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

Read time: 3 mins

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:

This report will be attacked. There is no way to bullet-proof it against that war on science – that’s a myth. They’ll look for procedural missteps, they’ll look for anything, they’ll invent something if they need to. 

Not only is this politically accurate, it’s also psychologically accurate. More on that in later posts.

As a result, Piltz goes on to advise government scientists that they can’t be clueless about this, they can’t avoid it, they have to be prepared for it and ready to answer it:

You need to be prepared to defend your work. I’m not suggesting that the committee become political combatants. But you can’t just hand in your report and walk away from it and shrug your shoulders when it’s attacked. You have a professional and scientific and civic responsibility to have the courage of your own work and to defend this assessment and its process.

What kinds of things might the assessment say that will lead it to be attacked, and to need defending?

Hmm. Well, it might point out that Texas, currently suffering from devastating drought, is vulnerable to still worse drought—even as its congressional delegation pulls an ostrich maneuver on this subject. It might say things like that.

Let’s move from here to a series of axioms, if you will, when it comes to attacks on science:

1. There is no science so foolproof that it cannot be attacked if someone wants to attack it. It’s about motivation, not accuracy. (For a recent bit of science where there’s sure to be motivation—and attacks—see the latest Cornell study on greenhouse gas emissions from unconventional shale gas resources.)

2. Once motivation exists, no new study, or new research, will resolve the issue. It will just provide fodder for more attacks. (Daniel Sarewitz may be wrong about some things, but this isn’t one of them.)

3. Once attacks are out there, there’s no putting them back in the bag. Instead, it becomes a battle for airwaves and for dissemination of arguments. Failing to engage and respond—immediately—is like failing to get off the blocks in a 100 meter dash. (Exception: If the attacks don’t catch on in a major way in the media, they may be better off ignored. But they might catch on or be reignited later. This is a judgment call.)

4. Scientists working in controversial areas should understand this process–this reality–just as well as they understand research protocols.

Any questions?

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When the Climategate stuff broke out, I posted on and pressed the scientists to come out immediately in the media with a clear and firm explanation - basically, there is nothing in these mails that undermine the science.
No scientist or research group or governmental organization did that. Instead, they waited and waited; and now we see what happened.
Scientists must be supported by PR teams, the same that have been working relentlessly by the fossil fuel industry and various rich deniers.

This is not a scientific issue anymore: it has become a political and PR issue. Nothing more. As long as scientists don t get it, they will never succeed in getting the message accepted by the population.

Instead of answering crappy arguments by deniers, show who they are. More than half the job will be done then.

I do not agree with the analysis of Daniel Sarewitz. It might be so in the US at the moment where the media landscape is dysfunctional at the moment… He is going way to far on anecdotal evidence…

All good advice, Chris.

There needs - IMO - to be a pervasive tier of people with good PR skills in between the climate science world and the media world.

The campaign to rubbish climate science has been entirely political with strong PR deployment. We need to fight fire with fire. Thankfully, this has started to happen now: it would have been good had it started to happen in the 1990s but I don’t think many of us were prepared for the onslaught that occurred. Now, we know better!

Cheers - John

Sadly, it will not just be the science itself that will be attacked, it is the reputation of the individual scientists. The science actually would be the easiest to defend. The classic method is to attack the scientist and try to discredit him/her for some completely non-germane thing and in the process, trash the individual’s reputation. (This is akin to trying to discredit a rape victim because she wore a short skirt…it’s victim blaming).

So, if the attacker can dredge up a picture of the scientist from his/her college days in the 1960s holding a beer and wearing a Che T-shirt, they will use this to say the person is a communist or a fascist or whatever. Discrediting their “patriotism.” Or if the person served on the board of Planned Parenthood, or her church, attack attack attack based on perceived “politics”. It’s a vicious unfair battle that most scientists, or just say, normal people, are just completely unprepared to fight.

Indeed, Kim. Hence my comment - “fight fire with fire”. By this I don’t mean recommending sinking to the depths of the strategies of e.g. Marc Morano: instead to work effectively to counter the propaganda of stupidity. John Cook’s Skeptical Science site is a frontrunner on this right now: we need more taking this approach.

Cheers - John

Sorry, I don’t think this will work. Oh, its a good idea, but the real problem is that we have a compliant news media that is committed not to truth, but to “balance.” As long as any inconvenient expert can be countered with someone who is very loud, science (and truth) will always be at a disadvantage here, because science and truth are messy, complicated things and the lies are so much easier to grasp.