My EarthSky Podcast on America's Scientific Illiteracy and Climate Change Dysfunctionality

By Chris Mooney | March 16, 2010 11:56 am

At the AAAS meeting in San Diego last month, I spoke with EarthSky’s Lindsay Patterson, and the resultant podcast just went up. You can listen here, or by playing the embedded audio below, and I’ve also pasted some transcribed sections below:

And now, the write-up:

Chris Mooney: The science has been coming in saying that global warming is real, human-caused, and it keeps getting stronger scientifically.

Chris Mooney is a journalist and the author of the 2009 book, Unscientific America. Mooney spoke about the reasons behind what he calls American inaction on climate change.

Chris Mooney: It’s a problem of politics plus media leading to inability to function on this issue. We’re a divided country and we handle science issues according to politicization and divisiveness, rather than according to what the science actually says.

Mooney pointed to the decline of print media, and the rise of political blogs. He believes good communication of science may now rest with scientists, themselves.

Chris Mooney: The scientific community is going to have to find new ways of getting that information out. Or else it may be the case that we can’t get society to act on the best scientific knowledge that we have. And that may be catastrophic.

He said that scientists have learned a powerful lesson about the need to communicate what they know with the public.

Chris Mooney: I think the scientific community is ready to change -in fundamental ways – how it engages with the public. That means one key part of the equation is going to be functioning better. Hopefully that will create a more scientific America, slowly.

In addition to his concern about the declining quality and quantity of vetted science news, Mooney talked about his belief that science media has suffered at the hands of a number of popular conservative blogs that he termed, ‘anti-science.’

Chris Mooney: It’s the kind of tactics being brought against science I haven’t seen before. It’s staggeringly frightening to watch how much of a revolt against science you can have in this country on an issue that’s politicized like that.

He said that at the same time, scientists have not reacted properly to the attacks against them.

Chris Mooney: Scientists are so worried about the fact that climate research and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are coming under brutal attack. There have been some mistakes made but nothing justifying the kinds of attacks that have come. My point is okay, the situation’s bad. What are you going to do about it? Because this is a new media world. You need to adapt to it.

Mooney spoke about “ClimateGate,” in which emails between climate scientists were hacked and made public.

Chris Mooney: Scientists needed to realize that capacity was there to create a semblance of scandal. They needed to respond immediately, loudly, and with one voice, saying, ‘Okay, we’re looking into these things, but these things are not fundamental to what we know. The science rests on many foundations.’
Written by Lindsay Patterson

Once again, the original podcast is here.

Comments (15)

  1. Dark Tent

    Chris Mooney: Scientists needed to realize that capacity was there to create a semblance of scandal. They needed to respond immediately, loudly, and with one voice, saying, ‘Okay, we’re looking into these things, but these things are not fundamental to what we know. The science rests on many foundations.’

    “Scientists needed to…?”

    As in “should have, but did not”?

    Based on the statements I have read coming out of various scientific organizations (probably the closest you can ever get to “One Voice” on scientific issues) , it seems to me that ‘Okay, we’re looking into these things, but these things are not fundamental to what we know” is pretty much precisely how scientists have responded in this case.

    “scientists have learned a powerful lesson about the need to communicate what they know with the public.”

    I think the most important lesson that scientists have learned in recent years is that they can simply not depend on others (sadly, not even science journalists) to get even the “big picture” right.

  2. Lance

    Chris,

    You “frame” the issue as “Climate Change is proven to be dangerous and all scientists agree but ignorant Americans mislead by anti-science blogs and right wing think tanks just aren’t getting the message. Scientists need to become vocal advocates of specific anti-carbon policies to effect the right kind of change.”

    This is propaganda far worse than that proffered by any “right-wing think tank”.

    Here is an excerpt from an interview with Judith Curry, head of the Georgia Tech
    School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, from your very own Discover blogs.

    Are you saying that the scientific community, through the IPCC, is asking the world to restructure its entire mode of producing and consuming energy and yet hasn’t done a scientific uncertainty analysis?

    Yes. The IPCC itself doesn’t recommend policies or whatever; they just do an assessment of the science. But it’s sort of framed in the context of the UNFCCC [the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]. That’s who they work for, basically. The UNFCCC has a particular policy agenda—Kyoto, Copenhagen, cap-and-trade, and all that—so the questions that they pose at the IPCC have been framed in terms of the UNFCCC agenda. That’s caused a narrowing of the kind of things the IPCC focuses on. It’s not a policy-free assessment of the science. That actually torques the science in certain directions, because a lot of people are doing research specifically targeted at issues of relevance to the IPCC. Scientists want to see their papers quoted in the IPCC report.

    She is admitting that the IPCC is a political organization that distorts the science to fit a preconceived idea for political purposes, something that is all too obvious to objective observers with any scientific acumen.

    After further criticizing the IPCC’s lack of rigor she then tries to make a lame appeal to the “precautionary principle”.

    Should we wait to resolve all the uncertainty before taking action?

    The probability of something bad happening is at least as high as the probability that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That turned out not to be true, but we ended up going in there anyway. So we have a history of taking action on bad things that have a low probability of happening.

    Hmm, how did that “pre-emptive” action turn out? I’m sure all of you folks that are so enamored of carbon mitigation were right there with the whole Bush invasion of Iraq thing right?

  3. Nullius in Verba

    You missed a bit. The statement needs to end “And here are those foundations in detail…”

    You see, the problem is not that the scientists didn’t say loudly and clearly “Move along, nothing to see here,” but that people no longer believed them. Because it’s no longer sufficient just to say there are “many foundations” and nothing has changed, now you have to prove it. And so far, all we’ve seen is more of the same.

    “Trust us, we’re scientists…”

  4. Jon

    Nullis: …now you have to prove it.

    They’ve already proved it to each other.

    They assumed the modern world had caught up with the Enlightenment, more or less, and would accept their findings, as long as their methods were sound.

    Apparently not. Something else is needed.

  5. bobruss

    Almost everything in the propagit stream has focused on the warming of polar seas and the atmosphere. Why doesn’t someone use the fact that the oceanic content’s increase in CO2 is steady, and the concomitant change in acidity of the ocean is dissolving the coral in tropic seas.

    Those are things that can’t be faked or hacked, and not nearly so ephemeral or difficult for the laymen to grasp. The loss of sea life is apparent for those who look.

    Cassandra offers a life lesson for scientists — to be believed, one must be believable; and must communicate in concrete terms. . Lawyers are trained to communicate, but they are only mouthpieces until they are fed the information that must be communicated. Most politicians are lawyers, and have already sacrificed trust by becoming politicians.

    The scientific community must therefore communicate, as Nullius has said, in specific words that point to testable phenomena and allow the politicians to believe they can be reelected and gain power by providing backup and money for research.

    The public understood E=MC2, or thought it did, because it showed results. Now we must communicate in a tagline byte stream: Excess CO2 => PH change => Coral dying => the food chain disintegrating.

  6. Elena Strange

    @bobruss, you’re right that CO2 increase and acidity change can’t be hacked or faked. Easy to communicate, sure. But I’m not sure those issues would strike a chord with folks the way we need it to. Loss of sea life—whatever, hippie.

    When climate scientists and journalists talk about the atmosphere and temperature, on the other hand, it makes the issue more personal. As in, Look what we’re handing down to our kids and grandkids.

    Maybe there’s a good way to combine the two. That’s what we’re always looking for, right? Data and facts combined with a compelling narrative to capture people’s interest. Excess CO2 => PH change => Coral dying => the food chain disintegrating => *our* food chain disintegrating => impacts our way of life => impacts our actual lives…

  7. Nullius in Verba

    “Now we must communicate in a tagline byte stream”

    Ummm… no, that wasn’t what I meant. I meant that the scientists have to explain to the general public the actual reasons why they think there is a problem. Not something short and snappy but badly flawed.

    All sceptics have to do is point out that atmospheric CO2 levels were 10-15 times higher than they are today during the Cambrian/Ordovician period when creatures like corals and shellfish evolved. How come they didn’t all go extinct in the ‘acid’ seas?

    The scientists know that, which is why their beliefs are founded on rather more complicated arguments. But this is the problem. They’re so convinced that the public won’t understand a lengthy argument, that they have instead allowed the use of “tagline byte streams” that are strictly speaking not true. The arguments can be fixed, but by the time they do it’s already far too late.

    You can’t teach science except by teaching science.

  8. Mike McCracken

    My parents are in love with the right wing propaganda machine and we have argued about climate change. My current reply to them when they say they do not believe in global warming is “you will.”

    Sadly, even though we can see it happen with ice caps, glaciers, coral reefs, ocean acidity, weather patterns, migration patterns, plant and animal habitat changes and a host of other evidence, there are people who claim it is not enough “proof.” When there are fewer glaciers, open water at the north pole, etc. it may still not be enough.

    But when there are water and food shortages, and people being displaced by encroaching oceans they will begin to believe.

  9. TTT

    Chris, can you PLEASE stop blaming the victims for this? You keep acting like there was any way on Earth for scientists to have been prepared for a massive email hack and concerted media propaganda campaign that pronounced them guilty on sight. Like identity theft, it is impossible for the victim to “win”–just trying to get back to what was once normal is an expensive, time-consuming, generally hellish struggle.

    Professional science communicators like yourself were already on the job, doing what you’ve always advised people to do. Why didn’t YOU make it all go away? Why did your methods fail? Why is it that even on your own blog, with a loyal audience that reads everything you say, you are surrounded by eco-denialists and conspiracists?

  10. Dave in Calif

    “In addition to his concern about the declining quality and quantity of vetted science news, Mooney talked about his belief that science media has suffered at the hands of a number of popular conservative blogs that he termed, ‘anti-science.’”
    Okay sure, there might be some decline in science news, and there might BE some anti-science (like PETA..oh wait that’s waaayyyyy left sorry). You brought it up now prove it, like who, what and where, otherwise you can not ever be taken seriously…like with the folks who REALLY matter, the scientific community.

  11. GM

    You simply can not claim that the USA is “super-advanced” in science. It isn’t. It is a leader in technology, which is a related, but different beast. You can only say that a nation is “super-advanced in science” if scientific thinking dominated decision making and public conversation. Which is hardly the case.

    And I still have to hear an adequate plan for action from you. The “We need to bring the scientists closer to the public and the public closer to the scientists” cliche offers nothing. We need a practical approach that will result in real measures being taken in the next few years (5-10 at most that is). How exactly is this going to both: 1) happen in such a short time when so many people are actively anti-science, and 2) happen to such an extent that hundreds of millions will be convinced to accept a shift from their current lifestyle to something a-little-bit-above-Third-world level of living?

    All you’re doing is running your mouth and not saying anything that has any chance of turning things around in time for the catastrophe to be prevented.

  12. like PETA..oh wait that’s waaayyyyy left sorry

    Yeah. Stories from PETA have really dominated the conversation lately.

  13. Dark Tent

    Dearest Lance*

    What ever happened to that “summary report” you promised me (here) in response to my challenge of your claim that “actual studies of bird eggshell thickness, the supposed smoking gun that killed DDT, are seriously flawed”?

    As I said I am collecting and formatting the information to present as a whole. — Lance Harting

    Still collecting? Your “tome” must be pretty long (and weighty) by now, seeing as you started it almost 4 years ago. :)

    Not to rush you or anything. I waited this long, so what’s a few more years (or decades)?

    Of course, you must be aware that the longer you prolong the “release” of your magnum opus, the more studies on the negative reproductive effects of DDT on peregrine falcons, eagles and other raptors you might have to refute.

    And, by the way, I just checked and the Cornell University Ornithology Lab is still under the “delusion” (poor dears) that DDT and/or its breakdown products caused eggshell thinning in peregrine falcons, eagles and other raptors, so you may want to inform them if the preponderance of evidence you have collected in your tome indicates otherwise. If you don’t recall that (world-renowned) bird lab, let me jog your memory (if I may be so bold). They were the ones who sent you the following response to your initial inquiry regarding DDT:

    Dear Lance,
    There is absolutely no doubt whatever that DDT has been scientifically linked to
    the thinning of egg shells in birds. The Peregrine Falcon was brought to the brink of
    extinction by this. A quick search of Google Scholar under the terms “Peregrine DDT
    damage” will bring you as many as you want. Here’s one as an example:
    http://www.jstor.org/view/03063127/ap010014/01a00020/0

    Anne Hobbs
    Public Information Specialist
    Cornell Lab of Ornithology
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu

    …about which you even admitted “OK looks bad for me so far. ”

    *Note: I am assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that it’s the same “Lance”. If not, my apologies, and feel free to disregard …but if you happen to come across “Lance Harting” in your travels through the intertubes, I would greatly appreciate it if you would tell him Dark Tent is still waiting (anxiously) for that report on DDT and eggshell thinning in raptors.

  14. Lance

    Yo Dark Tent,

    Yes, it’s me Lance Harting. I lost interest in the whole DDT thing years ago. As you said that was more than four years ago. I actually met with two local ornithologists who were luke-warm about the whole DDT issue. They both stated that raptor populations were in decline in the US before widespread use of DDT was an issue.

    They did say that they believed DDT didn’t help the situation but neither one had studied the issue and both seemed puzzled that I was keen to discuss it. Apparently outside of politically charged blogs the topic doesn’t get discussed much.

    If it makes you feel better I will concede the issue entirely. To be honest I had forgotten about it. Believe it or not refuting anonymous bloggers on arcane topics is not a top priority in my daily life.

    Also I love that you use something I posted in good faith, the email from Hobbs, against me years later. The only reason you know about that response is because I posted it! Nothing like being rewarded for openness and honesty by being slapped with it years later in response to a post on a totally unrelated topic.

    How petty.

    I notice you ignored the actual topic of my post and the remarks of Dr. Curry that support my main point.

  15. Dark Tent

    Desarest Lance

    Don’t blame me for your own shortcomings.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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