Chris Mooney's blog

Wed, 2012-03-07 06:35Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing With Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery

This afternoon, I’ll be at MIT for this conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the MIT Center for Civic Media and entitled “Truthiness in Digital Media: A symposium that seeks to address propaganda and misinformation in the new media ecosystem.” Yesterday was the scholarly and intellectual part of the conference, where a variety of presenters (including yours truly) discussed the problem of online misinformation on topics ranging from climate change to healthcare—and learned about some whizzbang potential solutions that some tech folks have already come up with. And now today is the “hack day” where, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman put it, the programmers and designers will try to think of ways to “tackle tractable problems with small experiments.”

In his talk yesterday, Zuckerman quoted a helpful—if frankly, somewhat jarring—analogy for thinking about political and scientific misinformation. It’s one that has been used before in this context: You can think of the dissemination of misinformation as someone akin to someone being shot. Once the bullet has been fired and the victim hit, you can try to run to the rescue and stanch the bleeding—by correcting the “facts,” usually several days later. But, psychology tells us that that approach has limited use–and to continue the analogy, it might be a lot better to try to secure a flak jacket for future victims.

Or, better still, stop people from shooting. (I’m paraphrasing Zuckerman here; I did not take exact notes.)

From an MIT engineer’s perspective, Zuckerman noted, the key question is: Where is the “tractable problem” in this, uh, shootout, and what kind of “small experiments” might help us to address it? Do we reach the victim sooner? Is a flak jacket feasible? And so on.

The experimenters have already begun attacking this design problem: I was fascinated yesterday by a number of canny widgets and technologies that folks have come up with to try to defeat all manner of truthiness.

Mon, 2012-03-05 07:28Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Don’t Blame the Victims: Why Public Outreach By Climate Scientists is More Vital Than Ever

In the last few years—and especially in the wake of the ClimateGate pseudo-scandal—climate researchers have become much more politically engaged. They’ve sought to become better at communication, and to have a greater influence on public policy. They’ve tried to establish rapid response capabilities, and also, better ways of protecting themselves from political harassment and lawsuits.

This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because there has been a long term campaign to attack and discredit climate science, and obscure what we actually know. Ultimately, researchers decided that they couldn’t just be silent as their knowledge was distorted, or as their colleagues were attacked.

So what did they do? Just what Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan would have done—and in fact, did repeatedly on the public issues of their day. They spoke out.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is essential. Scientific knowledge is a powerful thing, which is precisely why it is of vital importance that it gets communicated, accurately, in such a way as to influence public policy. If that isn’t happening, then not only is it natural for scientists to step up—they have a moral obligation to do so, and to do so effectively.

Wed, 2012-02-29 04:39Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

New Data: 81 Percent of Climate Deniers Think Scientists Are In It “For Their Own Interests"

The Brookings Institution has a new report out on the public's views about global warming, and most commentators are going for the predictable headline. It's this: Following the post-ClimateGate decline in belief that global warming is happening, we're now seeing a bit of a rebound. More people believe the planet is warming than they did in early 2010—probably in part due to warm weather.

That is good news—not great news by any means, but surely something. People certainly seem remarkably fickle and malleable on this topic, but then, they always are in polls.

To me, though, what you’ve just read is not really the headline. I dug into the Brookings data, and found something much juicier (and newer).

In the poll, 42 percent of Republicans say there isn’t solid evidence that the Earth is warming, and another 11 percent say they are unsure. In contrast, only 15 % of Democrats are out and out deniers. (Note: People were not being asked whether humans are causing global warming, which would have made these numbers much worse.) 

And here’s the thing: Of the deniers–Democrat or Republican, but mostly Republican–81 percent also think that “scientists are overstating evidence about global warming for their own interests.” That's a finding I've never seen before–and a very disturbing one.

Tue, 2012-02-28 10:01Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

A Call to Support Michael Mann

I've been a great ally of my latest Point of Inquiry guest Michael Mann, and even called him a climate hero. I've blurbed his new book, saying the following:

“Although not initially of his own choosing, Michael Mann has been the most important, resilient, and outspoken warrior in the climate battle–responding to threats and persecution with courage and resolve every step of the way. Anyone who cares about the climate issue must read his fascinating–and enraging–story.”

My feeling is that climate scientists in general–but Mann most of all–have been unfairly attacked for ideological reasons. This has gone far beyond arguments over ideas, and has grown to involve lawsuits, congressional inquiries, and so on.

Mann has risen to the challenge in the face of this, and become a powerful science communicator, as he demonstrates in his new book and on the show. But it hasn't been easy, and my sympathies go out to him and also to his family.http://scienceprogressaction.org/intersection/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif

Mon, 2012-02-27 07:29Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

James Inhofe Takes the Climate Conspiracy Theory to New Heights—While His Home State Reels from Record Heat

James Inhofe, Republican Senator from Oklahoma, has a new book out. It is entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

I have not read it yet. So I cannot say much about its contents, but I can say this: The title suggests that Inhofe, like Rick Santorum, is endorsing the global warming conspiracy theory. Indeed, where Santorum only muttered the word “hoax” without a great deal of elaboration, it looks like Inhofe is going to put some real meat onto those paranoid bones.

Let me once again reiterate why the global warming conspiracy theory is, well, just plain ridiculous.

To believe that global warming is a “hoax,” or that there is a “conspiracy,” you must believe in coordinated action on the part of scientists, environmental ministers, politicians, and NGOs around the world. It won’t do just to situate the hoax in the United States and its own scientific and NGO community, because the idea of human-caused global warming is endorsed by scientists, and scientific academies, around the globe.

Any one of these could blow the whistle on the so-called “hoax.” That this has not happened either means there is no hoax, or that the degree of conspiracy and collusion—among people who are notoriously individualistic and non-conformist, by the way–is mindboggling. We're talking about some serious cat-herding going on.

Fri, 2012-02-24 07:00Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Want to Improve Science Communication? Start with Bad PowerPoint Habits

In the past three months, I’ve spoken on panels at two scientific mega-conferences—the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, which draws tens of thousands of scientists, and the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, which this year was held in Vancouver (and pulls in about eight thousand).

As a science communication trainer and advocate, I’ve noticed much at these events that makes me very hopeful. More so than ever before, these conferences are thronged with panels on how to improve science communication, particularly with respect to pressing concerns like climate change. Indeed, a powerful theme at the AAAS meeting, articulated by organization president Nina Federoff, was that science is under attack—an attack that must be countered, including through direct-to-public communication efforts by scientists themselves (of which the excellent communicator Michael Mann provides a great recent example).

Federoff is absolutely right in her message. Science communication is, indeed, vital—and scientific organizations like AAAS and the AGU are driving a very welcome change in scientific culture with their efforts.

But here’s the thing: While these organizations have the best of intentions, there may be inadvertent aspects of what they do that actually undermine their stated goals. In particular, in this piece I’m going to argue we can make science communication better not only by having lots of panels on the matter, but by changing some very simple and basic things about how scientists present their knowledge at conferences like AGU and AAAS.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Chris Mooney's blog