Scientists get off the sidelines to right media wrongs
It’s not easy being a climate scientist these days. They live in a world where well-funded organizations collude to spread lies and misinformation about their discipline, and where political pundits and elected officials alike engage in blatant harassment to promote an anti-science political agenda. Conservative pundits such as Mark Morano, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have called for climate scientists to be “publicly flogged,” to commit “hara-kiri,” and worse.
Sadly, despite the rancor and conspicuous absence of any data or actual science, these fossil fuel-funded tactics have proven effective at swaying public opinion. Poll results have shown a marked decline in Americans’ belief in global warming, from a high of 85 percent in a 2006 poll to 63 percent during the summer of 2010.
Surely some of the blame must be shared by traditional media outlets for elevating the spurious claims of television weathermen and ex-governors to the same level as peer-reviewed, data-driven, scientific analysis conducted by credentialed experts. Others blamed climate scientists themselves for not being better organized to defend themselves against the onslaught of well-funded and well-organized public relations professionals.
But who can blame them? Scientists have never been particularly good at communicating with the media”” historically it’s not really been their job. Scientists are trained not to shape public opinion but to examine the natural world. But that may have to change the longer climate science remains in the crosshairs of the fact-free conservative punditocracy. According to science historian Spencer Weart, “we’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers.”
To fight back, 40 scientists have come together to form the “climate rapid response team.” Led by Dr. John Abraham of St. Thomas University, the rapid response team is an informal group of scientists who have decided to put their spare time to use fielding media questions about climate science, and even going up against hostile anti-science audiences. Science Progress had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Abraham on the phone earlier this week; what follows is excerpted from our interview with him. (Note that Dr. Abraham’s responses are paraphrased, except where marked with quotation marks.)
What is the purpose of this rapid response effort?
Think of it as a matchmaking service to provide high-quality climate scientists from around the world to members of the media”¦Almost all of the scientists on our team are practicing climate scientists in academia.
Are you guys doing any training to prepare these scientists for potentially hostile media engagements?
No, we’re just aiming to deliver rapid, high-quality science information, in scientists’ own words.
Any worry that having climate scientists wade further into the political quagmire could politicize the issue further? Or even undermine the discipline? Or are we already past the point of no return?
You know this is something that climate scientists are always discussing””on a daily basis. Contrary to how we have been portrayed by some media stories, the purpose of our effort is not to politicize, it’s to provide highly accurate and timely information”¦We [scientists] are more comfortable staying in the ivory tower and discussing the science amongst ourselves, but we clearly need to get better at communicating to the public.
Why has climate science become so political? Why do you think conservatives are so skeptical, even hostile, toward climate science and those who practice it?
I think conservatives are more opposed to the solutions, rather than the science itself. That is to say, I think their ideological opposition to Big Government perhaps biases their view toward the science. Of course, the irony is that cap and trade has been used successfully to reduce smog for decades.
Is there still uncertainty in climate science?
Yes, but not about the basics. Whether or not the planet is warming, and whether human activity is driving that”¦these are not really up for debate anymore. Where there is still some uncertainty is over the degree, the rapidity, and the social reaction. We just don’t know what emissions path we are going to be on in the coming decades””whether humanity will get it together to reduce or not.
How are you going to communicate that uncertainty to people honestly? In a world where the conservative media has taken a very hard-line, anti-science stance that speaks often in terms of absolutes, how do you fight back without sinking to the same level?
A metaphor that I like to use when it comes to uncertainty and risk is the loaded revolver. Look, you’ve got a revolver. The more greenhouse gasses you put in the chamber, the higher the likelihood that your next shot is live”¦it’s a probability issue. Risk is something that our economic and political system deals with all the time.
Climate scientists didn’t ask for this attention. It just happens to be that climate science stands above other scientific disciplines in the severity of its implications for human destiny. Climate scientists didn’t charge headlong into the realm of politics with an ideological axe to grind. Rather, it was politicians and energy lobbyists that waded into the realm of climate science wielding a pro-fossil fuel agenda. So long as climate science remains so relevant to our politics, climate scientists have a moral obligation to defend their discipline from the kind of blatant misinformation that has dominated our news for the past 12 months.
Though some purists may hold to the belief that scientists should not wade into the quagmire of public opinion politics, Dr. Abraham has higher hopes for what his efforts could accomplish. “Deep in my heart I really wish there was some civility to this,” he shared as we were concluding our interview. “The vitriol that flies back and forth is not helpful. You will hear from me no vitriol. You’re not going to hear me demonizing anyone. You’re going to hear me communicating the science. If we can bring a civil but candid discussion to the media and the public””that is a success.”
— Sean Pool is assistant editor for Science Progress, CAP’s online science policy publication, and Climate Progress. Ben Kaldunski also contributed to this article.