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Fri, 2012-01-27 08:23Chris Mooney
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The Uneasy Relationship Between Explaining Science to Conservatives...and Explaining Conservatives Scientifically

Over the past year or more, I’ve profited from a series of conversations and exchanges with Yale’s Dan Kahan, the NSF supported researcher who has made great waves studying how our cultural values predispose us to discount certain risks (like, say, climate change). Kahan’s schematic for approaching this question—dividing us up into hierarchs versus egalitarians, and individualists versus communitarians—is a very helpful one that gets to the root of all manner of dysfunctions and misadventures in the relationship between politics, the U.S. public, and science.

Kahan says that his goal is to create a “science of science communication”: In other words, understanding enough about what really makes people tick (including in politicized areas) so that we know how to present them with science in a way that does not lead to knee-jerk rejections of it. Thus, for instance, presenting conservatives with factual information about global warming packaged as evidence in favor of expanding nuclear power actually makes them less defensive, and more willing to accept what the science says—because now it has been framed in a way that fits their value systems.

This is a very worthy project—but it doesn’t only tell us how to communicate science to conservatives. It tells us something scientific about who conservatives are. They are people who are often motivated—instinctively, at a gut level–to support, default to, or justify hierarchical systems for organizing society: Systems in which people aren’t equal, whether along class, gender, or racial lines. And they are motivated to support or default to individualistic systems for organizing (or not organizing) society: People don’t get help from government. They’re on their own, to succeed or fail as they choose.

It is one thing to accurately and scientifically explain how these values motivate conservatives. And it is another to reflect on whether one considers these values to be the ones upon which a virtuous and just society really ought to be built.

Tue, 2012-01-24 07:48Chris Mooney
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Newt Gingrich on Science: The "Say Anything" Candidate

After smashing Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary, former House speaker Newt Gingrich has now emerged as tied with the onetime Republican presidential frontrunner. So it’s time to look closely at Gingrich's record on science—which is not, perhaps, as dismal as Rick Santorum’s, but still gives ample cause for concern.

When it comes to Newt on science, we're presented with a complex picture. Gingrich holds a Ph.D. in history, which suggests that he might be considered a scholar and intellectual. And he professes to love science and technology. Ten years ago in 2002, he called for tripling the budget of the National Science Foundation, a goal I heartily endorse.

And yet…here are no less than four issues where Gingrich’s science record raises serious concern:

The Undermining of Science Advice. In 1995, Gingrich-led congressional Republicans did away with the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which had previously served as their in-house source of science advice. As I reported in my book The Republican War on Science, Gingrich instead espoused a “free market” approach to scientific expertise: Rather than having institutional science advice in place, members of Congress could just meet with scientists as they saw fit in order to inform themselves.

Thu, 2012-01-19 09:24Chris Mooney
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Who’s Afraid of Kerry Emanuel? Why Republicans Are Attacking a Republican Climate Scientist

Last week, MIT climate scientist and hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel received email threats for his view on climate change. These were quickly and appropriately condemned by the progressive and environmental blogosphere—as they are condemned by me–but I want to go a bit further and contemplate why Emanuel’s views in particular appear so menacing to some elements of the conservative base today.

The answer may seem deceptively simple on the surface: Unlike most climate researchers, Kerry Emanuel describes himself as a long time Republican. And he’s been speaking out lately. The precise catalyst leading to the emails was a video posted by Climate Desk, capturing Emanuel at an event in New Hampshire organized by maverick Republicans who actually accept global warming and don’t like the way their party is headed. They want to turn it around (hey, good luck with that).

So Emanuel is presumably seen as a turncoat by some Republicans and conservatives—and you might just leave it at that. But I think it is deeper. It is the kind of Republicanism that Emanuel represents—merged with his identity as a scientist, and a premiere one at that—that really presents the biggest challenge.

You see, Emanuel is what you might call an “Enlightenment Republican.”

Tue, 2012-01-17 12:03Chris Mooney
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The Classroom Climate Battle: A New Heavy Hitter Joins the Fray

For a year now, I’ve been covering the growing fight over the teaching of accurate climate science in American classrooms. The conflict is being driven by politics, of course, but also by the fact that school districts are, increasingly, bringing information about global warming into the educational curriculum–leading, inevitably, to pressure on teachers, backlash from parents, and even, in some cases, school board or legislative interference.

This is, of course, happening most often in ideologically conservative communities, where we have already seen climate science teaching conflicts start.

So what do you do about it?

As it happens, there is a national organization that already has decades of experience in dealing with politicized fights over the content of science education. It is the Oakland, CA-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which has defended the teaching of evolution across America going back nearly 30 years.

And now, NCSE has just announced it is adding climate change to its docket. (The group's arrival in this space is such a big development–at least to my mind–that I just devoted a full Point of Inquiry podcast episode to interviewing NCSE director Eugenie Scott about it.)

As this effort unfolds, I think there will be a few things to keep in mind. First, the climate education is not like the evolution education issue in several key respects, and so cannot be handled in the same way:

Wed, 2012-01-11 11:36Chris Mooney
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Does PolitiFact Adequately Cover Scientific Misinformation? Well, Sort Of

I’ve been harping a lot lately on the fact-checkers, like PolitiFact, and how they too often fall for a type of phony journalistic “balance” that those of us who practice science journalism as a trade have long abhorred.

And then it occurred to me: Maybe the deep difference between science journalism and political journalism is part of the core reason why political fact-checkers seem so often to do their job as if politics is a horse race–striving to regularly ding Democrats, even when Republicans are really ginning up the vast majority of the most severe and systemic political falsehoods.

After all, as a science journalist, I’ve come to denounce media “balance” on issues like evolution and global warming precisely because…well, because I know how to report on the science of evolution and global warming. And knowing how to report on that science has, in turned, shown me how solid our body of knowledge in these areas really is—and thus, how extensively out of touch conservatives are.

But learning how to practice journalism in this way—well, that takes some doing. It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a journalistic speciality.

So if political fact checkers don’t really know much about how to report on science—one of the chief areas in which Democrats and Republicans are unequal when it comes to spewing misinformation—then perhaps it's no wonder they're so prone to falling for phony “balance.” They simply haven’t had the behavior drilled out of their heads enough, through reporting on issues where “balance” just isn't an option.

I wanted to test this idea, so here’s what I did. I went to PolitiFact and searched its archives for the word “evolution,” just to see how often the site had grappled with a very prominent scientific issue where Republicans and conservatives have an overwhelming tendency to be factually incorrect and make false claims–and where, by any stretch, a “balanced” approach is utterly inappropriate.

Mon, 2012-01-09 07:19Chris Mooney
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How to Get a Liberal to Question Global Warming

Readers of my posts will know that I’ve often focused on the work of Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues, who have published fascinating research on how our political and cultural views skew our perceptions of scientific reality. In particular, Kahan et al find that “hierarchical-individualists” (aka conservatives) have very different responses to a variety of facts than do “egalitarian-communitarians” (aka liberals), and that these responses spring not from objective assessments of the evidence, but rather, from deeply seated worldviews that color our perceptions of what is true.

Such research has often been interpreted in a way that has made conservatives look, well, kinda bad. In one Kahan study, for instance, hierarchical-individualists overwhelmingly rejected the very idea that a scientist could be considered a real and legitimate “expert” because of that scientist's opinion that global warming is real and caused by humans. This is not exactly what I would call open-minded behavior.

But the research coming out of the Kahan group is actually quite balanced and does not merely target conservatives. And since I myself am often drawing on these sort of studies to criticize the right, I think it’s only fair to discuss a new Kahan et al study that, if you look closely, appears to show liberals also reasoning in a biased fashion.

[Don’t worry: I still think conservatives have much more deeply rooted issues with science. But it’s a complicated world out there, and it isn’t like liberals and environmentalists are complete innocents all the time. In my view, if we're going to criticize our ideological opponents, we've also got to try hard to see our own blind spots.]

So how do you get liberals to behave in a manner that, at least to my mind, might be called ideologically biased?

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