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.

Texas Republicans Ignore Climate Science at Their Peril

About a month back, I wrote about the “Strange Case of Ralph Hall,” a leading Republican whose Texas district was suffering through severe drought—a condition expected to worsen, due to climate change, in the future—but who challenges mainstream climate science. As I put it then:

So here is the strange summation: Ralph Hall represents a state and district suffering from (and highly vulnerable to) drought; global warming is expected to worsen drought risks for Texas and Hall’s district; Hall questions the science of global warming; Hall leads his party in an effort to block funding for a climate service that would help his district, and many other regions, assess their vulnerability and prepare for a changing climate.

I bring this up again now because, as Nick Sundt points out at the WWF climate blog, it isn’t just Hall–or, just his district.

March 2011 was Texas’s driest month on record; 98 % of the state is currently in drought conditions; the stage is set for devastating wildfires; and the current drought is expected to persist or intensify.

What Motivates a Climate Skeptic?

I always like digging around in the academic literature for insights about today’s politicized science battles. Now that social scientists have begun to apply themselves to public fights over the hard sciences, I find that they have a great deal to offer. The latest exhibit: The work of Andrew J. Hoffman, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. 

Hoffman is an “organizational theorist.” As such, he believes that “failing to attend to the deeper social and cultural forces within the climate conflict, and in particular the counter-movements that resist the dominant logic,” is a big mistake.

So he went and studied the “culture and discourse” of climate skeptics—which involved attending their conferences and events–and describes some of the preliminary results in a recent paper in Strategic Organization. As a result, Hoffman argues that three themes are dominant in the movement. And here’s where, to me, it gets really interesting.

The First Rule of Climate Science…May Be to Talk About Climate Anti-Science

Joe Romm, inspired by this Huffington Post piece, is going back to one of his top themes—you have to talk about the science of climate change; you can’t run away from it. That’s the blazoned headline—further down, Romm admits that the issue of how to communicate on this topic is exceedingly complicated, and

…nobody has figured out the best winning message –  probably because there is no one-size-fits-all message,  particularly in the face of  the most well-funded and sophisticated disinformation campaign in human history. That disinformation campaign complicates all messaging — and all message testing — since it is so pervasive and well-designed.

I agree with this last point most of all—and to me, it may possibly point to at least one effective communications strategy. However, I must admit that I’m hesitant to prescribe any some overarching guru messaging answer, for the reasons that Romm himself so eloquently explains. But maybe I can at least break the problem down a bit.

First, you really can’t talk about having a message strategy on global warming without talking about who the messengers are. Once you put it this way, you find that there has always been communication about the science of global warming—from scientists and scientific organizations, from science bloggers like Romm, RealClimate.org, DeSmogBlog, etc. This is just as it should be: It is important to set the record straight when false claims are aired and to explain how powerful the scientific consensus is, as well as to explain how we know what we know and what the mechanisms of climate change are.

Ignorant About Ignorance?

In one sense, it’s no surprise. Frustrated not only by the persistence, but by the powerful resurgence of climate denial, many scientists are outraged. Case in point: Two editorials in scientific journals (hat tip to RealClimate) denouncing the “ignorance” we’re now seeing in Washington on this topic.

By far the calmer editorial comes from Nature. It’s a commentary on the House GOP’s bizarre attempt to legislate away the EPA’s endangerment finding (as if you can legislate physics),  and Congress’s dismal climate hearings:

Misinformation was presented as fact, truth was twisted and nobody showed any inclination to listen to scientists, let alone learn from them. It has been an embarrassing display, not just for the Republican Party but also for Congress and the US citizens it represents….the [endangerment finding] legislation is fundamentally anti-science, just as the rhetoric that supports it is grounded in wilful ignorance. One lawmaker last week described scientists as “elitist” and “arrogant” creatures who hide behind “discredited” institutions.

Nature’s editorial is titled “Into Ignorance”—a problematic phrase in my opinion (as we’ll see). But in general, I agree with the sentiment expressed in Nature. The way Congress is behaving really is  unacceptable.

However, my germ of worry about the Nature editorial grew into an oak when I read an editorial by two scientists in Water, Air, and Soil Pollution entitled “A Vaccine Against Ignorance.”

Get Ready for More Congressional Doubt-Mongering on Climate

In the current Congress, we’ve already seen one example of an “on the one hand, on the other hand” hearing about the science of climate change, courtesy of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Now, get ready for another, courtesy of the House Science Committee. The broad strategy reflects what is sometimes called “agnotology”—the strategic sowing of doubt about science.

Let’s run through the listed roster of those testifying at Thursday’s hearing:

Truth and the Oped Pages

Thank goodness for John Abraham—because he does so well what no one should have to do.

That’s my reaction after reading this recent exchange in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in which Abraham—a co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response team and a professor at the University of St. Thomas—dismantles an array of misleading claims about climate science from one Jason Lewis, a syndicated radio talk show host.

Lewis repeats the “hide the decline” line from “Climategate” and thoroughly misrepresents what it means. He incorrectly asserts  that global warming concerns are based on “computer models” rather than data. He claims that following 1998, temperatures “may actually be cooling,” and so forth.

Good Communication is Good Scientific Practice

It’s always helpful to know what those who disagree with you are saying, and why they do so. Let’s consider, then, a recent article in the conservative American Thinker that espouses climate change denial—and that also, interestingly, whacks climate scientists for wanting to do a better job of explaining themselves to the public.

Anthony J. Sadar and Stanley J. Penkala write:

The revelations of Climategate and ten years of stagnant global temperatures have produced a decline of public belief in human-induced climate collapse. But, rather than strengthening the foundations of climate science by increasing transparency in data analysis, releasing raw data for third party evaluation, and allowing their hypotheses to be debated in the literature, government-funded scientists instead have decided it’s best to just change their method of messaging.  The latest tactic is for these man-made global-warming faithful to sharpen their communication skills and tighten their influence on the editorial boards of the environmental journals of record.  The intent is to deflect or bury challenges to their climate-catastrophe canon, not defend their hypotheses.

First of all, this is another marvelous example of how climate change denial is not postmodern.

US Public on Global Warming: Been There, Done That, No Big Issue

gallup data

This week brought a new Gallup poll of US public opinion on global warming—and the only good news is that nothing has gotten any worse. Still, it staggers the mind to contemplate just how big the gap is between what scientists think about the issue, and what the public thinks.

Public concern about climate change, Gallup reports, is “stable at lower levels”—just 51 percent say they worry significantly about global warming, down from 66 percent in 2007. If you don’t think that the rise of an ever-more-assured climate denialism in Congress is tied to those numbers, you don’t know politics.

As usual, the latest survey also underscores the depth of the partisan divide on the climate issue.

Are Liberals Science Deniers? Now’s A Good Time to Find Out

It seems inevitable. Although we don’t know yet just how bad the situation is at Japan’s damaged nuclear plants in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, the events across the Pacific are already triggering a new and differently tinged debate over nuclear power back here at home.

Nuclear defenders are calling for keeping things in perspective—fossil fuels, they point out, have many more costs and risks associated with them than nuclear power; and newer generation reactor designs are far safer than those built in Japan many decades ago (a number of US plants from the same era have the same or similar designs).

Yet figures as influential as Senator Joseph Lieberman are already saying we should “put the brakes” on developing new nuclear plants in the U.S.—despite plans for a so-called “Nuclear Renaissance” that have won strong support from President Obama.

As someone who specializes in reporting on the politics of science, I find all of this fascinating—for the following reason.

The Consequences of He Said, She Said Journalism

For a long time, those closely watching the climate debate unfold have denounced “he said, she said, we’re clueless” journalism, in which reporters present a “debate” between those who accept the science and those who do not, and leave it at that. Let the reader figure out who’s right, the philosophy seems to be. It’s journalistic “objectivity” not to “take sides”—right?

Those criticizing this approach—myself emphatically included—are working under a key assumption: If journalists would take a stand on matters of fact (such as whether global warming is caused by humans), rather than treating them as un-resolvable, the broader political discourse would also shift onto a firmer footing. That’s because we would move towards having a shared factual basis for making policy decisions, rather than fighting over the very reality upon which policy ought to be based.

It’s in this context that a new study (PDF) published in the Journal of Communication, would appear to break new ground–by actually examining the psychological effect that “he said, she said” or “passive” journalism has on readers, and in particular, on their views of whether it’s possible to discern the truth.

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