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‘Unscientific America’: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 8 July 2009

Author Chris Mooney (of “Storm World” fame) and fellow “Intersection” blogger, scientist, and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum have written an extraordinary, if rather sobering book entitled ‘Unscientific America’. What I found most refreshing about the book is that it not only isolates the history behind, and source of, the problem in question—the pervasiveness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy in modern society–but it offers viable solutions. This book is a must read for anybody who cares about science, and the growing disconnect between the scientific and popular cultures (the problem of the so-called “Two Cultures” first discussed by C.P. Snow).

‘Unscientific America’ explores how we’ve come to the point we’re now at, examining the historical factors behind the diminishing prominence of science and scientists in the popular culture of the U.S. since its heyday in the years following WW II. The authors uncover more than enough blame to go around. They find fault with the media, both in how it portrays science and scientists (e.g. the icon of the ‘mad scientist’), and in the decreasing news coverage devoted to issues involving science and technology. They find fault in the way policy makers often abuse science (cherry-picking those particular scientific findings which suit their agenda), and in the behavior of corporate special interests who, in areas such as our own area of ‘climate change’, have often deliberately manufactured false controversy and confusion to dissuade the public from demanding action be taken. At this point, the scientists among you might begin to feel absolved of any responsibility for the problem. Don’t–Mooney and Kirshenbaum won’t allow us to escape blame, and with good reason. As they point out, we ‘eat our own’, when it comes to colleagues engaged in public outreach and science popularization. Case in point: Carl Sagan–a hero to many of us who value science outreach. One of the darker episodes in modern U.S. science history was the blocking by Sagan’s fellow scientists of his entry into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Evidently, a majority of his colleagues resented his having become a household name–something they presumably considered unbecoming for a scientist. What sort of message does it send when the most effective science communicator in modern history was shunned by his colleagues for his efforts? Certainly not a good one. This is just one example, and there are many others–it is not surprising that so few scientists to choose to pursue the path of outreach and public education. The reward systems in academia and the scientific world typically do not favor scientists who choose to expend considerable time and effort engaging in public discourse. And here of course, it is as much that system, as the scientists themselves, which is to blame.

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Communicating the Science of Climate Change

Filed under: — mike @ 12 January 2009

It is perhaps self-evident that those of us here at RealClimate have a keen interest in the topic of science communication. A number of us have written books aimed at communicating the science to the lay public, and have participated in forums devoted to the topic of science communication (see e.g. here, here, and here). We have often written here about the challenges of communicating science to the public in the modern media environment (see e.g. here, here, and here).

It is naturally our pleasure, in this vein, to bring to the attention of our readers a masterful new book on this topic by veteran environmental journalist and journalism educator Bud Ward. The book, entitled Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators, details the lessons learned in a series of Metcalf Institute workshops held over the past few years, funded by the National Science Foundation, and co-organized by Ward and AMS senior science and communications fellow Tony Socci. These workshops have collectively brought together numerous leading members of the environmental journalism and climate science communities in an effort to develop recommendations that might help bridge the cultural divide between these two communities that sometimes impedes accurate and effective science communication.

I had the privilege of participating in a couple of the workshops, including the inaugural workshop in Rhode Island in November 2003. The discussions emerging from these workshops were, at least in part, the inspiration behind “RealClimate”. The workshops formed the foundation for this new book, which is an appropriate resource for scientists, journalists, editors, and others interested in science communication and popularization. In addition to instructive chapters such as “Science for Journalism“, “Journalism for Scientists” and “What Institutions Can Do“, the book is interspersed with a number of insightful essays by leading scientists (e.g. “Mediarology–The Role of Climate Scientists in Debunking Climate Change Myths” by Stephen Schneider) and environmental journalists (e.g. “Hot Words” by Andy Revkin). We hope this book will serve as a standard reference for how to effectively communicate the science of climate change.

Not the IPCC (“NIPCC”) Report

Filed under: — mike @ 28 November 2008 - (Italian)

Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt

Much in the spirit of the Fraser Institute’s damp squib we reported on last year, S. Fred Singer and his merry band of contrarian luminaries (financed by the notorious “Heartland Institute” we’ve commented on previously) served up a similarly dishonest ‘assessment’ of the science of climate change earlier this year in the form of what they call the “NIPCC” report (the “N” presumably standing for ‘not the’ or ‘nonsense’). This seems to be making the rounds again as Singer and Heartland are gearing up for a reprise of last year’s critically…er…appraised “Conference on Climate Change” this March. Recently some have asked us for our opinion of the report and so we’ve decided we ought to finally go ahead and opine. Here goes.

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Find the error

Filed under: — mike @ 9 November 2007

A colleague alerted me to a small town Nevada newspaper (The Ely Times) that has recently taken to publishing some rather egregious contrarian editorials and op-ed pieces about climate change (see e.g. here, and here).

Much in the spirit of what we attempt here at RealClimate (that is, public outreach and education), I figured I’d make an effort to inform the paper’s readers of the misleading nature of what they’re being told.

I decided to respond to their most recent editorial ‘Is CO2 a Poison?’ and other questions which wasn’t really a contrarian hit piece (i.e., what we’re used to seeing on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal) so much as a confused mix of half-truths, irrelevant facts, flat-out errors, and, admittedly, some reasonable points (e.g. that there are challenging issues of fairness in how we go about achieving greenhouse gas emissions cutbacks). My letter was firmly critical, but, I felt, reasonably polite and fair.

I never received any correspondence from the editor (Kent Harper), and assumed that he had thus chosen not to publish my letter. So you can imagine my surprise yesterday in finding that, not only did the editor publish my letter, but in fact ran a contemporaneous and scattershot rebuttal along with it.

What I found particularly amusing was his denial that the original editorial contained any errors, as I had asserted. In particular, he challenged me to defend my assertion that he was wrong in claiming that the natural greenhouse effect leads to a warming of about 100F and that the correct number was closer to 60F.

Here is Mr. Kent, in his own words:

I asked Dr. Mann, in an answer to his e-mail, if the Wikipedia entry on the Greenhouse Effect ( was incorrect. It said: “The Earth’s average surface temperature of 15 C (288 K) is about 33 C warmer than it would be without the greenhouse effect.” A celsius temperature of 33 degrees, converts to 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, which I rounded off to “almost 100 degrees”.

Kent: if you are reading this, I would be more than happy to personally answer your question. But since you’ve decided to take our ‘discussion’ public anyway, I thought I’d rather use this as a ‘learning moment’ here at RealClimate. So I encourage our readers to provide their own answers to your question in the comments below.

Worth a Look

Filed under: — mike @ 20 September 2007

We’re pleased to report that, after a rough start, Nature’s blog ‘Climate Feedback’ seems to have gotten back on track. We’re happy to endorse it as a useful resource for those interested in relatively informal discussions of issues at the leading edge of current climate research.

A good place to start are two excellent recent entries by Kevin Trenberth of NCAR. The first of these provides an update on where the scientific debate over the influence of global warming on hurricanes currently stands. The second responds to the latest attempt by the Wall Street Journal editorial page to foist fallacies about climate change upon its readers.

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