Steve Silberman and Rebecca Skloot just pointed out to me an editorial from science writer Chris Mooney that has appeared online and will be in the Sunday, January 3rd edition of The Washington Post.
In the essay, “On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up,” Mooney continues his longstanding call to scientists to take ownership in combating scientific misinformation, invoking the very weak response of the scientific community to the aftermath of e-mails and documents hacked from the Climatic Research Institute at the University of East Anglia.
The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes, RealClimate.org, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. “I haven’t had all that many other scientists helping in that effort,” Mann told me recently.
Could we have done anything differently?
I agree to some extent but, in this particular case, I don’t think that any concerted effort by scientific communicators could have overcome the bleating by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck that took one or two statements out of context from among 1,073 e-mails and a million words, claiming proof of a massive global scientific conspiracy to manufacture climate change warnings.
The problem is that when one’s statements are not bound by facts, you can pretty much say whatever you want; that will be the first thing uncritical sycophants hear and remember.
It took several weeks for the AP to release its own investigative findings of the stolen documents to show that while there were petty and heated disagreements about specific data, nothing was faked. But by that time, science had lost a lot of ground to climate skeptics as detailed in an article Mooney cites:
Scientists themselves also come in for more negative assessments in the poll, with four in 10 Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment. That’s up significantly in recent years. About 58 percent of Republicans now put little or no faith in scientists on the subject, double the number saying so in April 2007. Over this time frame, distrust among independents bumped up from 24 to 40 percent, while Democrats changed only marginally. Among seniors, the number of skeptics more than doubled, to 51 percent.
When a large segment of the public puts their faith in right wing miscreants that somehow have huge audiences, I have trouble seeing how scientists can respond no matter how many facts they have in their pockets or how effectively they communicate. I don’t mean to sound defeatist but I think that responding to so-called Climategate was incredibly difficult no matter how well-prepared the scientific community could have been. This single crystallizing event was far more understandable to people than decades of climate research, starting primarily with the fact that the average person seems to associate the daily weather with climatological trends. Add to this mix a media empire with people who manufacture apparent facts by repeating untruths (i.e., Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11) and feeding the American love for a good conspiracy theory.
I’m just not sure how good Climategate is as an example of a failure by scientists to communicate with the public.
“Many refuse to try; others go to the opposite extreme of advocating vociferous and confrontational atheism.”
After discussing his expert area of devastating hurricanes, Mooney then raises some excellent points about countering the denial of evolution by acknowledging that for many, evolution is an issue not of science but of faith.
“Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose,” Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of “Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution,” told me recently. “Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution.”
This quarter of the essay will likely be the part that will create froth and lather in the blogosphere so I will mostly leave it for other commentators. Most of my day-to-day colleagues are moderately to strongly religious and many use their faith as motivators for their careers in the biomedical sciences. Many religious people in my community are huge fans of science. I contend that some degree of spirituality can co-exist with science. We’re not going to talk people out of their faith; there is far more common ground here for us in science with a large swath of the US population who are religious and open to and often embrace scientific discourse.