Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals

Climate Scientists continue to see persuasive evidence of global warming and climate change when they speak at academic conferences, even though, as Andrew Sullivan rightly put it, the science is being ‘swift-boated before our eyes.’ (See also Bill McKibben at Tomdispatch.com on Climate Change’s OJ Simpson moment).

This article at mongabay.com includes some hand-wringing from scientists who say that they should have responded to the attacks earlier and more forcefully in public last fall, or who worry that scientists are not charismatic t.v. personalities who can be persuasive on that medium.

Let me just give my scientific colleagues some advice, since as a Middle East expert I’ve seen all sorts of falsehoods about the region successfully purveyed by the US mass media and print press, in such a way as to shape public opinion and to affect policy-making in Washington:

1. Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. A blog allows scientists to summarize new findings in clear language for a wide audience. It makes the scientist and the scientific research ‘legible’ to the wider society. Educated lay persons will run with interesting new findings and cause them to go viral. You will also find that you give courage to other colleagues who are specialists to speak out in public. You cannot depend on journalists to do this work. You have to do it yourselves.

2. It is not your fault. The falsehoods in the media are not there because you haven’t spoken out forcefully or are not good on t.v. They are there for the following reasons:

a. Very, very wealthy and powerful interests are lobbying the big media companies behind the scenes to push climate change skepticism, or in some cases (as with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp/ Fox Cable News) the powerful and wealthy interests actually own the media.

b. Powerful politicians linked to those wealthy interests are shilling for them, and elected politicians clearly backed by economic elites are given respect in the US corporate media. Big Oil executives e.g. have an excellent rollodex for CEOs, producers, the bookers for the talk shows, etc. in the corporate media. They also behind the scenes fund “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute to produce phony science. Since the AEI generates talking points that aim at helping Republicans get elected and pass right wing legislation, it is paid attention to by the corporate media.

c. Media thrives on controversy, which produces ratings and advertising revenue. As a result, it is structured into an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ binary argument. Any broadcast that pits a climate change skeptic against a serious climate scientist is automatically a win for the skeptic, since a false position is being given equal time and legitimacy. It was the same in the old days when the cigarette manufacturers would pay a ‘scientist’ to go deny that smoking causes lung cancer. And of course we saw all the instant Middle East experts who knew no Arabic and had never lived in the Arab world or sometimes even been there who were paraded as knowledgeable sources of what would happen if the United States invaded Iraq and occupied it.

d. Journalists for the most part have to do as they are told. Their editors and the owners of the corporate media decide which stories get air time and how they are pitched. Most journalists privately admit that they hate their often venal and ignorant bosses. But what alternative do most of them have?

e. Journalists for the most part do not know how to find academic experts. An enterprising one might call a university and be directed to a particular faculty member, which is way too random a way to proceed. If I were looking for an academic expert, I’d check a citation index of refereed articles, but most people don’t even know how to find the relevant database. Moreover, it is not all the journalists’ fault. journalism works on short deadlines and academics are often teaching or in committee and away from email. Many academics refuse (shame on them) to make time for media interviews.

f. Many journalists are generalists and do not themselves have the specialized training or background for deciding what the truth is in technical controversies. Some of them are therefore fairly easily fooled on issues that require technical or specialist knowledge. Even a veteran journalist like Judy Miller fell for an allegation that Iraq’s importation of thin aluminum tubes in 2002 was for nuclear enrichment centrifuges, even though the tubes were not substantial enough for that purpose. Many journalists (and even Colin Powell) reported with a straight face the Neocon lie that Iraq had ‘mobile biological weapons labs,’ as though they were something you could put in a winnebago and bounce around on Iraq’s pitted roads. No biological weapons lab could possibly be set up without a clean room, which can hardly be mobile. Back in the Iran-Iraq War, I can remember an American wire service story that took seriously Iraq’s claim that large numbers of Iranian troops were killed trying to cross a large body of water by fallen electrical wires; that could happen in a puddle but not in a river. They were killed by Iraqi poison gas, of course.

The good journalists are aware of their limitations and develop proxies for figuring out who is credible. But the social climbers and time servers are happy just to host a shouting match that maybe produces ‘compelling’ television, which is how they get ahead in life.

3. If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time. I could not quantify it, but I am sure that I have. It is a lifetime commitment and a lot of work and it interferes with academic life to some extent. Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don’t play fair– they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn’t a debate, it is a hatchet job). I certainly have been calumniated, e.g. by poweful voices such as John Fund at the Wall Street Journal or Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.

End/ (Not Continued)

32 Responses

  1. Please realize that your scientific credentials do not confer blind trust and acceptance when your theories are being considered by the unwashed masses. Most of the time your readers clue into a bold statement and then step back to examine your reasoning. But many of them skipped that philosophy course in deductive reasoning that would allow them to benefit from your reasoned arguments.

  2. Spot on, save a few generalizations. And I am a journalist.

  3. #1 is excellent advice. I teach a research class for undergrads and my students always mention blogs in addition to scholarly publications as a way researchers could share information.

  4. Frankly I think those scientists concerned with climate change are indeed media aware, a bit too much in fact, at least those whose secrets were revealed in the East Anglia emails.

    The issue is not one of poor presentation – an eternal complaint of politicians to cover bad policy – but rather of confused science at the heart of the matter.

    It won't surprise you to hear that scientists are very good at resolving questions technically. What they are not good at is identifying the questions to answer. I am endlessly surprised by the simplistic approach the scientists have had to climate change. The East Anglian scientists, and their US correspondents, even wanted to suppress the medieval warm period, because it didn't correspond to their theory, although it is well attested in history. But then I don't suppose climate scientists read history. It was absolutely outrageous, to ignore evidence because it didn't suit.

  5. Yes. Thanks, Juan Cole, for your informative blog. The public learns a lot from you that journalists fail to provide. You are doing a lot of good.

    You are offering very good advice to climate scientists.
    The comparison to the cigarette smoking fight is appropriate. Comparisons to Gallileo might are also appropriate.

    jonny bakho

  6. REQUEST FOR CORRECTION:

    "Many journalists (and even Colin Powell) reported with a straight face the Neocon lie that Iran. had 'mobile biological weapons labs,'"

    You surely meant to write Iraq.

  7. Dr Stephen Schneider's _Science as a Contact Sport_ has a very good chapter on how scientists should deal with media, a study in what he calls mediarology.

    May I also suggest that there is a clear business case for more energy efficiency whatever your position on climate change. For instance, DuPont has a policy of zero emissions not because of climate change but because it saves them money, 100s of millions of $$$$ so far, and makes them money by sharing their methods with other companies.

    Arup and H+O, two of the largest design/build firms in the world, are both committed to sustainability. Many other companies have also seen the writing on the wall. This is not going to stop no matter what level of swiftboating occurs in the media.

    I'm already thinking about the next level: what happens when the measures we've taken don't stop things from getting worse. Imagine the backlash and denial then.

    More at link to dailykos.com

  8. The points in this piece are useful to other topics. Some obvious ones are: financial system, health and education. The issue of jobs is one that may over take all others. And the cost of being a superpower is something that cannot be sustained.

    If we don't figure out a way to get the truthful message out on the complex problems facing the society, we will continue to decline. For sure the political system is now in gridlock and unable to deal with essential problems.

    The Republicans tell lies all the time. For example, only 3 people ("terrorists") have been convicted military tribunals, and two of these have been released – one to Australia and the other to Yemen. By contrast, 192 trials have been held in regular united states courts. The Republicans are getting away making false claims in this area and the press is playing right along with the game.

  9. The link at this start of this article has an interesting comment. Here it is:

    There are two feedback loops in play set to force a destiny not fit for man nor beast let alone anything for practically any other living thing on Earth. Final touches on this feedback loop set to release naturally sequestered methane in a first volley of events bringing the planet to its knees is being refined by man with every chop of tree or oil well drilled.. Attempts to short circuit the road to ruin by use of logic doesn't register with mankind which is geared and evolved to respond to emotion instead of what would preserve the irreplaceable natural systems that have maintained conditions suitable to life..
    A second feedback loop is the financial structure bringing food to bowl and wealth to some across the globe.. Wall Street firms send lobbyists to Washington and dump big money in campaigns to elect those who would perpetuate a feedback loop designed to benefit the profit of corporations. The power of corporations is highlighted by the recent Citizens United US Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited funds to be used to affect elections. The only brake on this soapbox racer headed downhill is the internet and its ability to let small voices be heard. Heard by all for all time for it is up to us who live today to speak up for maintaining a living planet and the rights of all.. The scientists and people willing to hold to their principles and speak truth to power today will be forever appreciated by future generations to come.

    Dale Lanan

  10. An excellent post, as they all are.

    You probably know this, some of your reader may or may not: there *are* a number of good climate science blogs out there. The best for my money is realclimate.org (more generally one of the best science blogs out there). A number of others post through scienceblogs.org.

  11. Also, Climate scientists should distance themselves from political activists like Al Gore. Al Gore means well but he exaggerates and often misstates the problem. And it's not just Al Gore, there are also political activists in the United Nations who are using climate science to push for global governance, and they often misrepresent the facts to fit their political agenda.

  12. "Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog."

    This may be good suggestion for academics based in universities. However many climate scientists are not in universities. Rather they are government employees based in government labs. In such a situation, the employer may want to control communication with the general public.

    BTW, I'm writing this as a government research scientist in Canada. As such, I must get the approbation of our communications branch before speaking to the media about my work. My guess is that this would be the case for gov't scientists in many other countries.

  13. OMG, you HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD !
    Thank you Professor !!!

  14. Thanks for this refreshingly candid, very informative post!

  15. Just bear in mind this blogging idea does not work for someone employed by a government agency, where there are always protocols about making statements to the public–working through official channels and all that.

  16. Kerry's swift-boating in 2004 was a clear symptom of his disconnect from the dem base, the left Tea Party.

    Apparently, Kerry believed that professional party activists, political scientists and people like Michael Moore can do everything necessary for his reelection. This turned out to be a gross miscalculation.

    In 2008 Obama fixed this mistake and engaged the mass support. But in 2009 dems returned to the usual mode and now only political professionals care about the endless congressional maneuvering.

    Now endless production and merging of different versions of healthcare legislation is the main priority. So, no surprise that Republican swift-boating is back in all areas, not just healthcare reform.

  17. "Relationships are primary and all policy is devrived primarily from relationshps, not facts." It is necessary to engage, as suggested, by blogging, bringing ones face to the discussion. Sorry to have lost the source of the comment. Pete

  18. gmoke@7:59PM makes an excellent observation, imho. It is not so much l'idée "climate change" that is the real issue, but the implication "climate change" = commercial detriment (or even uncertainty, which businessmen hate) that the alarm bell sounded by the world's best and brightest fails to answer. Fails to answer, because they don't know how to capitalize: they don't know how to translate "climate crisis" into "commercial opportunity," which would make all the difference. imho, The issue needs to be re-framed into a rhetoric resembling: "Climate Change means… more jobs and local business investments in your district, Congressman." This is the same rhetorical process used to sell Defense Spending in The States. And "sell" is the essence here, not "prove" or rationalize. I daresay, if the Democrats had framed the Health Care Reform as a "more jobs and local investments in your district, Mr. Congressman, and Mr. Businessman," rather than reason {grin} or idealism = "it's good for the country!" Which sounds like some kind of medicine, itself (or even an implicit sacrifice of some sort), Then those dollars would be flowing — and after all, "global warming" boils down to re-distributing capital, not simply changing climate = "The sky is falling!" -vs- "Prove it!" disceptation, n'est-ce pas?

  19. To address the comment by Anonymous at 6:28 PM regarding the medieval warming period we can use the utility of climate scientists producing blogs to help us non-climate scientists understand and refute the climate change deniers.

    RealClimate.org discusses the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. These serve as classic examples of climate change deniers' failure to understand the data, then to base their objections to climate change data and models on their own misunderstanding and misrepresentations . RealClimate.org points us to this paper by Jones and Mann (2004) [Jones, P.D., Mann, M.E., Climate Over Past Millennia , Reviews of Geophysics, 42, RG2002, doi: 10.1029/2003RG000143, 2004] where rather than ignoring or suppressing the data, they explain its significance. The shorter version is that periodic regional climate change does not equate to global climate change.

    It appears that Anonymous at 6:28 PM would prefer to have scientists defer to those who misunderstand and misrepresent data for their assignments as to which subject areas deserve their attention.

    I couldn't resist demonstrating how efficacious blogs by climate scientists are. Professor Cole knows what he is talking about.

    ==================================

  20. Anonymous @ 4:55 PM said…
    "Spot on, save a few generalizations. And I am a journalist."

    Pray tell, do you have a remedy to suggest to improve the performance on the journalists' side?

  21. Excellent points Dr. Cole. I agree that (MSM) "Journalists for the most part have to do as they are told." They actually work as typists for the Capi that control the media. Yet the biggest scandal is that schools of journalism at universities fail to denounce it.

  22. Excellent advice.
    But it's also true that scientists are rotten at PR.

  23. It appears that Anonymous at 6:28 PM would prefer to have scientists defer to those who misunderstand and misrepresent data for their assignments as to which subject areas deserve their attention.

    Of course, Jones and Mann, the authors of the paper you cite, are mired in controversy following the climategate scandal, but OK.

    (And nope, I'm not a denialist; I just think your snide, dismissive tone toward the earlier poster is amusing. I suspect you will take the same tone with me. Go right ahead.)

  24. The capacity of power to use propaganda effectively is intimidating .
    Your voice of reason and ( some ) optimism that reason can prevail seems very brave – and gives courage to others I would think .
    More strength to you .

  25. As Anonymous at 6:28 PM, I am genuinely surprised that Republiecan cites Jones and Mann at me. They were specifically quoted in the email scandal as wanting to get rid of the Medieval Warming Period. It was clearly shown in those emails as a specific positive desire, rather than a recognition of what the evidence happened to show.

    I am not a denialist either by the way. I just happen to have done some work on climate change, as a historian rather than a scientist.

    It is evident to me that climate change is an extremely complex subject, and it is difficult to be sure that you have identified all the factors.

    Again, any detailed data on the climate is very recent, not more than a century and a half old in the Middle East. But the available data does tend to confirm the existence of the Little Ice Age.

    There may be methods coming up which will allow further back projection of the data, but they are not fully available yet.

    In particular stalagmite deposit analysis is looking very promising for the Middle East. The initial results appear to show that precisely what we thought happened, did in fact.

    Computer modelling is not an adequate substitute. Though I haven't yet had time to read the whole Jones and Mann article.

  26. Anon: "As Anonymous at 6:28 PM, I am genuinely surprised that Republiecan cites Jones and Mann at me. They were specifically quoted in the email scandal as wanting to get rid of the Medieval Warming Period."

    Mann (I think) was specifically quoted as wanting to *contain* the MWP, which is not the same thing at all. Any scientist in this or related fields would understand that what he meant was to put temporal bounds on it, in this case to find out when it began. The Mediaeval Warm Period has been discussed in paper after paper, several by Michael Mann. It's there in the data. Yet Mann is routinely accused of trying to eliminate or hide it.

    What relevance does this have to the current subject? I'm not sure, except that you can blog all you want, but some people don't want to know and will be trying to misunderstand.

  27. What Juan should have also mentioned for those scientists who start blogs: The anonymous, science-hating concern trolls will come out of the woodwork.

    In particular:

    The politician Al Gore has gotten very little wrong, because, unlike you Teabagger kitchen scientists, he always defers to the work of tens of thousands of scientists over decades of discovery, disputation and refinement.

    Penn State's Michael Mann has been entirely vindicated of all the false charges you character assassins promulgate in your dittohead poison pen comments.

    Phil Jones was not mired in Climategate – the scandal there, just as in the original Watergate, was that your chosen crowd committed break-ins for political dirty tricks. He is a crime victim, and you are the ones defending and supporting the criminals. Since East Anglia spends all its money on data and research, they have none to fight public relations wars against a despicable McCarthyite campaign waged on the fossil fuel industry's dime.

    We are still in the Season of the Witches – as much as we were under the despotic George Bush regime – but the McCarthyites have simply spread out and attack by sniping from the roofs now that there is no longer a regime to supply them with tanks.

  28. @ 11:04 AM Anonymous said…

    Of course, Jones and Mann, the authors of the paper you cite, are mired in controversy following the climategate scandal, but OK.

    (And nope, I'm not a denialist; I just think your snide, dismissive tone toward the earlier poster is amusing. I suspect you will take the same tone with me. Go right ahead.)

    I apologize if my tone was offensive to you. See below regarding the controversy over the emails.

    Anonymous @ 6:28 PM, I apologize to you as well, if my tone was too snide.

    Mark @ 10:30 PM has summarized well both the significance of the Medieval Warming Period and the confusion over how climate scientists use the word *contain* in discussing the data from around this period. The meanings of *trick* and *decline* were similarly misunderstood and taken as smoking guns. These critiques and the responses to them are recorded more completely elsewhere. This controversy over the stolen emails does not invalidate the data from Mann and/or Jones, nor is theirs the only data used to assess global temperature over time.

  29. Here's just one link on how Al Gore is saving the planet. Check out how much money this guy is pocketing on global warming fears. He's a crook and should be outted as one. Just google Al Gore carbon.
    Yeah way to strike back Al.

    link to telegraph.co.uk

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