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.

Is Global Warming Causing More Tornadoes? Not So Fast, Says Harold Brooks

Recently, I witnessed the destructive power of a tornado nearly firsthand. In Norman, Oklahoma on the evening of May 24, I watched the sky darken and unleash a battery of nickel sized hail. Then a funnel cloud twisted down from the clouds, even as the cloud line itself touched earth in the distance, where a tornado had landed. Later, grass and leaves came flying through the air and stuck to our window, debris propelled from miles away.

It was terrifying—and more than that, awe inspiring. But what happened in Oklahoma that day, while very destructive and deadly, was nothing near the death toll in Joplin, Missouri two days earlier, or in Alabama in April, a month that set a new record for tornado outbreaks. So much tornado destruction this year, and so many deaths, has inevitably led some to ask the question—could global warming be implicated here?

Fortunately, being in Norman, I was also in the place to ask one of our country’s top experts this question—Harold Brooks, a tornado specialist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Along with other mainstream scientists, Brooks agrees that “it’s abundantly clear that the surface temperature has increased, and will continue to increase, and the overwhelming evidence is that it’s due to human activities.” Brooks also thinks global warming is likely to impact many weather phenomena–increasing the risk of heat waves, for instance, and stronger precipitation events.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that every bad weather event is going to get worse,” Brooks continues, and when it comes to tornadoes, “I get really worried when people oversell the case.” After all, if we’re wrong and we go through a series of quiet tornado years in the coming years, it will be just another weapon with which to attack those who want climate action.

The Heartland Institute: Undermining Science in the Name of the "Scientific Method"

I must confess, I’m less and less motivated these days to write posts debunking climate change skeptics and deniers. Their minds don’t change, and fighting over climate science may just make us polarized—especially since mounting evidence suggests the climate divide is really more about values than science to begin with, and science is simply the preferred weapon in a clash over different views of how society (and especially the relationship between the government and the market) should be structured.

Sometimes, though, you just can’t resist blasting away. This is one of those times.

The Heartland Institute is having yet another conference to undermine climate science, and this time, they are flying it under this banner: “Restoring the Scientific Method.” It’s like they think they are now Francis Bacon (at left) or something.

The Fox News "Effect": A Few References

It is no secret that many in the climate science world are critical of Fox News. The prevailing view seems to be that the conservative network, although claiming to be “fair and balanced,” is in fact quite biased in its treatment of this and other issues.

The opinion isn’t without foundation. It’s not just Fox’s coverage itself (see image at left, courtesy of Media Matters): Last year, Media Matters exposed an internal email from Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon, commenting on the network’s coverage of global warming and seeming to demand a misleading treatment of the issue. The email told reporters they should

…refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.

Given that warming is indeed a fact, it’s little wonder that when it was released, this email drew a lot of attention.

Clearly, there’s much concern about Fox coverage. But many critics of the network seem unaware of what may be their best argument:

Defend this Report!

If you’re a boxer, and your opponent is telegraphing his punches, that’s a good thing. It gives you an advantage.

If you’re playing poker, and another player is giving a “tell,” the same story goes. It’s to your advantage.

Opponents of climate change action are doing precisely that right now—telegraphing where they’re going to attack. Here’s Norman Rogers of the Heartland Institute, already attacking a scientific report—the National Climate Assessment, which weighs climate risks to different regions of the U.S.—that won’t be out in its next iteration until 2013. Rogers attended an early advisory committee meeting, and has already started up the narrative that will be used against the report:

There did not appear to be any member of the committee even mildly skeptical of the global warming catastrophe story.  This was surely not an accident.  I was told that every member of the committee had to be approved by the White House, presumably by John Holdren.

As I noted in an earlier post, Bush administration climate science whistleblower Rick Piltz knew this would happen. 

Climate Change and Well-Informed Denial

On climate change, we’re politically polarized—which would be bad enough, but that’s not all. The hole we’ve dug is even deeper—as new research clearly suggests.

There’s yet another study out on Democrats, Republicans, and climate change, this time from Lawrence Hamilton of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Over the last two years, in a series of regional surveys, Hamilton asked nearly 9,500 people questions about climate change—from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, and from New Hampshire to Alaska. 

Across all these regions, he consistently found the following phenomenon:

"Listen to All The Facts"

I have great admiration for Ben Santer. Not only is he a top climate scientist, but the guy went through brutal and unfair political attacks concerning the IPCC report in 1995. (Some of that story is here.) I’m glad Santer is being honored this year by being elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union–a development that, predictably, Joe Romm hails and Anthony Watts mocks.

However, I must confess that I literally received a jolt reading the Lawrence Livermore National Lab press release about this. It goes like this:

Ben Santer is a man with a lot of accolades under his belt: A recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant; an E.O.Lawrence Award; a Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) Distinguished Scientist Fellowship; contributor to all four assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore; and now an American Geophysical Union fellowship. 

But he’d give all the awards up if it meant he could present his research on human-induced climate change to a patient audience – an audience that would listen to all the facts before making judgments about reality of a “discernible human influence” on climate.

To which I’m afraid my first thought was: Like how the birthers sat back and carefully contemplated the new information when Obama released his birth certificate to them yesterday?

Climate Policy Failure, and Laying Blame

Joe Romm battled extensively with Matthew Nisbet last week over the latter’s sweeping attempt to redirect much of the blame for the failure to achieve a climate bill onto environmentalists, scientists, and Al Gore. (I had a few whacks at Nisbet too.) The implication of the Nisbet report was that the standard villains—climate deniers, the Kochs, the media, the perpetrators of ClimateGate and those who can’t stop talking about it—had wrongly drawn all the attention. If we want to be charitable to Nisbet, we might recast his message as: “but look at all these other things, too.” However, his report was framed in such a way that such nuance was largely lost (and Nisbet studies framing).

Now Romm is back,  with his own apportioning of blame. He even gives figures: 60 percent for the denial machine, 30 percent for the media, and the remaining 10 percent split between what he calls “think small” centrists and the Obama team. Huh.

I now think I can see from this that I’m somewhere between Romm and Nisbet.

The Ever Growing Partisan Divide Over Global Warming

Depressing doesn’t even begin to capture it.

On the one hand, scientists have become increasingly certain that climate change is real and human caused. They’re now saying “very likely,” a degree of certainty equivalent to greater than 90 percent.

Yet at the same time, the two U.S. political parties have grown increasingly polarized over whether to accept this fact about the world. There’s now a 30 percent gap between Democrats and Republicans in their likelihood of believing the above to be true. This gap has widened, even as scientific doubt has narrowed.

That’s the finding of a comprehensive new study (press release here) on our polarization over climate change by Aaron McCright of Michigan State and Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State. They looked at 10 years of Gallup polling on the issue, and found a steady march in opposite directions for the two parties. Or as the authors put it: “Moving from the right to the left along the political spectrum increases respondents’ likelihood of reporting beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus and of expressing personal concern about global warming.” That’s academic speak, so they didn’t add on the following next sentence, as I would have done: “A lot.”

 But that’s not the only thing McCright and Dunlap looked at.

Understanding Climate Denial, Continued: Motivated Reasoning

In a recent post, I sought to explain, from a motivational standpoint, why it is that climate deniers can reject the overwhelming evidence that humans are causing the Earth to warm. We already have reason to think their motivations are not scientific, e.g., not driven by a quest to understand the truth about the atmosphere. Rather, climate denial seems closely linked to conservative and libertarian politics—the sense that the free market simply couldn’t have made such a mess of things; and the deep distrust of large scale government solutions that involve intervening in the economy.

We also know that the selective attention to biased information sources plays an important role.  For instance, watching Fox News correlates closely with being less trusting of climate scientists, and with being misinformed about whether scientist think the Earth is warming.

But there’s another key factor.

How the War on Science Works--And How to Respond

Recently, I was reading testimony given by Bush administration whistleblower Rick Piltz about the ongoing National Assessment process, in which the U.S. government, either cheerily or reluctantly (depending on the administration) sets out to inform Americans as to their local and regional climate risks. During the Bush years, as I reported in my book The Republican War on Science, there was an all out war on the in-government scientists trying to produce this legally required document. Lawsuits were filed, a disclaimer put up on the government website housing the document (indeed, it’s still there), and before long nobody in the administration would even cite the government’s own work.

It’s in this context that I found Piltz’s testimony so refreshingly…frank. For what he tells the scientists preparing the next round of the assessment for 2013 is this: No matter how good your science is, it will never be good enough for those who disbelieve it. The blush is off the rose; this is the new reality; this is how it works: