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.

Comments (21)

  1. Duncan Brown

    Dude. Aren’t you an English major?
    Duncan

  2. This is a good example of what happens when you simultaneously talk about the need for broader public engagement (which AGU is trying to do), while also urging that scientists prepare for the “looming Republican War on science” by muscling up in a “streetfight” with conservatives, Republicans, deniers, and other climate “bad guys.”

    Not only does it confuse the public, but it confuses journalists too….

  3. Chris Mooney

    So it’s my fault the LA Times wrote a confusing story….

  4. Duncan Brown

    No, but it is your fault that you treat it like a game, with clear winners and losers.
    Duncan

  5. Just found your blog Chris. Learned a heck of a lot from UNSCI AMER. I about fell over when I read that LA Times piece.

    Dan

  6. Well, I think that I need to back Chris on this. It is not just about climate change, it is really about who controls society. The war is real and only one side realizes it. The Republicans are aiming to gain control of education. Let me quote Califonria Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring,

    Nehring said state Republicans are looking beyond the governor’s office.

    “We want to have a wide, deep victory,” he told a few hundred people gathered Sunday morning at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. “We want to take over school boards, fire boards, water boards, city councils.” http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/aug/22/california-republican-party-united-we-stand/

    Nehring was once an aide to Grover Norquist, so you know where he is coming from. Cut the taxes. We don’t need money for education. Note the tea party calls to do away with the US Dept of Education.

    Thank goodness, we elected a Green Party Chicano retired teacher to a local Board of Education. We might save something.

  7. Martha

    I think it’s too bad that AGU and other science societies aren’t doing more to combat a well-funded campaign to push a political and business agenda. What’s wrong with telling the truth that there is a misinformation campaign out that twists science in order to achieve a definite aim? Isn’;t it the responsibility of scientists to make the truth not only known in the scientific community but out in the public, too?

  8. Johanus

    This looks more like a “cover up” than a misrepresentation. Their claim “AGU is a scientific society, not an advocacy organization,” does not jibe with the vision statement on their website:

    “AGU galvanizes a community of Earth and space scientists that collaboratively advances and communicates science and its power to ensure a sustainable future.”

    See for yourself: http://www.agu.org/ Their executive director Christine McEntee is a well-known activist for liberal causes and has no geoscience credentials at all.

    So they are definitely “community galvanizers”. The AGU is no longer a credible “scientific community”!

    What they are really doing is backtracking from statements made by one of their spokesman, Prof. John Abraham, who promised to fight climate skeptics criticisms, but withered when he discovered that he was unarmed for this kind of combat. (The skeptics have valid criticisms, for which the CAGW crowd can’t answer).

    Read all about it here:
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/11/07/john-abraham-panics-the-agu-into-forming-climate-rapid-response-team/
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/11/08/agu-backs-away-from-climate-rapid-response-team-citing-faulty-reporting/

    -Johanus

  9. “AGU galvanizes a community of Earth and space scientists that collaboratively advances and communicates science and its power to ensure a sustainable future.”

    Right…… What’s your problem with that statement exactly? I’m having a hard time seeing the liberal plot, here.

  10. Johanus

    @Jinchi
    > I’m having a hard time seeing the liberal plot, here.

    I’m surprised that you can’t see the ‘bias’ here.

    So, what if the AGU was directed by evangelical Christians who wanted to “galvanize” the science community to “ensure” God’s will was carried out on Earth? Would you have a problem with that?

    My point is that science should be directed only at discovering knowledge, and not directed by political or religious groups with an “agenda” to carry out, whether you agree with the agenda or not.

    This happened in Soviet Russia, back in the 1930′s the Soviet government “galvanized” the study of genetics towards theories that fit well with the Soviet agenda, but were a corruption of science. Dissenters were imprisoned. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism

    We can see this kind of government interference already starting to happen in the U.S. “The science is settled!” Scientists with dissenting views or criticisms are demonized as “deniers”.

    Don’t get sucked into this mess. There are two sides to every question. Science is never settled. Skepticism is always the force that keeps science from turning into a religion.

    Amen. :-]

  11. V.O.R.

    “Science is never settled.”

    I’m extremely disgusted with the skeptics too lazy to push that we teach the controversy about gravity, cold fusion, and especially the internal combustion engine.

    Generations of kids have been raised thinking cars run on what is effectively “settled science” and I don’t hear one *peep* about this from the mainstream skeptic community.

    @ Jinchi: The give away is “sustainable.” If a bunch of earth and space scientists see a threat to our civilization’s sustainability it can only mean a liberal conspiracy. It can’t come from the *science*, because that’s a political stance. And as Johanus ably demonstrated, only leftists try applying science to politics. Everyone else knows enough to keep science as far away from politics as possible: An informed decision is a biased decision.

  12. Dunc

    Yeah, what could be more politically biased than desiring “a sustainable future”? That’s socialism, right?

  13. Johanus

    Well said, V.O.R., thanks.

    One more comment. I think AGU’s decision to base their vision on ‘community galvanizing’ was incredibly lame in so many ways.
    1. It immediately brings to mind ‘community organizing’, certainly a label that has accumulated a lot of negativity for Obama
    2. It was Luigi Galvani, an 18th century physicist, who gave us the term ‘galvanic response’, while applying electricity to frog’s legs and noting that they twitched. (Oh the humanity!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Galvani
    3. Chris Matthews said his legs twitched when Obama spoke. “Galvanic response”?
    4. Steel can be ‘galvanized’ by dipping it in molten zinc. Makes it resistant to corrosion. Try dipping people in zinc, might make them resistant to stupidity.
    5. Maybe “community galvanizers” are “community organizers” on steroids.

    This is fun, like peeling a galvanic onion. Thanks Christine McEntee and AGU for a wonderful cute and wacky metaphor!

  14. TTT

    Johanus–V.O.R. was making fun of you. You didn’t recognize his sarcasm (“there are two sides to gravity”, “an informed opinion is a liberal biased opinion”) because you actually think it’s true.

  15. Johanus

    I was being nice. You didn’t catch my Über-sarcasm.

  16. Nullius in Verba

    “I’m extremely disgusted with the skeptics too lazy to push that we teach the controversy about gravity, cold fusion, and especially the internal combustion engine.”

    If anybody wants to, they can and should be allowed to do so. And the mainstream should rely on teaching the actual evidence for internal combustion, not relying on unsupported assertions, citing expert opinions, invalid statistical methods, erroneous measurements, lost/hidden/deleted data, bug-ridden code, or calling people who disagree names.

    Gravity is exactly the same as climate science. If a researcher in gravity said “why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”, we would be just as justified in complaining. If they said they would rather delete the data than give it up to examination, we would be just as suspicious. If they chopped off the ends of graphs where their data went the “wrong” way, or tried to block or alter papers being published even while they acknowledged the maths was correct because they didn’t like the conclusions, or if their sensors had easily seen biases due to poor location that they hadn’t bothered to check, it would be exactly the same.

    (For a real example, consider when Richard Feynman pointed out a school textbook that gave experimental results – complete with random-looking measurement errors – for a ball rolling down an inclined plane. Except that they had forgotten that part of the energy goes into rotation of the ball, and got the answer wrong. Clearly they had not actually done the experiment, they had fabricated the results based on their own misunderstanding. That’s how ‘gravity’ is taught in schools. Feynman is an excellent example for you of a sceptic who objected to the practice.)

    The standards that science sets are universal. You have to provide the evidence in sufficient detail, depth, and integrity that it doesn’t matter if somebody tries to “teach the controversy” or, like Feynman, says you’ve got it wrong, because everybody would be able to immediately check and recognise the flaws in their claim. If people can’t, then whatever it is you think you’re teaching, it isn’t science.

  17. Johanus

    … and as for “cold fusion”, science is never settled by saying “We tried it and it didn’t work”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muon-catalyzed_fusion
    (H/T to Pons & Fleischmann)

  18. Sundance

    Mooney #3 “So it’s my fault the LA Times wrote a confusing story….”

    Chris, what surprises me is that you didn’t confirm for yourself with the AGU before writing your story? I’m surprised that you, a science writer, don’t have a personal SOP that requires fact checking a story to confirm information for yourself. Instead you trusted writer Neela Banerjee who you admit wrote a confusing piece. Why didn’t you fact check?

  19. Sean McCorkle

    @19

    I hope you’re not seriously comparing muon-catalized fusion, a phenomena with theoretical underpinnings that date back to the 1950s and which requires a HIGH-ENERGY PARTICLE ACCELERATOR to generate short-lived muons and therefore uses more energy than is produced (see footnote) with a highly publicized, error-prone report of a room-temperature, lab-benchtop chemical experiment giving off large amounts of heat and neutrons and promising a miraculous new source of power, which was never reproduced despite countless attempts.

    Footnote:

    From http://nextbigfuture.com/2009/09/japan-working-on-muon-catalyzed-fusion.html

    At the RIKEN–RAL Muon Facility, a beam of muons is injected into about 1 cc of fuel to induce d–t nuclear fusion at a rate of about one million times per second. In general, 5 GeV of energy is required to produce one muon. In the RIKEN–RAL Muon Facility, a single muon is capable of inducing d–t nuclear fusion 120 times before it decays, producing 2 GeV of energy. In other words, 5 GeV of energy is required to generate 2 GeV of energy, corresponding to an energy balance of 40%.

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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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