The swiftboating of climate science

Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, Middle East expert and high profile blogger has a piece on his site about whether and how scientists should engage environmental skeptics, in particular AGW deniers. His perspective is that we should and that it can be effective if done right but that there can be personal costs, e.g., hate mail and death threats. Also see the discussion at DotEarth about how scientists should respond and communicate. There are well argued points on both sides, or all sides, of the debate, but I am somewhat swayed by Randy Olsen’s arguments. Probably in part because he is a former coral reef ecologist and because I love his short films.

Okay. We’re wading into the core of what my book, “ Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” is about, so I’m going to give you a full reply. What you’ve written here is great, it’s accurate, it’s admirably dispassionate, but it’s also written with the assumption that the general public is a bunch of heartless robots. There comes a point where the public DOES want to see the science community stand up for themselves. My book is about the fact that there is more than just brains inside average folks — they also have hearts, guts and even sex organs. Did you see the “60 Minutes” segment a month ago with magician Ricky Jay who, when asked who would be his ideal audience for sleight of hand tricks, said it would be “scientists and Nobel Prize winners,” because they are the most easily fooled. This is increasingly the public image of the climate science community — a bunch of clumsy eggheads who can’t defend themselves. – Randy Olsen

Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals

By Juan Cole, see original post here

Let me just give my scientific colleagues some advice, since as a Middle East expert I’ve seen all sorts of falsehoods about the region successfully purveyed by the US mass media and print press, in such a way as to shape public opinion and to affect policy-making in Washington: 1. Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. A blog allows scientists to summarize new findings in clear language for a wide audience. It makes the scientist and the scientific research ‘legible’ to the wider society. Educated lay persons will run with interesting new findings and cause them to go viral. You will also find that you give courage to other colleagues who are specialists to speak out in public. You cannot depend on journalists to do this work. You have to do it yourselves. 2. It is not your fault. The falsehoods in the media are not there because you haven’t spoken out forcefully or are not good on t.v. They are there for the following reasons: a. Very, very wealthy and powerful interests are lobbying the big media companies behind the scenes to push climate change skepticism, or in some cases (as with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp/ Fox Cable News) the powerful and wealthy interests actually own the media. b. Powerful politicians linked to those wealthy interests are shilling for them, and elected politicians clearly backed by economic elites are given respect in the US corporate media. Big Oil executives e.g. have an excellent rollodex for CEOs, producers, the bookers for the talk shows, etc. in the corporate media. They also behind the scenes fund “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute to produce phony science. Since the AEI generates talking points that aim at helping Republicans get elected and pass right wing legislation, it is paid attention to by the corporate media. c. Media thrives on controversy, which produces ratings and advertising revenue. As a result, it is structured into an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ binary argument. Any broadcast that pits a climate change skeptic against a serious climate scientist is automatically a win for the skeptic, since a false position is being given equal time and legitimacy. It was the same in the old days when the cigarette manufacturers would pay a ‘scientist’ to go deny that smoking causes lung cancer. And of course we saw all the instant Middle East experts who knew no Arabic and had never lived in the Arab world or sometimes even been there who were paraded as knowledgeable sources of what would happen if the United States invaded Iraq and occupied it. d. Journalists for the most part have to do as they are told. Their editors and the owners of the corporate media decide which stories get air time and how they are pitched. Most journalists privately admit that they hate their often venal and ignorant bosses. But what alternative do most of them have? e. Journalists for the most part do not know how to find academic experts. An enterprising one might call a university and be directed to a particular faculty member, which is way too random a way to proceed. If I were looking for an academic expert, I’d check a citation index of refereed articles, but most people don’t even know how to find the relevant database. Moreover, it is not all the journalists’ fault. journalism works on short deadlines and academics are often teaching or in committee and away from email. Many academics refuse (shame on them) to make time for media interviews. f. Many journalists are generalists and do not themselves have the specialized training or background for deciding what the truth is in technical controversies. Some of them are therefore fairly easily fooled on issues that require technical or specialist knowledge. Even a veteran journalist like Judy Miller fell for an allegation that Iraq’s importation of thin aluminum tubes in 2002 was for nuclear enrichment centrifuges, even though the tubes were not substantial enough for that purpose. Many journalists (and even Colin Powell) reported with a straight face the Neocon lie that Iraq had ‘mobile biological weapons labs,’ as though they were something you could put in a winnebago and bounce around on Iraq’s pitted roads. No biological weapons lab could possibly be set up without a clean room, which can hardly be mobile. Back in the Iran-Iraq War, I can remember an American wire service story that took seriously Iraq’s claim that large numbers of Iranian troops were killed trying to cross a large body of water by fallen electrical wires; that could happen in a puddle but not in a river. They were killed by Iraqi poison gas, of course. The good journalists are aware of their limitations and develop proxies for figuring out who is credible. But the social climbers and time servers are happy just to host a shouting match that maybe produces ‘compelling’ television, which is how they get ahead in life. 3. If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time. I could not quantify it, but I am sure that I have. It is a lifetime commitment and a lot of work and it interferes with academic life to some extent. Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don’t play fair– they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn’t a debate, it is a hatchet job). I certainly have been calumniated, e.g. by poweful voices such as John Fund at the Wall Street Journal or Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.

1 thought on “The swiftboating of climate science

  1. I find the rise of anti-science quite dismaying. The conviction and fervor of the climate change disbelievers has remarkable potency and it isn’t impacted by resort to referencing the data or conclusions of those who professionally study climate. That most people have not been clearly impacted by climate change yet – and the indisputable part of ‘clearly impacted’ may always prove illusive – and this combines with general apathy, lack of real knowledge and deliberate disinformation campaigns means it looks like a major uphill battle to get serious policy based on best available knowledge in place. What worries me most is the immediacy of the debate versus the lag-time inherent in climate change; by the time there are serious impacts that are generally accepted the option to prevent the worst case outcomes will be lost. And more economic dependence on fossil fuels will become entrenched.

    I really hope that the best available knowledge on climate will win out but most people aren’t able to discern the difference between that and disinformation. Even my own acceptance of the reality of AGW is a matter of trust in the practitioners and institutions of science; I certainly lack the skills required to critique the nuts and bolts of climate science even if I’m more willing to accept that human activities are implicated in the temperature rises, glacial retreat, icesheet melt, sea level an ocean heat content rise.

    I’m always a bit wary of arguments based on a single indicator, a selected bit of a selected graph or selected comments from particular people; surely the strength of the case for warming is that all the relevant indicators show it and so much science supports anthropogencic CO2 as a major cause. A serious weakness for the denialist case is that it relies on being selective in what it highlights rather than inclusive of all the available data. As for the use of smear, innuendo, and appeals aimed at the political soft spots of the lay public, I’d like to think the truth will win through but the capacity of people to believe stuff just because the right people say it seems bottomless.

    Right now I’m afraid I don’t see humanity has the foresight, integrity and strength of commitment to deal with AGW effectively. Such pessimism isn’t permanent fortunately; at other times I’ve been sure that ultimately people will take the science from CSIRO, NCAR, NOAA, CRU, etc over the anti-science that is so widely available and heavily promoted. And maybe we’ll still see ultra cheap solar and high capacity batteries in time to make a real impact, able to do what fossil fuels can but at lower cost – and fossil fuel use will collapse for short term economic reasons, without all the politicking.

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