A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Communicating Astronomy with the Public outlining how to more effectively reach the public.(1)
I have some credibility. Science 2.0 has become a well-known movement despite not having media conglomerate backing, a marketing department, a sales force or any government funding, Not many can do that - or they probably would.
The biggest problem I saw among people who wanted to do science outreach was that they didn't always want to do science outreach - they wanted to correct the mistaken beliefs of other people. They were engaged in deficit thinking, the idea that anyone who did not agree or accept certain things was simply uneducated and needed the correct information. One of the other pitfalls I itemized was advocacy.
In Science Left Behind, I wrote a chapter on The Death of Science Journalism and those were two of the three nodes on the triangular corpse.(2) Combined, advocacy and deficit thinking are the road to science despair because when the deficit thinking of someone cannot be fixed no matter how much you advocate it, it is easy to become convinced there is an elaborate, opposing machine blocking you.
In the case of Dr. James Hansen, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and famed global warming hawk, he believes that a well-funded insidious campaign to undercut climate science is in force.
"The science has become stronger and stronger over the past five years while the public perception is has gone in completely the other direction. That is not an accident," he told Richard Gray of The Telegraph.
So it was arson? Well, that's all we are left with. The data is right there so if people do not accept it, they're being manipulated by companies spreading fear and doubt.(3) This same deficit thinking was in full force during last year's Proposition 37 effort to label all genetically modified foods not used in restaurants, alcohol or organic fod. When the initiative first made the ballot and only one side was spending money promoting their position, advocates trumpeted the awesome wisdom of crowds for its high approval rating. It was going to win, they gloated. Then once the opposition spent money noting the lack of any real benefit and the many flaws in how it was written and the initiative failed, the election was 'bought', according to critics.
Back to Hansen and his last five years; he's right, the science has become stronger since the 1990s and even beyond.(4) The problem is that the science was so settled in 2001 that anyone who disagreed was thrown off the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The few people in the whole field of climate science who disagreed were bogged down in nuisance Freedom of Information Act requests and hate mail campaigns and blocked from larger journals. If they ever took any expense money from a fossil fuel company to be on a panel about the environment they were a 'shill'.
'Follow the money' arguments are mostly bogus - and people recognize it, unless they are about the political opposition. So if a climate researcher at MIT got $5,000 from an oil company in the early 1990s and disagrees on feedbacks, follow the money, he is a shill. But if James Hansen got paid $1.2 million to fly around and talk about global warming, above and beyond his government salary over those 5 years he is now complaining about, well, those were prizes for telling the truth.
ClimateGate, the release of East Anglia emails showing a conspiracy to prevent any opposing studies from making their way into peer-reviewed studies and how to 'hide the decline', has a nefarious source also: "Who knows how the East Anglia email fiasco came about?" Hansen hints conspiratorially.
What is missing from his concern? That the emails were proof of exactly what people worried about. The scientists didn't make up any data, they weren't engaged in fraud, they didn't need to be, the evidence was there - but they were out to insure nothing a secret clique did not approve of made its way into publication. Hansen never mentioned how their behavior was 'not an accident', he defended their actions.
Deficit thinking, and outright sanctimony, have led to green fatigue. 'Well, at least he is on our side against pollution' rationales about Hansen only get him so much patience from the general public. By the time he started showing up outside the White House protesting natural gas - the thing that caused American CO2 energy emissions to plummet back to the 1990s levels, exactly what Hansen said we needed - the public had enough. They have tuned him out. Deficit thinking makes him believe the public tunes him out because Exxon spends some money.
It isn't a big conspiracy by oil companies but it is partly the weather. Due to promoting every weather event as a global warming data point, the media have trained people to react to climate science like it is part of a 24-hour news cycle - belief goes up and down with the events of the Weather Channel. Hansen was fine with that - when all media was corporate, and on his side.
Live by hype, die by hype. Now, 25% of British adults do not think any climate change is happening at all. Not just right-wing people, not climate change versus global warming or level-of-severity splitting hairs, 25% of the adult public thinks the whole idea is bogus. 33% think the environmental threat is simply exaggerated. That's not good.
What to do? Hansen tends to change tack and note it is not just a science issue, but a moral one.
A moral issue also? What's the third point on the Science Outreach Pitfalls triangle? Preaching to the audience.
(1) I also moderated an AAAS panel on the same topic in 2009, with PLoS co-founder Mike Eisen, science journalist Greg Critser, National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott and biologist Mike White.
(2) It's no surprise that a guy who spent the bulk of his career modeling with triangular meshes loves the things, and if you read my CAP article you will note that both the Perils and the Pitfalls are also three points of a triangle.
(3) Unfortunately, that logic also applies to all anti-science groups. When it comes to climate, food, energy and medicine, 'we are doomed if the bad guys aren't stopped' is the primary advertising technique.
(4) "Have we learned a great deal since the IPCC 2001 report? I would say yes, we have. Climate science, like any other field, is a constantly evolving field and we are always learning," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground in 2011, when asked why the increased snowfall and winter storms disagreed with the projections of the 2001 report. To people in science, well, that's science, to advocates it is either a crippling weakness or a reason to raise more money to do 'awareness'.
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