Thursday, July 24, 2014

Does Language Influence Climate Denial?

The language of science can sometimes be hard to follow for non-scientists, just as the language of all professionals is unfamiliar to anyone outside those professions. But can language actually influence something like climate denial? Perhaps so.

The latest Ipsos Global Trends Survey asked several questions related to the causes and severity of the ongoing trend in global warming, also called man-made climate change. The results show that "the US leads the world in climate denial," with 52% of Americans agreeing with the statement that “The climate change we are currently seeing is a natural phenomenon that happens from time to time.” In tandem, 32% of Americans disagreed with the statement: “The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity.”

This finding is shocking. For both questions the United States was the worst denial of the twenty countries surveyed. And for both questions the United States is absolutely in denial of the nearly unanimous understanding of the world's climate scientists, the world's National Academies of Science, and the world's major scientific organizations. Not to mention basic physics.

How could this be? Supposedly the United States is the most educated country in the world (okay, this point is debatable, but let's assume we're at least generally educated). And yet we deny science that is unequivocal.

Science journalist, and author of several books including Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum), suggests that it has something to do with the English language. According to this survey, the worst three man-made climate change denier countries are the US, the UK, and Australia, all English-speaking countries. Canada, with a recently increased denialist government, came in seventh.

Mooney goes on to suggest that perhaps being English-speaking is a secondary characteristic and that the real cause and effect is something else. All of these countries have political systems that reflect highly ideological differences, where reality is simply ignored if it doesn't support your political beliefs and more concordant "factoids" are substituted in its place. Thus, the science is inconvenient for politics, so it is denied.

The presence of Rupert Murdoch's media empire seems also to be a factor. Murdoch owns many media outlets in three of the for worst denier countries. These outlets, like Fox News with its blatant discarding of reality in favor of pure political ideology, push the idea of a grand scientific conspiracy. Rupert's far-reaching ownership essentially allows him to create whatever false reality he wants and be assured that it will metastasize via the paid and unpaid ideological blogosphere. Toss in obscenely  funded "think tanks" (i.e., paid lobbyist organizations posing as non-profit groups), all of whom are well experienced with "messaging," and the denial movement is able to talk over the abilities of scientists to communicate technical information.

So in a way, language most definitely does influence climate denial, though not in the way originally suggested by Chris Mooney. Mooney does nail the language in the final sentence of his article:

In language, we're Anglophones; but in climate science, we're a bunch of Anglophonies.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Role of Scientists in Making Policy

What role should scientists play in the making of policy that relies on science? Historically, scientists have had a love/hate relationship with policy makers. Mostly we want to "do our science" but avoid getting involved in all the political partisanship that constitutes "policy-making." On the other hand, it does a disservice to the public to allow our science to be misrepresented - and sometimes abused - by politicians or advocacy groups, who often twist the science to fit their predisposed ideological view. Unfortunately, this political abuse has become so prevalent that many in the public don't trust scientists. Which is ironic given that it is not scientists who are doing the abuse.

Denial of climate change joins other scientific topics that politicians - indeed, entire political movements such as the Koch-funded tea party - have made part of their political platforms. Whereas in the past there was always the odd extremist politician who ridiculously vented their scientific ignorance, now denial of science has become mainstream for one party. Even the party leadership denies the science for purely partisan political reasons. That is simply irresponsible.

What are scientists to do?

More and more it seems scientists are offering their services to politicians. Scientists are making themselves available to educate politicians about the science so that these politicians can make informed choices when making policy to deal with the science. For example, scientists of two major scientific organizations, the Society of Toxicology (SOT) and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) have begun engaging in dialogue with staff of the relevant Congressional committees involved in the reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The hope is that accurately presented science will lead to reasonable policy, or at least action toward that goal.

In the all-important debate about what policy steps are needed to address the unequivocal science of man-made climate change, scientists have been faced with politicians who deny the science itself. Lately this denial has taken an interesting turn as politicians have started quoting the lobbyist-provided line "I am not a scientist" to avoid having to outright lie about the science. Recently a group a scientists in Florida have taken the next step - offered to explain the science to Governor Rick Scott of Florida.

This raises an important strategy for other scientists. Rather than sit back, do your science, and let others try to communicate it (or in many cases, intentionally miscommunicate it), scientists now have an obligation to ensure the science is presented accurately to lawmakers and other policy makers. Like Rick Scott. There is no excuse for politicians to intentionally deny the science, or to deny understanding of the science, in order to avoid engaging in honest policy debates. Politicians who do so are violating the public trust given when they were elected.

This denial by politicians is especially dangerous to their own constituents in places like Florida (likely to be impacted irreparably by rising sea levels), Oklahoma (where increasing damage from droughts is likely to get worse without action), and elsewhere in the United States where politically motivated denial is hurting the politicians' own states.

Which gets us back to scientists. Those who have spoken up have sometimes become the target of harassment and personal attacks by anti-science lobbyists. So perhaps SOT, SETAC, and the group of Florida scientists have found a way to communicate the science accurately to policy makers while avoiding the individual personal attacks upon them. Scientific organizations obviously have to be careful about advocating specific policy options or inserting their own individual beliefs, but these organizations provide a respectable - and respectful - means of communicating the science. In a sense, they have an obligation to do so.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Is Climate Denial Dead?

There has been a trend lately that beckons the question: Is climate denial dead? The obvious answer for anyone who still watches Fox News is, well, duh, of course not. Climate denial is alive and well, in the sense that there will always be people who choose to deny the overwhelming and unequivocal science that demonstrates we are warming our planet. But several signs show that denial may slowly be devolving to merely a lobbyist talking point. We're not there yet, but could we be?

Climate deniers have been losing credibility for some time, "credibility" being defined as some significant percentage of the general public believing what deniers say. But the public is catching on. Much like the variability caused by short-term weather, snap-polls show ups and downs in the public acknowledgement of what the science tells us. But like the long-term trends that define climate, the public is slowly understanding that virtually all climate scientists concur that the data demonstrate our use of fossil fuels are causing global warming. As the years go on, the public will undoubtedly push for action.

Another sign of the death of denial is how politicians are beginning to avoid saying the words out loud. True, entrenched climate deniers like Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) will likely continue to mime their "climate change is a hoax" talking points (which, ironically, hurts the constituents in both their states). But others with more responsibility have begun using the non-committal "I am not a scientist" tagline. Perhaps they have realized that outright denial was no longer a political asset.

Even the Heartland Institute, a lobbying group once paid by the tobacco industry to deny that second-hand smoke caused cancer and now paid to deny climate science, recently started hedging their language. "Climate optimists," as one writer put it, acknowledge that the climate is changing, but deny that it is very important.

All that suggests something starting to wither on the vine. But, alas, it isn't. Climate denial won't be dead until Heartland, Cato, and other science-denying organizations start getting paid by industry to lobby for climate action. Rest assured, that time will come. It's as inevitable as the global warming that continues to occur as we avoid taking action. But it won't come soon, not as long as the costs of a fossil fuel-based energy system continue to be externalized onto society and the taxpayers.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Free Science Books

Physics Database ( is making available hundreds of science books for free download. As would be expected, most are highly technical physics and math textbooks. They may be in PDF or HTML format.

Here is the list.

I'll be back after the holidays. In case you missed them, check out some of my earlier posts.

Does Ridiculing Climate Deniers Work?

How to Talk to the Public About Science - Lessons from Neil deGrasse Tyson

How the Media are Used to Intentionally Mislead the Public About Global Warming

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does Ridiculing Climate Deniers Work?

To follow up on my last article, in which I acknowledged the rather obvious fact that Republicans are behind the curve on global warming, the question that begs to be answered is, how does one deal with climate denial? More specifically for this post, does ridiculing climate deniers work? The answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

A year after he proposed action on climate change, and in support of the new EPA rules that will impact coal-fired power plants, President Obama has mocked climate deniers in Congress. On several occasions he has chastised Republicans for using the line "I am not a scientist," usually followed with some sort of denial of the science and/or excuse for inaction. In the Huffington Post article just linked, Obama was quoted:

“Today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change,” he said. “They’ll tell you it’s a hoax, or a fad.”

I'll pause here to remind readers that virtually every climate scientist, every National Academy, every major scientific organization, millions of empirical data points from more than 100,000 published scientific research papers, and the basic physics of the atmosphere known for over a century all unequivocally demonstrate that we are warming our planet. This has reached the point of being scientific fact.

For years a handful of Congressmen, almost exclusively Republicans but sometimes including Democrats from states whose economies are dependent on fossil fuel facilities, have claimed climate change somehow isn't real. To discredit all the world's science, these congressmen will rattle off talking points created by fossil fuel lobbying organizations. Which is why you suddenly hear them mouthing almost verbatim the lines being used by others in separate interviews.

One such "I got the memo moment" is the use of the aforementioned "I am not a scientist" line. It's clear that with the recent IPCC, NAS/Royal Society, AAAS, the National Climate Assessment, and many other scientific reports reinforcing the fact that human activity is changing our climate, the lobbyists have handed down new instructions. Since outright denial would look bad (not that that stops everyone), the new mantra suddenly became "I am not a scientist." But we all know the meaning, right? Obama sums it up nicely:

“Let me translate," he said. "What that means is, ‘I accept that manmade climate change is real, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot.'"


So will ridiculing climate deniers get them to stop denying the science? In some cases, perhaps yes.

For example, if the ridicule exposes the pandering to fossil fuel interests at the expense of constituents living in the state of the denier, it might sway public opinion enough to influence a policy change. One obvious exemplar is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has declared "global warming is a hoax" for so many years he is beyond feeling embarrassed by its lack of veracity. On the other hand, Oklahoma is prone to severe drought, a condition that is likely to get more frequent and more severe the longer Senator Inhofe and others choose to delay action. Rather than explain this to his constituents and work toward policies that will enable a shift for working Oklahomans from the dying fossil fuel industry to the growing renewable energy industry, Inhofe has chosen to sacrifice his constituents future for continued short-term campaign contributions from his present corporate contributors. If Oklahomans understood that they are being held back from future economic growth, perhaps they would change Inhofe's behavior or replace him with someone more attuned to their interests instead of his own campaign interests.

The same could be said for other key politicians. If it is clear that the unequivocal science is being denied for expediency or self-interest while ultimately that denial is counter to the interests of people living in the state, people will eventually force a change in behavior.

On the other hand, sometimes ridicule is not an effective mechanism. Several studies have shown that providing more data actually causes people to hunker down in a defensive posture, i.e., become even more sure of their absolutely false view. This is common for ideological followers who have tied their self-worth to an ideological position. Having done so, anything that shows that position is false now is interpreted as a direct attack on the person rather than the position or the facts.

Which gets us back to "I am not a scientist." The catchphrase that suddenly emitted from the mouths of several politicians could actually be seen as a positive step forward, should it continue and not revert back to the even more laughable "hoax" bumper sticker. By admitting that they aren't scientists, politicians are tacitly acknowledging that they trust scientists and will rely on the science. They obviously haven't reached the point where they are acknowledging the unequivocal science already out there, but it does suggest that eventually they may do just that. The more ridiculous the denial becomes in the face of reality, the more likely this "I am not a scientist" will morph into "scientists say is the action that I propose to deal with it."

Then we can get down to discussing honest differences in opinion about how best to take action.

Bottom line? While scientists must continue to produce the science and present the science and correct misinformation about the science, there may actually be some advantages to the use of ridicule by politicians and the advocacy community. It should not be overdone as that would diminish credibility. But using the above exemplar of Senator Inhofe as a starting point, perhaps opposing politicians (in both parties), along with local community advocates, can focus on both the ridiculousness of his climate denial position and the disservice he is doing to his constituents across Oklahoma. The same could be done at the local and state level across the country to encourage constituents to demand action dealing with the science rather than wait for the consequences of inaction caused by denial that borders, and often surpasses, the ridiculous.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Republicans Behind the Curve on Global Warming - When Will They Stop Denying the Science?

There was a fascinating public hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, June 18th. True, "fascinating" and "Senate hearing" are not commonly paired in sentences, or even paragraphs, but to those interested in man-made global warming it was fascinating indeed. In it, four former EPA Administrators - all of whom served under Republican presidents - called on Republicans to stop denying the reality of the science.

A century of data unequivocally demonstrates that human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, is causing the climatic system to warm. Unequivocal, as in, duh! Virtually all the world's climate scientists, all the world's National Academies, and all the world's major scientific organizations, not to mention millions of empirical data points and the basic physics of the greenhouse effect, agree that this is the case.

Just as well understood is the political denial of that unequivocal science by the Republican party in the United States and its cohorts in the UK, Canada, Australia, and wherever else there is a strong fossil fuel lobby. This fact isn't some partisan bias talking, it's been shown repeatedly in scientific studies and political polls. The reasons for science denial are alternatively simple and complex, but the fact remains the Republican party in the US has made a conscious decision to deny the science of man-made global warming in order to block policy discussions that could potentially impact their political base, i.e., corporate America.

Which makes the Senate hearing so fascinating. Rather than the "liberal plot" Republicans and today's so-called "conservatives" claim is behind the science, our understanding of that science has been growing over many decades no matter what party was in the congressional majority or in the White House. The four former EPA Administrators testified to this fact. They were William Ruckleshouse (administrator (twice) under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan), Lee M. Thomas (Ronald Reagan), William K. Reilly (George H.W. Bush), and Christine Todd Whitman (George W. Bush).

All of these former EPA administrators told Congress they must act on climate change.

Some members of Congress, of course, have been trying to take action. Democrats in the Senate were the ones who called this hearing. Earlier this year at least two dozen Senate Democrats pulled an all-nighter to bring attention to the need to take action. But Senate Republicans have blocked even discussion of any policy options. Sensing the potential loss of the Senate majority in the fall elections, Democrats are obviously trying to the push the issue, hence the hearing.

The House is another matter. Again, Democrats would like to take action but with the Republican majority in the House repeatedly denying the science and distracted with their efforts to reduce even rational health and safety regulations, positive action on climate is not even on the radar.

So will this week's hearing convince Republicans to stop denying the science and start working on solutions? Doubtful. But it is likely that the Republican denial will continue to be placed into the eyes of the public, most of whom now realize that man-made global warming is real, is already happening, and action is necessary. More and more it will become clear that Republicans are endangering our future with their denial of climate science. Public pressure to act will continue to increase.

Eventually the Republican party will stop the denial. But when?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lessons from Neil deGrasse Tyson - How to Talk to the Public about Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist. More importantly, he is also a science communicator. In his day job he is Director of the Hayden Planetarium, part of New York City's American Museum of Natural History. That in itself is pretty cool. Even cooler is that Tyson is a popular "television scientist," by which I mean a real scientist who is on television a lot (not some actor on television who plays a scientist). His natural ability to talk science to non-scientists, with a dash of humor, makes him an extraordinary exemplar of how scientists can communicate science to the public.

Older folks will see a bit of Carl Sagan in Tyson. Both were astrophysicists who leaped from the ivory tower into the public eye. Both communicated science in ways that everyone could understand. And now, Tyson is doing a remake of Sagan's famous science series, Cosmos. Better yet, while Sagan's 1980 version was on PBS stations, Tyson's 2014 Cosmos is on, some may say "ironically," the much more widely accessible Fox networks.

While Cosmos covers a variety of topics, the one I'll focus on here is a single, short video that helps explain the simple difference between weather and climate. Take a look:

As Tyson says, "keep your eye on the man, not the dog." Climate is the long-term trend, something that we can see happening based on millions of data points. We can also evaluate and project the trend into the future based on physical and chemical laws and reactions. Weather, on the other hand, is highly variable from day to day and place to place. This is a fairly simple concept but one that is often confused by the public, in part because there are vested interests who intentionally mislead the public in an effort to avoid policy action.

Tyson's video is actually drawn from an earlier video using the same concept. This time the walking dog is used to illustrate the difference between trend and variation.

Again the man represents the long-term trend. When the analogy is applied to global warming it is the track that global average temperatures are on given the continuing emissions of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. The dog represents the variability in temperatures; some years are warmer than average and some years not as warm as the average. This short-term variation is influenced by short-term events that effect weather, like the periodic El Nino events that tend to bump up temperatures and the La Ninas that tend to suppress temperature rises. These variations give any temperature graph its ragged look (the dog's tracks). In contrast, the trend is shown by the line of the man's steps. And like the global temperatures around us, that trend is going up.

There is no guarantee that everyone in the public will get the twin concepts of climate/weather and trend/variation, but these two videos using a wandering dog on a leash are an excellent means of communication. More scientists should present their work in simple video form. And perhaps more scientists should follow Tyson's lead and appear on television. I suspect Jon Stewart of the Daily Show would be happy to have you.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

EPA and Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan is a Good First Step, But Only a First Step

This week the Obama administration, via the US EPA, released its long-awaited climate rules under the name "Clean Power Plan." The rules are mandated by Congress and the authority confirmed by the US Supreme Court. In short, EPA is required to take action by law.

As with all major rules issued by EPA, the Clean Power Plan is a proposed rule and will be open for public comment for some time. All comments received will be assessed and addressed by EPA prior to issuance of a final rule. Given the substantial impacts on our climate system and the already aggressive attacks on the rule by partisans and lobbyists, it will be a long time before this rule is made final.

The EPA has done a rather good job of communicating the science. We know that they spent many years talking with states, community leaders, businesses, and other stakeholders garnering information on needs, options, and concerns. In the weeks prior to the release of the proposed rule, the administration helped get the word out about what the rules were, and were not. That helped the public understand better when the rules, and the inevitable misrepresentations of the rules by lobbyists, were finally released. EPA even put out a short video to put the rules in context:

The overall goal of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce the amount of carbon pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Carbon pollution is the major cause of global warming, and action to reduce carbon in the oceans and air is absolutely necessary. And it's necessary now. The Clean Power Plan seeks to reduce carbon pollution by 30% by the year 2030, with substantial reductions occurring by 2020.

Rather than simply dictate how this will be done, the Clean Power Plan allows each state to determine how best to achieve the goals, and the specific goals are different depending on the circumstances of each state. The rules will lead to a reduction in reliance on carbon-dirty energy resources like coal, oil and natural gas (especially the former) and an increase in more sustainable renewable energy resources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric.  How this happens is up to each state. They may:
  • make improvements in efficiently directly at the power plants
  • increase energy from renewable sources
  • generate more clean energy
  • expand programs promoting energy efficiency and conservation 
None of this will make coal go away, nor will we suddenly clean up the atmosphere and stop global warming. But it's a good start. By 2030 our reliance on fossil fuels will have lessened, though we should still expect about a third of our electric power to still come from coal at that time, with another third from natural gas. Renewable sources of energy should gain market share to reach approximately the same 30+% by 2030. Unless we can do better, which we most likely will do.

As a proposed rule, all of this will no doubt be sharply debated for months to come. It's critical that debate be based in fact, something the lobbyists and partisans have already shown an unwillingness to do. Still, the fact that man's activities are warming our planet, and the resulting impact on the quality of our lives, is absolutely certain, means we have to start taking action now. The EPA and Obama administration, under authority given to them by the laws passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court, have taken the first step. It's up to the rest of us to continue taking additional steps forward.

More information on the proposed rule and the Clean Power Plan can be found on the EPA website.

For those interested in the legalese, the full 645-page rule can be downloaded as a PDF here.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

How the Media are Used to Intentionally Mislead the Public on Global Warming

The fact that humans are warming the planet is unequivocal and incontrovertible. Who says so? Well, virtually all climate scientists, all the world's National Academies of Science, and indeed, the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. Studies of the scientific literature consistently demonstrate that 97% or more of climate scientists agree our planet is warming and human activity is the cause. Who disagrees? The Wall Street Journal. More on that in a follow up post.

Which brings to light an important dynamic of the global warming debate. And by debate I don't mean whether global warming is happening, because that has been established beyond all doubt. I also don't mean a debate about whether humans are causing it, because that too has been established beyond all doubt. And yet, there are those who intentionally try to "manufacture doubt" about global warming, just as there were those who intentionally manufactured doubt about smoking causing lung cancer.

One tactic used to give the impression of doubt is to manipulate the media. Always in search of ratings, and the ad revenues that are tied to ratings, the media thrives on controversy. They like "debate." But their long history of presenting a "balance" of views has been hijacked and exploited by groups expert in managing public opinion.

Ironically, it was a media outlet video - by a comedian, no less - that provided one of the most effective demonstrations of how the media, either intentionally or unintentionally, misrepresents the science to the public. As the video below featuring John Oliver notes, most news outlets relay information on global warming by showing two people debating. One is usually a scientist volunteering to present the scientific case, the other usually a non-scientist paid to represent their client's interests. But the reality is quite different. [Note: Sound coarse language]

When most people see two people debating the natural tendency is to assume equal weight of opinion. But that isn't true. Would it make sense to debate the presence or absence of gravity by having one person advocate for each "side?" Of course not. No more than you would have a one vs. one debate on whether Elvis is alive or whether the Earth is round. The facts are clear.

So too with global warming. The facts are clear. We are warming the planet. No amount of debate between one scientist (representing virtually all climate scientists, 200 years of science, millions of empirical data points, a hundred thousand peer-reviewed scientific papers, and physics) and one non-scientist (representing oil companies and political lobbyists) is going to change that fact.

So when the media present such a "debate" they are actually misrepresenting the science to the public.

How can the media communicate the science accurately? One way is stop having paid lobbyists spouting non-facts as commentators. Instead, have a knowledgeable climate scientist, or perhaps a panel of two or three climate scientists, present "what we know" of the science. These same scientists can also present "what we don't know." For example, we know the planet is warming and that we are causing it. But we don't know exactly how much or how fast (we can present likely ranges), in part because there is inherent short-term variability that creates "noise," even though we can determine the long-term trend with great accuracy. Depending on the time allotted by the media outlet, this "what we know" and "what we don't know" can go a long way toward communicating the science to the public, and doing it accurately.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Science of Communicating Science

"Science has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way.

So says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist from Texas Tech University, quoted in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine (see the link for the excellent article). She emphasizes a key point in the debate of how to communicate science to the public. The assumption is often that all we need to do is explain the science in more detail, or perhaps just slower, and the public will get it. Many of us scientists have known for a long time that dumping even more data on people not only doesn't improve the chances of them understanding it, it is likely to accomplish exactly the opposite. And even if they understand it, they might choose to ignore it because it conflicts with their personal or political beliefs, a phenomenon called "cognitive dissonance."

So where does that leave us? Explaining the science doesn't seem to improve the public's willingness to take action on the science. How do we communicate?

We can start by being careful of the words we choose. This idea was made very clear in recent reports that the West Antarctic ice shelf had reached the point of "inevitable collapse." While most media outlets quickly jumped on the concept of "collapse" - which the scientific study defined as our inability to stop the eventual melting of ice shelves in West Antarctica over a period of centuries - New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin recognized the danger of giving the wrong impression to the public. 

In his article "Consider clashing scientific and societal meanings of 'collapse' when reading Antarctic ice news," Revkin accurately captured the inherent differences in definition of the word "collapse." Scientists view this finding as incredibly important; there is nothing we can do to stop the ice from melting. But it's a process that will take centuries to proceed. The public on the other hand, views "collapse" not as something merely inevitable, but immediate, catastrophic, dramatic. Imagine Joe Q. Public getting all worked up about a news headline that the ice on Antarctica will collapse, only to then find out that this is projected to happen on a timeframe of 200 to 900 years.

Say what?

Joe's likely reaction is akin to Reagan's "There you go again;" just those darned climate "alarmists" trying to scare me. Add in a chorus of climate denial lobbyists intentionally spinning the differences in word meaning beyond surreality and you have the workings of a failed communication.

To be fair, this is less about scientists and more about the media, but scientists have to stick their heads out of their proverbial ivory towers (or more realistically, dingy, underfunded basement laboratories) and anticipate how their language will be used. To give a good sense of how much of a problem this can be, there is even a Facebook meme going around about it:

As you can see, how the public interprets a word can be very different than how a scientist means it. You can add in public confusion about scientific words like "climate change" vs "global warming," "theory," "anthropogenic," "consensus," and "uncertainty." All of this means that scientists must be extremely careful in how we communicate information to the public. Assume that what you are about to say can be misinterpreted. Also assume that it will be intentionally misinterpreted by those lobbyists who are adept at guiding public opinion (after all, that is their job). Plan to work with journalists and other "news outlets" (aka, blogs) to communicate the science to the public accurately, without undue hype but also without downplaying the significance of the information.

That last point is critical. Plan to communicate to the public. More on that later.

"Science has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way,"

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on TwitterScience has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way,"
"Science has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way,"

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
"Science has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way,"

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter