Archive for November 8th, 2010

Big Confusion on Climate Science Communication vs. Activism

By Chris Mooney | November 8, 2010 2:35 pm

The Los Angeles Times story about climate scientists fighting back has gotten tons of attention today–but it’s misleading. It combines together multiple activities and makes it sound like they’re centered at the American Geophysical Union. That’s not the case and the AGU has put out a press release to clarify:

An article appearing in the Los Angeles Times, and then picked up by media outlets far and wide, misrepresents the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and a climate science project the AGU is about to relaunch. The project, called Climate Q&A Service, aims simply to provide accurate scientific answers to questions from journalists about climate science.

“In contrast to what has been reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, there is no campaign by AGU against climate skeptics or congressional conservatives,” says Christine McEntee, Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union. “AGU will continue to provide accurate scientific information on Earth and space topics to inform the general public and to support sound public policy development.”

AGU is the world’s largest, not-for-profit, professional society of Earth and space scientists, with more than 58,000 members in over 135 countries.

“AGU is a scientific society, not an advocacy organization,” says climate scientist and AGU President Michael J. McPhaden. “The organization is committed to promoting scientific discovery and to disseminating to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public, peer-reviewed scientific findings across a broad range of Earth and space sciences.”

AGU initiated a climate science Q&A service for the first time in 2009 to provide accurate scientific information for journalists covering the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. AGU has been working over the past year on how to provide this service once again in association with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.

AGU’s Climate Q&A service addresses scientific questions only. It does not involve any commentary on policy. Journalists are able to submit questions via email, and AGU member-volunteers with Ph.D.s in climate science-related fields provide answers via email.

The LA Times has also run a clarification….but without such detail. I certainly took the wrong impression from the article, so I definitely believe such a clarification is necessary.

As we move into an era in which scientists are increasingly called upon to communicate about their research, there will necessarily be different roles and different kinds of initiatives at play, and many ways to contribute. Leading societies like AGU and the American Meteorological Society will play a part as will individual researchers who find themselves in the center of press attention, or asked to testify before Congress.

In the grand scheme, while unfortunate, I also find this confusion by the LA Times rather telling. The Times piece was a classic zeitgeist story that telegraphs an overarching narrative which almost floats above the particular facts. We all know that there are going to be more attacks on climate research, and climate scientists will have to respond. That’s the big story that’s catching journalistic attention–but the LA Times ran too far with it in this case.

Don't Want to be an American Idiot

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 8, 2010 11:00 am

Don’t want a nation under the new media, And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mindf* America

I just love that Green Day’s American Idiot introduces a short talk I did in July at the Cactus Cafe as part of Science In The Pub. (And the Google Earth zoom in is Tre Cool!) These are informal happy hour events so it’s more of an abridged and casual version of what I do on the road. Great venue and I’m looking forward to joining SITP next February to give another talk on The Science of Kissing!

Science in the Pub Presents… Sheril Kirshenbaum from Science In The Pub on Vimeo.

Okay, Climate Scientists: Time to Fight Smart

By Chris Mooney | November 8, 2010 8:55 am

The big news today is that climate researchers are banding together, preparing for the onslaught they fear is coming at the hands of the new Congress. I’m honored to learn that one of the researchers behind the effort, Scott Mandia, was inspired by our book Unscientific America:

The science of climate change and even the scientists themselves are under attack from a well-orchestrated and well-oiled misinformation campaign.  The best defense against this anti-science offensive is to make sure that the correct message reaches a wide audience.  Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future explain that scientists have failed to get their message across for a variety of reasons but mostly because we are not engaging the public on their turf.  After reading that book, I became a climate change evangelist with my Global Warming: Man or Myth? Website, this blog, and more recently a Facebook Fan Group called Global Warming Fact of the Day.  I have two small children and I do not like the future that I see for them or for their children in a human-driven warmer world.

Go Scott–but if we’re to be out there, we also have to be smart. The media is not at all like the scientific world. There are great potential benefits that can come from outreach and being outspoken–but they don’t come automatically. They’re the consequence of very deliberate choices about how to communicate effectively.

Some things to consider: When it comes to science communication, the facts are the baseline from which one absolutely cannot stray; but at the same time, we have to be aware that people respond most strongly to the frame. Climate scientists are going to be rebutting political attacks on them, but what will their message be? Will it be that incoming Republicans (and Attorney General Cuccinelli) are abusing their power? Or will it be that climate research is robust and convincing on the subject of anthropogenic causation?

Or, will it be that this is all a distraction from the real issue, which is to get clean energy solutions hopping before countries like China establish so big a lead that we’ll never catch up?

Notice that only one of these messages is purely scientific in nature. I suspect that’s the message that scientists will want to stick with–appropriately enough–but even here, there are pitfalls. Remember that the political attack is also largely scientific in nature, at least in terms of its framing. It exaggerates uncertainty about particular scientific studies (like the Hockey Stick) in order to distract from the big picture.

So any scientist walking into this context had better be ready for one obvious trap: Being lured into talking about uncertainty to the detriment of what we actually know. It’s easy to ask a scientist a question that will invite a large volume of caveats and doubt-generating statements without leaving much time to discuss what’s firm, what we can rely on. A question like, “what are the limitations of existing climate models?” You get the picture.

Conversations about uncertainty invoke a frame–a scientific frame–and that’s often precisely where climate skeptics want you to go. That’s where they live. That’s where they’ve been living for years: Just read Naomi Oreskes’ and Eric Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt. And they can get you into their territory just by asking you to be frank about your research.

That’s one of many things to bear in mind as we begin communicating climate science with a much greater public focus, and in a highly politicized context.

Another concerns the subject of advocacy. Scientists are very scrupulous when it comes to respecting the line between stating the facts, and pushing for policy outcomes–as they should be. But guess what: When you’re out there communicating about science in a politicized context, you’re going to be accused of being an advocate no matter what you do. It’s a false charge, but it’s a virtual guarantee that it will be made anyway.

It simply has to be brushed off. Don’t get angry, and don’t get distracted. Remember what it is that the American public, and political leaders, need to know about climate research–and tell them that. Tell them twenty times. And then do it again.

As this all unfolds, I’m looking forward to many further exchanges with members of the climate science community on how to proceed. It’s a challenging time, but also an exciting one. We can do this much better than we’ve done before. I’m glad the climate science community is ready to take a much needed step to reach out to a public that needs it very badly indeed.


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