Thursday, October 8, 2015

American Public Wants Science Debates, With a Caveat

A new poll out concludes that "an overwhelming majority of Americans (87%) say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy issues." This belief is bipartisan, with both Democratic and Republican voters (as well as Independents) agreeing that in our modern age science has a large and necessary role in making policy. But there are some caveats.

The poll was commissioned by ResearchAmerica (a polling organization) and (a non-profit organization). Analysis of the data collected from over 1000 U.S. adults was done by Zogby Analytics.

Results show a clear desire by the American public for presidential candidates and members of Congress to include science in their decision-making. You can see a PDF of the summary slides at this URL. (Be sure to scroll down to see all the graphs and tables.) There are a few take-away lessons from the poll.

First, a vast majority of the public believe that public policy must be based on the best available science.

The public also believes that candidates should be required to have a basic understanding of the science necessary to govern:

And that majority is (somewhat) non-partisan, with Democrats, Republicans, and even Independents agreeing that basic science understanding is important.

As the graph above shows, Democrats are somewhat more likely to believe science understanding is necessary (92% [very + somewhat important]) than Republicans (90%) and Independents (79%). These trends are reflected in most of the other graphs in the study. (see PDF for full results).

What does this all mean?

The main messages from the poll are that Americans believe science is important, that it should inform policy decisions, and that the presidential and congressional candidates have an obligation to have at least a basic understanding of the relevant science needed for decision-making. These beliefs are held across all Americans no matter what their party affiliation.

At least that is what they say.

The reality is much more revealing. While the vast majority of the public proclaims that public policies should be based on the best available science (77%), less than half of that same public (45%) believe they are even somewhat informed about the positions of the candidates on science.

Furthermore, what people are saying in response to poll questions doesn't appear to accurately reflect their voting habits. In the poll, strong majorities of both Republicans and Democrats say they believe in science and that candidates should too, but that clearly isn't the case in real life. For example, all the Republican candidates for President have repeatedly and aggressively touted their disdain for climate science, offering up various forms of denial as a matter of course. Even those who previously supported action and whose home states are most at risk (e.g., Florida, Louisiana, New York, California) have denied the science. And yet they lead the polls. Clearly Republican voters answer questions differently than they demand from their candidates.

One note about the "Independents." In many of the bar graphs splitting out responses by party, Independents often show less support for science than Republicans. At first this would appear counter-intuitive, but it reflects a change in how people identify themselves. In the past, "Independents" were generally the more moderate voters who didn't wholesale identify with either the Democratic or Republican parties, and may vote either way depending on the candidates. Today the number of voters who fit this description is shrinking. In our hyperpartisan era, a growing percentage of self-identified "Independents" are actually the more extreme wings of the two parties. They may be "tea partiers" and libertarians who believe the Republican party is too moderate (yes, you read that correctly). The mainstream party to these people are RINO (Republican in Name Only), and so they identify themselves as "Independent" even though the chances of them ever voting for Democratic candidates are close to nil. To a much lesser extent, "Independents" may also include the more extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party (who disdain DINOs), or the anti-science folks such as anti-vaxxers. While those on the extreme wing represent a small percentage of the Democratic party and their wackier views are generally not incorporated into the Democratic platform, the extreme wing of the Republican party now IS the Republican party, with its most egregiously extreme anti-science views driving the entire platform and actions of the party. [For a good review of the political state of affairs, check out Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's book It's Even Worse Than it Looks.]

What should we do about it?

While in the responses to the poll questions Americans say they want science, they also admit to not really understanding science; continue to be misinformed about climate science, GMOs, vaccines, and other science important for decision-making; and about half the country overwhelmingly supports candidates who fundamentally deny even basic scientific principles. Some of this can be attributed to the extreme partisanship evident in today's politics, as evidenced by Republicans viciously attacking their own policy proposals as soon as President Obama and the Democrats agree to them. But some of it is because the majority of Americans don't even know the candidates views on science-based policy initiatives.

Americans strongly agree that presidential candidates should be required to participate in a science-based debate. At least 86% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with this proposal. (one of the organizations that commissioned the independent poll) has worked hard to have candidates participate (see here for more information of past participation). Candidates would have a chance to present their proposals for addressing policy needs presented by such issues as climate change that are inherently based on science. The public would then be able to make informed choices.

Finally, as the above graph shows, Americans overwhelmingly believe that scientists should engage directly with the public and inform elected officials about scientific research that impacts decision-making. This has been a theme for The Dake Page for a long time.

It's time for a Science Debate.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Flight Behavior - Communicating Science Through Fiction

Periodically I review books that have a science or science communication flavor. As might be expected, these normally are non-fiction books. This week I'm reviewing a fiction book called Flight Behavior, which touches not only on the science but on communication of science, especially when local beliefs are predisposed to deny that science.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I can relate to Ovid Byron. He is the scientist in Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, which I can say is one of the most extraordinary books I've read in a long time.

Byron isn't the main character. That would be Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer's wife trying to make ends meet at the Tennessee end of Appalachia. Kingsolver successfully integrates valuable insights into marriage, country life, sheep-raising, and religion with the extraordinary ecology of Monarch butterflies thrust into potential extinction by the changing forces of climate. All in a storyline that keeps you devouring one page after another.

As an ecological scientist myself, I was fascinated by the interweaving of real scientific study with the evolving lives of the people simply trying to raise their kids and put food on the table. This interweaving is what makes the book so valuable.

And valuable it is as an example of science communication. That isn't necessarily Kingsolver's goal, but she succeeds in communicating the science of the butterflies in language most scientists rarely achieve, and much more effectively. She captures the thought processes and priorities that influence how people take in new information, especially information they find uncomfortable or disruptive to their lifestyle. 

At one point late in the book Kingsolver has a character relate the problems of communicating information when that informaiton comes from "outsiders." This is best summed up in one quote:

"The key thing is, once you're talking identity, you can't just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won't diminish it. That just galvanizes it."

Scientists would do well to read and understand the writing in this book as they strive to communicate man-made climate change and other scientific issues to the public. 

While my review above is biased toward the scientific element, the book also works incredibly well as a relationship story...and a family story...and a community story. 

I most highly recommend the book for all readers.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Beginning of the End for Climate Denial

Climate denial is dead. Okay, that may be somewhat wishful thinking, but it's clear that the organized denial of climate science has peaked and will continue to fall away. Historians at some point in the future looking to identify when this threshold for change was reached might very well point to this past week.

The Science

To begin with, the science of climate is unequivocal. That means, undeniable. For more than 100 years scientists from all over the world and from every type of scientific organization imaginable, and working in countries with every type of government and economic structure extant, have produced more than 100,000 peer-reviewed scientific research papers published in journals. To this add in dozens, and even hundreds, of review reports that summarize the state-of-the-science. All of these empirical data and studies point unequivocally, undeniably, clearly to the conclusion that human activity is warming the climate system. And that warming has significant consequences to human health, economics, and national security, in addition to the obvious problems of changing climate, sea level rise, and human migration.


Which gets us to one of the many reasons why climate denial is dead. Even the fossil fuel companies admit that fossil fuel combustion is causing the climate to warm. A report was released this past week documenting through internal Exxon records that Exxon, the biggest and mightiest of the fossil fuel companies, knew their operations were causing the climate to warm, and they knew this as far back as the 1970s. Exxon's own scientists, working on projects started by Exxon itself, were able to determine that fossil fuel burning was causing man-made climate change. Exxon management then ignored their own scientists' warnings, shut down the research project, and instead directed millions of dollars over the next several decades to denying their own scientists' research.

I'll have more on that later, but obviously this impacts the credibility of fossil fuel funded denial of the science. Everyone already knew that Exxon was deceiving the public, of course, but this report documents how Exxon's own records show how they did it (see "tobacco lobbyists deny smoking causes cancer technique").

World Leaders Move Forward

This week also brought a huge public outpouring of political support for action to address man-made climate change. President Obama has for some time now been making executive decisions to reduce carbon emissions, largely because Republicans in Congress have refused to even acknowledge the science. Pope Francis, religious leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, was also in Washington, D.C., where he gave speeches at the White House and to a joint session of Congress in which he espoused a moral obligation to deal with climate change. Other world religious leaders (Judaism, Islam, and others) have also issued statements supporting the moral obligation to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is also coming to D.C.; Xi has been openly working with Obama on preparations for the upcoming international climate talks in Paris in which most of the world's nations are expected to agree on significant carbon reduction actions. Even Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and current Democratic candidate for president, said she is against the Keystone XL pipeline, a major potential source of carbon emissions. The other major Democratic candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, also noted he is in agreement with the Pope's (and Presidents Obama's and Xi's) climate message.

Meanwhile, Republican reaction has been to attack the Pope and tell foreign governments they don't support action. (See, "fossil fuel campaign contributions to members of Congress")

But even here there is some movement. In the recent debate there was one question (yes, only one) about climate change, and only three candidates answered it. While they still didn't openly acknowledge the science, their denial employed a subtly different tactic - they claimed that the U.S. working alone won't have much effect. It's still denial but it's a shift that allows them to rationalize action when they find their denial is no longer credible. Which, of course, was a long time ago. To this we can add a rare proactive move by a small group of Republicans who are either 1) not running for reelection, or 2) are in moderate districts where being honest won't automatically get them thrown out of Congress by Republican voters. It's a small effort that won't go anywhere, but again it provides a mechanism by which Republicans can rationalize their eventual shift in strategy.

On to Paris

All of this bodes well for the upcoming climate talks in Paris. World leaders, including Obama and Xi, have been working for several years toward a meaningful agreement that will result in carbon reduction plans worldwide. This is a difficult issue. The U.S. and Europe have historically contributed the greatest to the climate change problem, while China's rapid growth in recent decades has resulted in it passing the U.S. as the worst emitter annually. At the same time there is a need for less developed countries to manage their future growth such that they don't simply repeat the mistakes we made, while acknowledging that they shouldn't have to pay for how we messed up the world. To this we can add in regional differences in impact and capacity. Complex diplomatic negotiations were, and continue to be, necessary to ensure as equitable a path forward for all nations as is possible.

Enter the Zombies

All of these factors, and many more, signal the death of climate denial. But being dead doesn't mean denial will go away complete. When it looked like public sentiment was leading to the abolition of slavery, slaveholders fought to expand slavery, thus starting the Civil War. When President Obama's election threatened the established white supremacy notion of many Americans, it led to a resurgence of racial hatred. So too with climate denial. As we move toward the inevitable action to deal with man-made climate change, denial lobbyists and their ideological followers will once again rise up like zombies to attack climate scientists who document the science and world leaders who try to act on that scientific knowledge.

The year 2014 was the hottest year in the instrumental record. The current decade is hotter than the previous, which was hotter than the previous, which in turn was hotter than the decade before that. 2015 is already well on its way to smashing the hottest year record set just last year, and with a strong El Nino possibly hanging around into next year, 2016 could surpass 2015 to set a third record year in a row. As climate change becomes more obvious to the general public, as the deceit of climate deniers becomes even more clear and more buffoonishly dishonest, and as responsible world leaders continue to move toward actions that will reduce carbon emissions while improving economic growth and national security, the death of climate denial is inevitable.

So watch out for climate denial zombies, but know that the rest of us are moving forward and taking responsibility for our children's and grandchildren's futures.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Climate Debate, Climate Pope, Climate Republicans, and Exxon Lies - The Week in Climate Change

This is a big week in climate change, though if you watched the Republican debate last night you would have missed it. Also, the Pope comes to the United States and talks about climate, while a new report shows how Exxon (now ExxonMobil) studied climate change as far back as the 1970s and then lied about it for decades. Here is a quick round up of climate news you definitely need to know.

Republican Debate

All one hundred (or 17, no 16, no 15) Republican candidates for the 2016 nomination engaged in a tag-team debate on CNN on September 16th. The early debate featured the lowest polling Republicans, minus one former Governor who couldn't garner enough support to be included even in this low-threshold affair, and another former Governor who decided he couldn't afford the airfare to California from Texas. The later debate featured everyone else.

In four and a half hours there was exactly one question related to climate change, answered by only three candidates, and totaling a breathtakingly inconsequential three minutes of air time. That in itself is why we need to have a Science Debate. Marco Rubio (Florida, which faces life-endangering sea level rise), Chris Christie (New Jersey, which was devastated by Superstorm Sandy just a few years ago), and Scott Walker (Wisconsin, whose warming temperatures will likely be offset by more extreme winter storms), all trotted out the new "denier talking point of the month." Having exhausted the "I am not a scientist" line (while ignoring what scientists say), the fossil fuel lobbyist/public relations approved official Republican denier line is now "The U.S. can't make any impact alone." Not only is this false, but they ignore the worldwide commitments being made by all other nations serious about dealing with man-made climate change. As always, the Republican party simply denies climate science (thus disqualifying them for the job they seek) and actively tries to sabotage international action that will have greater impacts.

Bizarrely for the guy who many think is the smartest of the bunch, Marco Rubio even made an ill-conceived joke about the severe drought being experienced by California - where the debate was being held. And in the shadow of a model of Ronald Reagan's Air Force One (the debate was held in the Reagan Presidential Library), Chris Christie mocked Ronald Reagan's own Secretary of State as being out-of-touch. All of them denied climate change and any attempt to act on it.

The Pope Brings a Climate Message to Congress and the United Nations

Pope Francis begins his whirlwind tour of the United States next week, with stops in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. The Pope shocked everyone a few months back by calling for an encyclical, which is Pope-speak for calling in experts on a particular issue to derive a policy. In June the results of that encyclical were released, with the Pope calling on all Catholics to acknowledge they have a moral obligation to steward God's gift to Man, i.e., the planet and the climate that lets us survive here. Other religions have also reiterated the moral obligation to take care of His creation.

Not surprisingly, the Republican party in the United States turned on the Pope, telling him he should "leave science to the scientists." These are the same Republican politicians who while saying "I am not a scientist" continue to tell scientists they don't know their own science. Breaking with corporate-Republican creed, there is a small group of Republicans who are honest about having to deal with the science. Perhaps eventually the rest will catch on that lying to your constituents won't stop sea level rise in Florida; droughts in Oklahoma, Texas, and California; or superstorms in New Jersey, New York, and New England. Until then, Republicans have disqualified themselves from positions requiring personal and professional responsibility.

Exxon Knew About Man-Made Climate Change in the 1970s

A new report compiled from thousands of Exxon documents and interviews with Exxon employees and others reveals that Exxon's own in-house research clearly demonstrated the role of fossil fuels in man-made climate change. And Exxon knew this all the way back in the 1970s. Concern about carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels had been raised decades earlier, and scientists were already studying the impacts. As the largest fossil fuel corporation on the planet, Exxon engaged in a research project in which its own scientists told them clearly and emphatically that fossil fuels were causing the climate to warm. Everyone at Exxon knew this, including senior management and CEO.

Rather than address the issue, Exxon buried it. They killed funding for the research and began a decades long campaign to deny man-made climate change. A series of industry front groups posing as "research organizations," many with intentionally deceptive names, was set up to "manufacture doubt." This was the same technique used by tobacco companies to deny smoking caused cancer. That network of lobbyists and front groups expanded to include other denial networks begun by the Koch brothers, libertarian and conservative lobbyists, and other anti-science organizations. Collusion among lobbyists, the media, and politicians became the norm

This page will have more about what Exxon (now ExxonMobil) knew in future posts. From my own personal knowledge I can say that Exxon scientists then, and now, continue to do good science and provide scientific information to the company and its management. Those scientists have made it clear that the science is unequivocal, and that ExxonMobil must find more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel. Denial of the science falls solely on ExxonMobil management and the denial lobbyists they support.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Republicans in US Try to Sabotage International Climate Action as World Moves Forward

It really is mind-boggling how the Republican Party in the United States can so blatantly engage in treasonous acts against the President, all while hurting their own constituents. They continue to do this with respect to man-made climate change despite the unequivocal consensus that human activity is causing the planet's climate system to warm. Republicans even work against the best interests of their own constituents, as most Americans agree that action is necessary to deal with climate change.

The latest treasonous act by Republicans in the U.S. is their plan to disrupt the international climate talks that this December in Paris expect to result in a substantive agreement for worldwide action. Critical nations all over the world have made carbon reduction commitments. President Obama has been leading the way, engaging in agreements with China, India, Europe, and other countries that will lead to eventual stabilization of atmospheric warming and a halt to oceanic acidification due to our history of excess carbon emissions.

Republicans in Congress have stood in the way of meaningful climate action ever since President Obama was elected. Former Republican Senator George Voinovich acknowledged that in 2008, before President-Elect Obama even took the oath of office, Republican leadership instructed all Republicans to oppose anything Obama proposed: "If Obama wanted it, Republicans had to be against it."

That includes policy actions that Republicans once promoted. As early as 2003, Senator and future Republican presidential nominee John McCain offered a bill called the "Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act." McCain offered more climate bills right up until his 2008 nomination, at which time the preview to the "tea party" forced him to renounce his own bills.

Republicans were also promoting the most recent cap-and-trade bill to deal with climate change as "a free-market solution." Yes, conservative and libertarian lobbyists, and the Republican party, preferred the cap-and-trade plan over the carbon tax plan originally offered by Democrats. But once the Democrats and President Obama agreed to support ca-and-trade, that same free market system once promoted by Republicans and conservatives was suddenly called cap-and-tax. Republicans turned against their own plan just because President Obama agreed with them to move it forward.

Now the Republican party is telling our allies around the world that they won't support an agreement that hasn't even been reached yet. Why? Because the President is moving forward along with the rest of the world. Republicans, rather than come up with their own plans (or even support the plans they previously offered) are trying "to undermine...hopes of reaching an international climate change agreement that would cement his environmental legacy."

Just as with the treasonous act by Republican Tom Cotton - sending a "mutinous" letter to Iran telling them they won't support a no-nukes agreement - Republicans are acting against the best interests of the United States in an effort to block action on climate change. Not only are Republicans acting against the US and the President, they are acting against the best interests of their own constituents.

In future posts I'll have more on how climate denier Republicans like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, James Inhofe, Joe Barton and all of the current Republican candidates for the presidential nomination are hurting their own constituents.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

President Obama Went to Alaska; Here's Why That is Important to Climate Change Communication

It's been a big week in climate change, in more ways than one. This is especially true for President Obama. First he went to New Orleans, and then he spent several days in Alaska. That's a big deal for climate communication.

The New Orleans visit was on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Ostensibly the focus of the trip was to show the federal government hasn't forgotten about those who are still struggling to recover. Despite Republican Governor Bobby Jindal's request that Obama not mention climate change, he did. And it was appropriate to do given that much of New Orleans still lies below sea level...and sea level is rising. Which means the next Katrina could be even worse.

But it's the Alaska visit that is most critical. Using a variety of modern media methods to reach out to the populace - Twitter, a "survival" television show appearance, Instagram, and video blogs, the President highlighted the importance of places like Alaska in climate change effects, and why solutions are needed.

He even talked about gigatons!

Science writer Chris Mooney wrote a nice column in the Washington Post about why Obama explaining gigatons is such a big deal. I recommend you read Mooney's fine article here. Most people probably still won't get the whole "science speak" stuff, but they might be able to visualize the idea of blocks of ice the size of the National Mall from the Capitol Building all the way to the Lincoln Memorial and four times as tall as the Washington Monument - then multiply that volume 75 times.

Now picture all that melting every year just from Alaskan glaciers. Add in melting ice from glaciers all over the world, plus Greenland and other northern land masses, plus Antarctica, plus, well, you get the idea. 

Here's the bottom line. Human activity is making our global climate warmer. That warming is significant. This year, 2015, is on track to be the hottest year on record, passing the last hottest year, which was 2014. And with a strengthening El Nino system in the Pacific, 2016 might even pass 2015. Action is necessary to reduce (and preferably reverse) emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the system. These are the facts. 

Our decision point is not whether it is happening. It's happening. Our decision point is what do we do about it. The President has taken several steps and is leading the world into making substantive goals for CO2 reduction. Over the last year Obama has brought China, the other major emitter, into an agreement to deal with man-made climate change. Other agreements and goal-setting have been accomplished with other major contributors in the lead up to the big meeting in Paris at the end of this year.

This activity, and his trip to Alaska to highlight the need for action, is in stark contrast to the Republican-led Congress and the Republican candidates for president, all of whom are denying the science and choosing inaction.

By raising the visibility of man-made climate change, the President is speaking directly with to the public. An informed public can then ask their Governors, Senators, and Representatives what they are doing to deal with the unequivocal science. Denial isn't sufficient; the science doesn't go away because they ignore it. The effects seen already, and those sure to come, are real and impact the very constituents who send the most climate deniers to Congress. Yes, the people of Texas, Louisiana, and the midwest - all denier states - receive the most federal disaster aid yet deny the science on which the need for that aid is based. The constituents of Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and all the rest deserve to be represented by their elected officials, not pawns in a game in which those officials sacrifice the present and future for donations to their campaigns.

A more complete visualization of a gigaton and the ramifications of man-made climate change can be found on this expansion of Mooney's piece in the Washington Post.

For more on the President's Alaskan trip, check out this blog by Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren.

For a good primer on man-made climate change, check out this series of helpful pages by the NASA climate research team.

One last point to make regarding President Obama's trip. Fossil fuel lobbyists, their front groups, and their network of media in collusion are unsurprisingly negative in their attacks on the President. Environmental groups and like-minded individuals are generally supportive, but even they have criticized the President for apparent contradictions (or hypocrisy) in going to Alaska to talk about climate change (plus all his other actions) while also signing off on oil leases in the Arctic for Shell Oil. I'll go into this in more detail in following weeks, but for now watch Obama's video, in particular about halfway through where he addresses his rationale regarding the leases.

To recap, President Obama has been doing two things in recent weeks and months that all of us should appreciate in terms of communicating climate science. One is that he is taking direct action where he can with his limited Executive Branch powers. This is absolutely necessary given Congresses inability and unwillingness to pass anything of substance. The second is that Obama is talking directly to the public about both the science and the need for action.

And that is a very good thing for all of us.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Irony of Climate Deniers Attacking Published Journal Articles

A new peer-reviewed paper was published recently in the scientific journal Theoretical and Applied Climatology. Its title is "Learning from Mistakes in Climate Research" and the objective is to survey recent "denier" papers, that is, the rare papers that reject the unequivocal scientific consensus that human activity is warming our climate system. The authors - seven climate scientists and science communicators from Norway, the Netherlands, the United States, the UK, and Australia - highlighted the errors in fact and logic common to the selected denier papers.

Not surprisingly, the denier lobbyists and their network of front groups and bloggers attacked the study. The lines of attack ignored the validity of the actual points being made and focused instead on its publishing history and the impact factor of the journal. These attacks are about as ironic as you can get given that deniers rarely even attempt to publish in actual scientific journals (preferring instead to "publish" opinion pieces in business blogs). The one journal they publish most in has an impact factor that is essentially non-existent. As the proverb goes, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

But it was rejected by other journals?

Deniers (on Facebook and other non-scientific venues, mainly by non-scientist ideologues and/or conspiracy theorists) are trying to denigrate the study by suggesting it was rejected by other journals. Their false conclusion is that if a paper is rejected by other journals it must somehow be wrong. That false conclusion shows an incredible ignorance of how scientific publishing works.

In previous posts I discussed how peer-review works (and how deniers try to abuse the process) so I won't repeat the basics here. Scientific journals reject thousands of papers every year based on factors that have nothing to do with whether the paper is good or bad. In all fields there are journals professionals in those fields consider the most prestigious, and so those professionals tend to submit their papers to the best journals first. That demand for space runs up against the obvious limitations of space each journal has to fill, so the most prestigious journals reject the vast majority of papers received solely on the basis of no room to print them. Journals may also reject papers because the topic doesn't fit the narrow scope of that particular journal.

In short, rejection in scientific journals is common, and expected.

The reason for the initial rejection of this particular paper is likely because it is an untraditional paper that doesn't fit the scope of most journals. Most climate studies collect data on temperature, sea level, ice thickness, or hundreds of other measurable factors, do statistics, and report the results. This paper is more of a survey of other papers selected because they represent the tiny percentage of papers rejecting the unequivocal science. The goal was to see if there were commonalities in their methods or logic. There are limitations of such a survey (as there are will all studies), and the authors acknowledge those limitations. The observations they make may be incomplete because the survey didn't look at all denier papers, but they are valid.

The irony here is that deniers rarely publish scientific papers, and when they try to publish they often are rejected. Those rejections may include the same factors as above, but they also include rejection based on lack of veracity of the data they present and the logic used to derive conclusions. As the "Learning from Mistakes" paper highlights, even the rare denier papers that do make it through the publication process have serious flaws that invalidate their conclusions. In fact, denier conclusions often don't even agree with the data they present in their own paper, never mind with reality.

But the journal has a low "impact factor?"

These same deniers have suggested that the journal the paper was published in has a "low impact factor." They falsely conclude from this that the journal is not to be trusted. That's silly, and inaccurate.

To begin with, the journal in which this paper was ultimately published, Theoretical and Applied Climatology, is put out by Springer Science, a renowned publishing company in business since 1842. The journal is a continuation of journals that have been published since 1949. In recent years the journal has evolved into an Open Access format, that is, the papers are available in full as PDFs for free to the public.

An "Impact Factor" is a measure of the average number of citations of recent articles, that is, how often are those articles cited by other authors in newer papers. It's a rather arbitrary metric with many criticisms, and there are other metrics that are also used. It's use is based on the assumption that papers that are cited more are somehow more important, but impact factors tend to be biased towards journals that publish review articles (people cite review articles instead of each individual study reviewed) and journals that publish cutting edge news (like Science and Nature). The more specialized the journal, the fewer opportunities there are for citing it.

The reason deniers have focused on this one metric is because they think it allows them to dismiss the paper without having to address any of its points. That, and the fact that the denier lobbyists sent word out via their blogging networks to tell everyone to focus on it.

The most recent impact factor for Theoretical and Applied Climatology in 2014 was 2.015. This falls within the range of most climate journals.

Not surprisingly, for the rare attempts by deniers to publish, their preferred journal, Energy & Environment, had an impact factor of 0.319, which ranked it 90th out of 93 journals in its category. Hardly something to brag about, especially since its editor admitted to "following her political agenda" in choosing the papers to publish (mostly from a small group of deniers). Of course, deniers' favorite platform for "publishing," that is, blogs, have zero impact factor because they aren't peer-reviewed at all. Which is why virtually everything in denier blogs is wrong.

There are more instances of denier ignorance and double standards demonstrating they don't understand most of what they parrot from their denier blogs. I've cataloged many of them on this page under Exposing Climate Denialism.

The main goal of the denier lobbyists and their blogger network (including Facebook trolls) is to deflect from the valid points being made in the journal article "Learning from Mistakes in Climate Research." Those "mistakes" made by deniers may be intentional, as the history of people like Willie Soon and Richard Lindzen suggest. They include "cherry picking," "curve-fitting," and other factual and logical errors like drawing conclusions that aren't even supported by the data they themselves present. This likely happens because they start with the conclusions they want and try to force-fit the cherry picked data to support it.

There's a word for that.

Take the time to read the article as it important to read what the denier lobbyists have tried to hide from the public. Dana Nuccitelli, one of the co-authors on the paper and a regular contributor to the Guardian, has provided a nice summary of their findings. Because the journal is open access you can download the full paper from their website and read it yourself. And here is the PDF copy.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - Scientific Ethics and More

This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, her HeLa cells, and her family's struggle to learn about their long dead mother. It's also a detective story, a story of medical conduct, a story of Jim Crow, a story of modern and historical psychology, a story of ethics, and a story of religious faith. It is even a love story. It is all of these things, and Rebecca Skloot has successfully merged them into one of the most fascinating books I've read in many years. 

Until recently few knew about Henrietta Lacks the person, though cell culture researchers have known of the HeLa cell line for many decades. Taken from the cervical cancer that killed Henrietta in 1951, HeLa cells have become immortal, living in test tubes and freezers in the billions even now, more than 60 years after Henrietta's death. Growing like the cancer they derived from, HeLa cells have been used to develop treatments for many diseases, but also have contaminated virtually ever other cell line that has been attempted. This book traces the history of the cells, their benefits, and the ethical questions that arose because of their use without the knowledge of anyone in Henrietta's family.

Throughout the book Skloot examines the ethics behind medical procedures. In the late 1940s and 1950s, and continuing into at least the 1970s, there was little in the way of informed consent. Doctors could take cell and tissue samples from patients for research without informing those patients of their plans. Ironically, once someone died doctors had to get permission from family members for autopsies and tissue collection. That permission, however, was often given without any real understanding of what was actually happening. The book presents these ethical issues in the context of the times and the overall story of Henrietta's family. She doesn't judge, just presents. But readers with scientific backgrounds and careers would do well to think about the ramifications of those ethical discussions...and ensure they comply with current standards.

But even more than the medical story, this is a book about the struggle of Henrietta's descendants to learn about the mother they never knew. A poor African-American family that has gone through many personal trials must now take on the added trials of seeking out answers in a world they don't understand or trust. At times breathtakingly sad, the story can at other times have you cheering for Henrietta's youngest daughter Deborah and her extended family.

I highly recommend this book. Scientists will find the medical story captivating, both for the thrill of its discoveries and the questions raised about informed consent. Non-scientists should also be enthralled with the medical story, but will also see the broader questions of segregation, poverty, family, religious belief, and the sometimes expansive divide between scientists and the public.

Skloot's writing is stellar. She easily conveys the medical and technical material in language everyone can understand. She is equally adept in communicating the depth of emotion and confusion and anger of Henrietta's family.

[The Dake Page periodically reviews books relevant to science and communication. Feel free to check out past reviews.]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

It's Time Presidential Candidates Had a Science Debate

It's time for a science debate in which all the candidates for president - Republican and Democratic - engage in an honest discussion of science-based issues. Such is the premise behind ScienceDebate, a non-partisan, non-profit effort to require candidates to address science.

The effort began with the 2008 elections and continued through 2012 and now 2016. The ultimate goal is to have a stand-alone science-based debate or at least a science-based section in multiple official debates. They have managed to get the eventual nominees for each party to respond in writing to questions prepared by a group of scientists. Not ideal, but it's a step toward the objective of getting candidates to talk about science.

Why must candidates talk about science?

The following quote from the ScienceDebate website sums it up nicely:
"The world has changed. Science now impacts every aspect of life, with major economic, environmental, health, legal, and moral implications. Shouldn't the candidates for president be showing their leadership by debating these things on TV, so that voters can be better informed by coverage of them in the news media?"
Think about some of the current issues the United States must address, all of which are largely driven by our understanding of the science.

  • Iran nuclear agreement
  • Climate change
  • Vaccines
  • GMOs
  • Fracking
  • Evolution/Education
  • Chemical regulation
  • Pollution
  • Obesity
  • Food

And that's only a short list of the most obvious ones. These science-based issues, individually and as a group, affect not only the specific topic of each and the environment, they affect human health, the economy, energy, national security, international politics and power structure, and much more.

In short, these science-based issues affect, and determine, our future.

So how are the candidates doing on science-based issues?

Not very well. This page wrote an Open Letter to the 2016 Presidential Hopefuls about man-made climate change. It's a critical issue and based on unequivocal, undeniable science. We humans are warming the global climate system and action is necessary. The Republican party has made a political decision to deny the science, which disqualifies all of their candidates for the job they seek. The Democratic candidates all acknowledge the science, though they have been inconsistent in their support for policies to deal with it. This page will have more on Democratic proposals and their inconsistency in future posts. At least they are trying, as demonstrated by President Obama's and EPA's Clean Power Plan (though he too has been inconsistent).

In this modern world, science drives our decision-making and our future. It permeates our every day lives, from our reliance on industrial food production to our energy sourcing to our handling of man-made climate change. Science impacts our economic and national security...and our well-being.

It's time to have a science debate.

[More information on ScienceDebate can be found on their website and their Facebook page. Two of the founders, Sheril Kirshenbaum, and Chris Mooney, co-authored a book called Unscientific America, that is also worth reading.]

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What President Obama's Clean Power Act Does for Climate Change May Surprise You

On Monday, August 3, 2015, President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency released final rules designed to curtail coal-based power plant emissions. Called the Clean Power Plan, the goal is to reduced carbon emissions contributing to man-made climate change. The impact of this plan will surprise a lot of Americans.

The following video is only a little over 2 minutes and worth watching:

Reaction has been about what you might expect. The Republican candidates for president and their Republican colleagues in the House and Senate have falsely attacked the plan for the usual false reasons. The Democratic candidates and in Congress largely agree that the steps proposed are necessary to deal with the unequivocal science demonstrating humans are warming the climate system.

Media reporting of the Clean Power Act shows its critical importance. Time magazine says that the President is taking the lead on this "superwicked problem."  CNN says the President "unveils major climate change proposal." To the New York Times this is a "crucial step on climate change." Other media outlets also note the unprecedented action by the White House and EPA.

Of course, there are also the denial lobbyists saturating the blogosphere with anti-Clean Power Act rhetoric. All provide opinions based on a single negative "report" produced by, you guessed it, one of the denial lobbyist organizations in their network. That's a common tactic of lobbyists - create a biased report and then get all your friends to cite your biased report as "unbiased."

Meanwhile, the response from the scientific community has generally been positive, as might be expected given that nearly every climate scientist agrees that 100+ years of published science unequivocally demonstrates a need to address man's contribution to climate change. There are some, like outspoken climate scientist James Hansen, who feel the Plan is merely a drop in the bucket and won't in itself create significant progress in dealing with our changing climate.

Hansen is probably right.

So let's assume that the Clean Power Plan is insufficient to deal with climate change. In fact, we don't need to assume it because it's fairly self-evident. More action is necessary, both in the United States and globally. So is the Plan a waste of time?

On the contrary, the Plan is both much needed and highly effective in what President Obama is trying to accomplish. By talking about man-made climate change. By taking action on man-made climate change. By making it clear that while some elected officials are taking serious the long-term ramifications of man-made climate (while just as clearly other officials - and presidential candidates - are not taking it seriously), President Obama has gotten the public more involved in the discussion.

And public engagement in the discussion is critical.

It is the public that will pressure their elected officials to address man-made climate change. The science is clear - we humans are warming the climate. The impacts of that warming are significant, they are already happening, and they will keep getting worse without action. It's up to the public to make sure their representatives openly and honestly debate policy options to deal with the unequivocal fact that we're warming the climate. Denial of the science is not honest debate, it's a dishonest violation of the public trust. If the public is uninformed about an issue, than it is the obligation of their elected representatives to help the public become informed. To not do is to sacrifice your constituents.

So while the Clean Power Plan does take significant steps to reduce carbon emissions (which, in itself, is a much needed step in the right direction), the actual Power of the Plan is the public engagement on the issue. Because of it the public will spend more time "debating" climate change, becoming informed on climate change, and demanding action on climate change. The Plan also positions the United States as a leader in the global discussions of policy to deal with the science. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have already made inroads with agreements with China, India, and others, while also leading Europe and other countries at the table for what everyone hopes will be a significant global agreement at the December climate meetings in Paris.

The Clean Power Plan is one piece of a very large puzzle. The President has been actively working to move this process forward along multiple avenues. While the Plan itself will have some effect, it's larger effect is on making it okay to take responsibility for man-made climate change, and to do something about it.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

All Republican Candidates for President in 2016 Deny Basic Climate Science, Disqualifying Them for the Job

All 17 Republican candidates* for the 2016 presidential nomination deny the most basic climate science. Think about that. Every single Republican candidate for the highest political office in the United States has chosen to deny the very existence of unequivocal science. When they even bother to acknowledge the science at all they state that they have no intention of taking action on it, and in fact are likely to backtrack on action already taken.

Some of the more flagrantly dishonest and delusional candidates go so far as to claim that 100+ years of published science and all the world's climate scientists and organizations - and even physics - is part of a conspiracy to "tax us all into oblivion" or "make Al Gore rich" or "institute the U.N.'s Agenda 21" to "take over the world." [Cue Dr. Evil!]

Yes, these are the people who are running to be our next president. And these are the ones with the most support. It used to be this kind of dishonesty and looney tune conspiracy nonsense would be limited to the "crazies" in the far out wings of the party. Now they are the party. The Republican Party.

By choosing to lie to the American people so egregiously, they disqualify themselves for the job they are seeking. Every single one of them.

Their reasons for denying all of the science are varied. Some are simply indebted to the fossil fuel industry. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz have all been summoned to a dog-and-pony show put on by the billionaire Koch brothers. The Kochs are infamous for financing much of the climate denial lobbying and misinformation campaigns that create the falsehoods the Republican candidates so often pantomime to the public. These same Kochs, one the former Libertarian nominee for Vice President, also run a network of libertarian and right wing "think tanks" (i.e., lobbying shops) that largely overlap with their climate denial network.

Other Republican candidates almost seem like they want to acknowledge the science but are simply afraid to be honest with their constituents. Ironically, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio's home state of Florida is likely to lose more of its land surface to sea water rise than any other U.S. state in the current century (Bobby Jindal's Louisiana may be a close second.) Other candidates are just plain buffoonish, focusing instead on appealing to the most bigoted wing of the Republican party, a wing that has grown larger as the constituency of the party has grown smaller.

Even if a Republican candidate for president were to acknowledge the science and suggest policy options, a continuing Republican-controlled Congress would not let that candidate achieve any progress with respect to climate.

And progress is necessary. Action is necessary. Last year (2014) had the hottest global warming on record, and 2015 is already poised to surpass it. President Obama has been working hard during the last few years to lead the world into a meaningful global climate change agreement to be signed in December 2015. Other large contributors to climate change like China, India, Brazil, and Europe have, along with the United States, committed to carbon reduction goals. The United States and many other countries in the world have been advancing into renewable technologies that will be, and already are, driving economic development. Even the Vatican has acknowledged the science, as have every other religious, scientific, cultural, political, and community organizations.

To deny a problem, and turn back economic progress - American leadership, innovation, and jobs - based on a political fear of being honest with their own constituents, patently disqualifies any Republican candidate from the presidency.

An Open Letter to the 2016 Presidential Hopefuls re: Climate Change

* Or whatever the number there are at the time you read this since another one seems to announce every few days. Technically, one Republican candidate, Lindsay Graham, does acknowledge climate science. He has been polling last of all the candidates, with less than 1% of the likely Republican voters supporting him. That in itself demonstrates how little regard for science the Republican party exhibits. More information on Republican positions can be found here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why the TSCA Reform Bills Should Become Law Even Though They Won't Make Us Any Safer

Recently there has been a sudden surge in support for passing bills in both the House and Senate to modernize the four-decade-old Toxic Substances Control Act, i.e., TSCA. This post will explain why this is happening, why TSCA Reform can pass now, and why it should pass - even though it likely will do nothing substantial to make us safer.

What is TSCA anyway?

For those who missed it, TSCA was passed in 1976. That's right, when Gerald Ford, the only President never to have been elected to either the presidency or vice-presidency (Hint: Nixon and Agnew were, in fact, crooks), signed it into law. TSCA was designed to regulate commercial chemicals before they could be put on the market. Well, except for the 65,000 or so chemicals that were already on the market - those chemicals got grandfathered onto an Inventory, a list of chemicals it was okay to use despite none of them ever having been tested for safety. New chemicals had to go through a review by the Environmental Protection Agency, though the EPA could not actually require any safety testing unless they could prove that the chemicals were dangerous...which they found hard to do since they couldn't require anyone to do any safety testing. You can see why there was a need to reform TSCA.

Which no one did for nearly 40 years.

Why COULDN'T TSCA be reformed before?

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) tried. In 2005 he introduced the first of several TSCA reform bills that were immediately relegated to the wastebasket with zero action. Not one ever got out of committee. For ten years the Republican Party, along with a few Democrats from states heavy on chemical industry influences, managed to block a half-dozen or more attempts by Lautenberg in the Senate (and Henry Waxman [D-CA)] in the House) from ever getting a vote.

Lautenberg's initial bill would have fundamentally changed our chemical control system by requiring companies to provide substantial health and safety data on chemicals before they went onto the market. It would have also required companies to provide data for all of the 65,000 chemicals that had been grandfathered onto the Inventory (plus, all the 25,000 or so additional chemicals that were added to the Inventory after only rudimentary model-based evaluation by EPA).

While needed, the requirements were functionally unworkable under our current review structure. When Europe passed a law called REACH that required essentially the same data, they also created an entirely new chemicals agency staffed with at least 500 people and a system for collecting and evaluating the millions of data points that would be coming their way over a ten year period.

A new agency! The EPA would not have been able to handle the workload, especially given the Congressional defunding and forced retirement of key staffers that has been plaguing them for the last decade or more. There is no way Congress would even boost their staff to handle the new data, never mind create an entirely new agency. That one fact killed any chance of a workable solution.

Lautenberg continued to try to revise his bills over the next 10 years, making them more and more industry-friendly with each iteration. His latest version, offered up soon before he passed away, was supported by then-committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who frequently sparred with then-ranking member and serial climate denier James Inhofe (R-OK). Her conflicts with Inhofe were seamlessly passed to his replacement, Senator David Vitter (R-LA), when he began working with Lautenberg on a new, even more industry-friendly, bill. After Lautenberg's death, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) joined with Vitter to come up with the precursor to the current Senate bill. While the bipartisanship was nice, the dropping of all the fundamental reforms originally proposed by Lautenberg make Boxer a bitter enemy of the bill.

Why CAN TSCA reform pass now?

The answer is easy, though it's also a reflection of the rather cynical power of lobbyists when it comes to making laws. After blocking serious consideration of TSCA reform for a decade, Industry found itself in a position where Republicans were in control of the House and Senate. Sensing that the window of opportunity was short - there is no guarantee the Democrats won't take back the Senate in 2016 - Industry decided to facilitate the bill-writing process. How much of the bills were written, as opposed to merely influenced, by Industry is something only insiders know, but clearly the new bills serve Industry more than they serve opposing environmental and health Advocacy groups or the public. And so bills suddenly appeared in the Senate and the House, the latter of which has been adamantly against anything that smells of new regulation, never mind complete reform of the primary chemical control law.

Another reason TSCA reform can pass now is because Barbara Boxer announced she is retiring at the end of her present term, i.e., after the 2016 elections. Given her long-time power and influence on the key committee in charge of reform, this decision clears the way for Democrats to support the TSCA reform bill presented by Industry via Vitter/Udall.

It's also clear that everyone knows that this bill (the Senate one) is the only bill that could ever get passed, either before, now, or later. This is it. It might get a few tweaks still, but the basic requirements and structure are the only ones that can garner enough support - and do so at the right time, which is now - to ever get passed. It's also clear that President Obama will gladly sign any bill that passes Congress given the rarity of such an event.

Why SHOULD TSCA reform pass now?

Part of the reason it should pass is what I just said in the paragraph above. It's the only one that can pass, and no one would argue that modernization of TSCA isn't way overdue.

Another reason is because EPA has been effectively hog-tied for the last 10 years with very little it could do to ensure the safety of chemicals, especially legacy chemicals, i.e., those on the Inventory that have never been tested for safety. The new bills don't require up-front testing to be submitted on old or new chemicals en masse, but the bills do provide EPA with a better mechanism for requesting data be provided on specific chemicals. It isn't great, but it's better. More importantly, the bills provide a better mechanism for looking at those legacy chemicals. That is a big deal. (Insert appropriate Joe Bidenesque qualifier)

In any case, the new bills will allow EPA to move forward even though they likely won't have the resources to move very far or very fast.

What ROADBLOCKS remain to making TSCA reform into law?

Anyone familiar with Washington knows that Congress can often find a way to self-destruct, even on things that most of them agree on. With the election year already in its craziest jockeying for attention period, the window for passage is small, and getting smaller every day. Senators believe they can get a vote on their version of the bill before the fast-approaching August recess, and with more than half of all Senators and true bipartisan support, passage is likely. Which gets us to the first roadblock.

The House version of the bill, which passed by a vote of 398 to 1, is laughable. While that might seem harsh, it's likely an understatement. As already noted, the Republican-controlled House is strictly anti-regulation. Because of radical gerrymandering, House Republicans know they are likely to be reelected no matter how irresponsible or radical they act. Not surprisingly, there is tacit understanding from all parties that the more contentious portions of the House bill will essentially be morphed into something palatable for all. In other words, the final TSCA reform law will largely reflect the Senate version. The Senate version even has the most politically safe name it could have been given, the "Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act."

The second and third roadblocks, which will be part of the first one above, are that there may be tweaking of two key provisions in the bills: preemption and risk standard. I won't go into detail about what they are because, frankly, they have no actual meaning with respect to the functioning of the law.

That last sentence will come as a shock to Industry and Advocacy lobbyists who have spent much of the last few years arguing over these exact provisions. But that's that point. These two provisions got the attention because they distracted from the real issue, which is how much data to require up-front for new and legacy chemicals. As seen above, Industry clearly won that battle.

The preemption issue has been claimed as the most important issue by Industry. The threat of up to 50 state-based chemical control laws is why Industry has wanted TSCA reform so badly (the Industry-friendly version of TSCA reform, to be clear). Industry strongly lobbied for provisions in the new TSCA that would bar states from taking action while EPA is evaluating the chemicals, a process that in some cases has taken decades with no resolution. The risk standard has also been contentious for basically the same reason, to make EPA spend tons of time building a case AGAINST a chemical (rather than Industry making a case FOR the chemical).

So if they are so important, how can they be so meaningless?

While on paper these may seem like they could have a massive impact on regulation, in the real world they don't. In this real world you get two things happening:

1) No matter what decision EPA reaches, they will get sued. If Industry is unhappy, Industry will sue the EPA and/or use whatever "hearing" provisions in the new law to keep EPA from banning or severely restricting their chemical for as long as they can. Using this strategy under the old law has kept some chemicals on the market for decades, all the while providing substantial profit while the manufacture develops a replacement. Similarly, if Advocacy groups are unhappy, they too can sue and/or use whatever provisions to keep the pressure on the chemical. Granted, the options and success rate of Advocacy groups are much more limited than they are for Industry - this new law will be no exception - but the power of Advocacy groups doesn't stop there anyway.

1a) As a corollary, EPA knows that its greatest pressure point is the threat of action. In the past EPA has managed to get Industry to participate in "voluntary" actions to increase data collection and influence how a particular company makes business decisions about pursuing putting, or keeping, chemicals on the market. The new TSCA law will increase EPA's ability to put unofficial pressure on manufacturers because the law will give EPA more authority to require data for chemicals raising safety questions.

2) The real power of Advocacy groups is in building public pressure on target chemicals. In the past this has meant some chemicals that are safe-for-use (i.e., safe if used properly) may have been unfairly pressured out of existence. On the other hand, chemicals that might have stayed on the market despite safety concerns have been forced into oblivion because of public pressure. The new law should actually make it easier to exert public pressure because supposedly the more questionable chemicals could be required to have a more substantial data set.

So in practice it will be public pressure that will take an even greater role in whether a chemical stays on the market (or perhaps even gets there in the first place). Despite attempts to limit the ability of states to regulate chemicals (i.e., preemption), states will still be able to take action on anything the EPA hasn't walled off by their own investigations. For any state-centric concerns, i.e., create undue risk within a state, that state will likely still have the opportunity to address those concerns. In any case, states and Advocacy groups will be gearing up to educate the public about chemicals of concern, and that market-based pressure will do more to change the decision-making habit of Industry than the new regulations.

The bottom line is that the TSCA reform law that emerges in the next few weeks or months will likely pass, and it should pass. While some Advocacy groups will complain that it doesn't go far enough (which it doesn't) and Industry groups will complain in public of the new requirements (while popping champagne corks in private boardrooms), the fact is that TSCA reform is desperately needed, the final bill will be the best that anyone can hope to achieve, and despite its limitations it will provide real improved opportunities for EPA to move forward in their quest to protect the public from unreasonable risk of chemicals. The law itself won't make us safer, but the fact that we'll be focused on identifying and prioritizing chemicals to take a closer look rather than waving our hands in the air doing nothing...well, that focus will make us safer.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Climate Denier Tactic - Lying About Actual Scientific Studies

We've talked about several of the tactics used by climate deniers to intentionally mislead the public. This past week provided a prime example of one tactic - intentionally lying about what a study says. Let's take a closer look at how this works.

Recall that the climate denial industry, in their role as lobbyists, are well-experienced in manipulating public opinion. Going back to the days of tobacco companies denying smoking causes cancer, they learned to develop a network of "manufacturers" (i.e., to manufacture doubt), "spreaders" (to get the doubt out there), and "repeaters" (to saturate the blogosphere with misinformation). This process was described earlier.

The misinformation process is often employed to spread their own non-science opinions, other non-peer-reviewed and unsupported blog posts, and the occasional paper they get through the peer-review process. But it works also when they want to spin (i.e., misrepresent) the findings of actual real scientific papers by actual real climate scientists. Such is the case this past week when the blogosphere became saturated with a false conclusion drawn from a presentation made at the Royal Astronomical Society meeting held in Wales.

One paper - not yet published or peer-reviewed, merely presented at a scientific meeting for discussion - noted that the study authors used a model that concluded solar activity conditions by the 2030s could be similar to the solar activity conditions experienced during the Maunder Minimum. That was the extent of their conclusions.

The Maunder Minimum was a period of time popularly linked with the "Little Ice Age," a perhaps overzealous term given to a period of excess cooling in some parts of the world (mainly the UK) from around 1550 to 1850.

But here's the thing. The authors of the study didn't say temperatures would be the same; they said solar activity conditions could be the same. In actual fact, the processes warming our climate system are so extreme these days that even the same solar activity conditions couldn't possibly drop our temperatures to that of the Maunder Minimum. We've actually already been in a period of low solar activity for a while now, and temperatures continue to get hotter.

So here is the tactic: Denier lobbyists and their media partners take the study findings and then wildly extrapolate far beyond anything the study authors said or the study shows. Suddenly the "similar solar activity conditions" are transmogrified into the falsehood "predictions of another Little Ice Age." There is absolutely no basis for this extrapolation, and is contradicted both by the evidence of the study they claim said it (it didn't) and the evidence of multiple other studies that show continued - and even expanded - warming for the foreseeable future.

Let's reiterate to make the tactic clear to all:

1) Grossly misrepresent the study being cited, often ignoring the actual conclusions and other evidence, to create an unsupported and inaccurate misrepresentation (i.e., fairy tale) of the study.

2) Get an accommodating media reporter to present the gross misrepresentation.

3) Ensure the gross misrepresentation is spread wide and far on the lobbyist-fed media and ideologically plagiarized blogosphere.

The key to this strategy is to saturate the internet and media with the false story line and to keep people from reading the actual study and actual results and actual conclusions. Since most people don't have access to the original study (especially since it hasn't even been published yet), it isn't hard to spread the fairy tale version in its place. Climate denier lobbyists know this, and they exploit it.

So now everyone is getting the false information rather than the real information. Eventually the deception of the deniers is revealed but the denier lobbyists don't care because they've already achieved their goals. They know none of their ideological followers will care that the falsehood has been debunked. In fact, they know that their followers will claim any debunking to be part of the "global conspiracy" by all the world's climate scientists for the last 100 years. Yes, the lobbyists relish the fact that they can manipulate their followers so easily.

For the rest of us, however, it's important to keep debunking the falsehoods and to keep exposing the tactics used by lobbyists and their partners in collusion to mislead the public and influence policy-making. Such is the goal of this series on exposing climate denialism.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Communicating Climate Science - The Series

A few months ago I published a series of posts on communicating climate science, and science in general, to three target audiences. Because of its popularity I've decided to create this compilation article to bring all of the articles in the series to one place.

The first post began by summarizing the four steps most scientists go through to produce the science to be communicated: Do research, Analyze the data, Attend scientific conferences, and Publish in a peer-reviewed journal. [You can read more about the peer-review process in last week's article.] But communicating the science takes more than getting the word out to other scientists in your own field, so this first post also introduced the idea of there being three distinct target audiences with whom scientists need to communicate. They were 1) Scientists in other fields, 2) Policy-makers, and 3) the Public. Communicating to each must be done in different ways.

In the second post I examined how climate scientists can reach out to scientists in other fields. While training in other sciences makes it more likely these people can understand a more technically-based discussion, they may still not be familiar with the very specific technical jargon that springs up in every profession. Thus, this article offers some suggestions as to how to reach out to other scientists.

The third post of the series looked at how climate scientists can communicate the science to policy-makers. We all know that science doesn't always drive policy, even though it should. Politicians and regulators have to work within an environment that is both political and beset with broader stakeholders. Which is why it is so critical for scientists to make sure policy-makers have a correct understanding of the science, and why the should be held accountable for using the correct science for making policy. [Hint: Tossing snowballs to deny climate change is not using the correct science for making policy.] Among other communication tips is reaching out directly to constituents.

The final post - and perhaps the most important of the series - looks at how scientists can communicate the science to the public. While the most critical, it is also the one that most scientists probably have spent the least time trying to do. Frankly, it's hard not to fall back on jargon no one can understand, or provide so many details that the eyes of everyone in the room start to glass over. This article gives some useful tips on how to reach out to the public, including speaking at libraries, clubs, schools, and churches; making yourself available to the media; teaching a MOOC; and even becoming the star of a TV show (or more likely, your own YouTube channel).

Each of these posts provides additional tips and links to more information. While we scientists tend to get lost in our "ivory towers" (or more accurately, basement laboratories and mud-filled field sites), it's critical that we take an active role in making sure the three audiences - other scientists, policy-makers, and the public - understand the science so they can make informed decisions.