Chris Mooney

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Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.

Chris blogs for “Science Progress,” a website of the Center for American Progress. He is a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast and was recently seen on BBC 2 guest hosting a segment of “The Culture Show.”

In the past, Chris has also been visiting associate in the Center for Collaborative History at Princeton University, a 2009-2010 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a Templeton-Cambridge Fellow in Science and Religion. He is also a contributing editor to Science Progress and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect magazine.

Chris has been featured regularly by the national media, having appeared on The Daily Show With Jon StewartThe Colbert ReportMSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “The Last Word,” CSPAN’s Book TV, and NPR’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross and Science Friday (here and here), among many other television and radio programs.

Among other accolades, in 2005 Chris was named one of Wired magazine’s ten “sexiest geeks.” In addition, The Republican War on Science was named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize in the category of “Science and Technology,” and Chris’s Mother Jones feature story about ExxonMobil, conservative think tanks, and climate change was nominated for a National Magazine Award in the “public interest” category (as part of a cover package on global warming).

Chris’s 2005 article for Seed magazine on the Dover evolution trial was included in the volume Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006. In 2006, Chris won the “Preserving Core Values in Science” award from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. His 2009 article for The Nation, “Unpopular Science” (co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum) was included in Best American Science Writing 2010.

Chris was born in Mesa, Arizona, and grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana; he graduated from Yale University in 1999, where he wrote a column for the Yale Daily News. Before becoming a freelance writer, Chris worked for two years at The American Prospect as a writing fellow, then staff writer, then online editor (where he helped to create the popular blog Tapped).

Chris has contributed to a wide variety of other publications in recent years, including Wired, ScienceHarper’sSeedNew ScientistSlateSalonMother JonesLegal AffairsReasonThe American ScholarThe New RepublicThe Washington MonthlyColumbia Journalism Review,The Washington PostThe Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe. In addition, Chris’s blog, “The Intersection,” was a recipient of Scientific American’s 2005 Science and Technology web award, which noted that “science is lucky to have such a staunch ally in acclaimed journalist Chris Mooney.”

Chris speaks regularly at academic meetings, bookstores, university campuses, and other events. He has appeared at distinguished universities including the Harvard Medical School, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Rockefeller University, and Duke University Medical Center; at major venues such as the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and Town Hall Seattle; and at bookstores across the country, ranging from Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida to Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. In 2006, he was the keynote speaker for the 43rd Annual Dinner of Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties and the Edward Lamb Peace Lecturer at Bowling Green State University. In 2007, he was the opening plenary speaker at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia.

Chris has been profiled by The Toronto Star and The Seattle Times, and interviewed by many outlets including Grist and Mother Jones.

A Court's Scientific Smackdown: The D.C. Circuit Trashes Science Deniers on Global Warming and the EPA

Tomorrow, we may see a court—the highest in the land–flout precedent for partisan ends in its ruling on President Obama’s signature health care law.

However, in the meantime, we can rejoice that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit understands how to weigh complicated science-policy issues without partisanship or bias.

The D.C. Circuit recently came down with a long expected ruling on an industry and state attorneys general challenge to the EPA’s Endangerment Finding, as well as a number of other actions regarding greenhouse gas regulations. These representatives of red states (including Ken Cuccinelli) and affected corporations argued that EPA was in the wrong to determine that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, and thus must be regulated. Rather, they argued, EPA had come up with an arbitrary and capricious reading of climate science—and was set to unleash an onerous regulatory regime on this misguided basis.

To put it simply, for this charge to be true, all the experts on global warming would have to be wrong. Because that’s precisely who EPA relied on—including the IPCC, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the National Academy of Sciences.

What the D.C. Circuit opinion does, basically, is to show that EPA is absolutely right to trust the experts, and to ignore the deniers, in deciding what the science of global warming says. That makes the D.C. Circuit opinion a resounding defense of science and its relevance to policy—in many ways on a par with other such legal classics, like Judge Jones’ decision in the Dover evolution trial.

Perhaps most quotable is the court’s devastating retort to the idea that EPA shouldn’t be relying on expert scientific assessments to make its judgment about whether humans are causing global warming:

Climate Denial in Brazil: A Translation

This is a translation of the May 2, 2012 “Programa do Jo” on Globo, a half hour interview with the climate skeptic geographer Ricardo Augusto Felicio on global warming. On YouTube alone, the interview has nearly 700,000 views; in Brazil, Globo is a dominant television networkOriginal clip here; for a critique of the content, see here

Tranlated by Beatriz Vianna, a Ph.D. student in biology at West Virginia University who is originally from Brazil.

Jo Soares: Today we are also gonna talk about global warming! With a climatologist who says that global warming is B.S. [Joke that can’t be translated]. I’m gonna talk to Ricardo Felicio…come over here!


Jo Soares: So, you are a professor at the geography department at USP [São Paulo University]. And what do you study specifically–climatology, right?

Ricardo Augusto Felicio: Antarctic climatology, from the Antarctic continent, for 20 years already.  

Jo Soares: Only the Antarctic continent?

Ricardo Augusto Felicio: Yeah, that is my area of expertise, but the other ones  too…. there is no way to separate it (laughs).

Jo Soares: Of course! And you’ve been in Antarctica a few times…

RAF: Two times already.

JS: What do you think of the global warming theory–that the continent’s [Antarctica’s] ice is melting?

RAF: Yeah, to begin with, this is not even a theory, it is a hypothesis. It  does not need scientific proof. There is no scientific proof of global warming. It’s been 26 year–in fact, it’s about 3,000 years this “story” exists. Our researchers from the Climageo team have researched about this information. This has been debated already by the ancient Greeks: “If trees were cut the planet’s climate would change….”

JS: So ancient Greece already talked about that?

Climate Denial Hits Brazil

Last year, I wrote about how journalists in developing nations were doing a better job of covering climate change, largely because denial hadn’t really taken root in many of these countries. In particular, I singled out Brazil for praise: According to a study by James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and his colleagues, Brazil’s major papers contained the least climate skepticism in all of the 6 major nations surveyed (U.S., UK, China, France, India, Brazil).

So it is with much dismay that I report to you that, in conjunction with the Rio+20 conference, climate denial is making a strong showing in Brazil. I initially became aware of this troubling development through a Brazilian Facebook correspondent—and received helpful translations of some of the content itself from another Brazilian and Portugese speaker.

In what follows, I’ve also had to rely on Google translate a bit—hardly ideal, but necessary in this instance, as I don’t speak Portugese. While I certainly wouldn’t trust any quotations below to be precise, I do think they give the broad gist of what is being said.

Basically, the high profile denialism achieved liftoff due to the popular comedian Jo Soares, who gave it quite a boost on his widely watched Letterman-like Programa do Jo (The Jo Show, we'll call it). In May, Soares had on the geographer Ricardo Augusto Felicio, for a nearly half-hour denial fest that has gone pretty viral.

Who is Ricardo Augusto Felicio? He’s a professor at the University of Sao Paulo, specializing in the study of Antarctic climate. His faculty webpage says—according to Google translate—that he “Conducts research and serious criticisms of climate variability and its consequences, demystifying the ‘anthropogenic climate change’ and its ideology embedded.” In other words, he seems to be wearing his denial proudly on his sleeve.

Rio-Inspired Optimism (If Not Optimism About Rio)

If the goal was to get the world focused on sustainable development, then this definitely counts as terrible timing.

With global leaders pressured by the unending European debt saga—which most recently has engulfed Spain, the euro zone’s fourth largest economy—it’s not surprising that environmental concerns aren’t exactly at the front of their minds. Accordingly, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron aren’t attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed “Rio+20”), which opens in today in Brazil’s “Marvelous City.” They’re dispatching their administrations’ next tier personages in their stead—still heavyweights (especially in Hillary Clinton’s case), but the move hardy suggests that Rio is at the top of the global agenda.

Indeed, the gloom and pessimism about this mega-environmental conference is manifest. In one sad tweet, Bill Easterly of New York University commented, “Delegates gather in Rio to commemorate 20 years of nothing happening since a UN Summit where nothing happened.” In fact, leaked negotiating text from the summit suggests we can expect a statement full of good intentions, expressing much concern, oh yes much concern about our environmental plight–but few commitments to do anything.

In other words, more of the same.

In the 20 years since the historic 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the world has clearly failed to fulfill that event’s lofty goals. And perhaps that was too much to ever expect. Describing the ethos of that bygone era, Mikhail Gorbachev recently put it this way: “there was an overwhelming air of enthusiasm and hope for the future. It was a time of optimism and, in retrospect, innocence, as everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.”

The Normalcy of Hypocrisy: From Clean Energy to Health Care, Conservatives Flip Flop in Support of the Team

One striking feature of the liberal psyche is how it is simultaneously outraged by hypocrisy on the conservative side of the aisle—and yet also morbidly fascinated by it.

Just this morning, reading, I came across the following examples:

1.      Ezra Klein’s much discussed New Yorker article, on how Republicans came to oppose the healthcare individual mandate that was, you know, their own idea for 20 years. I find Klein a bit wishy-washy overall, because he uses a political psychology analysis (which is generally good) but fails to acknowledge its full implications: Republicans engage in team-oriented groupthink more strongly than Democrats. This is the finding of Klein’s own key source, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who stresses that in-group loyalty is stronger on political the right. Still, Klein's is a good article overall for factually capturing the flip-flop.

2.      In the same Ezra Klein piece, we find the following additional examples of conservative hypocrisy, or flip-flopping: “In 2007, both Newt Gingrich and John McCain wanted a cap-and-trade program in order to reduce carbon emissions. Today, neither they nor any other leading Republicans support cap-and-trade.” And: “In 2008, the Bush Administration proposed, pushed, and signed the Economic Stimulus Act, a deficit-financed tax cut designed to boost the flagging economy. Today, few Republicans admit that a deficit-financed stimulus can work. Indeed, with the exception of raising taxes on the rich, virtually every major policy currently associated with the Obama Administration was, within the past decade, a Republican idea in good standing.”

3.      At Climate Progress, there’s a recent piece on Republican hypocrisy in opposing innovative clean energy companies and supporting fossil fuel subsidies. Wait, aren’t these guys supposed to be in favor of the free market? Doh…

The New ExxonMobil: Has the Tiger Changed Its Stripes?

For a decade, now, I’ve been a reporter on climate science. And one of my earliest stories was a Mother Jones cover, exposing ExxonMobil’s funding of think tanks that support climate denialism. The piece was actually nominated for a National Magazine Award. It got around.

With this article and others, I contributed a great deal to a narrative that others, notably Greenpeace and this blog, were also forging: Climate science was under attack by corporate interests; leading the charge was ExxonMobil.

As it turns out, if anything that story now appears more accurate than we knew at the time. But there’s a crucial caveat to it—it may not be so accurate any longer, due to changes at the top of the company.

How do we know this? Simple: We read New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Steve Coll’s new book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. I just reviewed this lengthy work in the journal Democracy. You can read the full review here, but I want to summarize the key salient points regarding climate change (the book covers much more than that) below.

Throughout the First Half of the 2000s, ExxonMobil Was Perhaps Even Worse than We Knew.

Mann Handled: A Decade Ago, Conservatives Attacked a Scientist—And Created a Leader

This is a review of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, by Michael Mann.

I first became familiar with the name Michael Mann in the year 2003. I was working on what would become my book The Republican War on Science, and had learned of two related events: The controversy over the Soon and Baliunas paper in Climate Research, purporting to refute Mann and his colleagues’ famous 1998 “hockey stick” study; and a congressional hearing convened by Senator James Inhofe, at which Mann testified. Inhofe tried to wheel out the Soon and Baliunas work as if they’d dealt some sort of killer blow against climate science. In fact, just before the hearing, several editors of Climate Research had resigned over the paper.

I went on to stand up for Mann, and his work, in Republican War. Little did I know, at the time, that he himself would become the leading defender of his scientific field against political attacks.

Recently, Mann came out with a new book about his travails entitled The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, detailing his decade long battle against political attacks and misrepresentations. The response has been all too predictable. For months, conservatives have been giving it one star reviews on, some of which suggest that they probably haven’t read it.

What is most fascinating to me is that the science the right is attacking Mann over—principally, the 1998 hockey stick study and its 1999 extension, as prominently exhibited in 2001 by the IPCC—is relatively old news. Indeed, and as Mann himself explains in the book, “attacks against the hockey stick…were not really about the work itself.” That work has been supported by other researchers—there is now a veritable “hockey team,” Mann notes—and anyways, the case for human caused global warming never depended on the validity of the hockey stick alone. It was always just one part of a far broader body of evidence.

Thus, conservatives who fixated on Mann, and continue to do so, tell us through their own actions that this is not really about scientific inquiry at all. If it was, then they’d be doing something quite different from giving Mann one star Amazon reviews.

How Do We Explain Scientifically Literate But Anti-Science Conservatives? Paging Drs. Dunning and Kruger

As regular readers of this blog know, I have spent a lot of time discussing what we call the “smart idiot” effect: Political conservatives who know more about science—or, have a higher level of education—tend to be more in denial of science or facts in contested areas, like global warming, than are less knowledgeable conservatives.

Any way you look at it, this is a puzzling phenomenon. For after all, we also know that leading climate scientists—e.g., those who have the most knowledge, the most expertise—clearly accept the science, and are deeply worried about it. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), for instance, examined the scientific publication records of climate researchers and compared these with their views on global warming. It turned out that the scientists publishing most in the literature were overwhelmingly accepting of the idea that human beings cause global warming.

What this suggests is there is a level of scientific training and expertise beyond which the smart idiot effect largely vanishes. In fact, while there are assuredly some climate skeptics remaining within the scientific community, the PNAS study found that on average, their “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” tended to be “substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

What this implies to me is that the conservatives who become worse science deniers with a little knowledge or education may be evidence of an odd effect that, in the psychology literature, goes by the name of Dunning-Kruger (after the researchers who famously discovered it). In other words, they may be over-confident in their abilities, but simultaneously, unaware of it. (A little knowledge truly can be a dangerous thing.)

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.

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.