Thursday, June 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Alan Alda on Communicating Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Are Politicians Ignorant or Dishonest When it Comes to Science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Graphic source:]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Scott Pruitt Lied About Climate Science: A Scientific Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

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

Facts don't matter.

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

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

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

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

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

  • Ignorant
  • Willfully ignorant
  • Actively deny
  • Actively dishonest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why I March for Science

I march for science because science is critical to our daily lives. I march because I've been a scientist all my life. I march because I am a science communicator. I march because our climate is changing and human activity is the cause.

And I march, unfortunately, because there are lobbyists who are willing to mislead humanity for profit.

Saturday, April 22, 2017 is the March for Science. Appropriately, it is also Earth Day.

For many years I provided scientific consulting services to companies, primarily the larger corporations and trade associations in the chemical, pesticide, and pharmaceutical industries. I ensured they conducted the required health and safety testing to demonstrate the safety of their products. When the science suggested their products were not safe for their specified use, I worked with the companies to either 1) modify them so they would be safe, or 2) keep them off (or remove them from) the market. All of my colleagues were honest and deeply cared about getting the science right. I was happy that if any client tried to be dishonest - a rare occurrence - I could fire them. For most of my career I felt confident that we were making the world safer.

Eventually it became clear that no matter what we did, the public still didn't trust the regulatory science community. The far left and the environmental/health advocacy groups didn't trust the corporations and were prone to jump on conspiracy theories. The far right and the business community didn't trust the environmental and health advocates and assumed all their products were safe by default (after all, if people started dying, it would be bad for business, right?). Distrust of the regulators came from both sides. In a typical day I might argue with EPA in the morning about their interpretation of data, then argue with the client in the afternoon about whether the data supported - or didn't support - the safety of their product. My colleagues and I worked hard to ensure adequate safety, but all through this process the public was largely omitted from the discussion. Rarely was anything substantive communicated to the public, and rarely did the public seem to understand how science was impacting their lives. Mostly they distrusted the process. I wanted to communicate to the public, something I was logistically not allowed to do as a consultant.

So I left consulting. Now I write science and history books designed to bring knowledge of these topics directly to the general public. I use The Dake Page and my other writing outlets to communicate science to a wider audience.

As scientists we most often write for other scientists. We publish research papers in scientific journals, present data at scientific conferences, and bore our family and friends with the latest excruciating details of whatever sub-sub-sub-specialty of science thrills us. Not surprisingly, that doesn't do much to communicate either the science, or the importance of that science, to the public.

Meanwhile, there are lobbyists who spend substantial time and money trying to mislead the public at the behest of their corporate or political benefactors. So in addition to general science communication, this page focuses on exposing climate denialism, that is, the intentional effort by some to misinform the public and provide cover for politicians who put corporate profit (and campaign donations) over the best interests of their constituents. Lobbyists are expert in manipulating the public into believing what the lobbyists want them to believe. That is their job. And in today's political environment, the fox is now guarding the hen house. Thus, it is critical we scientists bring science to the public.

As we march, I encourage my fellow scientists to reach out more to the public. Don't throw math formulas at your neighbors, explain in plain language how the science relates to their lives. Be proactive, but not professorial. The public doesn't need, and doesn't want, to be lectured at, but they do want to be informed. That's more difficult in this overstimulated world in which confirmation bias is as easy as choosing which cable station you watch, or Facebook feed you scan, to get your news (or "news"). So give them science reality in real language and in short bits. And listen. Listen to what they say and what they don't say. Find out what is important in their lives, then help them understand the science while you learn to understand their thought processes and motivations.

This is why I march. I march for science. I march for people. And I march to bring science and the people together.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

March for Science April 22nd - Details

The new administration has made no secret it denies science and is set on destroying human health and environmental protections. The EPA transition team was headed by science-denying Myron Ebell, head of the anti-science, anti-regulation libertarian consulting organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The new EPA Administrator is Scott Pruitt, an Oklahoma Attorney General who has been the fossil fuel industry's biggest ally, duly copying lobbyist talking points verbatim onto Oklahoma AG letterhead to sue the Agency he now runs.

The list of administration attacks on science has been endless, and we're not even 100 days into office.

Which is why on April 22, 2017, Earth Day, thousands of scientists and science-supporters will flood the National Mall and the streets of Washington to emphasize the importance of science in our nation and world. There will be satellite marches all across the United States, but the main march is in Washington, D.C. According to the March organizers:

"The rally will be a call for politicians to implement science based policies, as well as a public celebration of science and the enormous public service it provides in our democracy, our economy, and our daily lives.

The rally will feature main stage speakers and several large teach-in tents around the Mall where scientists, educators, and leaders from a wide variety of disciplines will discuss their work, effective science communication strategies, and training in public advocacy.  More details on speakers and presenters will be available soon."

Here is the itinerary:

Start: Washington D.C., North of Washington Monument, Constitution Avenue NW between 15th and 17th street.
8:00am: Grounds open.
9:00am: Teach-ins start.
10:00am: Main stage rally program begins.
2:00pm: March begins!

More details on the rally and march can be found on the March for Science website.

Speakers at the teach-in will include such notables as:

Michael Mann - Climate Scientist

Maya Lin - Sculptor of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial

Christiana Figueres - Former Executive of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Anousheh Ansari - First female civilian astronaut

Rush Holt - CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

And many more.

All scientists and science-supporters should join us in Washington, D.C. or at one of the satellite marches. Wear your science-related t-shirts, lab coats, or whatever you wear to your job. Bring pro-science signs.

Remember, this is a pro-science rally and march. Come out and support science's role in public policymaking.

More details here!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Warning to Teachers About Heartland's Fake Climate Report Ruse

The infamous tobacco and fossil fuel lobbying firm, Heartland Institute, is again intentionally disinforming the public. This past week they sent 25,000 copies of a climate science denial propaganda report to teachers across the country. Heartland intends to send more each week until they eventually reach over 200,000 science teachers. The report is a scam.

The "report" was written by three paid lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry via Heartland. It intentionally ignores 100+ years of science and promotes falsehoods, misdirections, and fallacies that, combined, deny the overwhelming, unequivocal science.

Let's be clear. The summation of 100+ years of science is that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" (i.e., undeniable) and human activity is the "dominant cause" of the warming since the middle of the 20th century. This is the overwhelming consensus of virtually all of the world's climate scientists, every National Academy of Science, and every major scientific organization in the world. This consensus is supported by more than 100,000 peer-reviewed published scientific papers, millions of empirical data points, multiple lines of evidence, and well-understood basic physics. In short, climate change is real and humans are the reason.

So what is this "report?"

The Heartland Institute has long been a lobbying firm for the tobacco industry denying the unequivocal fact that smoking causes cancer. To this day they still take lobbying money from the tobacco industry to lobby for "smoker's rights" (i.e., smokers' right to harm others health via secondhand smoke). Heartland also has received money from the fossil fuel industry and private donors via a "smoke and mirrors" hidden money trust. They have been caught funding anti-science, climate science denial spokespeople, front groups, and propagandists.

With the anti-science Republican party in control of Congress and the White House, as well as the EPA Administrator, climate science deniers have been even more active than before, using their political leverage to disinform the populace and endanger the health and safety of all Americans.

In 2013-2014 the real IPCC came out with its latest comprehensive summary of the state-of-climate-science. Dissing the IPCC is one tactic denier organizations use to dismiss 100+ years of science. Another denier tactic is to create fraudulent "reports" to distract from the science.

The fake report was written by paid lobbyists Craig Idso, Bob Carter, and Fred Singer, all well-known paid propagandists for the climate denial industry and all paid by Heartland Institute to write the fake report. As can be seen from the deceit used in naming the group - they call themselves the NIPCC (the "N" stands for "Non" but also implies "Not" the IPCC) - lobbyists like Heartland routinely use deception to misinform, misdirect, and misrepresent the state-of-the-science. The fake report highlights minor uncertainties and lobbyist-created talking points in order to dismiss the certainty of man-made climate change.

None of this is new. Idso, Carter, and Singer have all been on the payroll for decades providing fossil fuel and political lobbyists with "deliverables" that can be used to misinform the public. Each and every one of the talking points, false equivalencies, misdirections, and outright lies they promote has been debunked thousands of times already. Nothing they say has ever stood up to scientific scrutiny. Ever.

This past election revealed to many the prevalence of "fake news" on social networks. Those of us who have combated science denial for years are familiar with the tactics used by propagandists - the talking points, paid and ideological trolls, seeding of fake news on the blogosphere, manipulation of the media, and multiple attempts of lobbyists to push non-science into the classroom. Heartland has done this sort of thing before; in 2012 they were caught paying a propagandist to create fake classroom materials to be sent to teachers across the country. It wasn't the first time.

So what can science and other teachers do? First of all, beware of anything that you receive for free and unsolicited in the mail. There is a reason these fake reports are sent directly to teachers and not vetted by the school boards and school systems. Second, make your students aware of how lobbyists employ deceptive practices and propaganda to misinform them. Third, teach your students critical thinking and how to recognize good science (and good information in any discipline). Fourth, keep abreast of the state of the science by being active in education organizations such as the National Center of Science Education and the Union of Concern Scientists.

The science denial lobbying industry has been misleading the public for decades, from denying smoking causes cancer to denying acid rain to denying CFCs and the ozone hole to denying human activity is causing the climate to warm. With the current political situation in the U.S. and elsewhere, these denial lobbyists feel they have the upper hand and are engaging more overtly in their propaganda campaigns. Make no mistake about it - these lobbyists are doing this to protect the profits of their donors, not to inform the public. Be wary, be informed, and be active in fighting against science denial.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Dangerous Dishonesty of Republican Anti-Science Politicians

Republicans are dishonestly anti-science. This is not a partisan opinion; the empirical evidence of this is overwhelming. This week saw more examples, from the Republican White House's rollback of environmental and health regulations and proposed decimation of science agency budgets, to the Republican House's passage of a bill to restrict EPA's use of science, to the falsehoods pushed by Oklahoma Republican and now EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on the Sunday talk shows, to the dishonesty employed by Texas Republican Lamar Smith in his "climate change" hearing held yesterday, March 29.

Republican dishonesty on science issues (and virtually every other issue) is not new. Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe is famous for his fact-free dismissal of 100+ years of unequivocal climate science as a "hoax." As of this writing, the current resident of the White House mimed this feeling, stating without any evidence or rationality that climate science was a "Chinese hoax." Another Republican Congressman, Texas's Joe Barton, famously apologized to the CEO of BP for bothering them with having to clean up their multi-fatal, multi-billion dollar Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill disaster.

It's no accident that Republicans lean on anti-science politicians from fossil fuel-dependent states like Oklahoma and Texas to lead their "science" committees.

Yesterday's "science committee" hearing led by Texas Republican Lamar Smith was framed as being an evaluation of the "assumptions, policy implications, and the scientific method" as these relate to climate science. Not surprisingly, Smith's opening statement was filled with platitudes and falsehoods designed to attack the very scientific method he proceeded to lecture scientists about.

In fact, virtually nothing Lamar Smith said was true.

This is intentional. As we saw in the campaign and since inauguration day, Republicans have turned their dishonesty up to 11. Republicans learned long ago that if you lie assertively and repeatedly people will eventually start believing it. That is why large percentages of Republicans still believe that former President Obama was not born in the USA despite the obvious falsehood of that claim. The overt lying is not just a Republican tendency, it is a Republican strategy. They do this because, combined with gerrymandering and voter suppression, it works. They now have control of all branches of government.

This is what Republicans have done with that power with respect to science:
  • Voted to eliminate funding for science research
  • Put science-deniers in charge of every science agency and congressional committee
  • Brought anti-science lobbyists into the government as "advisors"
  • Repeatedly denied 100+ years of unequivocal science
  • Eliminated health and safety rules
  • Eliminated worker protections
  • Rolled back efforts to reduce pollution
  • Voted to undermine EPA authority
  • Lied (too numerous to count)
In Lamar Smith's opening statement he revealed some of the dishonest tactics used by science deniers. He followed the lobbyist handbook to the letter, reading a script written by staffers (using language provided by anti-science lobbyists). He said that actions must be based on "sound science," which of course is true, but "sound science" is an Orwellian phrase invented by anti-science tobacco lobbyists to attack the overwhelming consensus of actual sound science that showed smoking causes cancer. He goes on to accuse climate scientists (calling them the lobbyist-approved fake term "alarmists") of "working outside of the principles of the scientific method."

This is rather ironic given that Lamar Smith is a "Christian Scientist," another Orwellian clash of terms for a religious sect that believes illness is simply a failing of faith and correctable solely by prayer. However, this anti-science background is likely less important than the fact that his leading campaign donors are the oil and gas industry, ExxonMobil, and the fossil fuel Koch brothers. Again, the fact that the Republican chairs of key science committees are usually from fossil fuel dependent states is not an accident. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan's famous retort: "I paid for this politician."

Smith goes on to accuse climate scientists of making "nothing more than wild guesses." This is, of course, patently false as the 100+ years of unequivocal science has been exhaustively documented. Smith knows this is false, yet he chooses to say it anyway.

This is why Smith and the other Republicans are dishonest. They know they are lying. They know they are reading scripts provided to their staffs by fossil fuel lobbyists. They know they are intentionally denigrating not only scientists but the scientific process itself.

And that is incredibly dangerous to America's future.

See more on Exposing Climate Denialism - The Series.

[Photo Credit: Lamar Smith (R-Texas) Official Portrait, Wikipedia]

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Exposing Climate Denialism - The Series

The Dake Page has published a series of posts over the years exposing climate denialism. This post brings many of those posts together for easy access. Feel free to save this post for reference and take a look at each of the individual linked articles.

Remember, there is a consensus on the scientific consensus. As noted in the most recent IPCC report, AR5, "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and human activity is the "dominant cause" of that warming.

Of course, deniers deny this 100+ years of unequivocal science. They can't provide any scientific evidence for their denial, so they resort to employing a series of tactics fed to them by lobbyists. These are the same lobbyists and same tactics as used by the tobacco industry and every other denial of science example for the last half century. This is how lobbyists work.

Climate Denial on the Internet - Who are the Deniers?

The Well Disarmed Skeptic - How Climate Change Denialists Use Front Groups to Lie About the Science

Scientific Debate of Climate Change on Social Media Sites

Global Warming Denialists - The Art of Deception

Spotting Climate Deniers on the Internet 

How Climate Deniers Control the Message

How Climate Deniers Saturate Facebook With Fake News

Common Tactics of Climate Change Deniers on the Internet 

Collusion Among Climate Denial Lobbyists and Their Spokespeople

How Climate Deniers Create Fake "Experts"

Yes, Some Experts....and Politicians...Are Dishonest

Why Climate Denialists Argue Even When It's Clear They Are Wrong

Googling the Internet - How Climate Deniers Get Their "Science"

How the Media Keep Climate Denial Alive

Parsing the Arrogant Ignorance of Climate Denial

The Confidence of the Dumb

Climate Denial Tactic - Repeat a Falsehood Enough and Maybe it Will Become True

Dissing the IPCC and Other Scientific Organizations - How Climate Deniers Work

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

There are more exposing climate denial posts on The Dake Page, so feel free to root around a bit. I'll add to the above list as new articles surface, so bookmark it and come back periodically to find out new tactics climate deniers use to lie about the science.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O. Wilson

Part memoir, part mentoring, and part history of science, ecological icon E.O. Wilson offers up this series of 20 letters of advice to those beginning - or thinking of beginning - a life in science. 

Wilson examines how to choose a path to follow, the widely variable creative process, what a life in science entails, and bigger picture dynamics. Along the way he provides insights from his own path and the field on which he is a renowned expert - ants. 

His final letter concerns the scientific ethic, in which he emphasizes a scientist's relationships with other scientists. His final advice reminds me of Abraham Lincoln's counsel to "if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer." Wilson's version for scientists is "But never, ever will fraud be forgiven. The penalty is professional death: exile, never again to be trusted."

There are many wise words from this most accomplished and wise man. While designed to inspire and advise young scientists, the book is well worth reading for scientists at any stage of their career.

[NOTE: This is part of a series of reviews for books related to science, science communication, and/or specific science topics such as climate change. To read reviews of other books, click Book Reviews.]

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tips for Communicating Science to the Public

One of the questions dogging scientists is whether they should speak out about science issues to the public. In the past we've largely stuck to our ivory towers, and been criticized for doing so. On the other hand, scientists have also been criticized for speaking out. Luckily, a recent study shows that the public is more appreciative these days of scientists who choose to talk directly to the public. This is something I've advocated in these pages many times. I've even penned a series of posts on communicating climate science.

Which is why I was happy to come across this article by scientist Marshall Shepherd: 9 Tips for Communicating Science to People Who Are Not Scientists. And of all places, I found it on Forbes magazine's website.

His tips include many I've discussed on these pages:

  • Know Your Audience
  • Don't Use Jargon
  • Get to the Point
  • Use Analogies and Metaphors
  • Make Three Points
  • Remember, You are the Expert
  • Use Social Media
  • The Myth of "Popularizers"
  • Relate

A fellow scientist, writer, and science communicator reminded me this morning that the key to good science communication is brevity. So please read the full article by Marshall Shepherd, 9 Tips for Communicating Science to People Who Are Not Scientists.

Also, check out some additional resources for science communication here.

And let me know if you have any additional tips that we can include in future posts.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

New EPA Head Scott Pruitt: The Fox Guarding the Hen House

Last week this page looked at how the new administration - both the White House and Congress - was attacking human health and environmental protection. At that writing, Scott Pruitt was the designated nominee to become EPA Administrator. On February 17th Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate in a 52-46, largely party line, vote.

The old cliche of "the fox guarding the hen house" could not be more applicable. As Attorney General for the fossil fuel-dependent dust bowl state of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA to block the very health and environmental protections he is now charged with implementing. Can we say "conflict of interest?" Of course we can.

The vote, by the way, was accelerated by Republican leadership to ensure it occurred before court-ordered release of thousands of emails documented Scott Pruitt's collusion with fossil fuel lobbyists. And in fact that is what the now-released emails document.

Anyone who knows how lobbyists work will not be surprised that Scott Pruitt routinely copy-and-pasted language written by fossil fuel lobbyists onto his official Oklahoma letterhead. He also used lobbyist-provided text and talking points in public presentations.

These assertions of "working in the public interest," which is the job public officials like Scott Pruitt accept in taking their oath of office (usually with their hand on the Bible and under legal duty not to perjure themselves), are a violation of public trust when you know your intention is to work solely for the corporate interests of those who are contributing millions of dollars to your campaign. This is the case for Scott Pruitt. He lied to the people of Oklahoma, as did Senators James Inhofe and James Lankford, all of whom take oaths to serve their constituents but really serve only the gas and oil industries that own them while further eroding the health and economic futures of Oklahomans.

In Pruitt's initial address to the staff at the EPA he not once mentioned climate change or other critical functions of his Agency. Instead he promised to favor the interests of the corporations. This is in direct violation of the laws under which Congress requires EPA to work.

In that address Pruitt stated that "regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate." That is utterly false. Regulators exist to regulate the industries that have proven not to be trustworthy regulating themselves. The EPA exists to protect human health and the environment, not to protect the profit margins of the corporations who pollute. The EPA and all federal agencies must implement the laws that Congress passes. They are obligated by law and compelled by the judiciary to act when they don't act enough.

So what will happen with the fox running the hen house? Quite likely the hens will notice. In the past when Republican presidents tried to endanger public health by putting in charge people whose personal mission was to eliminate the viability of the agency they were given the professional mission of running, the law kept them from doing it. The laws that EPA is required to implement remain, and any attempt to repeal them will be noticed. Do Republicans believe the American people will not notice that Republicans are repealing the Clean Air Act? The Clean Water Act? The Endangered Species Act? The various human health protection acts?

All Americans must be vigilant to the actions of the current Republican Administration and current Republican Congress (and likewise at the State and Local levels). They have made it clear they care nothing about their own constituents and only about the corporations and lobbyists who finance their campaigns.

There is a reason lobbyists write legislation, write talking points, write text. Because they know politicians like Scott Pruitt are willing to copy-and-paste those talking points onto official government letterhead and lie to their constituents. Politicians like Scott Pruitt are willing to violate the public trust and oath of office solely to line their own pockets. And that should disgust every constituent living in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and every other state in the United States.

It's up to Oklahomans to stand up against the dishonesty of the Pruitt's, Inhofes, Cruzes, and Rubios. It's up to all Americans to stand up against the dishonesty of the newly installed Pruitt at EPA and his corporate compadres being foisted upon all public protection agencies.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Republicans Attacking Health and Environmental Protection, Endangering All Americans

As should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention for the last decade or two, the Republican Party and Republican House and Republican Senate and Republican White House are moving rapidly to remove all public human health and environmental protections.

Even the ones that Republicans once supported.

The new U.S. Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil and with close, perhaps illegal, ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has already begun working to remove requirements for oil companies to report dealings with foreign countries, making it even easier for multinationals like ExxonMobil to engage in backroom deals and corruption. Rather than deal with the usual array of important foreign issues that have bedeviled previous State Department heads, Tillerson has shown an inclination to focus solely on issues that provide benefits to the oil and related industries. He plans to block American innovation to deal with climate change, allow the Russians to exploit oil reserves in the melting Arctic, and allow China to become the world leader in renewable energy innovation.

The new U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services is Tom Price, a Republican operative and congressman from Georgia who openly opposes women's health rights, Planned Parenthood, the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), and has anti-vaccine tendencies. He also opposed FDA authority to evaluate the health risks of smoking. Essentially, he is against all the protections he is now in charge of implementing.

The nominee for the new U.S. Secretary of Energy is Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose famous "Oops" moment was when he forgot the third cabinet department he wanted to eliminate. That department was the Department of Energy, the department he has been chosen now to run. A department that Perry falsely believed was all about promoting the oil industry in his home state (the department, in fact, is focused on our nuclear energy program).

The nominee to become the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is Scott Pruitt, Attorney General for the fossil fuel-dependent state of Oklahoma. Like fellow Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, Pruitt has dishonestly claimed climate change is a "hoax," and has spent the last several years suing the EPA to block health and safety rules. He still has open law suits against the very Agency he has been chosen to lead.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have introduced bills to eliminate existing air pollution controls, allow polluters to block public release of pollution records, and repeal many environmental laws, including most recently a bill to repeal the Endangered Species Act. They also have set public land and environmental values to $0 (zero), thus making ANY proposed industrial destruction of public lands a "cost-benefit" simply by being proposed. Other bills to remove public health and environmental protections are in the works.

Republicans in Congress have proposed a bill to eliminate the EPA entirely.

All this is in just a few weeks. Remember, this is the same Republican party who barely worked in the last Congress, refused to debate anything of substance for two entire years while taking the most vacation days in history. Now they are taking advantage of having control of every branch of government to attempt to destroy decades of environmental and human health progress. This includes programs that Republicans once fought hard to put into place.

The fact that the White House is now populated with the most corrupt, inept, and puerile cast of incompetents who fabricate new lies in every breath gives Republicans in Congress the distractions they need to eliminate public safety. While the media are focused on how treasonous the administration has been in its secret dealings with puppetmaster Putin, Congress is quietly chopping apart public protections and selling off the United States to private corporations (who just happen to be Republican campaign contributors).

Republicans hope the public won't notice. Which is why the public must notice. And notice bigly.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

How Climate Deniers Saturate Facebook with Fake News

Last week this page talked about how climate denier lobbyists control the message and manipulate public opinion. One of the ways was to take over Facebook pages so that they can promote falsehoods and block accurate science. This post discusses one of the more egregious examples of a page that promotes fake news related to climate.

Facebook allows anyone to set up a Group, and there are many climate change related groups that are worth visiting (see list at bottom of this post for examples). But there are other groups purporting to be about climate change that are really veiled ideological pages to promote lobbyist talking points. These denial-promoting pages can even have a large membership and high activity. There is a reason for that.

I won't promote the page here by naming it but there is one group in particular so embarrassingly denialistic it's hard to imagine why the administrators aren't more adept at hiding that fact. This particular group page provides a good example of what to watch for when judging the veracity of the owners and information.

The administrators are all blatant deniers: Before joining any page on Facebook, or immediately after joining if that is required to view the page, check out the administrators. Go to the Members tab and then the Admins subtab. Look at the Admins' background and watch what they post on the group page. See how they comment on other people's posts. For the exemplar page, the half dozen administrators are all vehement deniers. None is a scientist. One alludes to being a construction worker, part-time disk jockey, and wannabe pool shark. Another admits to being a right wing British political operative. Another is a self-avowed denier of science and possible paid lobbyist, routinely promoting the most ignorant and obvious falsehoods on his own webpage for dummies. Another is a retired guy who posts random anti-climate science gibberish just to antagonize people. At least one Admin has used multiple sock puppets (fake accounts) to engage in personal attacks against those they don't like.

The administrators believe in a global conspiracy of scientists: The Admins routinely dismiss the IPCC, NASA, NOAA, all the world's National Academies of Sciences, all the world's major scientific organizations, virtually every climate scientist on the planet, 100+ years of unequivocal published science, millions of empirical data points, and the well-known basic physics of the greenhouse effect as some sort of "hoax" perpetrated on the global populace. Oddly, the only people who seem to have noticed this "hoax" are fossil fuel and libertarian lobbyists and their spokespeople, plus a bunch of ideological and political hacks who can't seem to understand even the most basic science.

The administrators rely on lobbyist and conspiracy blogs as their sources of "science": While dismissing scientific organizations as "biased" and "fraudulent" and "incompetent" (somehow they can be incompetent and yet simultaneously carry out the world's most intricate fraud ever imagined), the administrators routinely rely on random blogs by non-scientists as the ultimate sources of information. I've seen the Alex Jones InfoWars (a demented conspiracy nutjob blog) cited as a source by Admins. I've seen the Admins cite a satire blog. I've seen them cite the usual round up of lobbyist-fed denier blogs, all of whom have been shown to get it wrong (on purpose) every single time. Yes, Every. Single. Time. So if the Administrators of the page are getting their information from debunked sources and posting many times debunked talking points, then clearly the page is not going to be reliable. Worse, the Admins and their preferred ideological commenters don't seem to ever read their own sources. Every single time they've cited a non-lobbyist source, their own source proves the Admins wrong. Again. Every. Single. Time.

The administrators selectively abuse the posters and commenters: Despite creating the rules of the group professing that "rudeness, threats, excessive profanity, personal insults, or any inflammatory comments" will not be tolerated, the Admins themselves are the ones who routinely engage in profound rudeness, repeated threats, common profanity, egregious personal insults, and constant inflammatory comments. Furthermore, these are directed solely at pro-science, honest, knowledgeable commenters while anti-science, dishonest, and ignorant commenters are encouraged to join the Admins in personally attacking those they dislike. Comments explaining why these latter are wrong, no matter how gently presented, are chastised and commenters berated while the most vehement and vitriolic personal attacks by deniers are met with "I see nothing wrong with how he is treating you."

The administrators harass knowledgeable commenters: In addition to outright abuse, the Admins use other means of harassing commenters. For example, comments are arbitrarily deleted. In one case, a comment and link was deleted by an Admin, claiming "you just linked the same thing twice. I have taken the liberty in deleting your oversight." The links, of course, were not the same, which anyone who had bothered to open them (or even just read the titles) would have seen. Given the constant repetition by anti-science commenters and lack of "taking the liberty" to correct their "oversights," the action was intended entirely as an attempt to intimidate the commenter and show that the Admin had ultimate power to do what he wanted. Admins in that group have arbitrarily and repeatedly removed commenters and posters who proved the Admins wrong, or merely provided accurate science. When the Admins can't handle accurate information (in part because it makes them look foolish and ignorant), then you know the page is actively dishonest.

There are more traits to watch out for when assessing the veracity of a given Facebook page. The key is to watch for sources used, the prevalence of propaganda, and the behavior of the Admins. That particular page was taken over by lobbyist-fed (and perhaps in one case, paid) propagandists, none of whom is a scientist (yet "just know 100 years of science is a lie"). Pro-science Admins were purged. Ideological followers were solicited, especially from the Rupert Murdoch-influenced heavy denier political and lobbying organizations in Australia and New Zealand, to artificially bump up the membership numbers. The actual number of commenters is low, usually the propagandist Admins and their selected ideological attack dogs, plus a few honest and informed people that are willing to put up with the harassment for a while before getting fed up and leaving.

Some of this bullying behavior by Admins is just mental insecurity, an effort to boost their apparently childlike egos. But much of it is intentional deceit to promote falsehoods, either through ideological blindness or intentional propagandizing. It's clear the most active Admins on the page are well loved by the fossil fuel and political lobbyists who count on the willful and unskeptical ignorance of amateur deniers to saturate the blogosphere with their false talking points.

Facebook and similar post-and-comment sites encourage conflict on purpose. Reacting and commenting keep the post "live" in the feed, and people on these pages (both anti- and pro-science) have an amygdala-led propensity to argue. This is why the Admins routinely break their own rules by engaging in abuse, posting multiple antagonistic statements to encourage dissent, and quickly saturating the feed with posts ranging from irrelevant sound bites to photos of their families or backyards whenever an accurate pro-science piece is posted. The goal is suppression of science, promotion of false talking points, and a rather pathetic assertion of the illusion of power.

Luckily, there are climate related Facebook pages that are worth visiting. Of course, each post must still be assessed using critical thinking, but these pages generally provide actual science and keeping out the trolls. Note that some are closed and you must request membership approval.

Climate Change Science

Climate Change Science, Mitigation & Adaptation

Climate Daily News

Indivisible - Climate Change Action

Climate Change: It's Personal

Okay, these are just a few. You can search "climate change" on Facebook and find many more pages, but definitely do some research before joining. Once you're there, poke around to evaluate the Admins, see what kind of people are posting, and take a look at the activity - is it respectful, focused on science, and informational...or is it a hotbed of insults, posts from WUWT and other lobbyist-fed denier sites?

All that said, Facebook is generally not the place you want to be getting informed about science. Its algorithms reward argument and conflict because that has a direct relationship to the profitability of the medium itself. As we saw during the last presidential election in the U.S., the prevalence of fake news on Facebook disinforms more than it informs. This intentional promulgation of disinformation has been fought by climate scientists for many years, so it isn't a shock to any scientist how lobbyists intentionally manipulate public opinion with dishonesty and falsehoods. It is every person's responsibility to become accurately informed before making choices. Facebook can play a role in that, but it shouldn't be the sole source of information. Read the science sites like NASA, NOAA, IPCC, etc. Do your homework.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

How Climate Deniers Control the Message

In lobbying, the goal is always to control the message and manipulate public opinion. Climate deniers work hard to control the anti-science message by using the same techniques and tactics used by the tobacco companies to steer public views. As technology has advanced, these lobbyists have adapted to the new media, including Facebook, which now seems to be the main source of (real or fake) news for many people.

Here are some ways the climate denial lobbying industry controls the climate message.

1) Continuously assert a grand conspiracy where the "mainstream media" (i.e., actual journalists) and "alarmists" (i.e., actual climate scientists) and "political people" (i.e., actual honest people) are part of a global, multigenerational conspiracy to promote some sort of "hoax." The goal is to erode public faith in the scientific and peer-review process. If people don't trust the scientists, people will be open to alternative views. Despite the ridiculousness of the conspiracy assertion, lobbyists know it works.

2) Discredit the communication process: This has to happen before the lobbyists can insert an alternative source of information, i.e., their manufactured false talking points. Since these talking points are immediately debunked by scientists and honest media outlets, lobbyists make sure to delegitimize any outlet that provides accurate science and/or debunks deniers' incorrect information. This is why denial lobbyists constantly attack the IPCC; the IPCC periodically puts out definitive reports summarizing the state-of-the-science, so they must be neutralized by the lobbyists. Ditto for why lobbyists constantly - and falsely - claim NASA, NOAA, and every other scientific organization have somehow falsified the data. They haven't, and lobbyists know this, but they must delegitimize all real scientific sources in order to make room for their non-scientific talking points.

3) Feed Falsehoods to the Blogosphere: There is a reason that denier lobbyists fund disinformation sites like CFACT's "Climate Depot" and "WattsUpWithThat," the climate equivalents of "Fox News." Lobbyists know that plenty of ideologues will gladly plagiarize whatever is fed them via these and other paid denier sites and post it without any kind of understanding on their own copy-cat blogs and Facebook pages. Within minutes or hours, any Google search will bring up dozens of these false and plagiarized blog posts. Since most people don't go beyond the first page of any Google search, all that appears to the public are the false talking points, not real science. This is also why the denier lobbying industry promotes every random non-science ideologue who claims to have exposed the grand conspiracy (see #1). Blogosphere saturation in itself is a goal. Lobbyists know that ideologues neither understand nor care that they don't understand. All these ideologues know is that the denier attacks, no matter how ridiculously false, support their preferred narrative. So they unskeptically repeat it.

4) Taking over the "New Media": As suggested above, denier lobbyists have been quick to maximize the power of the "new media," like blogs and Facebook. Unlike traditional journalistic outlets who vetting for truthfulness prior to publication or broadcast, the new media tends to "post now, vet later" as a means of beating the competition to the punch, no matter how false that punch is. Lobbyists love this. They know they can saturate the media with falsehoods and by the time the falseness of those falsehoods is provided in response, the falsehood is ingrained in ideological minds. [Think: A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.] No amount of correct information will ever change the mind of someone who has latched on to the original falsehood because it would mean acknowledging being hoodwinked. People don't like feeling they were played for fools, so to avoid that feeling they simply ignore anything that proves them foolish. It's called willful ignorance, and it's rampant on social media. Again, lobbyists love this. They don't mind manipulating people; it's their business.

5) Taking over Facebook pages: The newest variation on the above is the intentional commandeering of climate-related Facebook pages. This began with ideologues and amateur trolls spewing nonsense and insults all over comment threads, expanded into lobbyist-paid trolls intentionally disrupting these comment threads and posting propaganda, and now includes climate deniers taking over administrative control of the pages themselves. One Facebook page purports to offer a "friendly discussion environment" but is owned and administered by blatantly biased deniers who routinely break their own rules of decorum, allowing denier attacks on scientists while berating anyone who provides accurate science or rebuts their grossly inaccurate propaganda. As "Admins" they cannot be blocked, yet routinely throw anyone debunking them off the page, no matter how polite that rebuttal. In this way they 1) control the message (i.e., intentionally promote denial while intentionally deleting accurate science) and 2) stroking their own fragile egos and mental insecurities.

6) Repetition and KISS: Lobbyists know that too much information gets overwhelming and isn't processed. Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) is the watchword of lobbyists. The shorter the soundbite, the more persuasive the message. This is especially true in these days of constant stimulation via instant electronic media. So provide a sound bite (e.g., "Emails!" "Hoax!!!") and repeat it over and over and over and over and over. And then over again. When caught in a lie, repeat the lie even more emphatically. This past election shows how doubling down on falsehoods, a form of gaslighting, means honest people are constantly on the defensive while others repeat known falsehoods as if they are true. Over time the public assumes the falsehood must somehow be true (after all, I keep hearing it, right?). This technique has been used by climate denial lobbyists for a long time, just as it was used by the tobacco denial lobbyists and acid rain denial lobbyists and ozone hole denial lobbyists (who, not surprisingly, are often the very same lobbyists). This is what lobbyists do.

This past election reveals something else of concern. Now that the extreme right wing zealots are in political power, the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and general bigots all feel empowered to act out their bigotry more publicly. To them, it's now okay to show their racism freely. Climate deniers find themselves in a similar position of power. Besides clamping down on climate communications by science agencies, the new administration has put several climate deniers in cabinet positions. From these perches they will work hard to "control the message" of denial via abuse of their political positions. This was done before in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, both times backfiring on them. Despite their efforts to suppress it, the science doesn't change because political people lie to the public and abuse the public trust. No matter how much climate denier lobbyists in the administration try to ignore the science, the science doesn't go away.

So climate denier lobbyists will continue to try to control the message even as the science becomes more and more unequivocal. The climate is warming and humans are the dominant cause of that warming. That fact is still fact and will remain fact no matter how much lobbyists and political hacks deny it.

It's up to all of us to make sure the facts of climate aren't lost in the intentional denial machine's attempt to suppress that message.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

EPA Dealing with Censorship, Hostile Takeover by New Administration

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) woke up this week to a barrage of restrictions that a former Administrator under George H.W. Bush called "going down a very dark road." All Agency communications have been shut down and must now go through political review by the new administration. That includes all "public-facing documents" such as "news releases, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content." The administration has also put a freeze on any new work, on contract approvals, on grant awards, and on new hiring. Essentially, the Agency is in lockdown. Similar actions have been taken to restrict all other federal agencies.

The first casualty was the Department of Interior twitter feed, which had retweeted a photo showing the extremely small crowds at Trump's 2016 inauguration versus President Obama's first inauguration in 2008. Many news media reported that Trump was embarrassed by the low turnout and thus closed down the twitter feed, as well as all other twitter feeds from federal facilities. This ban on tweeting did not, of course, extend to his own unsecured twitter account, which he used to fabricate lies about the crowd size that were proven false by actual facts (in contrast to the "alternative facts" [aka, blatant lies] pushed by Trump).

Temporary freezes on agency outreach have happened before, mainly as a way for the new administration to get its team in place and figure out what the EPA is doing. But former EPA administrators confirm that the current censorship and bans far exceed practices under past administrations, either Republican or Democratic.

But the new administration has stated clearly its intent is to restrict agency science and roll back regulations that protect human health and the environment, deal with man-made climate change, and even improve gas mileage standards. The head of the transition team was Myron Ebell, head of the anti-science, anti-regulation libertarian consulting organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Trump's pick to run the EPA is Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who has been the fossil fuel industry's ally, issuing multiple lawsuits to block health protections that would require corporate accountability. He also apparently lied to Senators during his confirmation hearings. Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and a key funder/promoter of climate change denial and a close ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin, is the pick for Secretary of State.

All of these signal a return to the early days of past Republican administrations who used their political power to censor scientific information and destroy the EPA. Ronald Reagan, for example, had hired Anne Gorsuch, another pro-fossil fuel/mining attorney general, as EPA administrator. She was forced out after intentionally trying to subvert science. Likewise, George W. Bush put fossil fuel lobbyist Philip Cooney in charge of his Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney was caught intentionally editing scientific documents to downplay the severity of man-made climate change. He too was forced to leave the administration, immediately taking a position at ExxonMobil.

So Americans have a valid reason for concern. The incoming administration has been vocally hostile to the EPA since the beginning of the campaign. They have nominated people who have histories of being aggressively anti-EPA and anti-science. Their first acts were to restrict public communication and outreach. They have already signaled rollbacks of congressionally-mandated health and safety rules, while promoting the interests of fossil fuel corporations (many of whom are now part of the administration).

Scientists must push back against such politically motivated anti-science. A few agencies who have had their twitter feeds blocked have apparently set up "Alt-feeds" to continue serving the public. Given the huge success of the Women's Marches on the day after the inauguration (that far exceeded inauguration crowds, despite Trump's blatant lies to the contrary), a group of scientists are planning a Scientists March on Washington.

Meanwhile, the EPA and other agencies have internal scientific integrity document:

The EPA's 14-page scientific integrity document, enacted during the Obama administration, describes how scientific studies were to be conducted and reviewed in the agency. It said scientific studies should eventually be communicated to the public, the media and Congress "uncompromised by political or other interference."

All of us, the public and scientists alike, need to be vigilant to make sure the new administration does not try to remove scientific integrity from the science agencies, as, unfortunately, has been the case in prior Republican administrations.  

[Photo source: Union of Concerned Scientists]