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Nature: “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

By Joe Romm  

"Nature: “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”"

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Nature News: “Attack sparks memories of McCarthy witch-hunt.”

Nature, the highly respected British scientific journal, has an excellent editorial and news story tomorrow on the recent assault on climate science (excerpted below).

Taking Nature‘s advice, I urge the administration to send science advisor Holdren and NOAA Administrator Lubchenco and Energy Secretary Chu on a media blitz and national tour to explain and emphasize the science.

Nature is among the few journals “that still publish original research articles across a wide range of scientific fields,” including climate science.  It has been a leader in defending climate science (see the December Nature editorial: “Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real “” or that human activities are almost certainly the cause.”)

The news story (subs. req’d) is:

Climate e-mail rerun

Attack sparks memories of McCarthy witch-hunt.

The story is about the latest set of e-mails among climate scientists, which led to Dr. George Woodwell setting the record straight here. Those emails in turn had been stimulated by Sen. Inhofe inquisition seeking ways to criminalize and prosecute 17 leading climate scientists.

Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University in California who is on Inhofe’s list and participated in the National Academy discussion, says he is urging colleagues to calm down and stick to the science. And he hopes that the Inhofe report “” which says the scientists “violated fundamental ethical principles governing taxpayer-funded research and, in some cases, may have violated federal laws” “” will spark a backlash….

As a member of the minority party, Inhofe can’t do much more than issue statements and reports. But Schneider says that if the Republicans later regain a majority in the Senate, Inhofe could take more concrete steps, such as forcing climate scientists to testify before Congress and pursuing his claims in congressional hearings.

Scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Geophysical Union, should respond to Inhofe’s report with a declaration of support, says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey who is also on Inhofe’s list. “Defending the scientific community and scientists from attacks ought to be a central part of their mission.”

The AAAS and other scientific organizations have repeatedly affirmed the fundamental science of global warming….  Alan Leshner, AAAS chief executive, says he is focused on trying to ensure that policy-makers distinguish between the controversies and the science. “What I don’t want to see is that this set of incidents is used as an excuse to deny the scientific findings.”

The editorial (subs. req’d) is even more blunt:

Climate of fear

The integrity of climate research has taken a very public battering in recent months. Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.

Climate scientists are on the defensive, knocked off balance by a re-energized community of global-warming deniers who, by dominating the media agenda, are sowing doubts about the fundamental science. Most researchers find themselves completely out of their league in this kind of battle because it’s only superficially about the science. The real goal is to stoke the angry fires of talk radio, cable news, the blogosphere and the like, all of which feed off of contrarian story lines and seldom make the time to assess facts and weigh evidence. Civility, honesty, fact and perspective are irrelevant.

… Ecologist Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University in California says that his climate colleagues are at a loss about how to counter the attacks. “Everyone is scared shitless, but they don’t know what to do,” he says.

Researchers should not despair. For all the public’s confusion about climate science, polls consistently show that people trust scientists more than almost anybody else to give honest advice. Yes, scientists’ reputations have taken a hit….

… scientists must acknowledge that they are in a street fight, and that their relationship with the media really matters. Anything strategic that can be done on that front would be useful, be it media training for scientists or building links with credible public-relations firms. In this light, there are lessons to be learned from the current spate of controversies. For example, the IPCC error was originally caught by scientists, not sceptics. Had it been promptly corrected and openly explained to the media, in full context with the underlying science, the story would have lasted days, not weeks. The IPCC must establish a formal process for rapidly investigating and, when necessary, correcting such errors.

The unguarded exchanges in the UEA e-mails speak for themselves. Although the scientific process seems to have worked as it should have in the end, the e-mails do raise concerns about scientific behaviour and must be fully investigated. Public trust in scientists is based not just on their competence, but also on their perceived objectivity and openness. Researchers would be wise to remember this at all times, even when casually e-mailing colleagues….

The [recent email] discussion was spurred by a report last month from Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma), the leading climate sceptic in the US Congress, who labelled several respected climate scientists as potential criminals “” nonsense that was hardly a surprise considering the source. Some scientists have responded by calling for a unified public rebuttal to Inhofe, and they have a point. As a member of the minority party, Inhofe is powerless for now, but that may one day change….

The core science supporting anthropogenic global warming has not changed. This needs to be stated again and again, in as many contexts as possible. Scientists must not be so naive as to assume that the data speak for themselves. Nor should governments. Scientific agencies in the United States, Europe and beyond have been oddly silent over the recent controversies. In testimony on Capitol Hill last month, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, offered at best a weak defence of the science while seeming to distance her agency’s deliberations from a tarnished IPCC. Officials of her stature should be ready to defend scientists where necessary, and at all times give a credible explanation of the science.

Here’s my suggestion to the administration.  Launch a cross-country tour and media blitz with the science advisor (see “John Holdren on the hacked emails and the state of climate science“) and NOAA Administrator (see “The Sounds of Science: Lubchenco gives a demonstration of the science of ocean acidification“)

They should be joined by local scientists and, whenever possible, our energy secretary (see Nobelist Chu on IPCC and emails, “this is a little wart on the overall amount of information”; questions “asymmetric” standard skeptics are held to).

When you are in a street fight, you want to bring your biggest guns.

Tags:

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Big Oil uses fake “Americans” to attack fake “energy taxes.” ›

29 Responses to Nature: “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

  1. paulm says:

    I say convince and get mothers onboard to start spreading the message some how.

  2. William T says:

    “intern” should be “in turn” (do you use speech recognition software to transcribe your blog?)

    [JR: I do, yes. Dragon.]

  3. mike roddy says:

    I think that this is an inspired idea, Joe. Even though they work for the government, the speakers should not hesitate to show passion, since this is not an ordinary issue. I like all three spokespeople that you suggested, especially since they all know how to speak in straightforward language.

    I would like to remind them that the truth may not sink in right away, and that short term “ratings” could disappoint. Many Americans who have been misled by people like Beck will need a little time to absorb the real story. The Hollywood Ten are now heroes, but they were viewed with suspicion and befuddlement at the time.

    If Fox and Limbaugh try to mock the scientists as socialist pawns of Obama- or whatever other labels they come up with- it will backfire on them. Lubchenko, Chu, and Holdren telegraph integrity as well as intelligence. This will be much better than abstract arguments about the contents of private emails.

    My final suggestion is to use PR firms only for minor presentation details, and to ensure wide media coverage. A too coached presentation sounds phony, and Americans pick up on it. I trust these three to come up with the best way to communicate on their own, and believe that they know how to speak from the heart, too.

  4. Ben Lieberman says:

    I don’t know if they do this but leading climatologists with media skills and savvy should meet with editorial boards and the like.

  5. H. McLean says:

    >>>>>>>>> for your Climate Science Project . . .

    Climate Change: Fitting the Pieces Together from UCAR is a beautifully crafted interactive – very engaging. You can download it to your local machine, and there’s also a print version.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Fundamental and Huge Problem, and it’s not a magical mystery

    I agree with most of the essence of this post, of course, and I applaud Nature for speaking out. I also agree that scientists and scientific leaders should go on tour and convey the reality of the issue every step of the way. And I believe that major scientific organizations should speak out MUCH more than they have been doing so far.

    BUT …

    Once again …

    Once again we see that the scientific community, or at least the public at large, and including many of the observers, seem to passively accept and “not say much about” the media’s major and irresponsible and harmful role in all this.

    It amazes and saddens me.

    The tone and approach of many of these things are along these lines: “Given that the media will be the media, and can’t be expected to be very responsible or intelligent or discerning, we (scientists, citizens, people who care about the future, and bunnies, cats and dogs, and etc.) must do a much better job ourselves of doing A, B, C, D, X, Y, and Z, along with taking the trash out in the mornings and jumping through hoops.”

    In other words: We let the media off the hook, and that’s a terrible problem and, indeed, an unjustified and harmful mistake.

    The problem won’t be solved sufficiently without solving the media!

    Just as one example, I’ve been asking Andy Revkin about his views about the media’s role in all this, for quite some time now. His latest response to me (on Dot Earth recently) included this statement:

    A. Revkin: “If you mean do the media shape how people react to climate science and its implications, I see scant evidence that the media “matter” much one way or the other — one reason I’ve broadened my horizons of late ( ).”

    (For my original question and for Andy’s entire response, see my Comment 55 in the recent Dot Earth thread, “The Classroom as Science Hot Zone”, as well as Andy’s response just below it.)

    As you can read for yourself, Andy’s statement seems, strongly, to say that he sees “scant evidence” that the media ‘matter’ much, one way or the other, with respect to the question of whether they shape how people react to climate science and its implications.

    That is, I would assert, quite a statement! Wow! Let me repeat: Wow!!

    Now, to be clear and fair:

    You can read my full question, and Andy’s response, on Dot Earth as mentioned above. Also, I’ve asked Andy more than once whether this is what he actually meant to say, and he wrote recently that he would be addressing the matter next month. So, we can all wait until next month to see what he meant.

    That said, I’ve followed the same issue and read many, many of his comments over the last couple years on this same sort of issue, and this recent answer is consistent with his earlier quick responses and explanations. In my view, as I understand it, he really thinks that the (quality and quantity of the) media’s coverage of the matter does not matter all that much when it comes to the public’s understanding of climate science and its importance and implications. Or, at least, he seems to feel that it wouldn’t make all that much difference if the media changed their approaches and greatly improved the quality of their coverage.

    Now, I’m writing this here for several reasons. Scientists and the public should NOT let the media off the hook. Nor should the media let themselves off the hook! And, I fully expect that Andy will (hopefully) explain what he actually meant, means, and thinks on this issue. Perhaps he’ll disagree with the way I’ve interpreted him. If so, fine. I’d just like us to understand how key people in the media think about these things, so however Andy clarifies his view will be fine with me, as long as it’s clear. I hope that any clarification will be clear.

    That said, his statement as it was written by him is quite a statement, all things considered. So, I’m raising it here to see if we can learn what he actually meant by it.

    In my view, the media are dropping a BIG ball. To me, it’s not at all clear whether they realize this, and I actually don’t think that they do! And, my main point: Other people, including scientists, should not just “accept” that the media will be the media, much as we say “boys will be boys”. Forget that! The stakes are much too large on this one. The media should step up to the plate, responsibly, or get out of the way, promptly.

    OK, enough for now.

    Thanks again to Nature, and I do agree that key scientists should start speaking out, a lot.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  7. Dave says:

    Science has been under attack from the right for quite some time.(See Bush vs. EPA and FWS researchers) When your fundamental values (continuance of American-style consumption and corporate profits) are threatened by observable reality, the most effective response is to attack the observers.

    The attacks on a “climate-science road show” would be intense. Any such effort would have to be very well thought through in terms of media strategies. I agree with paulm above, that incorporating people already affected by climate change (drought, fire, beetles, storms) to illustrate the consequences would be an important element.

    Advocates of climate stability need to be more visible in communities. The foes of action to stabilize the climate are highly motivated and very public. They are unrestrained by decorum or evidence. They have ready outlets in the media. The underlying issues are deeply troubling and exceedingly hard to address in a meaningful way. This VERY difficult problem that will not be addressed until people who care about it stand up and make themselves known and heard.

  8. Anna Haynes says:

    Why does Nature hide some of its best & potentially most [beneficially] influential stuff behind a paywall? Heartland doesn’t.

    e.g. The real holes in climate science

    Is there a way that Nature’s articles can be ransomed and made publicly available?

  9. E. A. Blair says:

    You state of the illustrious Nature,

    “It has been a leader in defending climate science (see the December Nature editorial: “Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause.”)”

    Regarding that editorial, it, like many other “warmists”, does not address what I consider to be the most explosive email, that of one Mr. Trenberth.

    ——————-
    Hi Tom
    How come you do not agree with a statement that says we are no where close to knowing where energy is going or whether clouds are changing to make the planet brighter. We are not close to balancing the energy budget. The fact that we can not account for what is happening in the climate system makes any consideration of geoengineering quite hopeless as we will never be able to tell if it is successful or not! It is a travesty!
    Kevin

    And later he said:

    The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.
    ————————–

    Since warmists consider the addition of co2 to our atmosphere to be a type of unintentional geoengineering, this statement would imply that they have no idea what is going on with the earths climate.

    I would like to someone prove otherwise.

    Best Regards

    E.A. Blair.

    [JR: I take it you've never heard of searching even the blog you post on. Try here: http://climateprogress.org/2009/11/21/hacked-emails-ncar-kevin-trenberth/]

  10. Bill W says:

    I guess it must be my turn to feed the troll. On the off chance that you’re not just a troll, Mr. Blair, please find your answer here: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Kevin-Trenberth-travesty-cant-account-for-the-lack-of-warming.htm

  11. Bill W says:

    Speaking of travesties, it’s a shame that typical British understatement (I presume) led Nature to refer to Inhofe as “the leading climate sceptic” in Congress. “Sceptic” is far too dignified a word for him, since he exhibits no skepticism whatsoever.

    Joe, I like your suggestion of the media tour. Do we need to launch a “climate science defense fund” to pay for it? And while we’re at it, maybe we can fund a few libel suits, too.

  12. Americans need to see how climate change affects them personally. The best way to do so is to show a dollars and cents cost per household per year as a side-by-side comparison between costs if we do nothing and costs if we do the right thing.

    Money talks.

  13. dhogaza says:

    “Regarding that editorial, it, like many other “warmists”, does not address what I consider to be the most explosive email, that of one Mr. Trenberth.”

    E. A. Blair … did you read Trenberth’s paper which the e-mail references?

    If not, why not? The two were meant to be taken as a whole.

    If so, clearly you didn’t understand the paper, because if you did, and understood the e-mail in the context of that paper, then you wouldn’t post a false statement claiming that Trenberth’s e-mail is “explosive”, because it’s not. It’s not even controversial.

    Of course, the denialists you get your information from lied about Trenberth’s paper as well. Par for the course.

    If you’re looking for an honest answer, and not trolling, go educate yourself.

  14. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Jeff – you’re entirely right that the media, that is, individuals such as A Revkin, have been culpably negligent in their reporting of the climate issue over the last three decades. Yet the Nature editorial is mistaken in urging scientists to fight back in the media – as has been clearly stated here on CP & elsewhere, any time a scientist debates a denier, the latter has won merely by the appearance of equivalence, let alone by their trained ‘debating’ routines.
    The media’s job is not of course to nurture the controversy, but it is to report events, along with publishing its editorials. The events that have been vanishingly rare since GCC got going in the ’90s have been proportionate cutting rebuttals of denialism coming from responsible politicians.

    “Whores, wimps, and appeasers” covers the roles of the great majority of the current legislators – where for instance is the immediate lethal smack-down from a ranking senator, or from Obama himself, for Inhofe’s latest slander of senior scientists ? Nowhere in sight.
    And be sure, any such rebuttal would now be a major news story overnight.

    If politicians feel it’s undignified to get involved, or that it only gives deniers a platform, then they’re dead wrong. Standing back tacitly mandates the thugs to press their assault, thereby earning a larger media platform. It is honest politicians, not the scientists, who should have been responding in kind to defend the integrity of science from attack by their dishonest fellow politicians.

    And as for Obama’s contribution ? We’ve now had about ten sentences from him to the US public on the reality of the most perilous issue facing humanity, in his first fourteen months in office.

    I’m left wondering which part of
    “Appeasement only empowers the bullies”
    he’s finding hard to understand.

    Regards,

    Lewis

  15. dhogaza says:

    I’ll even give E. A. Blair a super-big hint to help his understanding, if he cares to understand.

    Compare:

    “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

    and

    “The fact is that we can’t account for the missing money at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

    Note that the fact that one can’t account for the missing money doesn’t necessarily mean that the money doesn’t exist …

  16. Roger says:

    Joe,
    I couldn’t agree more! It’s time for Obama, too, to ramp up speaking out…maybe giving a “State of the Climate” address to the nation/world.

    H. McLean,
    Thanks for the link to your wonderfully rich site at Conscious Climate, and to the additional resources at UCAR, describing the COMET Program and etc. With all the materials here–seemingly aiming to educate our weather people about the science and reality of climate change–I’m all the more appalled that so many of them fall into the denier camp!

    Jeff,
    You are so right, as usual. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Lewis,
    You’re ‘right on’ too, about Inhof, Obama, and more, IMHO.

    Everyone,
    Let’s ask for more leadership from our leader on this issue. Call President Obama at 202-456-1414. Making a comment here at CP is super, but also making a comment to the White House–via phone, or email at http://www.whitehouse.gov, urging President Obama to speak out–that’s superb!

  17. climateprogressive says:

    Scott at #12 has a very valid point – money definitely does talk and unless the rate of fossil fuels consumption is reduced sharply, not only climate change but oil depletion and attendant economic woes will drive the prices of e.g. food through the roof!

  18. fj2 says:

    It would be good for the country and the science for scientists to be much more engaged with the public.

    It is long overdue that scientists loudly speak out on the seriousness of the climate crisis.

    They should not be so humble they are not that great!

  19. David Smith says:

    I think the scientific community needs to debate itself, climate scientist to climate scientist; Identify where consensus exists and where it does not exist, what we know and what requires further study and research. The time frame for decision making and action, etc. Use simple language that everyone can understand or have translators standing by to interpret into standard english. In this way scientists can identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own work and take responsibility for it. Maybe it should be a series of debates covering many topics to establish in the public forum the state of climate science.

    Every effort should be made to keep the political flac to a minimum. We face this as a national issue. Whitehouse prestige should be involved. It should definitely take place on the turf of science and not on a talk show.

  20. David Smith says:

    Scientists can acknowledge the street fight, but I think participating in the fight as street fighters weakens their position as independent researcher scientists. Also, that which makes them good scientists makes them bad fighters. To be most effective, the scientist and science needs to inform an army of guerrilla tactitions who possess the skills and courage to get the job done.

    When our soldiers go to war, they may be fighting for principals of American democracy. We don’t send philosophers and social scientist who research and possess deep understanding of the cherished principles. We send trained soldiers;

    In this battle for our futures, we need strategists, orators, intelligence gatherers, etc… and the equivelents to the army, navy, airforce and the marines. We need them all working togather. The battle has little to do with the science. The battle is so that we can allow the science to direct our actions.

    To defeat our opponent, attack strategy first, then alliances, and only then, the armies

    When this is all done we need to work for legislation to remove corporations from their current supper-citizen status. This I believe to be the central caus of this problem in the first place. I haven’t seen where it says in the Constitution that corporations get the special treatment that they do. Corporations are a means to an end and a tool of the wealthy. People, and only people get the full protection under the constitution. Right now it seem our world has it backwards.

  21. Peter Sergienko says:

    Regarding Andy Revkin’s statement that media reporting on climate change doesn’t shape public opinion, the polling reported on in this piece from The Guardian today seems to say exactly the opposite.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/11/americans-climate-change-threat

  22. dhogaza says:

    I think the scientific community needs to debate itself, climate scientist to climate scientist; Identify where consensus exists and where it does not exist, what we know and what requires further study and research

    That’s exactly the purpose of the IPCC effort.

    This piece by Ben Santer, among other things, gives you a clue as to what a *real* debate between scientists trying to agree on a summary of what’s known about a subset of climate science looks like.

    (read the bit about the debate during the Madrid IPCC meeting)

  23. hapa says:

    might be good to have some big blue-chip company experts along with the public experts, to help defuse charges that the science is a gov’t hoax. especially people from companies that would gain moderately-to-little from federal clean tech spending.

  24. David B. Benson says:

    E. A. Blair (9) — No “missing” warming and I predict more in the 2010s:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/02/whatevergate/comment-page-23/#comment-164509

  25. PizKesch says:

    Another important issue in this context is the asymmetry of trust. We only take advice or information from a source we trust. But as we may all know from personal experience, trust is far easier to destroy, than to create.

    Empirical studies confirm this asymmetry. Events which weaken trust have a significant impact, while news which strengthen trust are having a much smaller impact.

    Climate skeptics have arguably been very ‘good’ in exploiting the realization that trust is asymmetric. They accepted that it is a lot easier to destroy the messenger than the actual message. The recent attacks on the IPCC and its chairman have been a clear effort to destroy the trust in the messenger. To grasp the asymmetry, simply imagine the climate science critics would have used science to fight the science. How likely is it, that by publishing an ‘Independent Climate Science Assessment Report’, they would have had the same effect on the popular risk perception as they arguably had by orchestrating ‘climate gate’, etc.

    Against this background, it may be high time for the IPCC and those concerned about the consequences of the climate crisis to adopt a strategy that has worked so well. They shouldn’t try to answer the allegations with rational, scientific arguments alone. It could, taking the asymmetry of trust into account, very well be more effective to target the source of the criticism in the first place.

    Discredit the messenger might work both ways.

  26. Anna Haynes says:

    re my (#8) “Why does Nature hide some of its best & potentially most [beneficially] influential stuff behind a paywall? Heartland doesn’t.”

    Here’s Nature’s mission statement:

    “First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science.

    Second, to ensure that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life.

    How do we encourage them to improve #2?

  27. Anna Haynes says:

    re “in a fashion that conveys their significance”

    - if it’s “here today, hidden from the public tomorrow”, that would seem to convey insignificance.

  28. Climate activist says:

    Joe, here’s my question. Yes, this would absolutely help us inch forward on the science of climate change (and maybe bring public opinion on this back where it was a year or two ago). But, will this backfire politically?

    As you very well know, climate change, global warming, etc. are all LOSING ways of talking about this issue with the american people. Isn’t this a major part of the reason we’ve failed to pass any serious legislation in the US to begin addressing AGW? Should we send them on this campaign across the US, or will this directly backfire and distract people from the focus most pro-climate action groups have FINALLY taken focusing on messaging around Clean Energy, jobs, national security, competitiveness in the global 21st market, etc. Will this bring any progress and discussion being made on energy issues even more back into the messy, distracting and easily muddied “debate” over whether climate change is happening?

    Because, quite frankly, I don’t care so much about the number of people believing in climate change as our ability to begin to successfully start to address it.

    [JR: Need to do both messages.]

  29. Wonhyo says:

    The Nature editorial itself suffers from the same lack of conviction and emotion that it suggests scientists use in promoting understanding of climate science, and defending their work. Nature should start by showing an example of what scientists need to do to defend their work and promote a public understanding.

    Unfortunately, I don’t it is in the nature (no pun intended) of scientists to engage in media street fighting. They need support.