The Intersection

Cornell Talk Abstract

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Well, I am off to Ithaca today to deliver my first major talk (tomorrow) on the subject of hurricanes and global warming, sponsored by the Cornell Department of Communication and co-sponsored by the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, and the Ethical, Legal, & Social Issues focus area of New Life Sciences Initiative.

I really appreciate the invite and opportunity to deliver this presentation, as it has been an early chance to develop a talk and accompanying slide show that I will be continuing to hone between now and the June release of Storm World. I guess my audience at Cornell will be favored in the sense that they’re getting entirely new content from me; but on the other hand, they’re also getting new content that has not yet been, er, field tested.

In any event, for those who are interested in the gist of what I’ll have to say but not about to fly to Ithaca to hear it (especially given how the weather is looking), here is the working abstract:

Science at High Wind Speeds:
Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming

It may be the most fraught issue in meteorology today: Is global warming increasing the ferocity of hurricanes? Set against a backdrop of interest group politicking, media excesses, scientific suppression by the Bush administration, and storms slamming the coasts, the massive attention to this subject over the last several years helped to thrust a group of researchers into the political and scientific argument of their lives.

In this talk, a prelude to his forthcoming book Storm World, author Chris Mooney introduces the relatively new science of “hurricane climatology” and surveys the political, social, and meteorological context that made it matter so much. In the process, he explains what scientists can learn, from such high-profile conflicts, about how to communicate their knowledge to a media and public desperate for it (but not in the form of equations!).

Any and all feedback appreciated, from Cornellians in attendance or others!

Comments

  1. #1 Dark Tent
    January 25, 2007

    “thrust a group of researchers into the political and scientific argument of their lives.”

    I bet most (not all, but most) of these scientists would prefer to have never taken part in the current political “argument” — which is really more of a war of words in the media than an “argument”, since many of the claims are made sans evidence.

    The scientists did not create the monster — the media did — but unfortunately for the scientists, they are the ones who now have to deal with all the nonsense and straighten out all the misconceptions that have been sown on the winds like so many danelion seeds.

    There was a time in the not so distant past when a storm scientist could freely posit (without a bunch of reporters and bloggers hounding them) that hurricanes might have some relationship to ocean temperatures (which makes perfect thermodynamic sense).

    Those days are over and the whole thing has become more than a little like the OJ trial feeding frenzy. Sadly, most of the American public and media are not desperate for knowledge, but instead for sensationalism. They seem to be titilated by tornadoes.

  2. #2 Daniel
    January 25, 2007

    I’ll be there, and hopefully in time to get a front row seat!

  3. #3 Jon Winsor
    January 25, 2007

    titilated by tornadoes.

    Chris, is it too late to change your book title?

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    January 25, 2007

    how did we get onto tornadoes?

  5. #5 Jon Winsor
    January 25, 2007

    Sorry, just an attempt at humor …

  6. #6 druidbros
    January 26, 2007

    Hey Chris, would you see if someone could record your lecture and then you could post it on your blog? I have recorded lectures using my ipod and a device which fits on top. It has to be cleaned up before you post it but I could do that for you.

  7. #7 Daniel
    January 26, 2007

    Great talk Chris – I for one particularly liked the comments on incentive structures, in response to a question at the end. Basically, for those who weren’t there, the issue raised was concerning the lack of incentive for scientists to frame their research to the media.

    Good luck continuing to give the talk, and thanks for signing my copy of The Republican War on Science!!

  8. #8 Dark Tent
    January 26, 2007

    “how did we get onto tornadoes?”

    The public does not know the difference — nor does most of the media, from what I have seen.

  9. #9 Emily Butler
    January 27, 2007

    Hey Chris, I really enjoyed your talk yesterday, and I agree completely with your thoughts about scientists needing to become better communicators. Frankly I was surprised by the audience members who seemed resistant to this idea and indicated that being more active in terms of communicating to the public could even (at the extreme) cost someone their career. I think the opposite is starting to become true; for example, to get an NSF research grant nowadays, you MUST address a criterion known as “Broader Impacts.” If you cannot demonstrate the broader impacts of your work, e.g. how you will communicate it outside of the scientific community, how it will help the public in general or serve public education, and so on, your grant is not likely to be funded. You could point this out the next time someone says that the structure of the scientific establishment is wholly opposed to this kind of communication.

    Also, a side note: I wonder if you have seen the documentary “Flock of Dodos”? It is a great film (released in spring 2006) about the intelligent design/evolution “circus” and the dodos who partake in it. Naturally you assume that the dodos are the intelligent design proponents, and as the film unfolds you certainly see that they are, but the director makes the point throughout that evolutionary biologists constitute another flock of dodos. Their inability to communicate effectively about their work, or simply their disinclination to do so, is largely responsible for the sad state of evolutionary education in this country today and the resulting misunderstanding the public has about this fundamental area of science. Kudos to you for encouraging scientists, as this film does, to learn how to talk about our work and make it understandable to the average citizen.

  10. #10 Dark Tent
    January 27, 2007

    Here’s an interesting piece by Hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel, which includes a description of the greenhouse effect and also includes his take on how we got to the current situation in which “the American public has been misinformed by a media obsessed with sensational debate” :

    “Ever eager for the drama of competing dogmas, the media largely ignored mainstream scientists whose hesitations did not make good copy. As the global-warming signal continues to emerge, this soap opera is kept alive by a dwindling number of deniers constantly tapped for interviews by journalists who pretend to look for balance.” — Kerry Emanuel

  11. #11 Fred Bortz
    January 28, 2007

    Emily Butler writes:
    Frankly I was surprised by the audience members who seemed resistant to this idea and indicated that being more active in terms of communicating to the public could even (at the extreme) cost someone their career.

    And this at the home institution of Carl Sagan.

    But Sagan’s life story ( http://www.scienceshelf.com/SaganBios.htm ) is actually an example of the cost to one’s career of focusing on the wrong audience. He never was admitted to the National Academy of Science, for example.

    I’m not of Sagan’s caliber, but I know I could have made more progress in academe if I had followed a narrower path and wrote for scientists instead of kids ( http://www.fredbortz.com ). It was a conscious choice, and I was aware of the risks. The audience members were right about the risks. Should they be more daring? Probably not. They should do their thing in their research community and let the more skillful public communicators handle the outreach.

    Then Emily adds:
    I think the opposite is starting to become true; for example, to get an NSF research grant nowadays, you MUST address a criterion known as “Broader Impacts.”

    I’ve seen this from the inside in my best academic times in the 1980s and early 1990s. I was not on the tenure stream, so I could afford to get involved in outreach. Most of the faculty knew how to talk the talk and get the grants, but they were happy to have someone like me around to actually connect with the public and K-12 education.

    The NSF scoring system allocates a certain number of points to “Broader Impacts,” but I would guess that a proposal that scores at the top in the usual research categories and technological or economic benefits only needs an fair-to-middling score on outreach.

    Has anyone here actually sat on an NSF evaluation panel recently, and might they be able to comment on whether “Broader Impacts” has ever played a decisive role in the grant allocations?

    Fred Bortz, author of Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel, a middle grade biography of a winner of the Carl Sagan Award for public outreach from the American Astronomical Society ( http://www.fredbortz.com/HammelBio.htm )

  12. #12 Dark Tent
    January 28, 2007

    “I could have made more progress in academe if I had followed a narrower path and wrote for scientists instead of kids”

    Perhaps, but I’d be wiling to bet that — like Sagan — you are having a far greater impact writing for kids.

    I grew up in Ithaca and attended many of Sagan’s lectures, back when he was intimately involved with the Voyager and Viking projects. It’s hard to describe how inspiring he was and the kind of excitement for science that he instilled in me — and probably most others in the audience. That kind of public outreach — and the kind of stuff you do, Fred — is priceless.

    It is indeed unfortunate — and sad — that scientists have to make a choice whether to write for their peers or for a wider audience because the Amerifcan public is in desperate need of scientific ambassadors like Sagan and yourself.

    The ironic part of it all is that Carl Sagan was a better scientist than many of the weapons technicians who did make it into the National Academy — and who voted against his admittance. I think many of these people felt threatened by him and others like him, because he questioned the wisdom of some of the weapons programs that their livelihood dependended on (Sagan demonstrated against continued nuclear waepons testing, for example, calling for a comprehenseive test ban treaty). And many of them were undoubtedly jealous that he was such a superstar in the public eye, while they were relegated to “lab technician” status.

  13. #13 Fred Bortz
    January 28, 2007

    Dark Tent writes:
    It is indeed unfortunate — and sad — that scientists have to make a choice whether to write for their peers or for a wider audience…

    I disagree that they have to make a choice. Many of the books I review for major metropolitan newspapers (archived at http://www.scienceshelf.com ) are written by accomplished scientists who also have a facility with words and an interest in outreach. Peter Ward is a favorite of mine (see http://www.scienceshelf.com/OutofThinAir.htm and http://www.scienceshelf.com/LifeAsWeDoNotKnowIt.htm for my most recent reviews of his books).

    Of course, when a professor is aiming for tenure, s/he needs to postpone the urge to write such books and focus on academic publication instead. [There's a bit of that in the backstory of my Heidi Hammel biography ( http://www.fredbortz.com/HammelBio ) where she discovers that she needed to keep her "have-a-life" activities under the radar until after she passed her quals.]

    The unfortunate part is the jealousy you cite that manifests itself as looking down noses at books written for nonscientists or nonspecialists, especially in the rare cases where that brings the author fame and fortune. But that comes only from a minority of scientists.

    I have neither fame nor fortune, but I appreciate your compliments. I chose outreach activities because that suited me and the time was right. It’s not for everyone, and not for all stages of a person’s professional life.

    Some people are better suited to research and to talking to fellow specialists all through their career. Forcing them to think in terms of outreach is a bad idea, in my opinion. They do their “thing,” and I do mine.

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