I’ve just finished reading fellow ScienceBlogger Chris Mooney‘s new book Storm World, and I highly recommend it — not only to people interested in hurricanes and global climate change, but also to fans of cognitive psychology.
Why psychology? Because the book offers an excellent case study of how scientific research becomes part of the popular consciousness. Hurricane Katrina was a devastating storm, and its repercussions are still being felt. There’s also little doubt that global warming is occurring. While there’s a great deal of scientific uncertainty about the precise relationship between global warming and hurricanes, the coincidence of these two news stories made it seem to many people as if increased hurricane activity was a necessary consequence of global warming.
Mooney’s book starts by showing how controversial hurricane science was even in the 19th century, when James Espy and William Redfield debated whether hurricanes were more like “spirals” or “chimneys.” The tremendous cost of these storms, both in terms of lives lost and property damage, seems to have always created a scientific debate as turbulent as the hurricanes themselves.
These debates would be dramatic enough if they were confined to the scientific literature and conference panels, but because of their importance to the public, they’ve been closely monitored in the media. And while the press loves a good story, it loves a good storyteller even more. Those who made the boldest predictions often got more coverage than those who offered more dispassionate analysis of the available evidence.
Most of the book, however, takes on the more recent debate about the relationship between global warming and hurricanes. Too often this debate circumvented the peer-reviewed literature, its players demanding to be judged only by public opinion. The media was eager to cover the debate, now looking more like a reality TV show than a scientific dialog. While many participants were careful to stick to arguments supported by research, others weren’t so scrupulous. The media, and the larger public it fueled, often didn’t take care to note when scientific discussions meandered into speculation. Mooney guides us through the morass, trying to sift out bald assertions from carefully researched conclusions, but also showing how the presentation of the arguments mattered more than their substance, especially where the lay public was concerned.
It’s fascinating stuff, but it would have been even more fascinating (to me, anyway), if Mooney had covered some of the science behind the persuasive strategies each side employed. Mooney has had a long association with Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor who focuses on “framing,” the multidisciplinary study of persuasion. Perhaps in the future the two of them will work together to show how framing can affect the public understanding of this and other issues that span science and politics.
Storm World is nonetheless an impressive achievement, offering an engaging description of nearly 200 years of hurricane science, as well as important insights for how the science — and politics — of these storms should proceed in the future.