More Responses on Scientists' Understanding of the Public

By Chris Mooney | July 2, 2010 8:16 am

Do Scientists Understand the PublicWell, this topic has really run away on its own at this point. I can no longer keep track of all the things that have been said. I find Chad Orzel’s thread the best, because it really gets into a lot of the baffling reactions, many of which amount to saying, “this oped omits X” — even though X is to be found in the longer paper, or in the American Academy’s lengthy transcripts which I was asked to summarize.

So I really feel that the people who are making this argument about omissions, without even mentioning the longer work, are being unfair. An example would be Evil Monkey–here criticizing the Post piece without mentioning the longer paper, and yet nevertheless saying “I’ve already done more than Mooney. I’ve made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed”; here glossing over that omission  by saying the prior post “was directed at the Op-ed, which was pedantic and useless, if not counterproductive.”

Look: Everybody knows that one has to pare a topic down in order to write shorter articles, especially for mass media outlets rather than specialized ones. I’ve really seen nothing raised as an alleged omission in my Washington Post outlook piece that I haven’t written on extensively elsewhere–denialist attacks on science, poor media treatment of science, academic disincentives to being a better communicator, etc. In many cases I literally wrote the book on these things, or have been writing about them for more than half a decade. In other cases, alleged omissions are to be found in the longer American Academy paper, rather than the Outlook essay, or in the academy’s workshops.

Believe me, folks, it has been covered.

Indeed, that’s why scholars like Sheila Jasanoff or Matt Nisbet, who are well read on the academic literature concerning science and the public, are hailing the American Academy for airing very important consensus conclusions in the fields of science communication or science and technology studies.

There have been other objections from Orac, PZ, and others, and luckily for me, they are both summarized and also refuted in Orzel’s comments thread, saving me a lot of work. Let’s run through a couple.

Objection (as summarized by Zach Voch): “1. Mooney is reinforcing the egghead/condescending stereotype of scientists that isn’t true for many of those attempting to communicate science.”

Refutation (as provided by Chad Orzel):  “This is pretty much irrelevant. Yes, many scientists who have a strong interest in public communication avoid many of these pitfalls; they’re not the problem. The problem lies with the many scientists who do come off as condescending eggheads to the general public, and make a mess of science-based policy issues.”

My comment: Orzel is exactly right. If you think the idea of uncommunicative scientists has no basis in reality, you don’t know that many scientists. Neither do you know the young graduate students in science who complain constantly that their departments don’t care a lick about science communication. Of course there are marvelous exceptions, like Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc. But that’s not the point, is it?

Let’s go on to another:

Objection (as summarized by Zach Voch): “Scientists moving towards ideology and straying away from the science in public debates risks their perceived objectivity and credibility.

Refutation (as provided by Chad Orzel):  “This varies a lot from case to case, but I think one of the important points of the article is that in many cases scientists have already lost their perceived objectivity and credibility. The argument is that with more attention paid to ideology from the start, that loss of credibility and objectivity could be avoided.”

My comment: We can say more. Understanding the source of the public’s concern or objections does not require scientists to deliver any scientific misinformation, or any politicized information. It simply means knowing the audience better. Recognizing ideology on the part of others is not the same as embracing ideology yourself.

One more time:

Objection (as summarized by Zach Voch): “Though there’s little doubt some scientists are unaware of the problem of ideology over ignorance, scientists active in addressing denialism are very aware of the role of ideology, and it’s rather hard to miss.

Refutation (as provided by Chad Orzel):  “This is the closest thing to a valid criticism of the current paper and op-ed on the list. The main thrust of both the paper and the op-ed is toward trying to avoid situations where denialism becomes entrenched in the first place…” (and read on)

My comment: Many scientists who recognize that ideology exists still seem to practice the central strategy of “setting the record straight” or “explaining the facts,” even though these will have little or no impact on said ideology. So, being aware is one thing; acting on that awareness is another.

But Orzel is right that once ideology becomes very entrenched, it is going to be much harder to dislodge. This is why the American Academy paper focuses on being anticipatory of science centered conflicts before they arise, and learning from the rich history of such conflicts that we already have.

Furthermore, when we are trying to communicate to the “public,” we aren’t always trying to reach the most entrenched people. There are actually many “publics”–a central finding of the American Academy workshops–and they need to be approached differently. Typically the denialists are only one extreme. On global warming, they are one out of six segments of the American public identified by Anthony Leiserowitz. Alas, it appears they are growing.

Please go over to Orzel’s blog to read more. And if you haven’t yet, please download and read the full American Academy paper!

Comments (47)

  1. I think this is a good, measured take on this paper, which seems to have gotten the science blog community up in arms all over the place. Can we really be that bad at taking (light and constructive) criticism? Maybe that’s one of the problems.

  2. bsci

    I posted a version of this on Chad Orzel’s blog, but I think it’s worth cross-posting here.

    Granted there are some bloggers that criticize anything Chris writes about science communication, but the Post piece as problems. Saying you omitted something important due to space is mediocre writing and weak rhetoric. Although it seems the criticisms are about omissions, that’s not the case for many of the serious critiques. The criticisms are presenting half a story and omitting the other half. The examples and conclusions in the piece need to stand on their own. In the current text, they don’t.

    I just reread the Post piece with the eyes of an editor. I think the first half of the article was pretty good. Chris starts with some assumptions that people have and shows how those assumptions are often wrong. My one complaint, as others have noted, he keeps talking about “the public” and “scientists.” Making “scientists” a group of people that isn’t part of “the public” is terrible framing. Simple phrase changes like, “When scientists try to communicate with OTHER members of the public” can go a long way.

    The writing is significantly weaker in regarding recommendation. There’s obviously a space limit, but instead of trying building on an example for recommendations, like Chris does at the beginning, he throws out two disjointed examples with minimal explanation about them. The brevity of these examples is what opens complaints regarding omissions.

    I’ll put some numbers on this. Chris has a 220 word intro. In the examples laying out the problem, he devotes 228 words to climate change, 185 words to vaccines, and 108 words to Yucca Mountain, and another 205 words to summarize the conclusions of these three examples. Like I said, these sections are good, but a bit long.

    When Chris switches to his examples of applications, there’s 64 words on nuclear waste, 35 words on nanotechnology, 64 words as core recommendation, and another 61 words to end on a happy statistic that doesn’t directly relate to the recommendations.

    Chris wanted to summarize a long document, but chose to try to include as many examples as possible from that document rather than summarize the overarching point in a way that stands on its own. If I was editing this, I would have suggested to cut one example from the first part (Yucca mountain is the most incongruous), and remove a few asides from the intro and other examples. In the recommendation, I’d focus on only one example for 200-300 words to give a better picture how this approach led to success.

    Like I said, I thought the writing was mediocre, not bad. It’s better than a good chunk of the stuff that ends up in the Washington Post. It’s simply that I think Chris can do better if he doesn’t get defensive when people criticize what he writes. Chris is a better long-form writer (either books or ideas spaced across many blog posts), which might mask his need to improve his op-ed skills.

  3. Jon

    So instead of discussing the subject matter, let’s instead take the opportunity to slam Chris’s Op-Ed writing skills? (In this one instance?) (…When you also, conveniently, happen to disagree with him?)

  4. DCW

    let’s get back to the crux of issue.

    The science community needs better marketing and better political savvy.

    Not to change the actual way they conduct research, but the way they talk about it to the public. You can’t make the denialists shut up, but you can convince the public that you are more credible than they are.

  5. bsci

    For what it’s worth, I agree with the general gist of a lot of what Chris says, but I think he keeps getting into arguments from people responding to poor choices of words or examples. Do I have to defend Chris’ every word or become is mortal enemy to take part in this discussion.

    While his other posts on this topic have more to do with content, I thought this one was actually focusing more on where we are supposed to read about the message since the op-ed clearly wasn’t enough. If my post make an interesting dicussion, that’s great. If every else ignores my comment, it won’t be the first time.

  6. Gaythia

    Chris,

    I think it would help if you could see the fact that your work attracts this level of discussion as a good thing. It might not be easy being the lightning rod, but it is a very worthwhile role to play.

    I believe that your work would be improved if you developed a thought process that encompassed an updated and modernized version of the ideas you presented in your “Republican War on Science” book, in addition to the “Unscientific America” one. I think that this would help answer the objections of many scientists, such as Joe Romm, who justifiably feel under attack from well funded vested interest opponents, opponents who are readily going to be able to hire spokespeople who are up on the latest concepts in psychological opinion driving and have the time and money to do so.

    Then, I think you need to expand on the thought that you have in the last paragraph in your post above. Acknowledge complexity and breadth of differing opinions. First you wrote an op-ed piece, and then you wrote a 10 page essay. You didn’t write a 10 volume encyclopedic body of work (at least not yet). Still, there is a need to avoid over simplifying and a need to convey that multiple approaches exist. In expanding the discussion of the role of science in policy decisions, I think one of the key, very difficult concepts to convey is that science is not always absolute. It is sometimes necessary for society to act knowing that scientific uncertainties exist. It is sometimes necessary for society to make decisions for the greater common good that adversely affect the lives of some.

    In reaching the public about vaccines, for example, Dr. Isis post (http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/2010/06/kerfuffle_i_love_kerfuffles.php) exemplifies a way in which focus on a small group of extreme denialists has obscured very serious health care access issues. I am intrigued by the efforts of one California hospital to combat Whooping Cough by vaccinating the parents of newborns as they leave the hospital (http://www.fresnobee.com/2010/06/19/1976970/whooping-cough-strikes-in-valley.html). Perhaps there are other, very legitimate public health approaches than immunizing middle class infants with as many vaccines as possible at once. It seems to me that centering the vaccine education focus on combating the “anti-vaxxers” has actually inhibited constructive, innovative thought on how to improve public health by use of vaccines.

    You have blogged on the career difficulties of science journalists. There is a whole world of people out there with similar issues. Times are tough out there; corporations are not always mindful of the general social good, and tenured higher education positions are hard to come by. “Evil Monkey” and those who commented on his blog are mostly scientists who need to be concerned about their own career paths. The extent to which they can take on public science education communication in addition to their own jobs is limited by real life. Furthermore, are the same newspapers and other media outlets who are already not hiring science journalists to be expected to cover what they have to say? I believe that “Evil Monkey’s” point about not drawing a sharp dichotomy between scientists and the public is also an important one. As he points out, this actually aids in day to day public outreach efforts.

    As I pointed out elsewhere (http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2010/06/reflections_on_american_academ.php), Yucca Mountain is not a simple sharp divide with science on one side and NIMBY’s on the other.

    I can just as easily get exasperated by a sentence from your American Academy paper such as:

    “Thus, while the public may support less carbon intensive fuels in theory, there may also be great resistance to attempts to obtain large volumes of natural gas from newly reachable shale resources, often located in parts of the country (Michigan, the eastern United States) that are not accustomed to major extraction endeavors.”

    My brain immediately runs to thoughts of Fracking! Environmental degradations, groundwater contamination, a recent natural gas drilling explosion in PA, today’s report that BP significantly under-reported gas production on Southern Ute tribal land wells, thus underpaying royalties. It’s not about getting accustomed to it. Gas extraction from shale is a complicated, sometimes risky endeavor. One that may be necessary for our nation to engage in. But also another case where openly explaining the science may create more initial resistance but hopefully also lead to better long term outcomes.

    Overall, I think you are on the right track. But if you are going to be a messenger, or serve as a bridge between scientists and the many publics, it is going to take a lot of effort on your part to connect with those directly involved and understand their perspectives.

  7. gillt

    If this article’s audience was scientists, and Chris is “baffled,” and “overwhelmed” by responses that come mainly from a subset of scientists, is it fair to say that this is ironic considering the nature of the topic he’s writing on?

    Also, when Chris says that his ideas are mainly a preventative measure best applied to issues before they become overtly politicized and ideologically entrenched–and admittedly of limited use in issues like Global Warming, Evolution, Vaccines–why then does he post mainly on AGW, Vaccines and Evolution and why are those the very same issues he feels the need to tell others how much they’re doing it wrong or how much they’re not helping? How does he know?

    In other words, there seems to be a disconnect here.

  8. ponderingfool

    Not to change the actual way they conduct research, but the way they talk about it to the public. You can’t make the denialists shut up, but you can convince the public that you are more credible than they are.
    *************************************
    In dealing with sudden climatic change induced by humanity in the US lets face it we would have had something accomplished if it weren’t for the filibuster. Majority in Congress is ready to take action on legislation that Chris for example has more less supported. Why should scientists be the one’s that have to get us to the supermajority? In a lot of ways despite the entrenched financial stakes, scientists on climate change have been very successful. On vaccinations, the vast majority of families who can do. It is a small minority who don’t and who get unequal voice in mainstream media. Whose fault is that? MSM not scientists.

  9. Gaythia

    What happened to Zach Voch? I was hoping he would have further comments here. I believe that it is only fair to point out that over at Chad Orzel’s blog, where he originally posted, he did make a later comment where he started with “Chad, On your comment #28, I note my overall agreement and thank you for the responses!”, made a few qualifying points. and then ended with “Still, I think it’s always worthwhile for potential ideological problems to be investigated beforehand, so Mooney’s call for attention to the social sciences remains relevant. But again, thanks for the feedback.”

    I just think that it is important to make clear that Zach Voch seemed very much like a person who wanted to participate in the discussion in a very constructive way.

  10. Susan Anderson

    Communication is a knotty problem and I’m glad to see people working on it.
    Diplomacy, tolerance, patience, listening are all useful.

    There are plenty of resources and support systems, and I can see that groups of scientists are getting busy on the problem. The various -gates appear to be getting the right kind of attention, for example.

    I am a Mooney fan, starting with my early education on the dedicated movement well described in Mooney’s Republican War on Science (I read the updated 2004 paperback which is almost a “bible” on denial) poised to use every trick in the book to push their agenda, and make it about you instead of the issues. On this subject, avoid giving them fuel – they change the subject. When my comments are twisted to misdirect, if I have time I will requote myself and show the difference. Making it obvious is the only thing I can think of. The tactics are so off-base it is hard at first to believe people could be so nasty or miseducated, but believe it.

    I particularly loved Storm World which is a superb history of hurricanes and hurricane science.

    I was at first disappointed by the third book, but realized this was a natural progression. Having thoroughly researched the evolving “science” of denial, and explored the byways of one type of climate, it seems natural to move towards encouraging action and exploring ways to communicate better.

    One thing I’ve noticed that pleases me is that scientists are finally supporting the idea of changing their disclaimer about the relationship between weather and climate. It is now OK to mention that extreme weather is characteristic of the type of thing we may expect. This is a road to communication for ordinary people – get away from your computer screen, and check on weather and its effects in a larger long-term sense (global, decades).

  11. GM

    10. Susan Anderson Says:
    July 2nd, 2010 at 4:49 pm
    Communication is a knotty problem and I’m glad to see people working on it.
    Diplomacy, tolerance, patience, listening are all useful.

    The problem with “Diplomacy, tolerance, patience, listening” is that if the very way the other side is thinking is the problem, those will never get you anywhere close to where things need to go for real problems to be solved.

    Mooney claims that scientists should “listen to what the public has to say”. OK, we will listen to what the public has to say. Then what? What is the outcome of this supposed to be? There is only one reason I can see why Mooney would think that scientists should be listening to the public, and it is that by listening to the public, the conclusions and policy recommendations that follow from the science should be changed. But given that the public is so horribly ignorant about pretty much every issue, the only thing that can result from this is poor science.

    So basically Mooney’s suggestion is to let ignorance and illiteracy prevail. Hardly a good strategy or an advisable thing to do

  12. Thanks for the kind words, Gaythia. I’m not sure if you (or any future readers) are under the impression that I was claiming those criticisms as my own (I wasn’t, and I reject and rejected most of them). You’ll note that in a previous comment to TB, I clarified that these criticisms Orzel is listing were summaries I took from other blogs, not my own criticisms.

    Thanks for the post, Chris. I’ll note my agreement thus far, but those interested in my say can look at #38 on Orzel’s post, responding to his #28, referencing #3. Sorry for the meandering that requires.

  13. This feels like the most important part of your response, Chris:

    Furthermore, when we are trying to communicate to the “public,” we aren’t always trying to reach the most entrenched people. There are actually many “publics”–a central finding of the American Academy workshops–and they need to be approached differently. Typically the denialists are only one extreme.

    And to clarify, “You’ll note that in a previous comment to TB…” should be changed to “Everybody please note that in my previous comment to TB…”. What I had stated there wasn’t particular to Gaythia.

  14. Gaythia

    @Zach, Yes, I had read your comments in full but my concern was that not everyone reads all the relevant material or would catch the significance of Chris’ use of “as summarized” before they started to form an opinion of you. I had been sitting back waiting for you to provide a clarification, but when you didn’t, I made my comment. Which I wanted to do without putting words in your mouth myself.

  15. Gaythia

    @GM

    “Freedom [is] the first-born daughter of science.” –Thomas Jefferson to Francois D’Ivernois, 1795. ME 9:297

    “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” –Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278

    “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the conditions, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man.” –Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, 1822. ME 15:399

  16. That was my concern as well. The problem is one of timeliness, I suppose. I’ve just started to get my own blog up and running, mostly to use for archiving useful posts and points and as a place for the slightly off topic tangents I find myself pursuing with another commenter. One of this issues is storing this blog as a handy link in my sidebar as opposed to the general “Discover Blogs,” and another is in email subscriptions to comments at scienceblogs and here. I guess I’ll work out the technical details with time.

    In any case, I’m glad that Chris used “as summarized” for each of those points. My only hope now is that each of the relevant authors would consider those short points a fair summary. Then again, the current theme of “lost in summary” might catch me as it did Chris.

  17. GM

    Gaythis @ 15:

    I don’t see the point. Isn’t good education what I am advocating for all the time? The problem is that you can’t educate people who don’t want to be educated, especially past a certain age.

    And this has nothing to do with my post anyway

  18. GM, what gives with the posts that read like talking points?

    In the interest of fairness, I should let you know that you came up as part of the discussion between myself and TB at Orzel’s post. See comments #49 and up.

  19. Gaythia

    @GM Well then, maybe we need to know what age you are, before we can figure out whether or not there is any point in discussing this with you???

    Seriously, the point of the Jefferson quotes is that in a democracy the people decide policy.

    So, as Susan Anderson said above, “Communication is a knotty problem and I’m glad to see people working on it. Diplomacy, tolerance, patience, listening are all useful.”

  20. GM

    I already know that in a democracy people decide policy, thank you very much. The problem is that this does not mean that the policy people decide on is the best policy. Especially if the people in question do not have a reality-based view of the world around them (translated: are scientifically illiterate). So if the people are most likely to take the wrong decisions, then democracy is useless.

  21. …so is pretending that ignoring the power base will help us to put the best policy in place. But that’s the question in the first place, is it not?

  22. GM

    I have no illusions about the path the world is taking. I haven’t been you post here much, but as I have explained many times here, a lot of what I say is about the way things should be in an ideal world, or about the way things currently are can be fixed. Not the way things are going to be. I usually say it quite bluntly and in a no-nonsense manner, which tends to put people off. I call it intellectual honesty, most people describe it using less pleasant terms. So be it…

  23. Eric the Leaf

    Gaytha says:
    “It is sometimes necessary for society to act knowing that scientific uncertainties exist. It is sometimes necessary for society to make decisions for the greater common good that adversely affect the lives of some.”

    Great thought; here’s an example. We know (with some uncertainty) that blasting the levees in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans would allow the Mississippi River sediment to replenish the wetlands. (Now, the Mississippi would like to change course, but that is another discussion.) This might disrupt the lives of a “some” segment of population, but possibly preserve for a much greater length of time the wetlands of south Louisiana and millions of other folks living in the greater New Orleans area. This, I suspect, will never happen.

    I’m sure similar debates occur across the nation. So now, what do we expect from even more intractable debates related to global problems?

    So here’s my take. I believe that all this debate about communication is nonsense. It’s theoretical nonsense. As matter of fact I do not believe that most folks, even most scientists and science journalists, understand the nature of the human predicament, so how can they communicate about it?

    I’ve heard virtually nothing here regarding the interplay between science and technology, intensification of production, population growth, and resource depletion. No, it is vaccines and Yucca Mountain with a dash of global warming and intelligent design. Nothing really about things we actually depend upon—fresh water or topsoil. I hear nothing about elements and compounds; the metals and minerals necessary for the maintenance of industrial civilization. I’ve heard nothing about the growth and size of the human population. I’ve heard nothing about the causes of culture change elucidated by the study of anthropology and prehistoric archaeology. I’ve heard nothing about modern studies of human ecology and biological overshoot. I have not heard a serious discussion about energy or the significance of EROEI in the build-out of alternative energies. I have not heard mention of the emerging field of biophysical economics and the sustainability of a debt-and-interest financial system and the implication of such for future growth. I have not heard about how any kind of change can be expected in a depressed economy, or one that continues to unravel.

    And we’re worried about whether the public is well educated or whether the scientific community understands the public? Is this serious? A lot of people are just worried about getting or keeping a job, paying the bills, and so on. People are looking for someone to blame.

    I think we’re living in a world of optical delusions. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the scientific community even understands the science. I’ll leave that for others to agree or disagree.

  24. GM

    I’ve heard virtually nothing here regarding the interplay between science and technology, intensification of production, population growth, and resource depletion. No, it is vaccines and Yucca Mountain with a dash of global warming and intelligent design. Nothing really about things we actually depend upon—fresh water or topsoil. I hear nothing about elements and compounds; the metals and minerals necessary for the maintenance of industrial civilization. I’ve heard nothing about the growth and size of the human population. I’ve heard nothing about the causes of culture change elucidated by the study of anthropology and prehistoric archaeology. I’ve heard nothing about modern studies of human ecology and biological overshoot. I have not heard a serious discussion about energy or the significance of EROEI in the build-out of alternative energies. I have not heard mention of the emerging field of biophysical economics and the sustainability of a debt-and-interest financial system and the implication of such for future growth. I have not heard about how any kind of change can be expected in a depressed economy, or one that continues to unravel.

    Very well said. I will allow myself some speculation regarding the reasons why you hear nothing about these things.

    Possibility #1: The bloggers are simply unaware of the problems. Which if they have been reading the comments in their own threads, which sometime they do, should not be the case as these things have been discussed at length

    Possibility #2: Because these things are impossible to communicate in the way they so much like to talk about, as there is absolutely no way to do it without directly confronting the most cherished views and beliefs of people, as those views and belief are the problem, they will keep avoiding any discussion on the subject.

    I hope it’s the former, at least it’s fixable (in an ideal world)…

  25. Gaythia

    One of the ironies we could note is that we are spending our time commenting here.

    The next post by Sheril: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/07/02/pimm-on-the-oil-spill-wildlife-crisis/ is in the mode of in-depth scientific analysis which Eric the Leaf believes is needed (and I would agree with him).

    I highly recommend the podcast, although it won’t help GM’s dismay with the state of the world. But it might stir thoughts that action is needed.

    In which case, this discussion here is relevant!

  26. GM

    The next post by Sheril: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/07/02/pimm-on-the-oil-spill-wildlife-crisis/ is in the mode of in-depth scientific analysis which Eric the Leaf believes is needed (and I would agree with him).

    If you call that ” in-depth scientific analysis” of the issues Eric the Leaf listed, you most likely have a very poor understanding of those issues yourself

  27. TB

    Zach and Gaythia, meet GM.

    GM claims to be a scientist who, according to a previous post on another thread, thinks it’s ok to “dishonestly” (his quotes not mine) characterize research as health-related in order to get grant money to do real science. I don’t have a link handy to that actual post but will provide one if you desire.
    He, as well as other commenters here not unlike him, have influenced my opinions about the people disagreeing with Mooney.
    One the reasons I made the mistake about you, Zach.

  28. Gaythia

    I was talking about Sheril’s links to the work of Stuart Pimm:

    http://fds.duke.edu/db/Nicholas/esp/faculty/spimm/research.html

    Stuart Pimm became a conservation biologist watching species become extinct in Hawai’i in the 1970s. That experience lead to his commitment to study the scientific issues behind the global loss of biological diversity. Pimm has written over 150 scientific papers including three review articles in Nature and Science and four books including The Balance of Nature? Ecological issues in the conservation of species and communities and his new global assessment of biodiversity’s future: The World According to Pimm: a scientist audits the Earth. His research covers the reasons why species become extinct, how fast they do so, the global patterns of habitat loss and species extinction, the role of introduced species in causing extinction and, importantly, the management consequences of this research. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has lead to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. Current work includes studies of endangered species and ecosystem restoration in the Florida Everglades, and setting priorities for protected areas in the Atlantic Coast forest of Brazil (one of the world’s “hotspots” for threatened species. His awards include a Pew Scholarship for Conservation and the Environment (in 1993) and an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellowship (in 1999). The Institute of Scientific Information recognized him in 2002 as being one of the world’s most highly cited scientists. In 2004, Pimm was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

  29. GM

    What I said still stands.

    1. Linking someone else’s website hardly qualifies as “in-depth scientific analysis” if anything

    2. One of the big tragedies of modern environmentalism is the overt focus on species conservation. The ongoing mass extinction is an enormous problem but it a giant mistake to look at issues in isolation. Everything has to be looked at in its entirety – Peak Oil and Peak everything, climate change, the mass anthropogenic mass extinction, the oceans, etc., with particular attention to the root cause. And the root cause is the way we see ourselves and our place in the universe, which in turn causes us to think that we are somehow special and separate from the rest of the planet and the rules of ecology and the laws of nature do not apply to us so there is no need to exercise any restraint on what we’re doing. BTW, the major factor maintaining that attitude is religion, especially religion of the Judeo-Christian type and until religion is gone completely, even in its softest version, things will not change (which doesn’t mean that they will change automatically if there was no religion, but with it, they will not). But you will not see people talk about this as it would be so uncivilized and will turn people off.

    Regarding in-depth scientific analysis, the rule when you’re reading what someone has written about the environment is that if there is no mention of growth (economic, of population and of per capita consumption) and the need to end and reverse it, then this person has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

  30. TB,

    I’ll just treat GM as a troll. I am impressed though… the guy IS a caricature.

    I guess this is why I love the internet. There’s always someone, isn’t there?

  31. Gaythia

    I’m sticking with Susan Anderson’s statement @10 above: “Communication is a knotty problem and I’m glad to see people working on it. Diplomacy, tolerance, patience, listening are all useful.”

    I don’t disagree with GM’s overarching, everything is related to everything philosophy. I think that GM really does have something to say in #29. But as a practical matter, I’ll keep approaching things by trying to chip away at them.

    In the meantime, everybody have a nice weekend.

  32. Nullius in Verba

    For what it’s worth, (and I suspect Chris cares about my opinion a lot less than some other people’s,) I thought it was a good article. The earlier attempts to talk about this (which talked about the need for “framing” and similar post-modern media relations concepts) I thought had rather missed the point, but I do like this idea of listening to the public to find out what their concerns are, why they worry about them, and then engaging with them as equals to sort out the issues and come to a decision. The way the Canadians handled their nuclear issues sounds like a great success.

    Obviously, there are other bits I don’t agree with, but mostly that can be put down to a difference of opinion. There is one point, though, that I do think is worth mentioning – and that is that in recognising the importance of ideology in influencing beliefs about scientific topics, (which I agree with,) there is a failure to carry through the logic to its conclusion, and explicitly recognise that this can affect people on the consensus side of the debate, too.

    We can all see the influence of ideology on the other guy’s beliefs, but we are more often blind to its influence on our own.

    Scientists need to know the public, but they need to know themselves, too.

  33. John Kwok

    @ Gaythia -

    Well GM is absolutely right in his first sentence of his second point (@29):

    “One of the big tragedies of modern environmentalism is the overt focus on species conservation. ”

    I might add though that major environmentalist organizations do recognize the need of preserving as much as possible, entire endangered ecosystems, not just species.

    Regrettably GM’s comments soon descend precipitiously into yet another New Atheist rant from him critical of organized religion. Sadly, it merely reaffirms what Zach (@ 30) and I have concluded independently; that GM is merely a troll of the New Atheist variety.

  34. Gaythia

    @John Kwok: GM put forth an argument that I believe you strongly disagree with: “And the root cause is the way we see ourselves and our place in the universe, which in turn causes us to think that we are somehow special and separate from the rest of the planet and the rules of ecology and the laws of nature do not apply to us so there is no need to exercise any restraint on what we’re doing”. He attributes this sentiment to the Judeo-Christian religion and seems to state that he doesn’t think change will come until this religion is gone completely.

    You said: “GM’s comments soon descend precipitously into yet another New Atheist rant” and say this affirms that he is a troll.

    Both of you are acting if the others belief systems are rigid, doctrinaire and utterly hopeless to approach by rational argument. And you both seem to think that they can define the belief system of the other. But in so doing, you are acting rigid and doctrinaire and making rational discussion impossible!

    I believe that you are both perfect examples of the point Nullius in Verba is making @32 above: “We can all see the influence of ideology on the other guy’s beliefs, but we are more often blind to its influence on our own.”

    It turns out that both of you are in agreement on a point that is very significant to ecological survival on this planet: “One of the big tragedies of modern environmentalism is the overt focus on species conservation. ” I agree that this is an extremely important point. Policies need to change to focus on the survival of ecosystems. It sounds as if we all agree that the current structure of the US Endangered Species act, will not, in the long run, even protect endangered species.

    So, in terms of science communication and policy development as put forth by Chris Mooney and summarized by Nullis in Verba as: “I do like this idea of listening to the public to find out what their concerns are, why they worry about them, and then engaging with them as equals to sort out the issues and come to a decision.” I think we could all work together to come to some reasonable policy decision working together! If we would only listen (and stop the name calling).

  35. GM

    30. Zach Voch Says:
    July 3rd, 2010 at 1:11 pm
    TB,
    I’ll just treat GM as a troll. I am impressed though… the guy IS a caricature.
    I guess this is why I love the internet. There’s always someone, isn’t there?

    If someone is a troll, this is you. If you have nothing of substance to say, then shut up. And if you claim that someone is wrong but you can’t back it up with solid arguments, then your intellectual abilities and intellectual honesty are seriously in doubt

  36. GM

    33. John Kwok Says:
    July 3rd, 2010 at 5:38 pm
    I might add though that major environmentalist organizations do recognize the need of preserving as much as possible, entire endangered ecosystems, not just species.

    I don’t think you understand. It is not about preserving species, this is correct. But it is not about preserving ecosystems either. It is bad as a strategy because you can’t get people to feel strongly for something as abstract as an ecosystem or something they rarely see as an endangered vertebrate (the invertebrates are usually left out completely) and it is bad a s way of looking at things, as it misses the point. What it is about is preserving an environment inhabitable for humans as we are totally dependent on it. So it happens is that this pretty much completely overlaps with the goal of preserving ecosystems intact, but where you are coming from when approaching the subject matters. It is the difference between:

    Person 1 “Why do we have to protect the environment?”
    Person 2 “Well, because we have to and because other species have the right to live”
    Person 1 “I don’t care”

    and

    Person 1 “Why do we have to protect the environment?”
    Person 2 “Because we’ll go extinct with it if we don’t”

    To which person 1 may or may not agree but it is a much better argument than the former.

    Regrettably GM’s comments soon descend precipitiously into yet another New Atheist rant from him critical of organized religion. Sadly, it merely reaffirms what Zach (@ 30) and I have concluded independently; that GM is merely a troll of the New Atheist variety.

    Basic logical error. You are assuming that I said that because I hate religion, it most likely triggered a visceral reaction of disgust in you so you didn’t at all think about whether it is valid or not . And you certainly didn’t think that it might be the other way round – my attitude towards religion has been shaped by the realization that it threatens the survival of the species. Which, and this is a speculation, but it’s my best guess, is that because in your view all (New) atheists are coming from a background of being turned off by religion at some point when growing up and hating it with a passion since then. Which is as far as it can get from my case as I have been raised in an environment with no religion, I only started to understand that there are people who take this God thing seriously around the age of 10-12, at which point I was already aware of the ecological overshoot situation and I could connect to dots as I thought about it more. Unfortunately most people can’t connect the dots until they die…

  37. GM

    Gaythia @ 34:

    Why for a change don’t we discuss the correctness of the idea in question, not it’s place relative to the extremes of the continuum? I have absolutely no interest in discussing whose position is rigid, whose is not, etc., I care about what is true. Which, ironically, nullifies the problem with the rigidity of one’s views as if you care about what’s true, then you are by definition open to changing your position. But I have to be shown a reason, otherwise why do it?

    I have stated many times that anthropocentrism is what is preventing us from taking care of our ecological overshoot, that religion is the major factor maintaining it as the dominant paradigm through which we see the world, that religion of the Judeo-Christian variety is the worst offender and that until it’s eradicated there will be no change as it is incompatible with any other view of the world. I have yet to see someone refuting it, the response is usually one of calling me out for my bad behavior.

    I have to stress that it was only after I had already come to this conclusion that I realized that a discussion on the subject, although a much softer one, had already taken place in the 60s and of course it got quickly swept under the rug, I have read some of the objections to idea and they are not convincing the say the least .

  38. John Kwok

    @ Gaythia -

    Some of the most rational people I know are those who are religiously devout, including a favorite uncle who is a retired Methodist minister. Some of the least rational are those whom one might describe as “Militant Atheists” (also better known as “New Atheists” or, most recently, as “Affirmative Atheists”.).

    I strongly disagree with GM’s bigotry (@36) with regards to religion, since there are well-meaning, quite religiously devout, people – including some who would be regarded as XIan evolution denialists only – who have arrived at our agreed conclusion that we need to look beyond the preservation of single species, but instead, whole ecosystems. Maybe he needs to tone down some of that rhetoric, but I’m not optimistic that it will happen any time soon.

  39. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    I left the Lutheran Protestant Christianity of my youth at a very young age, and was, by the time I entered college, such a skeptic that I became the only skeptical member of the college chapter of the Campus Crusade of Christ (while retaining a belief in a single Deity, from the vantage point of Deism). Another relative left the same faith as an adult, converted to Sunni Islam, and served for a time as a US Army chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where, regrettably, he was accused later of committing treason simply for seeking more humane treatment of the Muslim terrorists imprisoned next door at Camp Gitmo.

    I will agree that there are many people who have been manipulated and lied to by their religious leaders. But I have also seen much good come from those who are devoutly religious. As a Conservative with strong Libertarian leanings, I would suggest that you could substitute “liberal” for religious in your peculiar line of reasoning (@ 36) and obtain a similar set of results.

  40. GM

    I strongly disagree with GM’s bigotry (@36) with regards to religion,

    As I said in the post below that one, can we discuss the validity of what is said, not whether someone sees as bigotry or not? And do it with arguments that have some substance to them?

    As a Conservative with strong Libertarian leanings

    You are saying it in such a way that one can’t escape the feeling that this seriously influences your thinking about things. If that’s the case, then you have no place in any discussion

  41. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    Your latest post merely confirms the worst suspicions of TB (@ 27) and Zach (@30). Didn’t know that you are another moderator, along with Chris and Sheril, of The Intersection blog. If I truly had “no place in any discussion”, then I am sure Chris and/or Sheril would have taken the steps necessary to remedy that.

    This isn’t Pharyngula, GM. I fully expect you to try to engage those of us critical of your Pharyngulite behavior by doing so in a consistently cogent and rational manner. If I am interested in reading the “verdict” rendered by a “prominent” New Atheist such as PZ Myers, then I’ll read it directly from him, not from an acolyte such as yourself.

    Have a happy and safe Fourth. It’s time to stop feeding one New Atheist troll.

  42. GM

    If I truly had “no place in any discussion”, then I am sure Chris and/or Sheril would have taken the steps necessary to remedy that.

    Well, you would do well not to misrepresent what others have said. I didn’t say that you have no place in any discussion, I said that you (and everybody who shares those characteristics) have no place in any discussion if you let you political convictions trump facts and logic. Hints of which you have demonstrated sufficiently many times to make me think it’s the case, but I give you the benefit of doubt. For why are we having discussion if not to determine what is true? And how is this going to happen if people put other things above what’s true?

  43. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    Your latest is sanctimonious nonsense (@42). Would you reach a similar conclusion if I said I was a Deist who espoused Leftist causes and positions?

  44. GM,

    Some brief history is in order. I linked you to a conversation that you had become a subject of in the interests of honesty. When I objected to your responses, you ignored my objections and proceeded to repeat yourself. I responded with sarcasm and dismissal because sometimes, it is merited.

    I’ve looked over many of your old comments. Many show a marked inability to see distinctions, and more worryingly, they show signs of obsession. Further, you do not appear to have any respect for intellectual honesty or integrity and an eagerness to pass an ethical judgment over minor disagreements. All of these things taken together, there does not appear to be a practical difference between your comments and the comments of a troll.

    I sometimes agree with you, but when I do, I feel that the agreement is coincidental, coming from an entirely different set of principles and treatment of relevant information.

    Hence, I repeat. I’ll treat you as a troll. If you say something worth discussing, I’ll be sure to discuss it, but don’t act as though you are entitled to my responses.

    You come across as a would-be witch hunter. It’s not pretty, and instead of shooting me an angry response, why don’t you weigh and consider the charge?

  45. GM

    You didn’t say that, you said “As a Conservative with Libertarian strong Libertarian leanings, I…”. Again, if you do not let your political convictions influence your thinking about things, there is no problem. But if you do, there is a very big problem

  46. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    I endorse Zach’s point (@ 44) and I strongly advise you to address it with the seriousness that it is due. As for my polticial convictions, etc. it should be apparent to anyone who has read my comments here and elsewhere online that they are secondary to what I know and regard as sound mainstream science, especially with respect to biological evolution and anthropogenic global warming. But of course, maybe this doesn’t matter to you since you seem to have poor respect for, as Zach has noted, “intellectual honesty or integrity and an eagerness to pass an ethical judgement over minor disagreements”.

    You may choose to contend otherwise, but there is fundamentally little difference between a New Atheist troll such as yourself or a creo troll. Hate to state the obvious, but it has become all too obvious ot me.

  47. GM

    I had a reply to this but it didn’t go through moderation for some reason. But anyway, may I ask based on what you are coming up with the claim that I don’t have “any respect for intellectual honesty or integrity”? Give me an example. Because it is simply absurd to claim that

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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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