Chris Mooney's blog

Good Communication is Good Scientific Practice

It’s always helpful to know what those who disagree with you are saying, and why they do so. Let’s consider, then, a recent article in the conservative American Thinker that espouses climate change denial—and that also, interestingly, whacks climate scientists for wanting to do a better job of explaining themselves to the public.

Anthony J. Sadar and Stanley J. Penkala write:

The revelations of Climategate and ten years of stagnant global temperatures have produced a decline of public belief in human-induced climate collapse. But, rather than strengthening the foundations of climate science by increasing transparency in data analysis, releasing raw data for third party evaluation, and allowing their hypotheses to be debated in the literature, government-funded scientists instead have decided it’s best to just change their method of messaging.  The latest tactic is for these man-made global-warming faithful to sharpen their communication skills and tighten their influence on the editorial boards of the environmental journals of record.  The intent is to deflect or bury challenges to their climate-catastrophe canon, not defend their hypotheses.

First of all, this is another marvelous example of how climate change denial is not postmodern.

US Public on Global Warming: Been There, Done That, No Big Issue

gallup data

This week brought a new Gallup poll of US public opinion on global warming—and the only good news is that nothing has gotten any worse. Still, it staggers the mind to contemplate just how big the gap is between what scientists think about the issue, and what the public thinks.

Public concern about climate change, Gallup reports, is “stable at lower levels”—just 51 percent say they worry significantly about global warming, down from 66 percent in 2007. If you don’t think that the rise of an ever-more-assured climate denialism in Congress is tied to those numbers, you don’t know politics.

As usual, the latest survey also underscores the depth of the partisan divide on the climate issue.

Are Liberals Science Deniers? Now’s A Good Time to Find Out

It seems inevitable. Although we don’t know yet just how bad the situation is at Japan’s damaged nuclear plants in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, the events across the Pacific are already triggering a new and differently tinged debate over nuclear power back here at home.

Nuclear defenders are calling for keeping things in perspective—fossil fuels, they point out, have many more costs and risks associated with them than nuclear power; and newer generation reactor designs are far safer than those built in Japan many decades ago (a number of US plants from the same era have the same or similar designs).

Yet figures as influential as Senator Joseph Lieberman are already saying we should “put the brakes” on developing new nuclear plants in the U.S.—despite plans for a so-called “Nuclear Renaissance” that have won strong support from President Obama.

As someone who specializes in reporting on the politics of science, I find all of this fascinating—for the following reason.

The Consequences of He Said, She Said Journalism

For a long time, those closely watching the climate debate unfold have denounced “he said, she said, we’re clueless” journalism, in which reporters present a “debate” between those who accept the science and those who do not, and leave it at that. Let the reader figure out who’s right, the philosophy seems to be. It’s journalistic “objectivity” not to “take sides”—right?

Those criticizing this approach—myself emphatically included—are working under a key assumption: If journalists would take a stand on matters of fact (such as whether global warming is caused by humans), rather than treating them as un-resolvable, the broader political discourse would also shift onto a firmer footing. That’s because we would move towards having a shared factual basis for making policy decisions, rather than fighting over the very reality upon which policy ought to be based.

It’s in this context that a new study (PDF) published in the Journal of Communication, would appear to break new ground–by actually examining the psychological effect that “he said, she said” or “passive” journalism has on readers, and in particular, on their views of whether it’s possible to discern the truth.

So Now They Call in the Scientists?

fred upton

So this is interesting.

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce–chaired by Fred Upton of Michigan, pictured here–will hold a hearing (though the Subcommittee on Energy and Power) on “Climate Science and EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations.” It looks like it is going to be, basically, a science fight. Several scientists, like Christopher Field of Stanford and Richard Somerville of Scripps, are testifying who are sure to affirm the mainstream scientific consensus view of global warming. But there are also more “skeptical” scientists, like John Christy of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, on the docket.

Global Warming and Snowstorms: Communication Nightmare, or Opportunity?

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group I greatly admire, has held a press conference (with attendant media coverage) to air an argument that is already quite intuitive to me, but is probably precisely the opposite for others: Namely, that global warming could mean more mega-snowstorms, of the sort North America has seen in the past several years.

On a physical level, the case is sublimely simple. One of the fundamental aspects of global warming is that it increases the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, because warmer air holds more water vapor. From there, it’s a piece of cake—more snow can fall in snowstorms than before.


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