In Which Climate “Skeptics” Drop the Lysenko Bomb. No, I’m Not Kidding….

There has been a much justified uproar over last week’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which a group of scientific “skeptics” reiterate the old line that we don’t have to worry about global warming, and that those who do so are engaging in climate “alarmism.” Ample refutations have been penned; in some ways best of all, my friend Jamie Vernon showed that even hotbeds of leftwing extremism like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the Pentagon are now concerned about and taking action on global warming.

The Wall Street Journal is, indeed, completely out in the cold on this matter.

There are many ways to refute the op-ed, but I want to focus on one not enough emphasized—the tone and some of the actual words and analogies used by its writers.

The Uneasy Relationship Between Explaining Science to Conservatives...and Explaining Conservatives Scientifically

Over the past year or more, I’ve profited from a series of conversations and exchanges with Yale’s Dan Kahan, the NSF supported researcher who has made great waves studying how our cultural values predispose us to discount certain risks (like, say, climate change). Kahan’s schematic for approaching this question—dividing us up into hierarchs versus egalitarians, and individualists versus communitarians—is a very helpful one that gets to the root of all manner of dysfunctions and misadventures in the relationship between politics, the U.S. public, and science.

Kahan says that his goal is to create a “science of science communication”: In other words, understanding enough about what really makes people tick (including in politicized areas) so that we know how to present them with science in a way that does not lead to knee-jerk rejections of it. Thus, for instance, presenting conservatives with factual information about global warming packaged as evidence in favor of expanding nuclear power actually makes them less defensive, and more willing to accept what the science says—because now it has been framed in a way that fits their value systems.

This is a very worthy project—but it doesn’t only tell us how to communicate science to conservatives. It tells us something scientific about who conservatives are. They are people who are often motivated—instinctively, at a gut level–to support, default to, or justify hierarchical systems for organizing society: Systems in which people aren’t equal, whether along class, gender, or racial lines. And they are motivated to support or default to individualistic systems for organizing (or not organizing) society: People don’t get help from government. They’re on their own, to succeed or fail as they choose.

It is one thing to accurately and scientifically explain how these values motivate conservatives. And it is another to reflect on whether one considers these values to be the ones upon which a virtuous and just society really ought to be built.

Newt Gingrich on Science: The "Say Anything" Candidate

After smashing Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary, former House speaker Newt Gingrich has now emerged as tied with the onetime Republican presidential frontrunner. So it’s time to look closely at Gingrich's record on science—which is not, perhaps, as dismal as Rick Santorum’s, but still gives ample cause for concern.

When it comes to Newt on science, we're presented with a complex picture. Gingrich holds a Ph.D. in history, which suggests that he might be considered a scholar and intellectual. And he professes to love science and technology. Ten years ago in 2002, he called for tripling the budget of the National Science Foundation, a goal I heartily endorse.

And yet…here are no less than four issues where Gingrich’s science record raises serious concern:

The Undermining of Science Advice. In 1995, Gingrich-led congressional Republicans did away with the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which had previously served as their in-house source of science advice. As I reported in my book The Republican War on Science, Gingrich instead espoused a “free market” approach to scientific expertise: Rather than having institutional science advice in place, members of Congress could just meet with scientists as they saw fit in order to inform themselves.

Who’s Afraid of Kerry Emanuel? Why Republicans Are Attacking a Republican Climate Scientist

Last week, MIT climate scientist and hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel received email threats for his view on climate change. These were quickly and appropriately condemned by the progressive and environmental blogosphere—as they are condemned by me–but I want to go a bit further and contemplate why Emanuel’s views in particular appear so menacing to some elements of the conservative base today.

The answer may seem deceptively simple on the surface: Unlike most climate researchers, Kerry Emanuel describes himself as a long time Republican. And he’s been speaking out lately. The precise catalyst leading to the emails was a video posted by Climate Desk, capturing Emanuel at an event in New Hampshire organized by maverick Republicans who actually accept global warming and don’t like the way their party is headed. They want to turn it around (hey, good luck with that).

So Emanuel is presumably seen as a turncoat by some Republicans and conservatives—and you might just leave it at that. But I think it is deeper. It is the kind of Republicanism that Emanuel represents—merged with his identity as a scientist, and a premiere one at that—that really presents the biggest challenge.

You see, Emanuel is what you might call an “Enlightenment Republican.”

The Classroom Climate Battle: A New Heavy Hitter Joins the Fray

For a year now, I’ve been covering the growing fight over the teaching of accurate climate science in American classrooms. The conflict is being driven by politics, of course, but also by the fact that school districts are, increasingly, bringing information about global warming into the educational curriculum–leading, inevitably, to pressure on teachers, backlash from parents, and even, in some cases, school board or legislative interference.

This is, of course, happening most often in ideologically conservative communities, where we have already seen climate science teaching conflicts start.

So what do you do about it?

As it happens, there is a national organization that already has decades of experience in dealing with politicized fights over the content of science education. It is the Oakland, CA-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which has defended the teaching of evolution across America going back nearly 30 years.

And now, NCSE has just announced it is adding climate change to its docket. (The group's arrival in this space is such a big development–at least to my mind–that I just devoted a full Point of Inquiry podcast episode to interviewing NCSE director Eugenie Scott about it.)

As this effort unfolds, I think there will be a few things to keep in mind. First, the climate education is not like the evolution education issue in several key respects, and so cannot be handled in the same way:

Does PolitiFact Adequately Cover Scientific Misinformation? Well, Sort Of

I’ve been harping a lot lately on the fact-checkers, like PolitiFact, and how they too often fall for a type of phony journalistic “balance” that those of us who practice science journalism as a trade have long abhorred.

And then it occurred to me: Maybe the deep difference between science journalism and political journalism is part of the core reason why political fact-checkers seem so often to do their job as if politics is a horse race–striving to regularly ding Democrats, even when Republicans are really ginning up the vast majority of the most severe and systemic political falsehoods.

After all, as a science journalist, I’ve come to denounce media “balance” on issues like evolution and global warming precisely because…well, because I know how to report on the science of evolution and global warming. And knowing how to report on that science has, in turned, shown me how solid our body of knowledge in these areas really is—and thus, how extensively out of touch conservatives are.

But learning how to practice journalism in this way—well, that takes some doing. It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a journalistic speciality.

So if political fact checkers don’t really know much about how to report on science—one of the chief areas in which Democrats and Republicans are unequal when it comes to spewing misinformation—then perhaps it's no wonder they're so prone to falling for phony “balance.” They simply haven’t had the behavior drilled out of their heads enough, through reporting on issues where “balance” just isn't an option.

I wanted to test this idea, so here’s what I did. I went to PolitiFact and searched its archives for the word “evolution,” just to see how often the site had grappled with a very prominent scientific issue where Republicans and conservatives have an overwhelming tendency to be factually incorrect and make false claims–and where, by any stretch, a “balanced” approach is utterly inappropriate.

Santorum Misrepresents Climate Science. Again.

Rick Santorum was asked about climate change recently, while campaigning in New Hampshire. The video of his response, as well as the transcript, can be found here.

Suffice it to say that while Santorum sounds thoughtful and rational in his response, in fact he gravely misrepresents scientific knowledge and understanding.

Let's turn to the tape.

Santorum starts off well enough:

The question is on how do I get my policies with climate change science.

I get asked this question a lot, and you look at the data and you can see some change in the climate.

But then again, pick a point in history where you haven’t seen a change in the climate.

The climate does change.

The question is, what is causing the climate to change.

And I think most scientists, in fact, I assume all scientists would agree there are a variety of factors that cause the climate change.

I don’t think any scientist in the world would suggest there isn’t a variety of factors, and I think the vast majority of scientists would say there’s probably a hundred factors that cause the climate to change.

API’s New ‘Vote 4 Energy’ Ad Campaign Is Thinly Veiled Election Year Bullying

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard today announced the oil and gas industry’s latest election-year scare campaign to threaten the demise of the U.S. economy unless Big Oil gets its every wish in Washington. This year the wish list includes approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, expanded offshore drilling on both coasts, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and more federal lands in the West to drilling, and smaller buffer zones between drilling operations and drinking water supplies.

What if Washington doesn’t comply by delivering Keystone XL and the rest of the wish list? Gerard, the oil industry’s chief bully, threatens “huge political consequences” for Barack Obama. 

You can almost set your watch to this industry’s tired plays on this front. If it’s January of a presidential election year, it must be time for the oil industry to threaten Washington politicians to ensure they continue to do the industry’s bidding. The threats are delivered in the form of outlandishly expensive advertising campaigns and punditry tours, aided by a captive media that serves its role as stenographer for the industry’s inflated jobs figures and misleading claims.

The API campaign is nothing more than a fresh skin on a very old and stale argument – that President ______ (insert current name) needs to continue opening up more of the nation’s lands, particularly public lands, for oil and gas drilling, OR ELSE ______(insert latest political talking point), in this case “jobs jobs jobs” will be lost (a bogus argument)

CNN notes the close correlation between API’s target states and some of the hottest states in the 2012 U.S. elections – hint: they’re the same.

Rick Santorum and Science: Bad Combination!

As Republican primary season schizophrenia continues, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum is now in the spotlight, having very nearly beaten Mitt Romney in Iowa. So what do we people who care about science, and global warming in particular, know about Santorum?

Whoa boy.

None of the Republican candidates, with the possible exception of pro-science Tweeter Jon Huntsman, have distinguished themselves as science allies. Even sometime moderate Mitt Romney famously flip-flopped and cast doubt on human caused global warming; Rick Perry, meanwhile, thinks climate researchers are making it all up.

But Santorum? Arguably, his attacks on science surpass all of theirs.

New Proof: Republicans Really Are Anti-Science

As readers know, I’m a regular monitor of polls capturing various aspects of the public’s views on science. These polls consistently show that for the most part, even if people don’t know a ton about it, they basically think science rocks. Americans know very well that science has made their lives immeasurably better, and they show high levels of trust in the scientific community.

There are, however, a few caveats.

Although people like science in general, they’re more than willing to spike it in any particular instance, on any particular pet issue. Evolution, global warming, vaccines—otherwise “pro-science” people will happily deny reality on these subjects, and not necessarily even experience any cognitive dissonance in doing so.

For the most part, I have tended to feel it is unfair to call such individuals “anti-science.” If someone denies science on one particular topic, but nevertheless thinks science is a groovy thing in general, I figure they’re not being anti-science, so much as just being human.

However, new polling data from Lawrence Hamilton, of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, suggests that the “anti-science” epithet really does apply to many U.S. Republicans—at least on environmental issues.


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