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 Democrat Undermines Science

In my debate a few months back with Kenneth Green about the left, the right, and science, my colleague really could have used some more strong examples of left wing science abuse.

Now, he has one.

There is no other way to spin it: The Obama administration’s decision to ignore the FDA, and refuse to make Plan B emergency contraception (the “morning after” pill) available over the counter, is a clear and unequivocal case of politics interfering with science. And it is a particularly galling one because, as former FDA official Susan Wood points out, this is one of the key issues on which the last administration, that of George W. Bush, misused science. So there is every reason for the Obama administration to have known better, and to have done differently.

In fact, the bogus argument that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius used, to justify overruling her own expert agency, is the same bogus argument that was attempted during the Bush years.

The Science of Debiasing: The New “Debunking Handbook” Is a Treasure Trove For Defenders of Reason

For quite some time here at DeSmogBlog, I’ve been writing about the growing science of irrationality—in other words, our ever-better scientific understanding of why people reject clearly correct information. I believe we can’t possibly get to a better place, in debates over issues like global warming, until we understand why getting facts across turns out to be so difficult.

A large amount of psychological science has now been published on this matter—but boiling it all down into a practical, usable guide for someone who wants to communicate in a scientifically-informed way? Not so much.

Not until now.

I simply cannot believe that John Cook of Skeptical Science and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky managed, in just 8 pages, to create something as magnificent as their new Debunking Handbook. It is packed not only with wonderful graphics, but also with a clear explanation of why many attempts to defeat misinformation fail, and what steps must be taken to do a better job.

The core issue, of course, is one that I’ve written much about—too many scientists assume that that facts win out on their own, but that isn’t actually true. If you base your communication strategy on this misconception, you will fail very badly.

Instead, Cook and Lewandowky explain that there are a variety of “backfires” that can be triggered by uninformed communication styles. Stating a myth before debunking can actually reinforce it. Debunking a myth with an overload of information can also backfire. And attacking a worldview can backfire most of all.

So what do you do? You should read their guide, but basically it boils down to several principles:

Do Developing Nation Journalists Cover Climate Science Better (or at Least Better Than U.S. and U.K. Papers)?

As the European debt crisis scrapes along, there has been talk about the possible need for developing nations, like China and Brazil, to ultimately help bail out some spendthrift “developed” nations.

A new study suggests that maybe they should also help bail out some of our media.

The study comes from James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and his colleagues. After looking extensively at climate change coverage in major papers in six nations—the U.S., UK, France, Brazil, China, and India—the paper finds that global warming “skepticism” is “largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.”

Consider a selection of findings:

Fox News Viewers are the Most Misinformed: A Seventh Study Arrives to Prove It (and to Vindicate Jon Stewart!)

Two of my most popular posts here at DeSmogBlog were a pair of items documenting 1) just how many surveys have found Fox News viewers to be more misinformed about factual reality and 2) taking PolitiFact to task for giving Jon Stewart a “false” rating when he pointed this out.

Stewart wasn’t wrong, PolitiFact was.

In these pieces, I identified 6 separate studies showing Fox News viewers to be the most misinformed, and in a right wing direction–studies on global warming, health care, health care a second time, the Ground Zero mosque, the Iraq war, and the 2010 election.

I also asked if anyone was aware of any counterevidence, and none was forthcoming. There might very well be a survey out there showing that Fox viewers aren't the most misinformed cable news consumers on some topic (presumably it would be a topic where Democrats have some sort of ideological blind spot), but I haven’t seen it. And I have looked.

There really does seem to be a “Fox News effect,” then, and one that is playing a central role in driving our political divide over reality in the U.S. And now comes a true tour-de-force seventh study showing that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed, this time once again about global warming.

Anthony Watts and Defensive Reasoning: Three Episodes

Over the last year, I’ve had numerous blogospheric encounters with the conservative climate “skeptic” Anthony Watts, the author of WattsUpWithThat. In the process, I’ve been particularly struck by how Watts handles inconvenient evidence.

Twice now, I’ve seen Watts make a mistake, and then seem to rationalize it, rather than simply correct it. I’ve also seen Watts shift the goalposts, refusing to accept inconvenient evidence even after saying he would do so.

What’s up with that?

Look: We all make mistakes. And we all adopt beliefs that later turn out to be incorrect.  There's nothing wrong with that per se; it's actually quite natural. What really matters is what we do after we’re proven wrong. So let’s see what Watts does:

Conservatives Attack and Misunderstand A Book They Haven’t Read…A Book About Flawed Conservative Reasoning

This would be sad, if it weren’t also so telling.

On Monday I announced my new book The Republican Brain, which will be due out next spring. And I provided a brief description, as well as layering on plenty of nuance, like a good liberal, to make sure it wouldn’t be misinterpreted.

So much for that!

Beginning with Roger Pielke, Jr. (not technically a conservative, but, well…), and then spreading to climate “skeptic” blogs like Watts Up With That and Marc Morano’s Climate Depot, conservatives are claiming that the book is a form of “new eugenics” and that it describes them as “genetically/mentally/psychologically inferior,” and so on.

All of this is completely without foundation, and in fact, contradicted by my own book announcement, which discusses the many strengths (as well as weaknesses) of the conservative psychology, and describes the left-right difference as a kind of necessary yin and yang. 

And none of the people saying these things (including over 100 commenters at Watts’ site) have read the book because it isn’t out yet, and won’t be for 6 months. In fact, it is still being edited.

Chalk up yet another example of conservative factual wrongness! Perhaps I can even fit it into the text.

Rush Limbaugh: Meat Eater, Science Denier

Recently, Rush Limbaugh went on another of his anti-science rants. This one was particularly fascinating, though, because of the things he actually got right—even as he  simultaneously exhibited the standard cocksure blind spots.

First, what did Rush say that was true? Well, he gets the idea, supported by much research, that we all have the tendency to appropriate “science” as our own, selectively choosing those bits that support us and selectively refuting or denying those bits that don’t.

Thus, Rush goes on repeatedly about the attempt to “codify liberalism as science.” Actually, conservatives, including Rush, also try repeatedly to depict their views—including their denialist ones–as scientific. Rush thus shows a massive blind spot when he fails to recognize that he’s susceptible to the very same tendency.

In fact, I would argue that Rush is worse–because he is deeply sure of himself when he has no good reason to be. He is vastly, and baselessly, overconfident.

Thus, when Rush gets into the meat of his commentary (pun intended, as you’ll see), he draws a stunningly false parallel between a Dutch psychologist who has been seriously accused of falsifying data on the one hand, and climate change researchers on the other.

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths)

Over the last year here at DeSmogBlog, my writings have converged around a set of common themes. On the one hand, I’ve shown just how factually incorrect today’s political conservatives are, documenting the disproportionate amount of misinformation believed by Fox News watchers and the disproportionate wrongness of the right when it comes to science.

At the same time, I’ve advanced a variety of psychological explanations for why we might be seeing so much political and scientific misinformation today on the right wing. For instance, I’ve unpacked the theory of motivated reasoning; and I’ve also talked about why conservative white males in particular seem to be such strong deniers of climate science.

All of this, I’m now prepared to say, is just the iceberg tip. You see, for the last year, I’ve been working on a book on the same topic, which explains why conservatives are so factually incorrect—drawing on the latest research in social psychology, political science, cognitive neuroscience, and other fields.

The book is now finished in draft form—due out next year with Wiley—and it is long past time to formally announce its existence. You are now seeing the draft cover image (the current subtitle is likely to change, as this phenomenon goes far, far beyond science, as does the book).  I can also share the text that will soon go up to Amazon and elsewhere. Eat your heart out, Ann Coulter:

Score Another Victory for Scientists, Michael Mann, and the Freedom of Inquiry

Yesterday in a Virginia courtroom, Michael Mann—who is quickly becoming the Galileo of climate science—triumphed over the conservative American Tradition Institute, and ongoing attempts at scientist-harassment.

More specifically, Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Gaylord Finch both allowed Mann to join the case that ATI is pursuing against the University of Virginia to get Mann’s emails, and allowed UVA to back out of an agreement with ATI to let it review some of Mann’s emails that the university is nevertheless claiming are exempt from disclosure.

This is a bit technical, as is often the case in ongoing court proceedings, but let’s remember why it matters.

The ATI lawsuit is a follow-on to Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli’s outrageous harassment of Mann. And protecting Mann’s emails from disclosure is critical for ensuring that ideological fishing expeditions that attack and harass scientists aren’t permitted. The contrary result, as many scientific groups have asserted, could have a chilling effect on academic research and freedom of inquiry in controversial areas.

Is There a Bias Asymmetry Between Democrats and Republicans?

There’s a must read item today at the Huffington Post by Jonathan Weiler, co-author of the excellent book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Weiler argues (as have I) that the “Republican war on science,” a term that I coined, is really just a subset of the “Republican war on reality.”

And not just that. Weiler further asserts that we’re seeing this right now because the Republican party is full of authoritarians—people who think they’re 100 percent right and everyone who disagrees with them is 100 percent wrong, and who have little tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.

All my research on ideology points to this conclusion as well—but I’m not sure Weiler fully articulates how authoritarians can be so factually wrong, and also sure of themselves and unable to admit correction.

To me, what seems to occur in authoritarian reasoning is that you firmly define in your mind an outgroup (liberals, environmentalists), and you then automatically take any claim that denigrates that outgroup (socialists, traitors) to be true. And then, if this claim is refuted, you’re outraged and you come to believe the false claim even more strongly than before. You double down. (This, of course, would explain why Tea Party climate deniers are so sure of themselves.)

And that’s not all. If you’re an authoritarian, you also probably leap to ideologically friendly conclusions to begin with. And when your ideological opponents are making an argument that’s characterized by a lot of nuance, you attack a caricatured, simplistic version of it.

Indeed, you probably find the making of nuanced arguments—and the expression of uncertainty—to be inherent signs of weakness. And you probably find people who constantly talk in nuanced ways, like President Obama or most university professors, to be suspicious, untrustworthy. Who do authoritarians trust? A strong leader who states it clearly, plainly, and toughly and doesn't waver.

If Weiler is right—and I think he is—then what this means is that we probably have a bias asymmetry in American politics. And that’s a really big deal.

Journalists, fact checkers, and so on go around acting as though there is a ‘pox on both their houses’—everybody has their own biases, everybody lies and distorts, so we need “balanced” journalism to handle this equally distributed nonsense. But Weiler suggests that this is not actually true. Rather, it should be the case that one group gets more things wrong, misrepresents and distorts more, and is less willing to admit to error or correction, or to change its mind.

Does that sound like modern American politics? Does that sound like the climate fight, or the healthcare fight, or arguments over economic policy?

It sure does to me…but don’t expect authoritarians to ever admit it!