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Tue, 2012-06-05 07:11Chris Mooney
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The Polarizing Poles: Yet Another Study Shows That More Knowledgeable Conservatives Are *Worse* on Global Warming

Bloggers and commentators have been talking a lot lately about a recent study, by Dan Kahan and colleagues in Nature Climate Change, capturing what I call the “smart idiot” effect: Conservatives who are more educated, or have a higher degree of scientific literacy, are more strongly in denial (or less worried) about global warming.

In this post, I want to underscore the robustness of this finding, by showing that it has also turned up in a study just out in the journal Polar Geography.

The paper (citation below; abstract here; author’s draft here) is by Lawrence Hamilton and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. In it, the researchers examine a wealth of survey data about people’s knowledge of (and concern about) global warming in the polar regions—data collected by the General Social Survey in 2006 and 2010. Then, they cross-reference these results with measurements of general scientific literacy and political ideology…and, well, that’s when the smart idiots show up to be counted. As we’ll see.

First, though, some background.

Polar warming is, as Laurel Whitney recently explained here, an extremely big deal. This isn’t just about what happens to the polar bears. The growing potential for exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic, made accessible by ongoing sea ice and permafrost melting, adds a new variable to the global energy economy and also further amps up our potential carbon dioxide contributions to the atmosphere.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the risk–if global warming advances far enough—of destabilizing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

Wed, 2012-05-30 10:16Chris Mooney
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The Big Waffle? New Report Exposes Corporations That Try to Split the Difference on Global Warming

We hear a lot about the Koch brothers. And before them, we heard a lot about ExxonMobil.

In other words, we all know the names of the corporations, and the corporate leaders, who have sought to undermine public understanding about global warming—for instance, by supporting think tanks that misrepresent the science and, in some cases, literally launch attacks against top scientists.

But you don’t hear as much about the companies that kinda waffle on the issue. That maybe give a little money to conservative think tanks, but also support lots of environmental groups. That donate to politicians on both sides of the climate battle, and sometimes take apparently contradictory stances on the issue: either on the science, or on what we ought to do about it.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, though, appears to catch some of them in the act.

The UCS sought to analyze the influence of corporate America on the debate over climate science and climate policy. So it sampled a large group of S&P 500 companies that involved themselves in two major climate policy events of the past few years: Either they commented on the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding on greenhouse gas emissions (pro or con), or they donated to the 2010 battle over Proposition 23 in California (either for or against the ballot proposition).

This yielded a sample of 28 S&P companies, including many expected names—ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Valero—but also some surprises (Nike). Then, UCS drilled down further by examining a host of other actions bearing on climate change that these companies have taken.

Tue, 2012-05-29 05:45Chris Mooney
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A Top Scientist Ignores the Science of Why People Deny Science

In the world of evolutionary science, you don’t get much more prominent than Richard Leakey (pictured here). An anthropologist and conservationist, he’s the son of the archaeologist couple Louis and Mary Leakey, famed for their human origins research in Africa. Richard Leakey is credited with multiple major discoveries, including his team’s unearthing of Turkana Boy, a 1.5 million year old fossil skeleton thought to be either an example of Homo erectus or of Homo ergaster.

None of this, however, necessarily means that Leakey is an expert in the communication of science, or on why people deny science in key areas. In fact, recent remarks by this distinguished researcher show just how far we still have to go before even some scientists accept the growing body of research on the subject of…why people deny science.

According to a recent AP story, Leakey predicted that within the next 15 to 30 years, scientific research will advance so much that there will be no more doubters of evolution. At this point, Leakey reportedly said, the evidence will be so vast that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

Leakey went on to forecast that in such a world, we’ll be better at using science to solve our problems: “If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it's solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

It’s a stirring vision, and kind of reminds you of John Lennon’s Imagine. But I’m nonetheless floored to find that in this day and age, a scientist as prominent as Leakey can sound so optimistic about being able to “persuade people on the evidence.” For with such remarks–and of course, this is assuming that the AP is quoting him accurately–Leakey seems to ignore everything we actually know about why people reject facts and reason.

Wed, 2012-05-23 09:42Chris Mooney
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The Meaning of Tropical Storm Alberto--and a 2012 Hurricane Rap Session

Uh oh. Hurricane season has started early.

On Saturday (the 19th), when Tropical Storm Alberto spun up off the Carolina coast, forecaster Brennan of the National Hurricane Center had this to say:

ALBERTO IS EARLIEST-FORMING TROPICAL STORM IN THE ATLANTIC BASIN SINCE ANA IN 2003.  THIS IS ALSO THE FIRST TIME THAT A TROPICAL STORM HAS FORMED BEFORE THE OFFICIAL START OF THE HURRICANE SEASON IN BOTH THE ATLANTIC AND EAST PACIFIC BASINS.

2003 was a busy season; and following on the record heat of March, a strong hurricane season wouldn’t be so very surprising. Or would it?

The truth is that heat isn’t the only thing that influences hurricanes, and this year, the pre-season hurricane forecasts are sort of all over the place. Some are predicting an above-average season, some a below average season; it all seems to centrally depend on whether or not El Nino kicks in. This global weather pattern tends to suppress hurricanes in the Atlantic, though it can be rocket fuel for them in the Pacific.

The current El Nino forecast, from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, says we’re in what are called “ENSO neutral” conditions and those are expected to persist through summer. After that, it’s fifty-fifty whether we’ve got El Nino or a continuance of neutral conditions.

So far, NOAA has not yet released its much anticipated May 2012 Atlantic hurricane forecast, which hopefully will make more sense of this and other variables. I’d expect that any day now.

Mon, 2012-05-21 11:12Chris Mooney
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Will Climate Denial, Like, Ever End?

This week, as the Heartland Institute commences its annual conference, the organization is clearly back on its heels. Funders, experts, and even some staff are bailing, reports The Guardian. Apparently pushed into defensive mode by Peter Gleick and his attempt to expose its funding, the Institute struck back with its ill-advised “you guys are kinda like madmen and murderers” billboard campaign—and, as they say, the rest is history.

Or is it?

If Heartland didn’t exist, wouldn’t some other organization simply take its place? And won't Heartland itself weather this storm? After all, new funders, like the Heritage Foundation and the Illinois Coal Association, have sprung to the institute’s defense. (Whatever else you might say about conservatives, they know how to support the team.)

I think the only conclusion that one can reach is that while Heartland might be flailing right now, climate denial itself is far, far from over.

Let’s think about this in perspective, and start with the good news.

Tue, 2012-05-15 06:51Chris Mooney
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The Weekly Standard on “Hillbilly” Climate Denial

In its latest cover story, the conservative Weekly Standard has decided to try to refute, outside of the scientific literature, the large body of research on the psychological underpinnings of political ideology (summarized in my book The Republican Brain). The critique, written by Andrew Ferguson, fails badly, in part because it is highly selective at best. Details here.

But what’s particularly interesting is how Ferguson handles the overwhelming evidence of modern day conservative science denial. The basic answer is that he trivializes it. There’s really just one sentence on the matter in his article, and it’s pretty mystifying:

[Mooney’s] list of [conservative] false claims is instructive. Along with the usual hillbilly denials of evolution and global warming, they include these, to grab a quick sample: that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 will increase the deficit, cut Medicare benefits, and lead to the death panels that Sarah Palin hypothesized….

Ferguson then goes on to try to defend some of these false claims. He even manages to stand up for “death panels,” which was PolitiFact’s 2009 “lie of the year”!

But notably, Ferguson does nothing to defend evolution denial or global warming denial–or to suggest that conservative science critics are actually factually right in these areas.

So what, precisely, is going on here? Is The Weekly Standard saying that it is “hillbilly” to deny global warming and evolution, and it is too smart a publication for such nonsense? That seems unlikely, for reasons I’ll explain below.

Or alternatively, is Ferguson suggesting that I’m saying that such beliefs are “hillbilly”? But that doesn’t make sense either—if only because I’m certainly saying no such thing.

I know, I know–it can be tough to figure out what conservatives intellectuals are saying sometimes. But let's try to make sense of this.

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