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.

Why Hard Core Climate “Skeptics” Don’t Change Their Minds

Richard Muller teaching

I’ve been watching with interest the blogosphere uproar over the release of results from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project centered around physicist Richard Muller [pictured left], which now claims to confirm that the world is indeed warming. 

As Joe Romm notes, this is mainly newsworthy not for the finding itself—we’ve known this to be true for ages—but because Muller had talked as though he was coming from the other side, the skeptical side, and had received Koch funding. And as Romm notes, the uber-skeptic blogger Anthony Watts had said of Muller’s undertaking, “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.

Now, however, Watts is blasting the Muller group for releasing results short of peer review, and calling for an open peer review process and “transparency” so no “pals” handle the papers.

In other words, it appears to me as though Watts is building a series of arguments and complaints that will allow him to *not* “accept whatever results they produce, even if it prove my premise wrong.”

Why Communicating Science is So Money

Gavin Schmidt

I’ve been meaning to thrown in my congratulations to Gavin Schmidt of NASA and, who is the first recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s new $ 25,000 annual prize for the year’s top climate science communicator.

Yes, you read that right, $ 25,000! (Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of the American Geophysical Union, but I did not select Schmidt for the prize or have fore-knowledge of his selection; nor was I involved in the creation of the prize, which is funded by Nature’s Own.)

Schmidt is a very worthy choice— has revolutionized climate science communication online since its inception in the mid-2000s. And Schmidt has built from that platform to become a major commentator, and a lucid one at that, on outlets like CNN.

But at least as newsy as Schmidt’s choice is the creation of this prize in the first place.

Why Did Climate Progress Stall? It's Called Conservative Ideological Activation

There has been much reaction to this weekend’s Elizabeth Rosenthal New York Times piece—“Where Did Global Warming Go?” Clearly, the issue has fallen out of the news, and off the political agenda. The reasons for this are numerous: Politics, the recession, and media coverage are all at play here. But I think the New York Times piece does a stellar job of skirting the truly obvious explanation: a conservative denial machine was whipped up by “ClimateGate,” leading to a whole new and destructive brand of climate politics.

Recall the year 2007. Al Gore and the IPCC win the Nobel Peace Prize. The climate issue is riding high. Many of us assume that the next president will solve the global warming problem for good.

There was already much political resistance to climate action in the U.S. at that time, and right wing think tanks were sowing vast amounts of misinformation—as was Fox News. But the tide had clearly turned against the delayers and deniers…for good, many of us thought.

Then came a little event that the New York Times analysis does not even mention—“ClimateGate.”

The Old War on Science Returns Under Rick Perry

In an August post about the return of the “war on science”—prosecuted by the political right—I drew a key distinction between attacks on knowledge that had occurred during the George W. Bush administration, and those we’re seeing now. To wit:

1.      Bottom Up v. Top Down Anti-Science Attacks. Clearly, the U.S. Republican right has remained at “war” with science—at least on the most hot button issues. Were this not the case, Huntsman’s claim would not resonate, as it so obviously does.

If anything, however, I believe matters have gotten worse. Why? Largely because we’ve swapped the relatively genteel “war on science” of the George W. Bush administration (which was prosecuted in top-down fashion from the White House and administration, largely in service of what various staff believed that the president wanted, or what should or shouldn’t be on the public agenda or in the media) for a more populist and bottom-up strain associated with the rise of the Tea Party. This is partly a function of the fact that the GOP is in the opposition right now, rather than running the country; and partly a function of the right moving further to, uh, the right; and partly also, I think, a function of the increasing influence of the blogosphere.

Either way, there are lots of consequences. For instance, the attacks on science are now nastier, aimed at individual scientists and presenting direct assaults on their integrity and their work. This goes far beyond Bush vaguely mumbling that scientists don’t have a consensus on climate change, or that it might be natural; or some aide at NOAA or NASAblocking a scientist’s media interview.

I think this distinction is fairly crucial. It’s one thing to attack science in a populist vein. You can probably get away with being nastier about it, but you’re not necessarily wielding any power over scientists. You don’t have, for instance, the ability to censor them, as you do when you’re running things.

Most of the Tea Party and GOP-debate attacks we’ve seen of late are clearly populist in nature. But let’s not forget that one of the leading GOP presidential candidates is also a governor of Texas, who therefore does hold the reins of power.

Once And For All: The Precautionary Principle is Not Unscientific

Some conservatives are immensely more fun to debate than others.

In the past month, a debate over left-right science abuse with Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute led to him hurling charges of “socialism.” Not kidding.

Unfortunately, “Carol Browner is a socialist” isn’t an argument. It’s a heuristic device. It’s the kind of thing you say if you want to get emotive Tea Party reasoners whipped up.

Ron Bailey of the Reason magazine is, in contrast, full of…reason. He weighed in last week on this topic, went through the issues, and came down slightly differently than I did on some of them, but actually agreed that the GOP is doing much worse now with respect to science.

Evolution and Climate Deniers: Natural Allies?

On the face of things, there is no clear reason why the same person—like, say, Rick Perry–ought to deny accepted science about both evolution, and also global warming. After all, the fundamental reason or motivation for denying these things appears very different.

As has been clear for more than a century, the theory of evolution threatens a certain breed of religious belief. It clearly undermines a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, for instance. It suggests that God didn’t create people or make them out to be anything special. Indeed, if you think about it, it suggests that if God does exist, then God created humans through a bloody and brutal process (natural selection) that is full of death, pain, and cruelty over vast time-scales. (Great guy, this God, eh?)

Climate change has nothing—or at least nothing obvious–to do with this. That’s not to say climate science isn’t threatening; it is, but surely in a very different way. Modern climate science suggests that the free market, the source of so much economic growth and prosperity, also has a dark side. It suggests that humanity, left unchecked to exploit technology and maximize productivity, can really shoot itself in the foot sometimes. It suggests you need governments to step in and regulate, rather than letting the market rip.

In a socio-political vaccum, then, it is not at all clear why these two views should go together.

Unequivocal: Today’s Right is Overwhelmingly More Anti-Science Than Today's Left

Last week, I took to task a really poor USA Today op-ed making the following claim:

“In short, for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy. Indeed, ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.”

I accused the author, Alex Berezow, of constructing a false equivalence between right and left wing science abuse. The latter does occur sometimes, and I’ve given many examples (ionizing radiation risks, vaccines, GMOs, etc). But it has relatively little mainstream influence today—and can hardly compare with the sweeping denial of huge bodies of knowledge (e.g., all climate science, all evolutionary science) that we see on the right.

Joe Romm also reposted my post and weighed in, further trashing Berezow’s weak argument, and particularly on the nuclear power front. Paul Raeburn also weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, noting Berezow’s conservative media connections.

In the comments on my post (no longer available, as the blog has just moved to a new URL—please update!), and then in a subsequent post, another conservative—Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute—weighed in. Who is Kenneth Green?

Science Communication: Training for the Future

Yesterday I arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada, for another installment of an enterprise to which I’ve been increasingly devoted over the last year: Training scientists in communication, public engagement, and media outreach. Working with the National Science Foundation, but also sometimes on my own, I’ve now probably been involved in training over a thousand scientists in these, er, “arts.”

In this, I’m just one part of a much broader communication and outreach wave that is sweeping the science world. This wave, in my view, has built up for two related reasons: 1) ongoing frustration in the research community over the failure to get its knowledge “out there”—successfully disseminated—especially on controversial subjects like climate change and evolution;  2) the decline of science coverage itself in the traditional media, and the concomitant rise of the new media. This development is both exhilarating and  also rather terrifying, because it increasingly places the scientist him- or herself in the position of serving as a direct-to-public communicator, rather than in the old role of communicating through an intermediary (the journalist).

My co-authored 2009 book Unscientific America noted these trends and called for greater outreach efforts—and now, I’m also heavily involved in trying to realize the vision. As a result, I think it’s worth laying out some conclusions I’ve drawn so far from the “sci comm” training enterprise, as well as to describe what appear to be the next steps. (This is also something I’m going to be talking about more at two conferences coming up: The Soil Science Society of America annual meeting in San Antonio in October, and the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union this December in San Francisco.)

To me, the key tension at the center of this exercise is between “theory” and “practice.” And we have to ensure it’s a productive one.

New Record or Not, the Arctic Sea Ice Alarm Bells Keep Ringing

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Last week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center came out with the estimate that we did not quite ​set a record for the minimum extent of Arctic sea this year. Rather, 2011 seems to have come in a slight second to 2007.

However, another scientific group does claim that we've hit a new record. Who's right?

I don't know, but I don't think either bit of news is the most important thing to focus on. For as Skeptical Science points out, we also just learned that total sea ice volume reached a new low in 2010 (wonky hide-the-punchline paper here). And that is, to my mind, a much bigger deal than what total sea ice extent is doing on a year by year basis.

Remember, extent is a measure of area covered, and volume is a measure of total ice mass. (More clarification here.)

There is a strong case that volume matters more, because extent can be misleading. Why?

Want to Sway Climate Change Skeptics? Ask About Their Personal Strengths (And Show Pictures!)

Readers of my posts over the last half year will be familiar with the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, in which people’s subconscious emotional impulses lead them to respond, in a biased way, to information that challenges their deeply held beliefs and worldviews. We’ve been focusing on this so much because I believe it explains a great deal of what we here call climate change denial, and the resistance to inconvenient science (and inconvenient facts) in general.

One important researcher on motivated reasoning is Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. In Mother Jones, I described one of his previous studies, demonstrating how motivated reasoning can lead to a “backfire effect” when people are confronted with politically inconvenient information:

Take, for instance, the question of whether Saddam Hussein possessed hidden weapons of mass destruction just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. When political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed subjects fake newspaper articles (PDF) in which this was first suggested (in a 2004 quote from President Bush) and then refuted (with the findings of the Bush-commissioned Iraq Survey Group report, which found no evidence of active WMD programs in pre-invasion Iraq), they found that conservatives were more likely than before to believe the claim. (The researchers also tested how liberals responded when shown that Bush did not actually “ban” embryonic stem-cell research. Liberals weren't particularly amenable to persuasion, either, but no backfire effect was observed.)

So how do you persuade people, if not with factual corrections of the sort run by newspapers? That’s what a new paper by Nyhan and Reifler has undertaken to study.