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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Us and Them: The Psychology Behind the Heartland Institute Billboards

The Heartland Institute’s jaw-droppingly ill-advised, and now withdrawn billboard campaign—pictured here–has drawn a huge volume of denunciations in the last week. There’s not much more to say substantively about the campaign, or the fallout from it, which has included a number of Heartland funders heading for the hills.

But it is fascinating to try to understand why the Heartland Institute may have gone to this extreme. The psychological phenomenon that I see lurking behind these ads is a critical one to understand–black and white, “in group/out group” thinking.

This is something that David Ropeik has already written on very observantly. In trying to explain and justify its linking of global warming with people like Ted Kaczynski and Charles Manson, Ropeik notes, here are some of the things Heartland has said–and the words speak volumes:

The most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

…what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the ‘mainstream’ media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.

What is going on here, psychologically, is something called “splitting.” The Heartland Institute is ignoring basic intellectual distinctions and all sense of nuance, and dividing the world up into black and white extremes.

Once you do this, it becomes much easier to group one’s intellectual opponents together with “murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

A View From Nowhere? The Case Against Knee-Jerk Centrism When It Comes to Politics and Science

Debate over The Republican Brain is mounting, as emotional (and highly extraverted?) conservatives fling meaningless attacks at the book–attacks so off target it’s doubtful in most cases that the critics read the book–but scientists admit that it represents the research on ideology accurately. That’s what just happened Saturday morning on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, where Jonathan Haidt, the University of Virginia moral psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, basically agreed with me that liberals are indeed more open to new experiences, with all that entails—which is why they are more sympathetic to scientists, and take their knowledge more seriously. Conservatives, meanwhile, just do it differently, Haidt explained:

I want to fully agree with Chris that the psychology does predispose liberals more to be receptive to science; my own research has found that conservatives are better at group-binding, at loyalty, and so if you put them in a group-versus-group conflict, yes, the right is more prone, psychologically, to band around and sort of, circle the wagons.

Haidt nevertheless went on to talk about a lot of cases of the left attacking science too, enough that both Michelle Goldberg (of the Daily Beast) and Chris Hayes eventually challenged his stance. Goldberg worried about a “morass of cultural relativism, in which everybody’s equally irrational,”  and later, Hayes suggested that Haidt was trying to put himself at a “remove” that may not exist:

It’s the claim to special enlightenment that centrists have that drives me crazy…the fact of the matter is that [centrism] is as ideologically binding and team oriented as [anything else].

This drives me crazy too–but I don't think Haidt is an un-thoughtful or knee-jerk centrist, of the sort that we so often see out there. Indeed, I think Haidt is incredibly close to my own views, and have no problem with him problematizing things and pointing out cases of left science denial, which clearly do exist. I point out these cases myself, whenever I can. Haidt’s argument, in other words, is not simply that “everybody does it equally”—it is more complex than that, more accurate than that (as I think the Haidt quotation above shows). But a lot of people are going to hear it that way. And it’s this mishearing that requires answering.

Indeed, while Haidt is not making the “everybody does it equally” argument, others really do.

Conservatives, Seeking To Show They Are Open-Minded, Ignore Contrary Evidence (And No, This Is Not an Onion Article)

I was on the road last week, so I couldn’t properly respond to this Daily Caller item, which is really sort of marvelous. Basically, it’s an attempt to use a handful of survey data points to turn the whole Republican Brain line of analysis on its head, and argue that it’s really Republicans who are the open-minded, well informed group in politics today.

Alas, the attempt crashes and burns, because 1) the evidence cited by The Daily Caller is sometimes being misused; and 2) even when it isn’t being misused, the massive body of counter-evidence (e.g., all the evidence presented in my book) is simply ignored and goes unmentioned–thereby presenting a dramatically skewed picture.

How…open-minded.

More specifically, the Daily Caller piece, by Neil Munro, purports to show that Republicans are “more open minded, better informed than Democrats.” Given the staggering amount of evidence showing the opposite—e.g., Republicans believe a vast amount of misinformation, and show higher need for closure and less openness to experience across studies—this is a pretty bold claim. So let’s go through the alleged evidence presented by Munro.

1. A Pew Survey Showing Republicans Have More Basic Knowledge About Politics Than Democrats.

The first study cited by Munro is here. It’s a recent Pew poll, showing pretty clearly that Republicans, as a group, know more basic facts about U.S. politics than Democrats (as a group).

I’m not going to critique the poll itself; I am sure its results are valid, and I myself rely on Pew surveys like this one all the time. However, in this case, the poll results don’t prove what Munro thinks they do–because of the ever-present “smart idiot” effect on the right, which goes unmentioned by Munro.

Let’s Just Say It: When It Comes to Science, The Right is the Problem

This weekend in The Washington Post, two deans of the Washington establishment, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, finally stated what has been increasingly obvious: The problem with U.S. politics is coming from the right, not from “both sides.” In their piece, provocatively titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are The Problem,” they note that Republicans and conservatives have become extreme and unwilling to compromise. And as they stress, this is not something the Democrats or liberals are “just as bad” at.

Hence, the whole approach of the mainstream or centrist media is myopic or, worse, complicit. “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” write Mann and Ornstein.

Mann and Ornstein make allusion in their piece to the fact that conservatives have simultaneously become extremely anti science (witness climate change) and anti empirical. And indeed, when it comes to eschewing phony media balance, well, that’s something we science journalists have been recommending for a decade. In this, we’ve been way, way ahead of the game. We’ve had to be.

Mann’s and Ornstein’s piece is very important and a breath of fresh air; yet in truth, their approach is probably still too centrist. The problem is that their analysis is purely sociological and historical in nature—in some cases blaming Republican extremism on the actions of a few individuals, like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist–rather than psychological.

Consider, for instance, some important new data (pictured here, click link to enlarge), cited by Mann and Ornstein, showing that House and Senate Republicans have become much more ideological over the past 30 years, whereas Democrats and liberals have not. That’s true and revealing, but why is it occurring?

S.E. Cupp Attacks Climate Science and Climate Scientists on MSNBC

Yesterday, I appeared on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner to talk about The Republican Brain. It was largely an interview about what’s going on with conservatives and science right now—why they distrust it so much–but S.E. Cupp, the conservative on the panel, called my argument “infuriating.”

Then, she proceeded to attack climate science and the researchers who produce it—doing a very good job of proving my point about conservatives and science! Brad Johnson has provided a transcript at Think Progress (video below it):

CUPP: There have been, to quote Rick Santorum, phony studies on climate change. East Anglia University I should mention!
WAGNER: And that study –
CUPP: Every time science has been corrupted by politics, everyone in the scientific community should be worried!

Judith Curry Was For Me Before She Was Against Me

I first got to know Judith Curry—the Georgia Tech researcher who blogs at “Climate, Etc.,” and has been drawn into controversy for, in her words, “challenging many aspects of the IPCC consensus”–when I was working on my second book, Storm World. I spent a fair amount of time with Curry, and with the other scientists profiled in the book—interviewing them in person, getting to understand their research. This is what science writers do.

At the time, Curry and her colleagues were just coming off a media feeding frenzy after having published papers linking hurricanes to global warming right in the middle of the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

When Storm World came out, it is no exaggeration to say that Curry gave it a rave review. I want to quote in full from her Five Star endorsement at Amazon.com, which is entitled “Science writing at its very best.” Bear with me, this will all become very relevant; and I've italicized a few important parts:

To provide a frame of reference for this review, I and my colleagues Peter Webster and Greg Holland are among the scientists that are featured prominently in Storm World. Our involvement in the issue of hurricanes and global warming began when we published an article in Science shortly before the landfall of Hurricane Rita, where we reported a doubling of the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally since 1970. When Chris Mooney first approached me with his idea for writing a book on this topic, I was somewhat skeptical. I couldn't see how this could be accomplished given the rapid changes in the science (I was worried the book would be outdated before it was published), the complexities of the technical aspects of the subject, a concern about how the individual scientists would be treated and portrayed, and a concern that the political aspects of the issue would be handled in a partisan way. Over the course of the past year and a half, it became apparent that Mooney was researching this issue extremely thoroughly and was developing a good grasp of both the history and technical aspects of the subject. Upon finally reading the book, I can only say Storm World has far exceeded any hope or expectation that I could have had for a book on this subject.

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