Drilling Down into the Connection Researchers are Making Between Climate Change and Conflict

By Keith Kloor | March 5, 2015 1:41 pm

The Carbon Brief, a UK website created in 2011, is a destination for many seeking non-partisan information and analysis on climate change related news and research. I like the neutral tone of the articles and the comprehensive perspective it offers on controversial issues, such as the state of the science on polar bears and, in a similar vein, the growing body of research explaining the “hiatus,” a term commonly used to describe a slowdown in the rate of the earth’s surface warming.

Here’s how a Carbon Brief article on one recently published study begins:

This month will see the civil war in Syria reach an inauspicious fourth birthday. Since the uprising in 2011, over 220,000 people have been killed and almost half the Syrian population have fled their homes.

Evidence suggests the conflict was triggered by a complex mix of social, political, economic and environmental factors. But new research finds that human-caused climate change could also have had an influence.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests a severe drought that began in 2006 was a catalyst for the conflict, and that climate change has made such droughts in the region more than twice as likely.

In my previous post, I discussed how this new study was broadly covered in the media. I felt that many of the news articles did not critically examine the paper, much less inform readers of the contentious climate/conflict research field it is situated in. The Carbon Brief article, however does a nice job contextualizing the study, while also providing a flavor of the field’s conflicting views.

Likewise, the UK Climate & Migration Coalition says the new paper adds to a body of contradictory research:

There is currently a raging academic debate about whether a hotter planet will lead to more armed conflict. (We’ve explored this debate in previous blog posts). A number of research papers have found a powerful connection between various climate impacts and armed conflict. Other papers have found a much weaker connection – or no connection at all. Some even found a decrease in violence. Making global generalisations is difficult. However it is a useful exercise to establish whether, in general, climate change will lead to more armed conflict.

How “useful” is the paper? We’ll return to that question in a minute. First, I want to point to an article on the study that did feature a critical take and a window into the complexities of the climate/conflict scholarship. Mark Zastrow, reporting in Nature: Read More

Narrow Media Coverage of Study linking Climate Change to Syria Conflict Misses Fractious Debate on a Field’s Scholarship

By Keith Kloor | March 4, 2015 4:04 pm

This week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) received widespread media coverage.  The paper’s takeaway was tweeted by all those reporting on it.

That’s just a small sampling, but you get the picture. Now before we go any further, it’s important to note that this asserted climate change component to the Syrian civil war made the rounds in 2013, argued most strongly by a Washington D.C .-based think tank. It got more play last year after Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning documentary on climate change did a segment on the Mideast, featuring a famous globe-trotting New York Times columnist.

One scholar/journalist with an expertise in Middle East water issues and who lived in Syria between 2006-2010 has countered:

focusing on external factors like drought and climate change in the context of the Syrian uprising is counterproductive as it diverts attention from more fundamental political and economic motives behind the protests and shifts responsibility away from the Syrian government.

Similar points were made in this 2013 paper by two other researchers: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Bill Nye Had a Fixed View on GMOs. Then Something Happened.

By Keith Kloor | March 2, 2015 1:39 am

A decade ago, Bill Nye, aka The Science Guy, did a segment on GMOs for his TV show. His approach surprised some who saw it years later. “It was weightily anti-GMO, something I wouldn’t have expected from Bill Nye,” one writer has noted.

You can watch it yourself and decide. Others have rendered their judgement: Greenpeace, which campaigns against genetically modified crops (when it is not ripping them up), has given the Nye GMO episode a thumbs up. Rodale, a well known organization also opposed to agricultural biotechnology, heartily endorsed the segment, as well. “Bill Nye knows the truth about GMOs,” Rodale crowed.

Nye has recently published a new book that contains a short chapter on GMOs. I have read the chapter and can tell you that it closely reflects what he said on his TV show in 2005, which can be summed up as: Some people are understandably scared about a new technology that could be harmful to the environment. 

Last October, Nye went on reddit and was confronted with this history. An admiring fan told Nye that he was “disheartened” by how GMOs were presented in that 2005 episode. The person went on to rue all the “hate, fear, and ignorance” that biotech scientists had to contend with. Nine years had passed since the GMO episode aired, the commenter said to Nye,

so I want to ask, in light of the wealth of evidence demonstrating the safety and utility of agricultural genetic engineering, could you clarify your current stance on the subject, and have you changed the views you expressed then?

Nye’s response:

I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

I scratched my head and wrote a post called, “Bill Nye explains why he is a GMO skeptic.” It generated some traffic. The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne picked up where I left off: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs

How to Balance Transparency with Academic Freedom?

By Keith Kloor | February 27, 2015 10:54 am

A succession of stories in recent weeks involving scientists and open records requests have anguished many who cherish two ideals: academic freedom and transparency.

I imagine that journalists have also been grappling with a tension between those two ideals. (I know I have.) More on that in a minute. First a recap.

Two weeks ago, I reported in Science magazine that an anti-GMO group had filed a flurry of freedom of information requests, “asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms.”

Several days after that story appeared, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report detailing how open records requests “are increasingly being used to harass and intimidate scientists and other academic researchers, or to disrupt and delay their work.” The timing of the UCS report was coincidental and had been prepared well before my story was published. Nonetheless, biotech researchers, particularly those requested to turn over their emails to an anti-GMO group, felt that the UCS report had reflected their plight. And Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, seemed to agree:

These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate.

So was this a case where the principles of transparency were being (mis)used in a way that threatened academic freedom?

Before you answer, consider: Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Wei-Hock Soon (informally known as Willie), a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had received industry funding explicitly for published work and congressional testimony that was critical of mainstream climate science. (Soon has long been a popular figure in climate skeptic circles.) The environmental group Greenpeace used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents that revealed the extent and terms of Soon’s corporate funding. As the Times reports:

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

After the Times story appeared, Aaron Huertas, communications officer for UCS, wrote a blog post headlined, “Willie Soon’s Failure to Disclose Industry Funding for Contrarian Climate Research is Another Reason to Support Transparency.”

Someone else had the same sentiment.

Ruskin is executive director of U.S. Right to Know, the anti-GMO group that recently sent freedom of information requests to four universities that employ agricultural researchers working in biotechnology. Ruskin suspects there is an unholy nexus between companies like Monsanto and some academic scientists. Thus his interest in any email correspondence between academic scientists and industry. Might such communication reveal unethical relationships similar to that just disclosed between climate contrarian Willie Soon and the energy industry? I’ve talked with many of the agricultural researchers targeted by Ruskin and they say that they have nothing to hide. One of them, Kevin Folta, a biologist at the University of Florida, Gainsville, has spoken out forcefully against what he believes is

nothing more than a hunt for words to smear a few visible public teachers and researchers that engage public dialog in animal and plant biotechnology. The effects are larger, scientists feel a violation of privacy, intimidation, and are less likely to reach out to lay audiences, which is what we should be doing most.

Does it matter if Ruskin’s actions spring from an ideological bias (anti-GMO), as Folta and his colleagues contend? Do intentions even matter? After all, Greenpeace is hardly a neutral bystander. Is anyone in the media or climate science questioning its FOIA motivations? Or does it matter only what the environmental group uncovered with its document request?

If you want to drill down into the vexing issues surrounding this debate, I highly recommend as a starting point Anna Clark’s recent Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) piece. Here’s the thrust of it: Read More

Climate Change and Terrorism

By Keith Kloor | February 18, 2015 8:30 am

Last month, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Nature published a Q & A with an anthropologist who studies the murderous motivations of Islamic extremists. He discussed socio-cultural factors and an allure to a radical ideology. That may help explain Islamic attacks against “infidels” in Europe and the United States, but then what’s driving suicide bombers in Somalia, Pakistan, and Iraq where it’s Muslims killing Muslims? Is there a common denominator?

On Twitter, Jeff Goodell points suggestively to his current story at Rolling Stone magazine. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Why Did Anti-GMO Group Target Certain University Academics?

By Keith Kloor | February 13, 2015 1:31 pm

In the current issue of Science, I report that a dozen university academics recently received freedom of information requests from a non-profit group opposed to genetically modified (GM) products. Why were these 12 scientists selected? In my piece, I write:

The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, says it has no vendetta. It has targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms, and work in states with laws that require public institutions to share many internal documents on request, says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business, he says, and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.”

A statement issued by Ruskin after my piece appeared reiterates what he told me in an interview. The headline of his press release: “US Right to Know FOIAs Profs Who Wrote For GMO PR Website”

But this, I have since learned, is not accurate. It turns out that a number of the professors–including four of the six researchers targeted at the University of California, Davis–have had no connection with the GMO Answers website.

I mentioned this to Ruskin via email today, and he quickly wrote back:  “You are correct and I am sorry. My fault.”

I asked him why he chose those four researchers, if they had nothing to do with the website. He responded with links to two articles (here and here) that show some of the UC Davis academics speaking out and writing on California’s 2012 GMO labeling proposition. (It was defeated.)

Shortly after my story was published, some biotech scientists expressed free speech concerns. At the Biofortified site, Karl Haro von Mogel, a research geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes that

these FOIA requests risk violating academic freedom and have a silencing effect on scientist-communicators who fear becoming political targets.

Michael Phillips, a scientist at the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics, in Barcelona, Spain, airs similar concerns at his plant biology blog. He writes: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Anti-GMO Group Seeks Emails from University Scientists

By Keith Kloor | February 11, 2015 12:04 pm

Earlier this week I learned that a dozen public sector scientists working in the field of biotechnology were hit with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from a California-based group opposed to GMO foods. I spoke with many of the targeted scientists and also with the anti-GMO activist who filed the document requests. My story will appear in the next issue of Science, a magazine/journal published weekly on Thursdays.

But the article has just been posted online at the Science website. Shortly after the piece went live, I was notified of this press release by the group that filed the document requests.

I have additional reporting on this developing story. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, I’ll post (below) any updates or related media coverage.

UPDATE: Here is a PDF of the freedom of information request sent to Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. (He gave his permission.) It is *nearly* identical to the requests sent to all the other scientists. [*Nearly* was inserted after this sentence was written.]

On Twitter, Andrew Revkin wonders about the similarity to a previous controversial episode that rocked the climate science community:

UPDATE: Kevin Folta, one of the scientists who received a Freedom of Information request, has posted a heartfelt response.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs, science

Bill Maher and his Unscientific Beliefs

By Keith Kloor | February 8, 2015 9:34 am

Bill Maher, the comedian and host of his own HBO show, is God’s gift to conservatives. Nobody makes liberals look likes asses more than Maher. You think I’m kidding? Try watching Maher’s latest show without banging your head against the wall (if you’re an evidence-based, science-minded-liberal).

As Mark Hoofnagle observes at his Denialist blog, it is “just about the most perfect example I’ve seen yet that maybe reality doesn’t have a liberal bias.” The stuff Maher says about vaccines and immunity, in particular, will take your breath away. (Hoofnagle summarizes all the “incredibly stupid, unscientific beliefs about medicine” uttered by Maher.)

When you watch the clip, you’ll notice that one of the panelists, John McCormack, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard (a conservative magazine), is mostly quiet. I can see why. If the host is making a fool of himself, why get in the way? Still, McCormack has a barely concealed grin, as if he’s thinking, gleefully: I’m watching a left-wing equivalent of Glenn Beck–without the chalkboard.

Maher, towards the end of his opening rant, starts blathering about the dangers of Monsanto and GMOs. Hoofnagle describes what ensued: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bill Maher, science, vaccinations

Climate Communication Undermined by Inflammatory Language

By Keith Kloor | February 4, 2015 11:51 am

A recent article in Slate carried this headline:

If You Don’t accept Climate Change is Real, You’re Not a Sceptic. You’re a Denier.

I’ll return to its claim in a minute. The piece, by Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss, ruefully notes that the term “climate skeptic” is frequently used in the media as a shorthand label to identify someone who denies the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. He writes:

Skepticism is all about critical examination, evidence-based scientific inquiry, and the use of reason in examining controversial claims. Those who flatly deny the results of climate science do not partake in any of the above. They base their conclusions on a priori convictions. Theirs is an ideological conviction—the opposite of skepticism.

This certainly is true to a considerable extent. Anyone who reads the most highly trafficked “climate skeptic” blogs, such as the one run by Anthony Watts, will detect a consistent ideological bias and a skepticism that runs in only one direction–broadly doubtful of mainstream climate science. The criticisms published there are often slanted, marred by conspicuous omissions or a selective use of facts. The overall tone at the site is hostile and conspiratorial. What you mostly see at Watts Up With That is not true skepticism but rather confirmation bias masquerading as skepticism.

Of course, confirmation bias and motivated thinking are part of the human condition–cognitive behaviors that govern us all, to varying degrees. It is thus healthy to periodically question one’s own assumptions that take root in the mind.

Does this happen at “climate skeptic” blogs? Do the hosts there openly reassess governing notions from time to time? Do they apply critical thinking skills to all the research spotlighted on their sites, regardless of a given study’s results? For some sense of this, let’s look at how various “climate skeptic” blogs have dealt with something called “wind turbine syndrome,” an assortment of adverse medical symptoms supposedly triggered by exposure to low frequency noise from rotating wind turbine blades. I thoroughly examined the phenomenon some time ago. As one public health scientist who has studied it noted last year: Read More

Governor Christie’s Dangerous Double-Talk on Vaccines

By Keith Kloor | February 2, 2015 10:39 am

The Republican political strategy during the past six years has been simple and consistent: If Obama was for it, we had to be against it.

No cooperation meant no bipartisan photo ops.

The one guy who bucked that was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when the Governor praised President Obama for his “outstanding” and “wonderful” response in the storm’s aftermath. As the Washington Post reported at the time:

He [Christie] even told Fox News the president had done a “great job for New Jersey” while staying above the fray about politics: “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”

Fast forward to the present, as Christie mulls a potential run in next year’s presidential election. Over the weekend, President Obama weighed in on the recent measles outbreak making news, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns may grow wider. On Sunday, Obama said in an interview: Read More

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