Rio-Inspired Optimism (If Not Optimism About Rio)

If the goal was to get the world focused on sustainable development, then this definitely counts as terrible timing.

With global leaders pressured by the unending European debt saga—which most recently has engulfed Spain, the euro zone’s fourth largest economy—it’s not surprising that environmental concerns aren’t exactly at the front of their minds. Accordingly, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron aren’t attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed “Rio+20”), which opens in today in Brazil’s “Marvelous City.” They’re dispatching their administrations’ next tier personages in their stead—still heavyweights (especially in Hillary Clinton’s case), but the move hardy suggests that Rio is at the top of the global agenda.

Indeed, the gloom and pessimism about this mega-environmental conference is manifest. In one sad tweet, Bill Easterly of New York University commented, “Delegates gather in Rio to commemorate 20 years of nothing happening since a UN Summit where nothing happened.” In fact, leaked negotiating text from the summit suggests we can expect a statement full of good intentions, expressing much concern, oh yes much concern about our environmental plight–but few commitments to do anything.

In other words, more of the same.

In the 20 years since the historic 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the world has clearly failed to fulfill that event’s lofty goals. And perhaps that was too much to ever expect. Describing the ethos of that bygone era, Mikhail Gorbachev recently put it this way: “there was an overwhelming air of enthusiasm and hope for the future. It was a time of optimism and, in retrospect, innocence, as everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.”

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, 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.

Got Framing? Why Scientists Must Pay Attention to Communication Science, and Not Just as an Afterthought

There was the Tweet, from Andy Revkin: “Scientists Call For Stronger Global Governance To Address Climate Change.” Revkin linked to a Forbes story, that, in turn, linked to a new paper in Science by the “Earth System Governance Project,” described as “the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change.”

So why, then, don’t these scientists seem to know much about the social science when it comes to communication?

If you are a U.S. conservative, then “global governance” is automatic fighting words. Conservatives have individualistic values, as per Dan Kahan; they interpret the moral foundation of “liberty/oppression”—as per Jonathan Haidt–as a cry to resist power grabs by big government, and even more, global government.

This is deep seated, emotional, and powerful. And scientists have just brazenly triggered it by talking about “global governance.”  

Look: I’m no purist about communication. I know it is partly theory, and partly an art form. It requires creativity and humor as much as it requires listening to what science has to say about what persuades people (and what doesn’t).

But there are a few obvious tripwires that by now, people really should be aware of. And triggering the Tea Party’s “don’t tread on me” reflex surely ought to be one of them.

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.

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.

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.

How to Get a Liberal to Question Global Warming

Readers of my posts will know that I’ve often focused on the work of Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues, who have published fascinating research on how our political and cultural views skew our perceptions of scientific reality. In particular, Kahan et al find that “hierarchical-individualists” (aka conservatives) have very different responses to a variety of facts than do “egalitarian-communitarians” (aka liberals), and that these responses spring not from objective assessments of the evidence, but rather, from deeply seated worldviews that color our perceptions of what is true.

Such research has often been interpreted in a way that has made conservatives look, well, kinda bad. In one Kahan study, for instance, hierarchical-individualists overwhelmingly rejected the very idea that a scientist could be considered a real and legitimate “expert” because of that scientist's opinion that global warming is real and caused by humans. This is not exactly what I would call open-minded behavior.

But the research coming out of the Kahan group is actually quite balanced and does not merely target conservatives. And since I myself am often drawing on these sort of studies to criticize the right, I think it’s only fair to discuss a new Kahan et al study that, if you look closely, appears to show liberals also reasoning in a biased fashion.

[Don’t worry: I still think conservatives have much more deeply rooted issues with science. But it’s a complicated world out there, and it isn’t like liberals and environmentalists are complete innocents all the time. In my view, if we're going to criticize our ideological opponents, we've also got to try hard to see our own blind spots.]

So how do you get liberals to behave in a manner that, at least to my mind, might be called ideologically biased?

The Climate-Media Paradox: More Coverage, Stalled Progress

For those of us who care about global warming, 2006 and 2007 felt like pretty good years. Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth, sharing it with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Media attention to the issue soared, and it was positive attention. Given all the buzz, I—and many others—figured the problem was all but solved.

The next steps appeared deceptively simple. Elect Barack Obama, pass cap-and-trade, go to Copenhagen in the snowy winter of 2009 and take it global—or so I advised in Scientific American. I didn’t expect “ClimateGate,” or the dramatic consequences that an overseas non-scandal (for so I perceived it to be) could have for U.S. climate policy.

Nor did I imagine that virtually the entire Republican Party, rather than just some part of it, would come to reject climate science on this flimsy basis. I expected out-and-out climate change deniers like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe to be further marginalized, not mainstreamed.

Needless to say, I now look back on all this and shake my head.  Clearly, I–and many other people who felt the same way–was missing something rather big. We were far too optimistic in thinking that our governmental and media institutions were up for dealing with this type of problem.

Recently, a new book has helped bring the nature of their failure–and particularly the media's failure–into sharp focus.

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.

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:


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