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.
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?