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January 31 2011


Evolution and Climate Science: Fellow Travelers in U.S. Public Schools

Thanks to Joe Romm, I just became aware of the latest effort to undermine evolution education in the U.S.—and to denigrate climate science education as well. It’s a new bill in Oklahoma, but it fits a pattern that anti-science forces have already employed successfully in Louisiana and Texas. As the National Center for Science Education explains of the new Oklahoma bill:

Entitled the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act," SB 320 would, if enacted, require state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies" and permit teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." The only topics specifically mentioned as controversial are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

What are the existing scientific theories pertinent to human cloning that need to be understood, analyzed, critiqued, and reviewed? Are the people who write these things even remotely clued in to the issues involved?

But I digress.

The big point here is that increasingly, evolution and climate change are being tied together in attacks on science education.<!--break--> The strategy tends to be the same: Students are encouraged to “critique” or examine "strengths and weaknesses" or hear “both sides”—but only a few hot button subjects are singled out.

In Louisiana, a 2008 bill demanded that students learn about “the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught";"biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning" were once again singled out. In other words, it was precisely the same thing that’s now being attempted in Oklahoma—and in Louisiana, it succeeded.

In Texas, meanwhile, recent revisions to state textbook standards now require books to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming."

Why this strategy from science foes? It’s simple: Courts have said you can’t teach creationism because it’s thinly veiled religion, and if you only single out evolution for “scientific” criticism then your motives are similarly suspect from a legal perspective.

But if you rope in some issues where there’s nothing obviously religious at stake—like climate science—you may be in better shape in court. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t prevent the teaching of bad science, or the attacking of good science—it merely prevents the establishment of religion by government. From a legal standpoint, these latest efforts may well manage to skirt that problem.

From a strategic perspective, science defenders should take away a different conclusion. It is this: Standing up for good science education increasingly means protecting both evolution and climate science at the same time. We need to adjust our priorities accordingly.

January 10 2011


Watching Fox News Can Be Dangerous For Your Facts

In mid December, you may recall, Media Matters exposed an email from Fox News editor Bill Sammon instructing his reporters to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question." It was no surprise that Fox was guilty of misrepresenting the science on climate change—anyone who has watched the channel cover the subject has seen this—but it was nevertheless appalling to find the goal so blatantly stated.

But there's been less discussion of a finding that closely accompanied this revelation. In a survey late last year, Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick found that more frequent Fox viewers were significantly less likely to trust climate science and climate scientists than those who don’t watch the channel, or who watch it less.<!--break-->

We don't know, based solely on this reported association, what kind of causal chain we're dealing with here, or if there even is one. It's possible that watching Fox makes people doubt, but it's also possible that those who doubt anyway gravitate to Fox, an ideologically congenial news outlet for them.

However, it strikes me as pretty likely that at least in part, the coverage is driving the skepticism. Indeed, still more research by Krosnick backs up this idea. 

In a 2009 experiment, Krosnick showed study subjects a series of videos about climate change-- two in which a mainstream scientist discusses global warming’s existence and two in which a mainstream scientist discusses its effects. Then, in the case of one video but not the other for each pair, an interview with a climate skeptic was included at the end.  Very simple study design, and results unequivocal: Those who saw the skeptic were less likely to think scientists agree about global warming, less likely to want the problem addressed, etc. (See the figure accompanying this post for one of the results.)

Need I add that Fox features a lot of skeptics?

Going back half a decade or more, I’ve been criticizing media “balance” on scientific topics where there is a strong consensus within the scientific world itself. And I’m hardly the only one: It was the concerns of scientists that made me want to write about this problem in the first place in Columbia Journalism Review.

Ever since then, I’ve taken it for granted that misleadingly “balanced” media coverage of climate change leads viewers to be less accepting of the mainstream scientific consensus. And that was certainly a reasonable assumption--but it's fair to say that based on the research discussed above, it's more reasonable than ever.

Sad to say, when it comes to the misinformation environment out there, our longstanding fears seem more than justified.

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January 05 2011


George Will and Cognitive Dissonance

It was one of the great blogospheric takedowns of scientific misinformation.

In a February 2009 anti-global warming column, the Washington Post’s George Will wrote that “according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.” It wasn’t the only wrong or misleading claim in the column, but it was perhaps the most outrageous—for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) not only supports but documents the mainstream scientific view that humans are causing global warming. Indeed, as of the time Will was writing, the WMO had pointed out a much more relevant statistic: Of the 10 hottest years on record, at least 7 had been in the 2000s.

When Will's column came out, a feeding frenzy ensued in the scientific and environmental blogosphere. Bloggers wanted to know why a columnist writing for such an important paper could get it so dramatically wrong, and abuse reputable sources with such impunity—did any fact checking actually occur? Were there any standards at all for the handling of scientific information in the media?<!--break-->

Will's column therefore became a case study, and the scandal eventually made its way not only to the Washington Post ombudsman, but also to the oped and letter pages, where WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud corrected Will, as did I. Will never retracted his claims, and the Post did not run an official correction--but still, it was a considerable accomplishment in terms of balancing the record, not only in the blogosphere but in the old media publication where the problem had actually begun.

Okay. Deep breath.

This history, it seems to me, is necessary context for thinking about a more recent blowup about another George Will column—this one, in which Will argues that incoming congressional Republicans, eager to slash the federal budget, should not cut our needed investments in research and scientific innovation--because the potential they hold for the economy is huge.

For this, Joe Romm quickly labeled Will “hypocrite of the year” (and it’s early), pointing out not only Will’s transgressions against climate science, but also the history of GOP attacks on, and impediments to, clean energy innovation. Meanwhile Andy Revkin posed some hard questions: Would Will also endorse GOP moderate Sherwood Boehlert’s call to incoming legislators to respect climate science? And precisely what part of the federal scientific portfolio would he like to increase?

Very good things to ask—but my take on Will is a bit different. I agree with Romm that he’s a hypocrite—but I’m also sure Will doesn’t think of himself as one.

The truth is that you almost never find an “anti-science” ideologue who welcomes the label. Indeed, even as we have constant fights over the science of climate change, evolution, and vaccination, the U.S. public professes to have very high levels of trust in science and confidence in the leaders of the scientific community--at least in the abstract.

So what’s going on here? For after all, George Will is hardly the only case like this—Newt Gingrich, for instance, was another big time Republican science booster. But when he ran Congress, attacks on science were rampant on issues like climate change and ozone depletion.

Psychologists have a theory called “cognitive dissonance,” which seeks to explain how we resolve uncomfortable contradictions in our minds in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves and our identities. So for instance: “I’m a really kind, caring person” and “I really hate that person” don’t  go together very well—unless the contradiction can be in some sense resolved: “That person deserves it.” Or let’s try another one: “I’m a smoker” and “Smoking kills” don’t really go together—unless the contradiction can be resolved: “Smoking keeps me thin and I’ll quit in a few years when being thin matters less to me.”

You can probably see where this is going. I can’t say what Will actually thinks of himself. And I don't know whether he’s ever experienced any acute sense of cognitive dissonance. But I am willing to bet that he does not consider himself to be virulently anti-science, and that he sees no contradiction between his recent “rah rah research” column and his long history of climate denial columns.

Rather, it's more likely Will thinks that climate science, being corrupt (in his mind), gives the rest of science a bad name. Indeed, he may well think that he’s a truer science defender than those of us who fail to call out the corrupt climate researchers (again, in his mind), as he does.

In the spade-spade department, it’s very very important to point out just how dishonest Will has been on the topic of climate change. As I discussed with political scientist Brendan Nyhan on a recent episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast, if we want a healthier and more wholesome information environment then we need “naming and shaming” of pundits and elites who mislead the public about basic facts.

But at the same time, you have to admit: Will’s pro-science pretensions are politically beneficial. He’s much more likely to be heeded by incoming Republicans than I am. They don’t consider themselves anti-science either, I’m sure. And even if it isn’t climate science, there are areas where Will could influence them positively—for instance, getting them to reconsider what appears to be a very ill-conceived plan of budgetary attacks on the National Science Foundation.

Does this mean we should praise Will when he’s right but attack him when he’s wrong? Does it mean we should nod knowingly? I’m not sure. In a world of gray, rather than black and white, I’m open to suggestions.

December 29 2010


Warming and Winter Storming

It’s a typical blog comment for this time of year. “I hope,” wrote one of my 'skeptic' readers, “the folks in the NE USA and Europe didn’t hurt their backs when shoveling all that global warming.” 

Har har.

This common insinuation--that somehow, human-caused climate change is refuted by the perennial occurrence of bad winter weather--puts us scientific rationalists in a bind. The problem is that unlike many denier talking points, there isn’t really even an argument being put forward here that might be refuted. It’s more of a “nyah nyah,” followed by, “I  never believed you to begin with, but this time of year, I just feel sorry for you.”   <!--break-->

I mean, sure, we can reply by pointing out the distinction between climate and weather. We can further explain why global warming can actually mean more snow because warmer air holds more moisture--something a few brave souls attempt to get across each winter.

Most recently, Judah Cohen, a forecaster at a firm called Atmospheric and Environmental Research, penned a New York Times oped attempting to explain our recent bouts of severe winter weather against the backdrop of a general warming trend. According to Cohen, global warming is leading to more moisture buildup, and more snow dumpage, over Siberia. In turn, the Siberian continent’s snow cover is messing with the jet stream…etc etc. And we have extremely white Christmases.

It’s a plausible idea, certainly, but not something that all scientists are buying at this point.

But explaining why global warming and big snowfalls can go together is hardly an adequate response to winter climate denial. We’ve made the right intellectual arguments, sure—but the creature we’re wrestling with here isn’t really responsive to them.

To truly understand why climate denial is strengthened in winter, we need to dig deeper into the psychological factors that seem to be at play here. So here’s a stab—based on my reading the new booklet, The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, from the folks at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University.

According to CRED, we all use “mental models” as a kind of shorthand to help us apply what we think we know about the world to new situations. The models steer us towards useful answers quickly and without requiring much work--using past assumptions to guide future decisions and letting us rapidly determine what’s going on and what we think.

To that end, mental models also help us filter information and determine what to pay attention to. This can lead “confirmation bias,” in which we only pay attention to information that seems to confirm what we believe anyway and ignore or discount contradictory information.

Well. One powerful mental model out there when it comes to weather is the notion that it’s nothing but change, change, change. Weather is quirky, capricious, variable. It strands you at airports. It rains out soccer games.

If this model is dominant in your head, and you don't know much climate science and aren't spending time focusing on it, you'll be inclined to discount global warming regardless of politics. Because global warming, after all, suggests there’s a pattern behind all the craziness--a pattern that’s extremely hard for the average person to discern and that does not adhere to the mental model.

Now add to that dramatic winter weather, people stranded at airports across the northeast, the snowy collapse of the Metrodome roof—and wow. Without thinking too deeply, and only being influenced by the most salient information available—i.e., vivid news reports about winter weather havoc--mental shortcuts will surely lead many people you to scoff at the idea of global warming.

How ridiculous, they'll say. Look at all these snow catastrophes.

If something like this mental cascade is happening in a widespread way every winter--and I believe that it is--then we have a truly uphill battle trying to get anyone to take climate change seriously during at least one season of every year. So what’s the answer?

That would require a much longer piece, but I certainly know what the answer isn’t: Holding pivotally important climate change meetings in December in Denmark.

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