Apparently you can write an entire article on how the public doesn’t get climate science without mentioning the disinformation campaign or the media’s failings

Exhibit A:  “Scientists From Mars Face Public From Venus” by opinion blogger Andy Revkin.

Revkin was writing about — and soliciting expert opinions on — a Chris Mooney WashPost piece, “If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening.”

I wasn’t originally going to write about the piece because, as Evil Monkey points, out the piece doesn’t offer much in the way of news or solutions.  Also, Mooney conflates very different issues — climate change and vaccination (and Yucca Mountain).

Yes, science messaging sucks (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1” and Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”).  And yet somehow the overwhelming majority of parents in this country get their children all the vaccinations they need, even though it is a time-consuming process that, for many, isn’t cheap, and oftentimes leads to crying children.

Maybe it’s because climate science — and not vaccination science — has been the victim of one of the largest and best funded disinformation campaign in human history, one that has been the subject of many major books (see “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth about Climate Change” and “The Invention of Lying about Climate Change“).

Mooney mentions this just in passing, though I mostly give him a pass because he had written about it at length in books and articles.  I don’t give him a pass for not mentioning at all the catastrophic collapse in science and environmental reporting (see With science journalism “basically going out of existence,” how should climate scientists deal with well-funded, anti-science disinformation campaign? and dozens of critiques here).

Former NYT reporter Revkin manages to write an entire blog post filled with expert quotes while never delving into either of those core problems in climate science communication.

Let’s be clear.  If there were no disinformation campaign, and the media did even a halfway decent job of communicating the science, public opinion would be … well, actually the public strongly supports climate action — that’s another flaw in the articles (see Yet another major poll finds strong public support for global warming action, “even if it means an increase in the cost of energy” and links to multiple polls therein).

The REAL problem isn’t so much science communication — though that does suck — as the fact that we have this 60 vote supermajority extra-constitutional ‘requirement’.  If the Senate only needed 50 votes (plus a VP tiebreaker) to act, we would have passed a climate bill last year, even in the face of the disinformation campaign and lousy media coverage.  True, it would have been inadequate, but again, primarily because of the disinformation campaign and poor media coverage.

I suppose if there were no disinformation campaign — if essentially the entire right wing weren’t singing with one falsehood-filled voice, viciously attacking those who are trying to tell the truth and demagoguing all of the plausible solutions — the media coverage would be a lot better, as it is in vaccination science.   The disinformation is targeted at the media’s weaknesses, it’s desire for drama and false balance over substance.

Indeed, it’s a good question how many parents would stop getting vaccinations if Limbaugh and Gingrich and FoxNews  said over and over and over again that they were just part of a socialist hoax to enrich the drug companies and might actually do more harm than good — if for 8 entire years. the president and vice president and virtually all of their administration said there’s no need to vaccinate, we’re hard at work on R&D into cures for all of these diseases.

Mooney writes:

Take climate change. The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions. They conclude, not illogically, that they’re dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance — one that can be fixed only by setting the record straight.

Yet a closer look complicates that picture. For one thing, it’s political outlook — not education — that seems to motivate one’s belief on this subject. According to polling performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren’t ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information. Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite — more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.

In other words, it appears that politics comes first on such a contested subject, and better information is no cure-all — people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve. In fact, more education probably makes a global warming skeptic more persuasive, and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view.

A similar story unfolds with public opposition to vaccination….

Uhh, this doesn’t make much sense.  As noted, the vaccination story isn’t similar to the climate change story at all.

And I don’t know any climate scientists who are still “stunned” by the disinformation campaign.  I do know many climate scientists who are stunned at how dreadful the media coverage is — whereas the media coverage on vaccination isn’t generally dreadful, primarily, I would argue, because there isn’t this well-funded, Tobacco-Industry-style disinformation campaign.

Mooney seems to ignore the obvious conclusion of the one poll he sites.  Yes, Republicans who are college graduates are more avid (and credulous) consumers of conservative media, which is an enabler — in many cases, a willing participant in — the disinformation campaign.

So how exactly would listening more solve that problem?  Even the mostly poor messaging of scientists mediated through the mostly poor journalism of the MSM has convinced the majority of Democrats and independents, who are open to science-based messaging and don’t principally consume anti-science media.

Mooney’s conclusions don’t go anywhere:

These three controversies have a single moral, and it’s that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions on contentious issues need to do far more than just “lay out the facts” or “set the record straight.” What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it’s only the beginning. It’s critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.

Thus, for instance, resistance to climate science in the United States seems to be linked to a libertarian economic outlook: People who resist what experts tell them about global warming often appear, at heart, to be most worried about the consequences of increased government regulation of carbon emissions. Similarly, based upon my observation, vaccine skepticism seems closely connected to distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and of the federal government’s medical research establishment. As for Yucca Mountain, much of the outrage appears to originate in the perceived unfairness of having Nevada proposed as the sole dump site for the waste of an entire nation.

Again, this isn’t news.  As I wrote back in 2008 (see “Media enable denier spin 2: What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?“):

As Revkin himself notes about the Heartland denier/disinformer conference, “The one thing all the attendees seem to share is a deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” As I explain at length in my book, a central reason that conservatives and libertarians reject the scientific understanding of human-caused climate change is that they simply cannot stand the solution. So they attack both the solution and the science.

Here are Mooney’s solutions:

For this reason, initiatives that engage the public about science policy in a two-way conversation — before controversies explode — show great promise. In Canada, for instance, the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization spent three years listening to the public’s views about how to handle nuclear waste disposal and promised that no dump or repository would be sprung on a community without its consent. Throughout the process, even critics of waste storage efforts remained engaged and supportive of attempts to come up with the best possible solution. In the United States, meanwhile, the federally funded National Nanotechnology Initiative has sponsored a great deal of social science research to explore possible public concerns that may arise as this new field of technology advances.

Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

They might, in the process, find a few pleasant surprises. For one thing, the public doesn’t seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it’s scientists who are wary of the media and the public.

Sure, consensus-based dialogue processes are great.  But in the climate arena the “before controversies explode” caveat is about two decades too late.

And it’s not just scientists who are wary of the media — it’s anyone who talks to them on a regular basis and a large fraction of the public.  But then, there isn’t one “media” nor as we’ve seen is there one public.

In the case of climate science, I agree with Nature:  “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

And I agree with Evil Monkey at Neurotopia:

So what can scientists do? Well, we have to pull double-duty debunking misconceptions of the data and of scientists in general. Universities and especially tenure committees need to be more supportive of scientists devoting time to outreach, especially for those conducting the so-called “lightning rod” research. That means more settings where scientists take the practical side of their research and tell the public about it, before it becomes an issue (which admittedly is about the only thing Mooney lays out as a strategy, even though he doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts). Kids need to be made aware of how vaccines benefit them and the population as a whole. The general public needs to understand how evolution impacts their local ecosystems. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we’ve always fell short here. More scientists need to consider media-based careers, like Phil Plait. More scientists need to speak up in church if they hear bullshit getting peddled. More scientists need to sit on school boards. If you’re a scientist and you’re active in politics, find somebody like-minded in the opposing political party and organize a politics-free teachable moment where both sides of the aisle show up and see each other as human beings with common science-based problems that transcend their petty politics. Find ways to have teach-ins with legislators and staffers at the state and federal levels, if possible.

There, I’ve already done more than Mooney. I’ve made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed….

Let’s actually do more than just listen.

As I wrote in a Physics World special issue on Energy, Sustainability and Climate Change, Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change:

I believe that the major scientific bodies and leading scientists in the US must come together immediately to develop and quickly implement a serious communication strategy. We are again at the precipice. Indeed, it is, as the current Presidential Science Advisor and physicist John Holdren has said many times, too late to avoid dangerous anthropogenic warming of the planet. Now the only question is whether we can avoid unmitigated catastrophe.

Any other suggestions?

28 Responses to Apparently you can write an entire article on how the public doesn’t get climate science without mentioning the disinformation campaign or the media’s failings

  1. Joe you are pulling your punches. We have been victimized by a corrupt media whose business model is to promote the interests of advertisers – not serve the interests of civil discourse.

    Andy Revkin should instead emulate journalist Ross Gelbspan and his superb essay “U.S. Press Coverage of the Climate Crisis: A Damning Failure of Courage” He tells the story:

    “A few years ago I asked a top editor at CNN why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to extreme weather, they did not make this connection. He told me, “We did. Once.” But it triggered a barrage of complaints from oil companies and automakers who threatened to withdraw all their ads from CNN if the network continued to connect weather extremes to global warming. Basically the industry intimidated CNN into dropping the one connection to which the average viewer could most easily relate.”

  2. Daniel Ives says:

    Joe, I think I remember an excellent idea you suggested many months ago; that President Omaba should consult the National Academy of Science and do a prime time power point presentation live for the American people. The presentation could explain basics of climate science, especially noting how recent extreme weather will be more common if we don’t act. Nothing too complex. He could then explain how we can act to avoid the worst at a very modest cost, a cost that is far, far less than no action at all. Finally he should explain the other benefits of acting, such as job creation, economic recovery, energy independence, stability and energy security, cleaner air and water, etc. I think if he did this he should have a panel of experts from NASA, NAS, etc. at his side who can help him take questions from the press in a Q&A session afterwards. It is important that the panel consists of climate scientists and expert economists with good reputations so that it will be harder for conservatives to attack. I mean Republicans always say “we are the party of Lincoln” so they would be open to criticism if they bash the NAS, or if they bash NASA, the organization that put a man on the moon.

    I know it’s a long shot that this would actually happen, but how wonderful it would be! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this (it was your idea afterall).

    [JR: Yes, a major push from the Obama administration would make a big difference. Sorry I left that out, but I have blogged on it so many times I just don’t even think about it anymore. We had 8 years of disinformation and muzzling of climate scientists followed now by a year and a half of a muted message (along with the disinformation campaign and dreadful media coverage). Who could possibly be surprised that some 40% of the public don’t get this at all.]

  3. Peter Mizla says:

    The media at every facet- TV, Newspapers, Radio, internet find that by not reporting extreme weather patterns most likely associated with climate change- they will not offend the vast majority of their advertisers, who have vested interests in hiding the truth.

    The media is a bought and paid whore of the advertisers who pay their bills- and have no conscious about hiding important information from the public.

    What a great nation we live in- no wonder so many people find Vermont a great place to live.

  4. Ric Merritt says:

    We would be far better off if every mention of the extra-constitutional 60-vote requirement were accompanied by a mention of the all too constitutional anti-citizen method of defining and counting those votes. Because of the awarding of Senate seats and presidential electoral votes to small states, the right-most third of the electorate can easily block any action by the other two thirds.

  5. PSU Grad says:

    Yes, much of the media (it certainly appears that way locally) is bought and paid for by a few select, and large, advertisers. The slanted coverage, the “spiking” of stories unfavorable to certain communities, the crafting of headlines to create an impression (one local community is called two different names, one for bad news and the other for good news….I kid you not), are all evidence of this reality.

    But there’s more at play, and I can’t find a way to say it without seeming offensive, so I’ll just say it. I spoke with a reporter once who said he was a Fine Arts major in college. That got me thinking, so I asked a few others about their backgrounds. Not ONE had a science degree. Worse, a local “chief meteorologist” (and global warming denier) doesn’t even have a science degree, much less a meteorology degree.

    I suspect most of these people can be swayed by anyone who “sounds” good, regardless of the actual science. Put enough BS together and they’ll buy it. In fact, a local weekend weathercaster once held up Monckton as an authority on climate change. That’s a first hand account, because he said it to me directly. I was literally speechless, but must have had that quizzical “say what?” look on my face.

    It’s all about the pretty face, the good hair, and the easy story.

  6. fj2 says:

    “Can we avoid unmitigated catastrophe caused by climate change?” should be the name of the public forum run by the president.

  7. Wit's End says:

    Yesterday I came across an interview with David Edwards by Derrick Jensen, the entirety of which I have yet to digest, but as it is pertinent to this discussion an excerpt and link follow – and note how amazing, that this was published in 2000. In ten years nothing has improved other than we have the intertubes where a tiny minority who make the effort can obtain factual information:

    “Jensen: You’ve said that there are five things everyone ought to know. What are they?

    Edwards: The first is that the planet is dying. One way to chart the damage is to look at insurance figures. Between 1980 and 1989, the insurance industry paid out, on average, less than $2 billion a year for weather-related property damage. From 1990 to 1995, however, hurricanes, cyclones, and floods in Europe, Asia, and North America cost the industry an average of more than $30 billion a year. The Red Cross is warning that climate change is about to precipitate a century of natural disasters. We have already seen a number of “superdisasters” in Honduras, India, Venezuela, and Mozambique, all “clearly tainted by human actions,” according to climatologists.

    Global warming affects more than the weather. Last year, marine biologists estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean have died due to global warming. Coral-reef ecosystems are home to one-fourth of all fish species. And they’re just the first major victims of global warming. Others will soon follow. Scientists now predict that the polar bear will be extinct in the wild within twenty years.

    Now, many environmentally conscious people would argue that the scale of the environmental crises threatening us is being communicated. After all, most newspapers these days have environmental correspondents. But the level of coverage in no way matches the severity of the threat. Think for a moment about the media response to the supposed threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War: Hollywood churned out pro-America films; novelists wrote thrillers pitting the “free world” against the “godless communists”; headlines decried the dangers of communism; and so on. By comparison, there’s next to nothing being said or written about the threat of global warming.

    Jensen: I know what you mean. I like baseball, but it breaks my heart to see ten pages in the newspaper every day on sports and maybe three column inches a month devoted to the biodiversity crisis.

    Edwards: This leads to the second thing that everyone should know, which is that huge numbers of intelligent, motivated people are working all-out to prevent action that could save the planet. No matter how clear the evidence or how stern the scientific warnings, time and again, effective action is obstructed. The Global Climate Coalition, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers are all vigorously opposing even the trivial cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions proposed by the Kyoto Climate Treaty. The irresponsibility is breathtaking.

    The so-called debate on global warming is a war between the biggest enterprise in human history-the worldwide coal-and-oil industry-and the planet’s ability to sustain life. And our hearts and minds are battlefields in that war. The corporate press and corporate-financed politicians keep talking about global warming as if there’s significant doubt about it, yet the “debate” pits perhaps half a dozen high-profile skeptics bankrolled by this trillion-dollar industry against the consensus of twenty-five hundred of the world’s most qualified climatologists working as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How is it that the opinions of these six-whose arguments are often shot full of illogical and absurd statements-carry the same weight as all that scientific evidence?

    This brings us to the third thing I believe everyone should know, which is that the death of the planet is symptomatic of a deeper, institutionalized subordination of all life-including human life-to profit. Algeria is a typical example. It’s been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. Elections were held in 1991, but the government scrapped them when it became clear a militant Islamic party would win, and since that time some eighty thousand people have died. In some cases, armed attackers have descended on defenseless villages at night to cut the throats of women and children. The violence has been characterized by psychotic frenzy, including the dismemberment of infants. It’s not exactly clear who is doing all of it, although the government is heavily implicated. But one thing is for sure: the world has done nothing about it.

    Jensen: Why not?

    Edwards: I can answer that question with one word: oil. Algeria has gas and oil deposits worth billions and supplies the gas for Madrid, Rome, and many other European cities. It has a $2.8 billion contract with British Petroleum. Because of this, no Western government wants to make trouble with Algeria. John Sweeney-just about the only British journalist who has written anything about it-called the eighty thousand deaths “Europe’s gas bill.” Instead of demanding an end to the slaughter, the European Union is giving Algerian generals $125 million for “restructuring and democratization.”

    This story, of course, has been repeated any number of times: Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Indonesia, East Timor, Iraq, Vietnam-anywhere there are profits to be made. Yet few people in the media want to talk about this pattern in which the economic interests of the U.S. and Britain are synonymous with the systematic exploitation and impoverishment of Third World populations. It’s the same with the environment. Although the planet is being demolished before our eyes, the media remain content to artificially isolate each new disaster, leaving us to try to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

    The absence of discourse about these patterns leads us to the fourth point, which is that the economic and political forces that profit from destruction and atrocity also profit from the suppression of truth. It’s the job of the corporate media and the politicians to prevent us from digging beneath the surface and uncovering the truth.

    It’s important to be clear, however, that our delusions are not just the result of some conspiracy on the part of a few business moguls. The real problem is much more structural and psychological. Modern thought control is primarily dependent not on crude, conscious planning, but on the human capacity for self-deception. One of the biggest obstacles to social change is the propaganda system working undetected inside our own heads-mine included.”

    Link to original:

  8. Dano says:

    Plenty of blame to go around, no reason to heap it solely on corporate media. Our schools, for one: from elementary to university level. Our human nature, for another: it is far easier to deny impending problems that have hard solutions that will cause us to change our lifestyles.



  9. Jeff Huggins says:

    The Media

    I have not read Chris’s piece, yet, but I have read Andy’s.

    Let’s get something clear, first, in a sort of DIY (do-it-yourself) way:

    Imagine two professions. One of them sets this goal for itself …

    * To understand how things work in the best possible way.

    The other sets this goal for itself (presumably, or something like it) …

    * To convey important and useful and accurate information and understanding to the public, in order to facilitate the public’s ability to make informed and wise decisions, for the public good, which is an important responsibility in any case but is particularly important in a modern democracy.

    You may have guessed by now that the first profession or field is that of science. The second is that of journalism and the news media.

    Now I ask: WHO is NOT performing their responsibility effectively? WHO is NOT living up to their own presumed aim and role?

    Ask yourselves. It’s not a hard question.

    I agree that everyone — scientists, teachers, customer service agents, pollsters, businesspeople, and etc. — should communicate as well and clearly as possible. It would be a good idea for scientists to try to communicate well. It would be a good idea for all of us to do so. If my cat could communicate better, I wouldn’t have to guess at what food it wants every morning. (For those who know me, you know I don’t have a cat, but I used to have one, named Inky.)

    But let’s get one thing clear: It is NOT scientists who are falling down on their central task and expertise. Although scientists should be doing more, and hopefully will, in order to help address the immense gap and confusion generated by the media, scientists have been fulfilling their main task, for decades now.

    It is the MEDIA that are failing. Let’s be clear: The MEDIA. That fact can be demonstrated, analytically, and easily, by anyone who systematically goes through the media coverage of climate change over the last ten years, or during the last ten weeks: choose whatever period you like.

    So, I don’t know why the media don’t get it. And, I definitely don’t know why Andy doesn’t seem to get it, yet. I’ve been writing about it to him, and “at” him, for several years now.

    I just got back from attending a major conference of the leading evolutionary psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and many other scientists of human behavior (other psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and so forth) who approach matters from the standpoint of evolved human traits (human nature, so to speak) and related matters, including the influences of culture on these things. There are many scientists, right now, who could readily explain to the news media very fundamental things that they are doing WRONG, and INEFFECTIVELY, if their actual goal is to convey important understanding to help society achieve its own good.

    If humankind is going to adopt more sensible and sustainable approaches, one of the very FIRST things that will need to change are the news media. Period. Can I say it more clearly than that?

    There is another group that is (grossly) underperforming: the organizations that are supposed to monitor, critique, and improve the news media. As far as I can tell, they are (so far) being almost entirely ineffective. Of course, there is probably a revolving door between those organizations and the media themselves — the sort of revolving door that we simply can’t stand when it happens between government and lobbying groups.

    I am increasingly convinced that the reason that some people continue to have their jobs in the media is that they have major blind spots — Major Blind Spots — that allow the worst of our troubles (and their causes) to go unnoticed or to only gain just enough coverage so that we don’t address them and they DON’T change. “Cover the controversy” is the rule, or one of them. “Only rock boats that we want to rock” is another one. “Don’t rock any important boats” — even those that desperately SHOULD be rocked — if rocking those boats will upset advertisers, the status quo, Bill Keller, or our friends at the club.

    Back to the point: Think clearly, and judge for yourselves who is dropping the big ball: scientists or journalists and media owners.

    The New York Times seems to think it is doing a good job. And THAT’S worrisome. The people who are presumably giving us the news don’t even have a healthy degree of self-assessment. It’s jaw-dropping, if you ask me.



  10. Lou Grinzo says:

    Certainly the media doesn’t want to offend their advertisers, but just as harmful is the fact that they don’t want to end the war of words when they’re the arms merchant selling column inches and TV and radio minutes.

    Until that dynamic changes accurate information about climate change will continue to be a “pull” resource, meaning people will have to seek it out explicitly in NOVA, BBC, and NatGeo documentaries and web sites. The warped view that deniers cherish will continue to be a “push” resource that shows up everywhere else and drowns out the reality-based message.

  11. MarkB says:

    Fair criticism of the Mooney piece. On the surface, he characterizes most of the public as uninformed (rather than misinformed) and blames scientists in part for this. Still, he has a nice phrase that redeems the modest flaws in the piece.

    “[Educated Republicans] are politically driven consumers of climate science information.”

    “In fact, more education probably makes a global warming skeptic more persuasive, and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view. ”

    “Information” should probably be in quotes, but the message is conveyed. Even this is a bit shallow, though. He could expand and mention that the vast majority are educated in a non-climate-science-related field. But it gets at the heart of global warming denial and why it won’t disappear anytime soon. As long as the science implies strong government action, the “politically-driven consumers of climate information” will be out there demanding the contrarian drug, and there will be dealers ready to supply it. Scientists can set up the equivalent of drug addiction clinics, but the addicts won’t be cured unless they want to be and make the effort. Do you blame the crack addicts, dealers, or society? I’ve always felt blame should be shared.

  12. mike roddy says:

    Andy Revkin, in at least 1200 Dot Earth posts, has never mentioned that corruption of the mainstream media may be a problem, so I don’t bother to bring it up there any more. Instead, Dot Earth has become a podium for a group of people who have little intellectual or practical substance: economists, social scientists, and political scientists, sprinkled with an occasional (usually long retired) hard scientist. We also hear from TV weathermen (Watts, Bastardi), tepee salesmen (Brand) and mathematicians (Dyson, McIntyre). Climatologists are as likely as not to be of the discredited variety, like Curry or Lindzen.

    Dot Earth has become a big disappointment, due to the large built in audience and the knowledge and experience that Revkin brings to the table.

    Then of course there is the big denier cadre in the comments section, consisting mostly of people who sign their first names only. My theory is that they all work out of a Koch Brothers boiler room in Tulsa.

    Richard Pauli makes a lot of sense, but I don’t know the reasoning or forces behind the state of that blog, which is actually very good at times, only to crush our hopes once again. I actually believe that Andy is capable of change, and could revisit the science and wise up to the Pielkes and McIntyres. In the meantime, Climate Progress is what those who are interested in the real world depend on.

  13. Jeff Huggins says:

    Can We Get a Fix, Please?

    And, the big Shell ad that is on the home page of The New York Times’ website does not seem to be working, so can they (The Times, or Shell) fix it please? Or rather, the ad itself may be working: clicking it takes me to the interactive Shell website. But, the interactive Shell website is not doing what it is supposed to do, as far as I can tell. If I’m going to learn more about energy solutions from Shell (courtesy of The New York Times), then at least make sure the website works, please.

    Also, a question: Do Shell and ExxonMobil and BP (until recently) and Chevron and so forth all take turns trying to use The New York Times to convince people that oil is good and that we’ll need more and more of it over the coming decades? Does Bill Keller help them flip a coin as to who goes next? Or, does The New York Times just turn a blind eye and let “the market” work to give whatever confused information it wants to give to the good people of the world, as we continue to alter the climate and ignore science?



  14. Frank Johnston says:

    I have long since concluded that it is a requirement for any media sinecure to never commit a cogency on any topic of substance.

    Frank Johnston

  15. Peter Mizla says:

    I do not have a science background- at least the hard sciences. A BA in Sociology & Geography (courses in physical Geography, climatology, Cartography, Urban and rural land use) Also have studied at the graduate level -Mass Media.

    Graduate school- Counseling- nonetheless I was ‘taught’ the scientific method– I may be a bit outclassed here with my science ‘credentials’- but I listen and learn….

  16. catman306 says:

    Here’s a funny political ad. We’ve got spinners on our side too.

  17. Doug Bostrom says:

    I’m surprised that Chris could not have pointed out one extremely simple and obvious difference between vaccines C02 emissions. With vaccine communications we have no threatened commercial concerns but instead the opportunity for people to make money while fixing a problem, thus no synthetic “controversy” has emerged. With C02, we’ve got a threatened interest group with a powerful motivation to confuse the public, hence the emergence of synthesized “controversy.”

    As Joe says, ignoring such an enormous fundamental difference between cases means we simply don’t have the tools to attack the problem.

  18. Dan B says:

    Great piece. I agree that Mooney doesn’t clearly describe the playing field. It’s like the Bible was written without any bad folks or the history of the Soviet Union without Stalin.

    All the same I believe that “Content” of the message is key. I’m reminded of FDR converting the automakers to arms manufacturers in a few months and of Kennedy setting a clear visionary framework for the moonshot.

    Conservative libertarians have been a great mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industrial complex – and a beneficiary of massive amounts of money and cushy jobs. They’re not about to shoot their funding sources. They simply repeat and rehash their view that “the economy / market will be harmed by regulation”. They’ve driven themselves into a psychotically deranged state. Facts will not penetrate that.

    What will penetrate are positive visions: Renewable energy creates jobs at home. Green energy is the economic driver of the 21st Century. Fossil fuels powered the industrial revolution, clean energy will power the next century’s growth. Americans will rise to the challenges of converting to clean energy as we’ve responded to other challenges like World War II and the race to the moon. Dazzling technologies will be spun off that will change our lives for the better. We can lead the world or watch as Asia surpasses us in renewable energy.

    What response do conservative libertarian deniers have for these visions? If they respond at all they repeat the message and amplify it.

  19. fj2 says:

    It seems that the climate change political reality is rapidly aligning with the scientific reality typical of emergencies and looming catastrophes under broad public scrutiny.

  20. Tim Larkin says:

    There are two ways of thinking about communication. The first, the common and usual way, is “This is precisely what I want to say.” The other way has been lost since the time when the Art of Rhetoric ceased to be considered worthy of study. The second way says, “This is what I want you to hear.”

    Why do some people refuse to accept evolution by natural selection? Not because there’s any weakness in the science, or the scientists, or the text books or magazine articles. It’s because when you say “natural selection” to a certain class of person, he hears “amorality”. When you say “4 billion years”, he hears “godless”. The problem comes from the fact he has invested himself fully in morality and theism. Unless you understand why he believes what he does believe, you cannot construct an effective communication.

    I can understand why someone would refuse to accept evolution; I can understand why Truthers believe all their nonsense about the Towers. There are all sorts of silly conspiracy theories out there that make sense if you consider how and why people invest themselves in those belief systems. You just need to ask what they get for their investment.

    But I cannot understand the return on investment of the climate deniers. I not talking about oil company execs and PR flacks or other media types who can get a boost in status or income from denial. Because if there were only those miscreants, there wouldn’t be a problem. The problem comes from the other 99% of the deniers whose ROI is strictly personal. What are they hearing when we say anthropogenic global warming? Until we know the answer to that question, we won’t be able to reach them.

    It’s not that the science hasn’t been made clear, or that the deniers are too loud. Denier science simply rationalizes what people are inclined to believe; it has no power in itself; in fact, it is totally irrelevant. We should be asking ourselves why people need to reject the real science.

  21. Wit's End says:

    Tim Larkin, listen to what the deniers (not the paid ones) say. In some ways they are smarter than they are given credit for. They say, I’m not going to let you global warming alarmists take away my gasoline powered toys and make me live in a cave without electricity.

    Warmists try to reassure them that we will develop new technology to make clean energy feasible as a replacement for fossil fuels and it will be better for the economy – but the deniers know better. To have any prayer of averting the most catastrophic climate change, we would have to start to ration fuel, and ban frivolous uses – globally, and then enforce it with whatever means are required.

    Kind of like China’s one-child policy.

    The deniers don’t want to admit there are any limits at all, because once you start down that slippery slope, you do end up with the recognition that radical changes in consumption and life style will be required, especially by Americans, and others with the largest carbon footprints.

    And don’t even get started on social justice for third world countries!

  22. Mark Shapiro says:

    1 — Dano @ 7 – it’s good to hear from you again.

    2 — Lou Grinzo @ 9 – Don’t expect much from NatGeo documentaries; it is now owned by News Corp. and controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

    3 — Tim Larkin @ 14 – what do the 99% of deniers (whose ROI is strictly personal) hear when we say “AGW”? They hear higher taxes, less freedom, and, worst of all, that consumption cannot increase forever. That makes for a tough rhetorical battle.

  23. Paulm says:

    Facinating posting. Getting to the core of the denier psyche.
    Thanks for that link witsend.

    I have to agree #20 WitsEnd, I feel like an island around all my friends, family and colleagues.
    They all are unresponsive to the facts of climate change which I have put to them.

    It seems that as a race we are not intelligent enough to meet this challenge.

  24. Shawn says:

    If the MSM were to shift its coverage of climate issues in the direction it needs to go (reporting facts as facts, exposing the misinformation campaign for what it is, etc.), it might look and feel like Op-Ed reporting, like the opposition to the other “side” of the debate. And surely FOX and their ilk would paint it that way.

    Of course it would be an opposition of sorts – not of climate change alarmists vs. deniers, but of facts against misinformation.

    But I still wonder how long it would take for it to feel like reporting rather than like the MSN has found a new axe to grind.

  25. Chris Mooney says:


    You fail to mention that the Post Outlook piece is inspired by a 15 page paper that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just released:

    And that paper in turn was based on four expert workshops conducted over a year and a half by the academy.

    In the paper, most of the points you raise above are addressed, such as the dramatic decline of science in the media, the fact that the battle lines have been drawn on climate for decades, etc. There is also a much more extensive discussion of solutions.


  26. James Newberry says:

    Lets keep in mind that about 90% of the public want a fundamental change to US energy policy, according to a recent front page report in the NY Times. The public already gets the message.

    In my opinion, the reason we haven’t moved as a nation on this vital issue is that we are a corrupt nation, a banana republic of fraud, deception and waste. Call us a plutocracy, policy by the investment banks, the mining industries that run rampant over public lands, the military contractors and atomic utilities like the administration’s good friend Exelon.

    If we removed the hundred’s of billions of dollars of direct, indirect and externalized public subsidies the plutocracy is extracting from the Treasury, then extraction of mined materials for firing or fission (and war) would decrease and clean energy innovation would flourish. But unless we get concentrated money and lobbying out of governance, we will continue to fail.

    This July 4th remember the concept this nation was built on, revolution.

  27. We’re once again into a both/and rather than either/or situation about the Mooney piece. Yes, for various reasons the media has misreported on the climate crisis. Yes, corporate power is probably part of why. Yes, science education and communication are weaker than they should be. And very much yes, a highly funded disinformation campaign has provided reasons to doubt climate change for people who are predisposed to want to doubt climate change.

    There are other factors that Mooney doesn’t discuss, like the immense psychological barriers to accepting the logical conclusions, the consequences of the climate crisis, like the end of the civilization they know, one way or another. Like the political fact that there has never been a crisis quite like this: a crisis (until recently) of the future that’s invisible or easy to ignore in the present, governed by such apparently unfamiliar concepts as lag time, tipping points and cumulative impact.

    But what Mooney does discuss is valid: for repeat deniers not on fossil fuel payrolls, it isn’t all about feeding them information. It is also about listening to them. About understanding where they are coming from, in their lives. Listening allows information to be translated and applied directly to their concerns. It permits analogies and metaphors, specifically meaningful to them. It means taking their real life consequences and concerns into consideration in designing the methods of addressing the causes and effects of climate change. It means allowing everyone in the community to talk about this, without fear of being demonized, and to work it out for itself.

    Frankly it is unlikely that scientists or politicians can do this. They need a more neutral but creative third party. The most successful dialogues I know of came after a small theatre company’s piece on climate change, in which they employed comedy that went after everybody’s pretensions. There must be other ways to overcome the mutual not listening of today’s debates. There is very likely a significant subset of skeptics and deniers who must be listened to before they can themselves hear.

    Will this convince everyone? Not likely. Will it build support to pass climate crisis legislation? Maybe not, and maybe it’s not necessary because as the polls show there is plenty of support for doing…something. Maybe the extreme rhetoric we’re hearing is sound and fury signifying nothing, which will become apparent in November. But this environment is toxic in more ways that one. We face hard times ahead. We need a wider understanding.

  28. Chris Winter says:

    There’s been some talk recently of reviving the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment) that advised Congress on matters of science and technology until Gingrich’s Republican Congress shut it down. I think that would be a good idea.

    More pertinent to this discussion, I think we need a similar organization to advise the public on such matters. It probably shouldn’t be part of government; maybe the NAS, the NAE and other organizations can cooperate in establishing it. (Leon Lederman I guess is retired, but he would have been a good choice to lead it.)

    This organization’s task would be public outreach: basically, producing and distributing reports and presentations on science issues. President Obama’s involvement would be critical in setting it up with the proper people and adequate funding. What must be avoided is the fate of so many safety and public affairs offices within organizations: they wind up as little more than window-dressing (if they don’t start out that way) or get co-opted.

    Note: I don’t think this would be very expensive in government terms.

    I’m thinking some Hollywood people would be good to have on board along with scientists and engineers — maybe James Cameron. There’s no lack of good people; the problem is crafting an organization that makes good use of their time and talents.

    It’s beyond dispute that the media are, in general, derelict in their duty to accurately inform the public on climate change and other science matters. I don’t see that changing until, somehow, the tendency to conglomerate is reversed. That will take a while. This goes double for education, IMO. It’s a matter of incentives: How do you reward people for being straightforward and comprehensive in providing information?