Thursday, March 29, 2018

Houston: We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

Periodically I review books related to science communication. This is a review of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story by Randy Olson (2015, University of Chicago Press, 256 pp).

Randy Olson is a former marine biologist who gave up his tenured professorship to move to Hollywood and become a film-maker. With "Houston," he builds on his earlier book ("Don't Be Such a Scientist") and the experience he has gained from the story-telling world of movies. The book has a simple message for scientists - you need a narrative. 

It's not that simple, of course, and Olson does a great job of introducing some simple methods scientists can use to communicate their science to other scientists and to the public. He emphasizes that the key to storytelling is to find the narrative core - the message people will take away. He employs what he calls a WSP Model, the shrinking down of the core message to one word, one sentence, and one paragraph. Two principle techniques are what he calls the Dobzhansky Template ("Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of ______.") and ABT.

ABT really is the central point of the book. The story should follow an AND, BUT, THEREFORE structure. Much of the book discusses what this is, how to develop it, and techniques for using it to communicate your story. It's simple, but powerful. 

There is much more: the Heroes Journey, the Logline maker, the story templates. And let's not forget McKee's Triangle of three pure story forms - antiplot, miniplot, and archplot. The archplot is the key. Study it, learn it, use it.

As examples he explains how the communication of climate change is "Bo-ho-horing" and fits a classic "miniplot" storyline. The combination creates a communications mess that explains why the public still doesn't understand the urgency. That's a problem. 

Olson's writing style is mostly fluid and with a wisp of humor threading through it. He leans a lot on his own experiences, both in the science world and the film making world. I would highly recommend all scientists to read the book and practice the techniques. Your colleagues and the public will understand you a lot better. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hundreds of Mayors Call Out Scott Pruitt's Attack on Clean Energy

On Tuesday, February 20th, 236 mayors sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt warning him to stop attacking the nation's clean energy. Scott Pruitt is well known for his acts to destroy environmental and human health protections, in direct violation of his mandate as head of the EPA. The mayors responded vehemently.

Collectively, we represent over 51 million residents, in 47 states & territories across the country. We strongly oppose the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would put our citizens at risk and harm our efforts to address the urgent threat of climate change.

The Clean Power Plan is simply a collection of EPA rules that address long-standing needs related to climate and clean energy. The rules were proposed by EPA during the Obama administration. Scott Pruitt is trying to roll back or void these rules to benefit the fossil fuel industry for whom he has been a front man for many years.

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. It was

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

Mayors across the country provided input into the development of the Plan and strongly indicated that cities and states needed help from the federal government to address these national and global issues. In their letter they reminded Scott Pruitt that:

No one is insulated from the impacts of climate change – people in cities of all sizes, along with suburban and rural communities are all at risk. Residents of our communities have experienced harmful impacts of climate change such as dirtier air, increased heat-related illnesses and deaths, damaged and disappearing coastlines, longer droughts and other strains on water quantity and quality, and increasingly frequent and severe storms and wildfires.

These mayors took this extraordinary step to keep Pruitt and Trump from destroying all human health and environmental protections. Doing so would endanger all Americans, immediately and through our children's and grandchildren's lifetimes.

The full mayors letter can be read here. More in The Hill and Inside Climate News.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

How to Talk to a Climate Change Denier

Talking to people who deny man-made climate change can be a challenge, but it's necessary. Many people are simply confused by all the rhetoric (something that is intentionally exploited by lobbyists) and are willing to learn under the proper conditions of discussion. Others, of course, have no intention of learning and are, in fact, intent on misinforming. These latter can be ignored for now. Let's focus on how to talk to your relatives, friends, and folks you meet about man-made climate change.

To be honest, there is no right way. Some people will not listen to anything that disrupts their self-selected group talking points. But for others who are willing to have an honest discussion, there are techniques for reaching them.

George Marshall is a climate science communicator and co-founder of COIN, since renamed Climate Outreach (find out more at In the following video he presents six strategies for talking to people.

The video is worth watching in full. The six strategies are:

  • Common Ground
  • Respect
  • Hold Your Views
  • Personal Journey
  • Fits Worldview
  • Offer Rewards

Watching the video is necessary to understand each of the six points, but let's parse out a few of them to give you a flavor.

I think Common Ground and Fits Worldview could be the most important, and they are related. Marshall notes that rather than present information from your own point of view, especially if that conflicts with the point of view of the person you're talking to, you should find common ground between the two of you. Find what you do agree on, for example, the welfare of your children, long-term economic stability, or mutual religious beliefs in stewardship. From that common ground you can have a meaningful and respectful discussion that reflects the worldview of the person you are talking to.

Relating your own personal journey to acknowledging the science of man-made climate change can also be helpful according to Marshall. Skeptics will see that you aren't just part of some tree-hugger cult or "liberal" political hack, but someone who has thought deeply and gained knowledge on the subject and, over time, come to understand that man-made climate change is happening and is already having significant effects. Understanding that your journey helped you see the science and its effects on your day-to-day life can lead them to undertake their own personal journey of discovery.

There is much more in the video, so please take the time to watch it. Google "how to talk to climate change denier" and you'll find several other videos offering suggestions on how to reach those who deny climate change (or as Marshall puts it, "climate dissenters").

There are some caveats. Marshall's strategies are focused on in-person conversations, which are likely to be people you know or have recently met. That is different than online "discussions" on Facebook, blogs, and various chat rooms where you may be "talking" to people you've never met and don't even know if they are real or bots or trolls or planted lobbyists working under fake names. Many of these people are intent on disrupting honest conversation. This point is important - rather than waste time arguing with fake Facebook profiles, go out and talk to real people. Talk to your family, your friends, your colleagues, and even people you've just met. Marshall's strategies, e.g., being respectful, only work in the real world, not online.

One last caveat. Don't confuse George Marshall the climate science communicator in the video with the George C. Marshall Institute, which is an infamous lobbying group behind much of the science denial misinformation industry. Do a little research to determine the sources of your information. Check out other posts on this page for more strategies for communicating the science and dealing with climate denialism.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Science Communication: Taking Control of Your Message

Communicating your research to the public is perhaps the most critical aspect of science today, but one most scientists haven’t spent much time thinking about. After years of laboring over a lab bench or mucking in the mud or ducking osprey talons, you’ve diligently checked your spreadsheets, run your models, performed your statistics, and written your technical papers for submission to scientific journals. Your research is published! Now the real work begins. 

Gone are the days where scientists could publish their results then move on to the next experiment. Sure, you attend conferences, read other scientists’ work, and chat chirality over cappuccinos. But we live in an interconnected world where we as scientists have the opportunity- and whether we like it or not, the obligation - to communicate directly to policymakers and the public.  

Face it: There are people out there whose goal is not the same as yours. Scientists can’t assume the facts of their research will be communicated accurately. Newspapers have eliminated most of their in-house science reporting; cable TV thrives on sensational sound-bites, not scientific veracity; and people read fewer books and magazines in this age of Facebook and Twitter. If your work is in an area that is considered controversial (e.g., climate change or clean drinking water or pollution or pretty much anything), there are lobbyists, politicians, and internet trolls who will actively misrepresent your work. 

It is now imperative that we scientists take responsibility for the accurate communication of our science to the public. How do we do that? When we write a journal article we follow a prescribed format for communication: introduction, methods, results, analysis, discussion, conclusions. To communicate to the public we need to do the same, but drop the jargon and dramatically change the emphasis of the writing. 

Instead of burying the lead, state it up front. Start with the main message you want your reader to take away. State the method in one sentence (just say it’s a survey; don't describe the details). Mention key facts that drive the analysis, but don’t rattle off statistics. Put the results in the context of the public’s day to day reality. Mention any uncertainties if they are critical to a broad understanding, but don't overwhelm the public with them. Have you ever seen those drug advertisements in magazine ads? Notice how the one page ad has 2 or 3 pages of small print listing every possible side effect, even the most highly improbable ones. These are not meaningful communication. People tune them out, so don’t hide the real risks with facts that are meaningless to your audience. Be honest always, but be concise. 

When you finish your scientific papers, think about how you can communicate your research to a broader audience.

1) Write a common language summary in addition to your technical abstract.

2) Frame your results within the public's context. If your research shows high pollutant levels in osprey eggs, tell the public how it affects them.

3) Provide the summary to the media. Yes, some labs or agencies provide press releases, but it’s your responsibility to make sure they get it right (and they often don’t).

4) Network with the media, especially the local or regional papers, broadcast media, and influential science communicators. Let them know who they can call.

5) Network with political representatives at the local, regional, national, and international levels. Keep in mind SETAC’s global and tripartite representation. Your job is to make sure all policymakers base their policy-making on accurate science no matter what the party.

6) Watch for misrepresentation of your work by the media, lobbyists, or online fora. Again, it’s your responsibility to rebut those who, intentionally or unintentionally, mislead the public based on your work. [But see below for an important caveat]

7) Present the big picture to the local public at libraries, churches, community centers. Keep it broad and meaningful; don’t bore people with the details of one narrow experiment.

8) Start a blog. This might be the most useful tool for many scientists. Not all of us are Neil deGrasse Tyson with a national television and Twitter following. Our reach is limited, but we can expand that reach by producing a blog that communicates science to a broader audience.
Facebook and Twitter are now where a large percentage of Americans get their “news.” But be careful. Science isn’t done on Facebook, and you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. People are there for entertainment and proselytizing. Instead, set up a Facebook page to transmit information, but don’t waste time arguing with the trolls. 

If you do respond to false statements or myths on the internet – Facebook, blogs, whatever – the first rule is: Don’t put the myth first. Studies have shown that when you debunk myths by first stating the myth, followed by a long explanation of its faults, most people remember the myth and not the debunking. Instead, first provide the take-away fact, then a short statement of the myth, followed by a longer, but still relatively brief, explanation of why the myth is faulty and why the fact is supported.
The bottom line is that you must be prepared to communicate the science to non-scientists after your scientific papers are completed. Follow three basic rules, as noted by John Cook, a science communicator at George Mason University:  

1                         > State clearly your main point/take-home message, and repeat it often.

2              > Avoid back and forth arguments with non-scientists/deniers; it just confuses anyone who is   watching/reading.

3              > Inoculate people against “alternative facts” (i.e., falsehoods) by exposing the tricks used by misinformers, e.g., fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories.

I try to do the latter here on The Dake Page, a blog about science communication. Feel free to set up your own blog to correct misconceptions, or seek out other communication opportunities. The important point is that you, as the scientist, must take control of your message. And that means reaching out to the public and policymakers.

[This article was recently published in the CPRC Newsletter. For more on CPRC, check out their website.]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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

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

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

Both assertions are false.

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

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

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

To repeat, to meet the goals set by the Paris agreement, emissions reductions would have to start NOW and emissions would have to be completely eliminated no later than 40 years from now. That's an ambitious goal, and actions to reach it must begin immediately if it is to be accomplished. suggest that this means that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are now unnecessary is clearly false.

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

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

How Not to Run the EPA

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

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

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

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

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

Former EPA Administrator Whitman goes on:

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

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

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

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

Whitman points out why this is so:

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

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

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

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

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

Whitman ends by stating emphatically that Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration are being dishonest and anti-science. If Pruitt insists on pushing through his dishonest program, should be treated for what it is: a shameful attempt to confuse the public into accepting the false premise that there is no need to regulate fossil fuels.
So what can scientists, the public, and honest people everywhere do about Pruitt and Trump's attack on science?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more at:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The authors conclude that their study:

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

The full study can be read online.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Whistleblower Speaks Out as Pruitt Tries to Destroy EPA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, directories for the House and Senate.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what they do.

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Alan Alda on Communicating Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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