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"But any reasonable concept of democratic citizenship requires an individual
who is able to discern knowledge from propaganda,
is competent to choose among conflicting claims and programs,
and is capable of actively participating in the affairs of the polity."—Aronowitz

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Feb. 2, 2012

Wall Street (Journal) Science: Why Scientists Must Engage the Public

"A candidate for public office in any contemporary democracy may have to consider what, if anything, to do about "global warming." Candidates should understand that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed."

"No Need to Panic About Global Warming"
16 signers, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27, 2012

My course, COM455—"Science and Communication for a Century of Limits," addresses the disconnect between the academic natural sciences (viewed as discourse communities) and the public sphere, seeking answers to questions such as 1) What do we know (and how credible is our "knowledge"), 2) How important is it that we act on what we know (about, for example, climate change, peak oil, or the future of an over-crowded planet), and 3) How persuasive (rhetorically effective) are scientific messages? Because the public sphere is rife with conflicting information and corresponding demands for action, current press continually serves up teachable moments. Here is how a comment from a friend became part of a lesson plan this week:

A facebook posting last Friday by a former student (now seeking an advanced degree on the west coast) pointed to a blog posting that commented on two articles about climate change.

The blog posting was by blogger Cory Doctorow, posting on BoingBoing.Net on January 28, titled "WSJ's partisan approach to climate change vs. science." Doctorow referred to a Wall Street Journal letter from January 27, in which 16 scientists argued that climate change was nothing worth acting on. He went on to describe a response from several scientists, submitted to but rejected by the Journal, but subsequently published in Science. This made no sense, as neither the Journal nor Science could have possibly exhibited such rapid, nearly instant turnaround. I traced the article to the Journal easily because Doctorow had posted its title and date. Through my subscription to Science, I found no such letter in the last couple of issues. Fortunately, a comment to the Doctorow blog pointed to the correct letter in Science.

The WSJ letter is online from the Journal. "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" was published Jan. 27 as a letter from 16 scientists. It's lead paragraph is quoted above. The rest of the letter provided supporting paragraphs. Had the letter been an essay from one of my students, it would have been returned with a failing grade and strong urging to provide documentation to substantiate claims made in several places in the letter and to resubmit for an improved grade (this double-work for both student and professor is a normal practice early in the semester; papers later in the semester may take slightly longer for the student to write, but are easier on the professor and often a great pleasure to read). In a course on science and communication, students must be required to provide references and quantitative data or scientific observations or scientifically reasoned argument to back all claims. The letter did not meet this requirement. Although persuasive in tone, it lacked scientific credibility. The distinction (between rhetorical strength and scientific credibility) provides an example of a finer point of learning that is a critical theme for the entire course.

The Science letter is online from ScienceMag.org. Note: Academics like me either bear the personal annual cost of membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), or they may access an online archive if the University library supports that with an institutional membership. I merely note that I pay the annual $150 out of pocket (not reimbursed and non tax-deductable), essentially a very expensive magazine subscription, for which I get a weekly copy of Science and access to an incredible archive spanning back into the 1800s. "Climate Change and the Integrity of Science," was published May 7, 2010 as a letter from 255 climate scientists. Its five main points, enumerated, were quoted by blogger Doctorow, and despite the total confusion about publication sequence they do largely (albeit unintentionally) rebut the WSJ letter. The entire letter follows:

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Photo: from the original Science article,
credit to Paul Nicklen/National Geographic/Getty Images"

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.
(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.
(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.
(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world's scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

A footnote states "The signatories are all members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences but are not speaking on its behalf." Membership in the NAS represents the highest recognition within the science community of the standing of Academy members, and is generally based on peer evaluation. The Academy is generally regarded as the epitome of American science, and hence is to be regarded (an important point in my class) as the best and most credible source of scientific knowledge in America (and arguably that could be extended to read "on earth").

This letter should be considered highly persuasive, but again, it is largely a letter to be read and shared within the science discourse communities (the readership domain of Science), having little persuasive impact on the public at large unless somehow distilled through the education system (i.e., courses like mine) or the popular press (see below). Again, this is a distinction (highly credible and persuasive source within the science discourse communities but probably less persuasive within the public sphere, where attacks on credibility—by the ignorant or the nefarious—may be more likely than not) that is critical to the focus of my course.

The blog posting, WSJ letter, and Science letter were presented in their entirety to the class, and discussion centered on credibility, importance of societal reaction to the science, and the relative rhetorical strength of each source of information. I attempted to persuade the class that the blogger (representing many "internet sources") lacked inherent (a-priori) credibility, although in many circles (social networking sites like Facebook) it could be highly persuasive, tending to easily feed on human "confirmation biases," a tendency to seek and believe "information" that confirms existing beliefs. Students generally were aware that the WSJ is a well-known newspaper, but had less awareness of its ownership or strong affiliations with generally right-wing political agendas. Not surprisingly (I've been at this for a while), students (mostly non-science disciplines) had virtually no understanding of the nature of the AAAS or NAS, and had to be educated as to their standing at the top of a spectrum of scientific credibility, again part of the semester learning project.

One advantage of incorporating current press into the classroom as a source of "teachable moments" is that frequently the moments become extended, increasing sensitivity to the subject matter such that subsequent press, internet, or television discussions become germane to classroom learning. Here, daily reading (an online personal subscription to the New York Times) led to followup pieces by blogger Andrew Revkin, with still further leads. These too were brought into class for further consideration of credibility, importance, and rhetoric. The articles are as follows:

Writing for the NYTimes "Green" blog on Jan. 30, Revkin posted "Scientists Challenging Climate Science Appear to Flunk Climate Economics." Chiding the WSJ by providing a series of links to responses from Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Peter Gleick writing in a Forbes post ("noting that the Journal turned down a letter of concern about human-driven climate change from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences (which ended up published in the journal Science)"), with a dismantling of a key letter argument posted by one of my favorite authors, Chris Mooney. I encourage you to read the entire post.

The critical economic argument was a posting from an email exchange with "William D. Nordhaus, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, whose work is at the heart of the piece’s rejection of the need for “drastic” steps to curtail greenhouse gas emissions (as if that’s the only kind of response being considered)," in which Nordhaus comments:

"The piece completely misrepresented my work. My work has long taken the view that policies to slow global warming would have net economic benefits, in the trillion of dollars of present value. This is true going back to work in the early 1990s (MIT Press, Yale Press, Science, PNAS, among others). I have advocated a carbon tax for many years as the best way to attack the issue. I can only assume they either completely ignorant of the economics on the issue or are willfully misstating my findings."

A follow-up posting by Revkin on Jan. 31, "Climate Researchers Get Their Wall Street Journal Moment," as follows:

The Wall Street Journal has just published “Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate,” a rebuttal from a long list of climate researchers criticizing last week’s much-discussed 16-author op-ed article titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.”

Here’s the opening paragraph of the response and a link to the rest:

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

The online letter referred to by Revkin has a posted date of Feb. 1. "Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate," goes on as follows, reinforcing much of the science in the previous Science letter (above) while also attempting to inform on the nature of the science enterprise itself:

You published "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" (op-ed, Jan. 27) on climate change by the climate-science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology. While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. The few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert. This happens in nearly every field of science. For example, there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS. And it is instructive to recall that a few scientists continued to state that smoking did not cause cancer, long after that was settled science.

Climate experts know that the long-term warming trend has not abated in the past decade. In fact, it was the warmest decade on record. Observations show unequivocally that our planet is getting hotter. And computer models have recently shown that during periods when there is a smaller increase of surface temperatures, warming is occurring elsewhere in the climate system, typically in the deep ocean. Such periods are a relatively common climate phenomenon, are consistent with our physical understanding of how the climate system works, and certainly do not invalidate our understanding of human-induced warming or the models used to simulate that warming.

Thus, climate experts also know what one of us, Kevin Trenberth, actually meant by the out-of-context, misrepresented quote used in the op-ed. Mr. Trenberth was lamenting the inadequacy of observing systems to fully monitor warming trends in the deep ocean and other aspects of the short-term variations that always occur, together with the long-term human-induced warming trend.

The National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. (set up by President Abraham Lincoln to advise on scientific issues), as well as major national academies of science around the world and every other authoritative body of scientists active in climate research have stated that the science is clear: The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused. It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses. In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.

What is gratifying to me as an instructor is the reinforcement of my claim for the credibility of the National Academy of Science and the validation of my assertions of the primacy of science that appears within credible refereed journals. Also useful are the attempts at introducing the fundamentals of anthropogenic climate change and the reinforcement that this is the consensus view of most qualified climate scientists.

Finally (at least for this week's class), Revkin also posted a link to an analysis of the methods used in the original WSJ letter by Louis A. Derry, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Cornell University, a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the credibility and rhetoric of the letter. Derry systematically destroys by exposure the entire letter. It is a very entertaining read, which I'll leave to you.

This does, of course, promise to continue (e.g.,

What an exciting semester!


For the record, I should note that in my course discussion of popular press does not go on in a vacuum. In our second week, still at the getting-to-know-each-other stage, we are also discussing (in lecture and through online notes such as "Introduction: To Be Aware and To Act," concepts such as confirmation bias and credibility spectrum. We follow a rigorous weekly schedule of readings and review questions and related assignments, including a reflective journal. Having started with some exposure to concepts and the excitement (hoping some of the personal excitement of the instructor exudes to infect the students), we are prepared to look more deeply into the general nature of science ("How Science Confronts Doubt, Complexity, and Uncertainty"), specifics about climate change ("What Science Knows About Climate Change and How This is Communicated"), and the nature of science-deniers ("Clever Words: How Contrarians Bend Climate Science for Ideology and Corporate Profit."). We also read and discuss Naomi Oreske's Merchants of Doubt during this time.

Thus, by the end of five weeks we have a pretty good platform from which to assess what we are reading in the press or online, we are beginning to build an understanding of some of the more credible and less credible individuals and institutions engaged in the discussion, and we are much better prepared to be engaged citizens participating in the public sphere as voters and activists.

And then comes the rest of the semester!

If you would like to know more, a complete syllabus, reading list, assignments, and written lecture notes with references are available online here.

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