Thursday, September 21, 2017

Clarifying Recent Press Coverage Misrepresenting a '1.5 degrees' Paper in Nature Geoscience

The media and anti-science lobbyists have once again grossly misrepresented a scientific study. The authors of that study have issued a statement to clarify:


A number of media reports have asserted that our recent study in Nature Geoscience indicates that global temperatures are not rising as fast as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and hence that action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is no longer urgent.

Both assertions are false.

This sort of misrepresentation is common in the mass media. Lobbyists lie about the study, and the science-deficient reporting staffs of mainstream media focus more on creating sensational headlines than on getting the science right. These misrepresentations - both intentional and unintentional - then get saturated across the blogosphere, thus spreading the false information wider than the original study.

Which is why scientists have to always be sure to keep control of their message.

The authors go on to state that their results confirm the IPCC prediction. When media and blogs claim it doesn't, they are either unintentionally misleading the public or, sadly, outright lying.
Our results are entirely in line with the IPCC’s 2013 prediction that temperatures in the 2020s would be 0.9-1.3 degrees above pre-industrial....
Their study looked at the project CO2 emissions based on the goals set in the recent Paris agreement. They clearly state that to meet that goal "emission reductions would need to begin immediately and reach zero in less than 40 years’ time."

To repeat, to meet the goals set by the Paris agreement, emissions reductions would have to start NOW and emissions would have to be completely eliminated no later than 40 years from now. That's an ambitious goal, and actions to reach it must begin immediately if it is to be accomplished.

...to suggest that this means that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are now unnecessary is clearly false.

Indeed, action to reduce - and then eliminate - carbon emissions is required to start immediately.  Those arguing that the study suggests we can sit around and do nothing are at best misrepresenting, and often intentionally lying, about the study. Clearly, we must take substantial action, and take that substantial action now and for decades to come.

This is yet another example of how the media often fails to communicate the science accurately, and how some ideological and lobbying outlets intentionally misrepresent studies. This is why scientists, whether we like it or not, must always be aware of how our science is being communicated - and miscommunicated - by others in the real world.


Friday, September 8, 2017

How Not to Run the EPA

These pages have previously pointed out the dishonesty of Trump's EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt. For example, see here, here, here, and here. Now a former Republican Administrator of the EPA, has come out against the  actions of Pruitt in a New York Times Op-Ed whose title I have co-opted for this post.

In "How Not to Run the E.P.A.," Christie Todd Whitman states that the actions of Scott Pruitt have "confirmed my fears." Early in her piece she makes this astounding statement:

As a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush to run the agency, I can hardly be written off as part of the liberal resistance to the new administration. But the evidence is abundant of the dangerous political turn of an agency that is supposed to be guided by science.
Think about that. The Republican party has become so dishonest that a Republican former Governor and former EPA Administrator appointed by a Republican has to plead with her own party not to write off any honest opinion as a liberal conspiracy. The Republican party, the party that once believed in science and created the EPA, now attacks the science and it's own EPA. They have declared unequivocal science to be "liberal." That the Republican party has reached this level of anti-science that a Republican has to chastise her own party is a sad sign indeed.

After pointing out the egregious breach of oath when Scott Pruitt attacked a reporter for accurately reporting the crisis in Texas pollution following Hurricane Harvey, Whitman notes that Pruitt's agency is systematically purging the words "climate change" from EPA's websites, grant approvals, and presentations. Examples of EPA forcing its own scientific and communication professionals to remove "climate change" from presentations have reached epic proportions. Basic science communication of facts has been attacked by Pruitt. The censoring of scientific terms has become absurd, with some presentations now using "C****** C*****" (with the asterisks) or "extreme weather perturbation events" when talking about climate change.

In case you haven't noticed, this is a violation of Scott Pruitt's and the EPA's legal mandate. In other words, what Pruitt is doing is unethical, illegal, and in violation of EPAs own scientific integrity policies. Similar violations of ethics and integrity are being carried out by Trump's other anti-science appointees placed in charge of the nation's scientific agencies.

Former EPA Administrator Whitman goes on:

All of that is bad enough. But Mr. Pruitt recently unveiled a plan that amounts to a slow-rolling catastrophe in the making: the creation of an antagonistic “red team” of dissenting scientists to challenge the conclusions reached by thousands of scientists over decades of research on climate change. It will serve only to confuse the public and sets a deeply troubling precedent for policy-making at the E.P.A.

Indeed, Pruitt has proposed a "red team/blue team" approach to science. This is the ultimate in dishonesty and anti-science. Pruitt has a long history of promoting fossil fuel lobbyist interests - he routinely copied lobbyist talking points into official Oklahoma state positions when he was Attorney General of that state (repeatedly suing the agency he now runs using arguments from lobbyists based on falsehoods; the same lobbyists who funded his campaign coffers and pushed for his appointment as current EPA head). He now continues that attack on EPA's health and safety regulations - which are mandated by laws passed by Congress - from the inside. Again, a clear violation of his and his agency's legal obligations.

Why is the red team/blue team so anti-science? Whitman continues:

As a Republican like Mr. Pruitt, I too embrace the promise of the free market and worry about the perils of overregulation. But decisions must be based on reliable science. The red team begins with his politically preferred conclusion that climate change isn’t a problem, and it will seek evidence to justify that position. That’s the opposite of how science works. True science follows the evidence. The critical tests of peer review and replication ensure that the consensus is sound. Government bases policy on those results. This applies to liberals and conservatives alike.
In essence, Pruitt plans to have people claiming Elvis still lives on equal footing with the entire historical and scientific evidence of Elvis's very real and permanent death. In a word, that's crazy. It's anti-scientific. It's dishonest.

Whitman points out why this is so:

On one side is the overwhelming consensus of thousands of scientists at universities, research centers and the government who publish in peer-reviewed literature, are cited regularly by fellow scientists and are certain that humans are contributing to climate change.

On the other side is a tiny minority of contrarians who publish very little by comparison, are rarely cited in the scientific literature and are often funded by fossil fuel interests, and whose books are published, most often, by special interest groups.

This bears reinforcing. There is 100+ years of published science that overwhelmingly, undeniably, and unequivocally demonstrates human activity is causing the climate to warm, that it is happening now, and that action must be taken. Pruitt contends to ignore this and push the views of fossil fuel lobbyists that have no scientific merit whatsoever.

The science demonstrating climate change stands up to scrutiny. It is unequivocal.

The opposing opinion of fossil fuel interests does not stand up to scrutiny, has no scientific basis, and has already been admitted by Exxon and other companies that they know their views are false.

Whitman ends by stating emphatically that Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration are being dishonest and anti-science. If Pruitt insists on pushing through his dishonest program,

...it should be treated for what it is: a shameful attempt to confuse the public into accepting the false premise that there is no need to regulate fossil fuels.
So what can scientists, the public, and honest people everywhere do about Pruitt and Trump's attack on science?

Within the EPA (and other agencies also under internal attack), one option is to become a whistleblower. One Department of Interior scientist, Joel Clement, has gone public with some of the tactics used by the Trump administration to violate the scientific integrity of its mandate. There are legal protections in place for employees who speak up against being forced by political appointees to violate their ethics.

Outside the EPA and other agencies, watchdog groups can file formal complaints with the office of scientific integrity. Pruitt and others are clearly violating their obligations. The mission of the EPA is clearly stated: "to protect human health and the environment." Yet, Scott Pruitt has done everything in his power to destroy the EPA's ability to "protect human health and the environment." Pruitt's actions and statements have one clear motive - protect fossil fuel and mining interests.

Other public interest groups can file lawsuits against Pruitt and the EPA for violating their legal mandates. Opening up national monuments to mining, fossil fuel extraction, and other destructive development is a violation of the principles and promises of the acts of creation.

As citizens, each and every American can call, email, mail, and visit with our members of Congress, both in the House and Senate. This is our country, and Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, and other political appointees charged with protecting our public lands, human health, and environment, cannot be allowed to destroy them instead for their own personal gain.


We must speak up. Or all will be lost. Reminiscent of the famous poem by Martin Neimoller, "First they came for the...," the attacks on climate science are only the beginning. Already they have come for the health protections. Already they have come for the national parks. Already they have come for the clean water and air. All of these affect each and every one of us. There is no more waiting. There is no one left to speak but us.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

To Communicate Science, First Lose the Jargon. Here's how.

Effective communication of science requires that scientists reach out to a variety of audiences. First we need to communicate our research to other scientists, both in and out of our fields of study ("scientific communication"). But we also need to communicate to policymakers, to the media, and to the public ("science communication"). For these latter three, one of my previous suggestions was to "drop the jargon." Now there is a tool to help you do that.

The term "jargon" is in itself jargon. Jargon is defined as "special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand." Both astronomers and oncologists use their own jargon, much of which sounds like gibberish to the other professional. Just think how it sounds to the general public.


Scientists at two Israeli universities have come up with something they call a De-Jargonizing program. In a nutshell, it automatically identifies words that are jargon, that is, that are likely to be unknown by the general population. Once identified, the buzz words can be replaced with more comprehensible language. 

The best part about the de-jargonizer is that it is freely available to anyone at no charge. Go to this URL:

scienceandpublic.com 


Upload your file or manually type in your passage. Press "Start" and you'll see what terms you'll have to edit. 

The importance of de-jargonizing cannot be stressed enough. The study concluded that no more than 2% of the words in summaries should be classified as "jargon" if you want non-experts to understand. But the average abstract in PLOS Computational Biology, a peer-reviewed but open-access journal available online to the public, contained 10% jargon. Even the summaries intentionally written to communicate the study to non-expert audiences averaged 8% jargon, far above the recommended 2%. Other journals were even worse.

Using jargon in journal articles intended for other experts in the same field is both appropriate and necessary for precise communication of study details. But scientists today must also consider how the results of their study fit into the overall communication of important issues to the public. As this page has repeatedly noted, there are people and organizations who intentionally mislead the public by misrepresenting scientific research. Therefore, it is critical that all scientists ensure their study findings and methods are accurately reported. And for the policymakers, the media, and the public that means losing the jargon that confuses more than informs. The de-jargonizer can help you do that.



esearchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and HIT–Holon Institute of Technology have created a program that automatically identifies terms the average person may not know. In a recent paper published in PLOS One, the free of charge and scientist-friendly De-Jargonizer hosted at scienceandpublic.com is introduced.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-08-de-jargonizing-decode-science.html#jCp
esearchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and HIT–Holon Institute of Technology have created a program that automatically identifies terms the average person may not know. In a recent paper published in PLOS One, the free of charge and scientist-friendly De-Jargonizer hosted at scienceandpublic.com is introduced.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-08-de-jargonizing-decode-science.html#jCp

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Liberals and Conservatives Read Different Science Books, And That is a Problem

As Republicans and others who identify as "conservatives" continue to attack science and scientists, it begs the question of where they are getting their information. EPA Administrator and fossil fuel lobbyist Scott Pruitt, for example, recently denied his own agency's findings on climate science while taking questions on a conservative radio program. It turns out that is part of the problem.

The fact that he was repeating known lies - in contradiction to the science and EPA's own documentation - on a conservative talk radio show is how "conservatives" falsely inform themselves. They deny the science, and reinforce that denial by repeating it ad nauseam in their bubbles. Liberals do the same, though in most cases they at least get the science right (the exceptions include anti-vaxxers and anti-GMOs).

A study published this past April in the journal Nature Human Behavior helps explain at least part of this discrepancy - liberals and conservatives read totally different books about science.

The study took advantage of the feature on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites that offer suggestions for similar books when you buy one. The "other books bought by people who bought this book" feature creates links between thousands of books, and thus the books it selects provide substantial information about buying habits. The researchers looked at political books with either a liberal or conservative slant, then examined the list of science books offered as "linked."

The good news is that people who buy political books (whether clearly liberal or clearly conservative) do tend to also buy books about science subjects rather than non-science subjects.  But the researchers also found that there is a difference between the science books read by liberals and conservatives.

Liberals prefer to read books from disciplines focused on basic sciences such as anthropology, astronomy, and zoology, while conservatives are more likely to purchase books that focus on applied sciences such as organic chemistry, medicine, and law.

The real stunner, however, is that even when liberals and conservatives choose within the same discipline they rarely buy the same books. For example:

buyers of conservative books in the domains of climate science, environmental science, political science, and biology tend to purchase books that are tightly clustered on the periphery of the discipline's co-purchase networks, while liberals are more likely to buy a diverse set of books...

In a nutshell, conservatives primarily buy books that reinforce their narrow view of science while liberals buy a greater diversity of books that expand their knowledge and understanding.

This explains, in part at least, why liberals are more likely to have a better understanding and acceptance of scientific consensus, for example on evolution and climate science, while conservatives choose to dismiss the consensus in favor of a more narrow interpretation guided by political ideology. Again, the problem isn't exclusively to conservatives as there are far left liberal views that also deny the totality of the science. This liberal denial, however, tends to be a much smaller fringe wing than the conservative denial, which today has largely enveloped the entire "conservative" movement and, indeed, the Republican party has become the party of denial.

The authors conclude that their study:

...underscores the need for research into remedies that can attenuate selective exposure to 'convenient truth', renew the capacity for science to inform the political debate and temper partisan passions.

The full study can be read online.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Nature's Allies: Eight Conservationists Who Changed Our World by Larry Nielsen

Today we review a book providing eight succinct biographies of key conservationists - Nature's Allies: Eight Conservationists Who Changed Our World, by Larry Nielsen.

As the subtitle suggests, the book consists of eight chapters, each of which gives a short biography of a highly influential and consequential conservationist. Some of the eight will be familiar to most everyone, others not so much. The book brings their stories in roughly chronological order with respect to their lifespans and periods of activity.

Early chapters deal with well-known conservationists like John Muir and Rachel Carson, along with Aldo Leopold and Ding Darling. Despite being more recent, Chico Mendes, Billy Frank, Wangari Maathai, and Gro Harlem Brundtland may be new names for many people.

Nielsen provides a succinct review of their upbringings and the events that led them to become "nature's allies." There are similarities with all - most spend considerable time roaming in nature during their youth, for example - but also differences. Unexpectedly, most were very comfortable meeting new people and working with others (Carson being the notable exception). All were highly self-motivated and caring of both nature and humanity. Most of them had a primary focus for their attention: Muir for the Yosemite valley, Carson for the sea (as well as the more famous "poison book" about DDT), Mendes for rubber tappers in Brazil, Frank for Native American fishing rights in the northwest.

Three of the eight are women, including the last two profiled. Maathai focused intensely on planting trees with a sustainable ecology in mind; Brundtland was broader, both in terms of seeking a sustainable world and her participation in the political process. Where the others were outsiders working to get insiders attention, Brundtland was Environmental Minister and then Prime Minister in Norway, which allowed her to direct a societal appreciation for sustainable growth.

Overall the book is well written and easy to read. It would be great for anyone wanting quick insights to some key people in the history of conservation.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Whistleblower Speaks Out as Pruitt Tries to Destroy EPA

We saw an amazing pair of events happen this week that highlight how industry lobbyists are attempting to eliminate the regulatory oversight that protects human health and the environment. A whistleblower tells of how he was "repurposed" to negate his expertise, and the EPA Administrator effectively admitted he is there to destroy the EPA.

The whistleblower is scientist Joel Clement, who up until recently was Director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Department of Interior. Writing in the Washington Post he says that he was "one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments." In other words, he was being moved away from his area of expertise. Clement goes on:

"Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies."
Clement is not an accountant and was removed from a position in which he was effectively accomplishing the goals mandated by federal law, and now pressed into a position for which there is no need and in which he is not qualified.

The fact that this was done for 50 long-time employees by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke confirms that this was a deliberate attempt to eviscerate the regulatory goals of the department. Similar to tenured professors, civil service employees (i.e., professionals in their fields rather than political appointees) cannot be summarily fired without cause. To get around this inconvenient fact, political appointees like Zinke, on orders from Trump, "reassign" employees under pretense into positions where they are no longer able to do their jobs. The idea is to harass employees into quitting, or barring that, at least keep them from doing the work they are trained - and obligated by law - to do.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt admitted he was hired to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency. On a conservative radio program in early July, Pruitt and Trump were being praised by the host, saying she liked what Trump had done by taking "a guy who wanted to get rid of the EPA - dismantle it - and put him in charge of it." Pruitt's response, "Ha. That's right."

For those who have forgotten, Pruitt is the former Oklahoma Attorney General who spent most of his tenure suing the EPA - the Agency he now runs - trying to block regulatory actions. He was caught copying fossil fuel lobbyist talking points verbatim onto Oklahoma AG letterhead and sending them in as official positions. Since taking over EPA he has worked hard to eliminate thousands of professional jobs, chop the EPA budget into ineffectiveness, and block environmental and human health protections.

During the interview, Pruitt claimed having taken "over 22 significant regulatory actions" since taking over the EPA. However, those actions were all to delay and reverse water, air, and climate regulations already in progress. Pruitt argues that he is trying to "right size" the EPA, but what he really means he is trying to eliminate EPA's ability to regulate industry. That means EPA will not be able to carry out its duties as mandated by law. In essence, Pruitt is intentionally trying to make EPA violate those laws.

Even more astounding, Pruitt admitted that his goal is to carry out Trump's political desire to promote "energy dominance," which they have defined as promoting oil and gas and coal (aka, fossil fuels). But that is not EPA's mandate. EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency. It's role is to promote protection of human health and the environment, not promote narrow industry interests.

These two incidents prove that Trump and his appointees are in direct violation of their oaths of office. They have placed industry profits (and their own interests) ahead of their departments' mandates to protect the public good. Both Pruitt and Zinke should be immediately removed from office for these gross dereliction of duty.

You can find contact information for U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate through this page. Both bodies of Congress have oversight committees with responsibility for EPA and the Department of the Interior (and other relevant departments like the Department of Energy). Contact them to express your outrage at the violation of oaths of office by Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke (and others).

Also, directories for the House and Senate.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda [Book Review]

Next in my periodic series of book reviews is Alan Alda's newest book on science communicating, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, published in June 2017.

As a scientist and author concerned about how we communicate with the general public, I was eager to read this book by revered actor Alan Alda. The book reiterates and expands on a lecture I saw him give a few days ago. Between the two I learned a lot about improving communication. Alda mixes anecdotes and stories from his own experience, both as an actor (M*A*S*H, West Wing, movies, etc.) and his lifelong interest in science that led to him hosting Scientific American Frontiers for 11 years. Recently he helped establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where many of the techniques discussed in the book were developed and are currently used to teach communication skills to scientists.

The first of two parts includes eleven chapters and primarily focuses on laying the groundwork for communication. He emphasizes the importance of empathy and "theory of mind." The ten chapters in the second part delve more deeply into the scientific studies conducted to investigate the skill sets being taught.

Much of the training incorporates the concept of improvisation, or Improv. This is a technique often used by actors (and more famously by comedians) to entertain without a script. In this case, the technique is used to help scientists and others to learn how to "read" the person they are trying to communicate with. Games such as "the mirror exercise" help participants learn empathy, a mutual understanding of the person you're speaking to.

There is much more to the book than one might expect from an actor. Alda has taken his goal of helping scientists communicate seriously, proposing and participating in studies to determine the best methods for teaching others. He provides a strong scientific basis from the studies he describes and has worked with or interviewed professors and practitioners of these methods.

Based on my own experience (it's part of the reason I left a scientific consulting career to pursue writing and expanding public knowledge of science and history), the book is both scientifically robust and entertaining to read. While the focus is on helping scientists to better communicate, the lessons imparted will also be useful for all of us who wish to be better understood by - and to better understand - our fellow members of the public. Alan Alda should be commended for his contributions in this much needed area.
 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A New Scientific Study Came Out - And Deniers Immediately Lied About It

One of the more prevalent tactics of climate science deniers is to lie. They do this by cherry-picking, misrepresentation, straw men, and a number of other mechanisms of dishonesty. Sometimes they just outright lie. A case in point is how deniers reacted to a new scientific study by climate scientist Ben Santer and colleagues. 

A good review of the study and its meaning is presented in the Guardian by scientist and science writer Dana Nuccitelli. The Santer study can be see directly here. I recommend you read both, or if the science paper is too much, at least read the Nuccitelli article, which gives a great overview of how deniers have misrepresented the paper.

After discussing the false assertions of climate denier favorite John Christy, who has a habit of providing unsupported (and unsupportable) assertions in an attempt to discredit climate models (except, of course, his own), Nuccitelli notes that the Santer et al. study:

...effectively disproved Christy’s assertion that the discrepancy was due to models being too sensitive to the increased greenhouse effect. Instead, the main culprit seems to be incorrect inputs used in the climate model simulations.

Models, like any other tool used to study complex phenomena, provide a mechanism for learning. Actual climate scientists are constantly evaluating real world observations and assessing how well the models mimic those observations. Thus, models are constantly being improved. And here's one more critical point: models are used to assess projections based on known inputs. They don't "predict," and most certainly they don't predict on short-term variations. Models are designed to assess long-term trends. And evaluation of these models, as Nuccitelli notes, "are still quite accurate."

Deniers, on the other hand, take any short-term variation that seems to drift from the long-term trend and claim it means the models are worthless. That is akin to claiming we have no idea if summer is on average much colder than winter in the northern U.S. just because we get an unusually cold day in June. The deniers' claims are absolutely ridiculous, and it is incredibly dishonest to say so. While most deniers are ignorant of the science (reading Facebook and a denier blog does not make you a climate scientist), actual climate scientists like John Christy and Roy Spencer have no excuse for routinely saying things they most certainly should know not to be true.

Not surprisingly, lobbyists and their associated spokespeople like Christy and Spencer feed these misrepresentations of the Santer et al. paper into the blogosphere with the full knowledge that the falsehoods will grow into full-fledged lies. It fits the same pattern lobbyists have employed for many years - seed the paid blogs with falsehoods and misrepresentations, encourage ideological (and grossly ignorant) non-science bloggers to plagiarize and spread those falsehoods until they saturate the internet. Recent studies have also suggested that lobbyists and their cohorts (perhaps with Russian hacker help?) manipulate Google results to shift falsehoods to the top of the search display. 

All of this, of course, is dishonest. Lobbyists intentionally create misrepresentations (to put it mildly) and help spread those misrepresentations. There are lobbyist blog sites that do this directly, and there are thousands of willing ideologues who spread the lies further.

This is what they do.

Which is why scientists, science communicators, and the general public have to be aware of these tactics. Check the sources. Find the original articles. Learn the basics of climate science.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan [Book Review]

Today's book review is of Dave Levitan's Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, published in April 2017. 

I tag this is an important book that everyone should read, while recognizing that the people who need it most will refuse to do so. The main title is derived from the oft-heard refrain from Republican politicians in the year or so leading up to the recent presidential campaign: "I am not a scientist." Invariably this meaningless throwaway line was followed by some statement that was both false and already refuted by the science.

Each chapter of the book introduces one of a series of what the author calls mistakes, misrepresentations, and errors. [I would call them tactics] They include the "oversimplification," "cherry-pick," "butter-up and cut," "demonizer," "blame the blogger," and so forth. Some of these will sound familiar and others not, but all are common tactics used by politicians to mislead the public and give cover for fellow science-denier legislators. The examples he uses will be recognizable by most people who watch or read the news.

The "oversimplification," for example, is done by boiling down a complicated science into a simple statement that appears to be true and definitive (though is likely to be neither). The example he gives is when several Republican politicians argued "the scientific evidence is clear" that unborn babies at 20 weeks feel pain. In fact, there is essentially no scientific evidence supporting this argument (and much evidence to refute it), but by stating something as settled fact that isn't settled fact they are able to push their anti-abortion agenda.

On the flip-side of this is the "certain uncertainty" tactic. Republican politicians often claim that since we don't every single detail of man-made climate change (e.g., how many feet the seas will rise by 2030 or the temperature by 2050) then we should not take action. Politicians who don't want to take action on climate change demand absolute certainty to avoid responsibility; politicians who do want to take action to block funding for women's reproductive choices claim as certainty conclusions that are in no way certain. In both cases, politicians are selectively choosing a tactic that misrepresents the science for their political gain.

There are two aspects of the book that I believe keep it from reaching the entirety of its potential. First, the format of each chapter is to introduce examples from politicians mouths to illustrate the tactic being discussed. This is a good start, but then Levitan spends considerable time documenting the research that debunks that particular politician's statement. I agree that explaining the reality is necessary to show the fallacies, faults, and fallaciousness of the statements, but in my opinion these discussions go on way too long. The author is a respected journalist and does an excellent job digging out the background behind the statements, but I wish he had covered the material more concisely so that he could provide more examples and more insights into how to recognize these tactics. No casual viewer or listener of these political statements is going to do investigative reporting to know that the statements are false. The public needs to be able to recognize in real time when politicians are misleading them.

The second aspect is that Levitan works hard to avoid calling a lie a lie. Many of the tactics he describes as errors and misrepresentations are intentional. The carefully constructed "literal nitpick" of James Inhofe, for example, is done intentionally to misinform the public so that they won't call him out on the science denial that negatively impacts his constituents (but greatly helps his campaign donors, and future donations to his coffers).

[See this article on The Dake Page for more discussion of this James Inhofe example]

Considering the critiques above, I think the book falls short of what it potentially could have accomplished. That aside, I also highly recommend that everyone read it. The tactics that Levitan discusses are used repeatedly by politicians - mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans - and the general public MUST be aware of how science deniers intentionally misrepresent the science. Why the capital letters "MUST?" Because denial of science, and the resulting abdication of responsibility to take policy action to address it, endangers each and every American (not to mention everyone else on Earth, and Earth itself).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Alan Alda on Communicating Science

Alda Alda is in the house. He is here to help communicate the science of communicating science.

I arrive a full hour before the lecture and 10 minutes before they open the doors, but the line is already wrapped around the side of the building. Alda is a paragon in the acting business, best known for his roles of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H and Arnold Vinick on The West Wing. He won an Oscar for his role in The Aviator (a movie about Howard Hughes). But Alda is also a lifelong science geek that found his dream when he hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 11 years. That show taught him how to help scientists communicate better with the public. When it ended, he helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

I grab a seat five rows from the front. The auditorium holds 1500 seats, more than three-quarters of which are filled by the time he struts on stage. At 81 years old he looks a little bedraggled at first, but quickly warms up and has the audience laughing and cheering. His long career in acting is put to good use - he becomes a storyteller. And the stories he tells are how to communicate science.

He tells us that the beginnings of this crusade came when he was about 50 years old and laid back in a dentist's chair. Just as the scalpel was about to touch his gums the surgeon says, "There will be some tethering." Wait, what? Alda asks him to explain what tethering is and the reply is a frantically impatient "Tethering! Tethering!" with no further explanation. Two weeks later Alda is posing for a close up on a movie set and the cameraman asks him why he is sneering. It turns out that the dental operation left him with reduced mobility such that his intended smile came off as a sneer. The incident brought home the importance of proper communication from doctor to patient, though Alda admits the artifact now lets him play villains more credibly. The ensuing laughter sets the story in our minds.

His long experience interviewing scientists helped him understand what communication works...and what doesn't. Most scientists talk over the heads of their non-science audiences, making the science inaccessible. Throughout his lecture Alda offered tips on how to communicate better. He also conducted practical examples of the kind of training he and his Stony Brook colleagues teach at the Center for Communicating Science.

Much of that training relies on what actors and comedians call improvisation, or Improv. Simple exercises like "mirroring" help build empathy and relating of the scientist to the non-scientist. The communicator is responsible for guiding the other person to make sure they are following. Paying more attention to how and whether the other person is understanding you allows you to see where you are losing them and change tack. Improv helps scientists learn how to reach people, to learn empathy. The concept of empathy is intriguing. Practicing paying attention leads to better reading of the emotions the person is feeling, which he says is a tremendous tool for communication.

If you can't attend Improv training, he suggests reading literary novels that delve into the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Or watch a movie with the sound turned down and try to figure out the emotions of the actors. He likes watching Scandinavian movies since he doesn't know the language. Another option is try to figure out the emotions of people you meet during the day, something you do every time you go to Starbucks or buy groceries. Paying attention heightens your awareness, which can make you a better communicator.

He also warns about overuse of jargon, something I've talked about before on these pages. Scientists must fight the "curse of knowledge," where they understand their field of work so well they forget that others don't know these things. This holds true for the general public as well as other scientists in different fields.

In another exercise he had a volunteer from the audience tap out the tune of a well-known song. Because the tapper could run the tune in his head while tapping he assumed everyone would recognize the song, but only a few hands went up. [The song was the national anthem] This emphasized the importance of story, or in the tappers case, melody. People need the context, the story along with the facts. Tell a story. Provide the melody that gives the notes context.

Alda made many other points in his hour presentation and the Q&A period that followed. The time was filled with laughs (humor is another communicating tool) and applause. There clearly was a tremendous amount of respect for him in the room, both as an actor and in appreciation for what he is doing to improve scientific communication. He received a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion, and the chatter exiting the room was electric as each of us anticipated putting his tips into practice.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Are Politicians Ignorant or Dishonest When it Comes to Science?

I'm about halfway through reading a new book by Dave Levitan called Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. The main title is derived from a constant refrain among Republican politicians during the last presidential election. While declaring they were "not a scientist," they would then go on to issue statements directly contradicted by science. I'll post a full review on Goodreads and Amazon when I'm finished, but there is one issue that strikes me is need of further discussion.

As Levitan's subtitle suggests, he refrains from labeling politicians as dishonest or outright liars despite their repeated spouting of abject falsehoods. One wonders if this is in an attempt to be fair (aka, false equivalence) or avoid potential lawsuits. It does beg the question: If politicians continue to say things that are not true, are they being profoundly ignorant or fundamentally dishonest?

Each chapter identifies the "types of errors" routinely made by politicians (and others) when discussing science. They include "oversimplification," "cherry-pick," "ridicule and dismiss," "literal nitpick" and others. Many of these errors (aka, tactics) have been discussed on this page over the last decade, though often under different labels.

As I said, I'll do a full review when I've finished the book. For now I want to address the idea of intent that Levitan tries to avoid.

Let's take an example where Levitan discusses Republican Senator James Inhofe's statement regarding regulations on fracking. An infamous climate denier (he was featured in an earlier chapter for his "snowball" speech), Inhofe represents the fossil fuel industry in his home state of Oklahoma (often to the detriment of his constituents). Levitan points out that Inhofe issued a press release with the following statement in an attempt to block regulations and legislation to protect the public from activities related to hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") for natural gas:

"Since 1949, my state of Oklahoma has led the way on hydraulic fracturing regulations, and just like the rest of the nation, we have yet to see an instance of ground water contamination."

It won't come as a surprise to learn that Inhofe's statement isn't actually true. Levitan focuses on the "mistakes" that Inhofe makes and describes the fracking process, issues, and actual facts well. He explains how this fits into the "error" of "the literal nitpick." But one point near the end of his discussion exemplifies the problem: Inhofe's statement was very highly focused on the "the physical act of cracking rocks through hydraulic fracturing." In other words, he chose his words very specifically to be "true" while making them mean something that wasn't true. The fracking process has multiple components, and Inhofe diligently cherry-picked one aspect that he could tease out as not causing the problem while ignoring all the other components that are, in fact, of greater concern.

Which gets to my point. Republican Senator James Inhofe, from the fossil fuel dependent state of Oklahoma, and who receives substantial campaign funding from those fossil fuel companies and lobbyists, intentionally chose highly selective words to sound true while misleading other policy makers, the general public, and his own constituents. He intentionally chose to say something that was misleading to reach a goal that his financial supporters asked him to reach.

My use of the word "intentional" above is intentional in its own right. Inhofe has served as the senior U.S. Senator for 23 years, with 7 years as a U.S. Representative before that (plus had previously been mayor of Tulsa). He chaired the Senate Committee on Science and Public Works - twice! He has had ample staff and constant access to the scientific community. The facts have been explained to him myriad of times.

So is Senator Inhofe still profoundly ignorant of the science despite all these resources? Is he accidentally being highly specific in his word choice to give the impression of truth while extrapolating patently misleading and false conclusions? Has he somehow been duped for more than 30 years of his time in Congress?

Of course not.

Senator Inhofe actively and intentionally "cherry-picks" and "literal nitpicks" his words to further the interests of his campaign contributors. He or his staff meet with fossil fuel executives and lobbyists routinely to plot their attack on regulations that might impact the bottom lines of those companies and their lobbying arms. Lobbyists work directly with the staffs (and the lawmakers themselves) to craft language that they can argue is strictly factual (even when it isn't) while extrapolating it deceive. This is the case with Inhofe's example statement and many others. He takes a very narrow "factoid" and uses it to argue for a broad ban on regulations for which the narrow "factoid" is not relevant, all while ignoring the voluminous evidence that contradicts his position. There is a word for the action of actively deceive the public and fellow lawmakers.

Inhofe isn't the only one who does this, of course. Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, along with Representatives Joe Barton, Lamar Smith, and many others all actively mislead the public in service of their fossil fuel benefactors.

All lawmakers, of course, work with stakeholders (which includes lobbyists for all special interests, and at least in theory, the public) to educate them on issues so they can make honest judgments. The problem is when those interests (aka, campaign contributions and other "perks") cause lawmakers to intentionally mislead their own constituents.

Inhofe is hurting Oklahomans because of his intentional deceptions. Oklahoma has had a huge increase in earthquake activity. The cause - oil and gas extraction activity. Oklahoma also is severely endangered by man-made climate change, as its largely arid environment is highly vulnerable to climate change's effects, including higher risk of agricultural failures, extreme weather events, and heat- and pollution-related health effects. Senators and Representatives in Texas also endanger their constituents in a similar manner.

So to answer the question posed in the title: is it ignorance or dishonesty?; the answer is rather obvious.


[Photo: Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), from Wikipedia]

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Trump Sentences Our Children to Death, Hands our Economy to China and Russia by Dropping Out of Climate Agreement

As expected, Trump proves he is profoundly ignorant and pathologically dishonest. His announcement that he would remove the United States from the Paris Climate Accord contains virtually not one bit of truth.

In choosing to pull out of the accord, Trump has unilaterally handed over the future of America to the Chinese and the Russians. By most standards, this would be considered treason.

Because of Trump's attempt to deflect the news cycle away from the investigation of his collusion with Russia in the election (and continued daily corruption and violation of U.S. law and the U.S. Constitution), he joins the only other two backward nations not part of the accord - Syria and Nicaragua.

In doing so Trump embarrasses the nation and all Americans. He goes against every scientific organization in the world, every National Academy of Sciences in the world, virtually every climate scientist, more than 100 years of peer-reviewed, unequivocal published research, and basic physics.

Trump also stands alone against American business, his own Defense department, every scientific agency, the CEOs of every major corporation in America, and the vast majority of Americans in every U.S. state, and virtually every nation in the world.

In announcing this gross negligence, Trump showed that he is both incredibly stupid and willing to destroy the future of all Americans. He lied repeatedly during his announcement.

He claimed that man-made climate change is not happening. That is a bald-faced lie. He knows that their is virtual unanimity among climate scientists. He knows that every business leader has told him it is real. Even his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, historically one of the biggest funders of climate denial lobbyists, has told him the evidence for it is undeniable.

He claimed that "the Paris Accord is a BAD deal for Americans." That too is a bald-faced lie.

He claimed that "the accord was negotiated poorly by the Obama administration and signed out of desperation." Again, a bald-faced lie. The agreement was negotiated over many years by nearly 200 countries with the United States in the lead.

He claimed that "it frontloads costs on the American people to the detriment of our economy." A bald-faced lie. The agreement is actually easier for the United States to implement and accomplish because we've already been taking steps (many of which Trump has dishonestly set back). Countries like China, which has a much greater burden to implement, will now have free reign to take even more U.S. jobs in the growing future energy industries.

Trump has without a doubt disgraced the United States with this move. He has endangered national security, endangered human health, endangered the environment, sent future jobs overseas that could have been here in America, destroyed our future economy, and sentenced to death hundreds of thousands of American children.

[Graphic source: https://www.redbubble.com/people/theaesthetic/works/20838237-no-trump?p=poster]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Scott Pruitt Lied About Climate Science: A Scientific Study

Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA in the current anti-science administration, blatantly lied to Congress about the state of climate science. A new study explicitly examines Scott Pruitt's claim and proves it utterly false.

The study, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, was conducted by eminent climate scientist Benjamin Santer along with a team consisting of seven other scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Remote Sensing Systems (RSS, the source of satellite data quoted by Pruitt), and the University of Washington. The study explicitly examined the data to determine the veracity of Pruitt's claim that satellite data show there has been a "leveling off of warming."

The data clearly demonstrate that Scott Pruitt's claim is grossly false.

Satellite temperature measurements do not support the claim of a “leveling off of warming” over the past two decades.
Furthermore:

When examined over the full period of record, long-term tropospheric warming far exceeds current estimates of natural internal climate variability. Our results support and strengthen previous findings of a large human-caused contribution to warming.


So why would Scott Pruitt give false statements to Congress (something that seems to have been a trend with this administration's appointees)?

As discussed before, Scott Pruitt in his previous job as Attorney General of the fossil fuel-dependent state of Oklahoma has shown himself to be, to put it gently, a shill for the fossil fuel industry. He routinely sued the EPA, the agency he now heads, to block health and safety protections and anti-pollution measures. Talking points written by fossil fuel lobbyists were copied onto Oklahoma government letterhead and sent out as official policy positions. Release of his emails proved routine and continued collusion with the industry.

As the study notes, the results "support and strengthen previous findings of a large human-caused contribution to warming." The science is very clear on this matter. The vast majority (97% or more) of climate scientists are convinced by multiple lines of unequivocal data that human-caused climate change is happening. The data overwhelmingly demonstrate this fact.

In contrast, no data support Scott Pruitt's assertion. Scientists told him he was making a false claim many times before he repeated the falsehood to Congress. EPA scientists duly documented the fact that his claim was false, which is perhaps why he had the EPA website scrubbed of climate science facts he found inconvenient once he took over the agency he was still in the process of suing.

So where did Pruitt get his claim? From fossil fuel lobbyists, of course. It's their talking point, repeated over and over by dishonest politicians despite no scientific support for it and unequivocal scientific refutation of it. When politicians are this dishonest it presents a grave danger to all Americans.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Science of Communicating Science - Why Facts Don't Matter

Facts don't matter.

Of course, facts do matter, but not as much as you might think. This is especially true in communicating science to the public and policy-makers. I previously addressed how to communicate climate science to the three pillars of community - other scientists, policy-makers, and the public. Now let's take a broader look.

First of all, what do I mean when I say "facts don't matter?" Obviously, facts are critical and scientists MUST stick to facts when communicating the science. They are our credibility. No "alternative facts" (aka, falsehoods) allowed. And that goes for using facts to intentionally mislead the public, such as is commonly done by the fake "experts" fed to the media by lobbying firms (the recent shameful inclusion of lobbyist William Happer in a recent CNN panel). No matter what the situation, we, as scientists, and as honest people, must always be factually in our communications.

But facts can only get you so far. The idea that countering ignorance or denial with more data is called the "information deficit model." "If only we scientists could simply communicate the science better to the public," says this model, "the public would 'get it' and take action."

It doesn't work. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it has been shown scientifically, over and over again. Piling on the facts can actually hurt the communication effort.

If you're into categorizing things, you could easily classify the anti-science crowd into four groups:

  • Ignorant
  • Willfully ignorant
  • Actively deny
  • Actively dishonest

Ignorance is a normal state. We are all ignorant of something, even many things. I've been educated, trained, and have years of expertise in science, but don't ask me to do your plumbing or taxes. We all don't know more than we do know. Most of the time it doesn't matter, and most people don't really care to learn about things that have no relevance to their day-to-day lives. So don't expect everyone to understand the science, nor even try to understand it. All of us relies on experts for nearly every phase of our lives, and science is no exception. If people don't want to learn, they won't.

The willfully ignorant are more difficult. These people seek out confirmation bias, that is, actively listen only to those sources that reinforce their preconceived notions, often tied to their political ideology.

Those that actively deny go a step further. They not only seek out sources confirming their biases, they actively deny all the science that conflicts with those biases. Deniers of climate science, for example, rationalize multigenerational global conspiracies involving all the world's climate scientists and organizations in order to dismiss 100+ years published, peer-reviewed science.

The actively dishonest are people such as the Happer example above. In the CNN segment, Happer gleefully repeats the false talking point that "CO2 is not a pollutant and therefore global warming is a hoax" even though he knows he is intentionally misleading the public. Happer isn't ignorant or stupid, he's being actively dishonest. There are others like him.

So simply providing more data to any of these groups is unlikely to have an effect. Those in the "ignorant" group might learn something new, but likely they won't care enough to do anything or even voice an opinion. Those in the "willfully ignorant" group simply won't listen. Those in the "actively deny" will rationalize their denial. And those in the "actively dishonest" already know the facts, they deny them because they are, either directly or indirectly, paid to do so.

Okay, so providing more factual information isn't going to be enough. How do I communicate the science?

More on that in following posts. Here are some previous tips to get you started.