outlet from the analysis, the prominence of climate change is 160 times larger than gain of function research.
Even if we add additional terms about genetic engineering and synthetic biology in general, mentions of climate change are still 13 times larger.
The obvious question from the charts above is whether the distribution of media attention is appropriate. That is, it’s climate change really orders of magnitude more menacing to humanity than gain-of-function research to deserve such an outsized prominence in media?
Also important, the relative obscurity of AI alignment in media discourse. Although it is likely that this will change in 2023. Media prominence of nuclear war is also probably inflated in 2022 due to the war between Russia and Ukraine.
It would be unfair to make the media exclusively responsible of topic prominence in their content. Despite journalists/editors having a substantial amount of power to choose which topics to amplify and which ones to dampen, to a certain extent the media also reflects the attention that other institutions and society as a whole pay to different topics.
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