Chris Mooney with a New Year's resolution for practicing scientists: engage more with the public and the media

Steve Silberman and Rebecca Skloot just pointed out to me an editorial from science writer Chris Mooney that has appeared online and will be in the Sunday, January 3rd edition of The Washington Post.

In the essay, "On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up," Mooney continues his longstanding call to scientists to take ownership in combating scientific misinformation, invoking the very weak response of the scientific community to the aftermath of e-mails and documents hacked from the Climatic Research Institute at the University of East Anglia.

The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.

A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes,, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. "I haven't had all that many other scientists helping in that effort," Mann told me recently.

Could we have done anything differently?
I agree to some extent but, in this particular case, I don't think that any concerted effort by scientific communicators could have overcome the bleating by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck that took one or two statements out of context from among 1,073 e-mails and a million words, claiming proof of a massive global scientific conspiracy to manufacture climate change warnings.

The problem is that when one's statements are not bound by facts, you can pretty much say whatever you want; that will be the first thing uncritical sycophants hear and remember.

It took several weeks for the AP to release its own investigative findings of the stolen documents to show that while there were petty and heated disagreements about specific data, nothing was faked. But by that time, science had lost a lot of ground to climate skeptics as detailed in an article Mooney cites:

Scientists themselves also come in for more negative assessments in the poll, with four in 10 Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment. That's up significantly in recent years. About 58 percent of Republicans now put little or no faith in scientists on the subject, double the number saying so in April 2007. Over this time frame, distrust among independents bumped up from 24 to 40 percent, while Democrats changed only marginally. Among seniors, the number of skeptics more than doubled, to 51 percent.

When a large segment of the public puts their faith in right wing miscreants that somehow have huge audiences, I have trouble seeing how scientists can respond no matter how many facts they have in their pockets or how effectively they communicate. I don't mean to sound defeatist but I think that responding to so-called Climategate was incredibly difficult no matter how well-prepared the scientific community could have been. This single crystallizing event was far more understandable to people than decades of climate research, starting primarily with the fact that the average person seems to associate the daily weather with climatological trends. Add to this mix a media empire with people who manufacture apparent facts by repeating untruths (i.e., Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11) and feeding the American love for a good conspiracy theory.

I'm just not sure how good Climategate is as an example of a failure by scientists to communicate with the public.

"Many refuse to try; others go to the opposite extreme of advocating vociferous and confrontational atheism."
After discussing his expert area of devastating hurricanes, Mooney then raises some excellent points about countering the denial of evolution by acknowledging that for many, evolution is an issue not of science but of faith.

"Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose," Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution," told me recently. "Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution."

This quarter of the essay will likely be the part that will create froth and lather in the blogosphere so I will mostly leave it for other commentators. Most of my day-to-day colleagues are moderately to strongly religious and many use their faith as motivators for their careers in the biomedical sciences. Many religious people in my community are huge fans of science. I contend that some degree of spirituality can co-exist with science. We're not going to talk people out of their faith; there is far more common ground here for us in science with a large swath of the US population who are religious and open to and often embrace scientific discourse.

Practical issues in engaging the public
I certainly agree that we can do a much better job of communicating with the public. Mooney cites the summer course run by Jeremy Jackson at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC-San Diego in training young scientists in communication skills and media interactions. Mooney closes the editorial with reference to books I really need to read:

And in another sign that the times may be changing, a syllabus for such classes is already here. A spate of recent books, from Randy Olson's "Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style" to Cornelia Dean's "Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public," seem like perfect assigned reading.

I've long held that scientists have a duty to interact with the public in a substantive way, particularly as beneficiaries of federal grant dollars provided, in part, by taxpayer dollars. I first heard this philosophy uttered by Harvard epidemiologist and nutritionist, Dr. Walter Willett, when he visited a few years back.

Because I'm in a research area where scientists seem to be tapped for press interviews more often than in other areas, I've added plans to some career development grant applications to provide media training for myself and my trainees. But as a scientist who has spent a lot of time interacting with the public and reporters, I can also say it is a thankless effort which one undertakes because of personal commitment and pride.

That is to say: some of my colleagues and superiors still think that interacting with the public and press is a self-serving, self-aggrandizing waste of time that detracts from hunting down research dollars.

I disagree strongly, of course. I'd say that my public talks and press interactions have complemented the expansion of my research program into other areas, giving me name recognition that has assisted me in networking with other researchers and grant program officials. About 90% of my interactions with television and newspaper reporters have been very fruitful and have gotten me into audiences with politicians and decision makers who normally wouldn't have had the time of day for yet another cancer researcher.

The best way to get scientists to interact with the public and the media is to give them actual credit for it - in academic currency, it will simply never count as much as peer-reviewed research publications or research grant dollars. Even teaching awards rarely matter in academia so I think there will have to be a huge shift in academia-think before one gets credit for teaching the public.

To me, this is the major barrier to scientists engaging with the public.

More like this

I have only one comment for you-
read the emails so you have the slightest idea what you are talking about.
Why in the world would anybody want to hear you regurgitate what's been regurgitated through several generations already? Sure, it's green; sure it's recycling waste - but come back to earth, man. Wherefore springs the vapid notion that your opinion of someone's opinion of some other nitwit's opinion is anything but polished turd?
Get the facts, man.
Do you have any idea how foolish you'll feel in the morning when you wake the heck up?
The AP shame has been exposed long ago. You keep losing the plot. Are your feet wet? Can you see the pyramids?

This was a comment below this article in the Washington Post
His views cover everything I have to say!

Tom Fuller has just returned to his home town of San Francisco following 10 years in Europe. He has written technology commentary for The International Herald Tribune's Italy Daily, and consulted on green technology for the UK government. About half of what he writes here will be a liberal skeptic's view of environmental issues.

thomaswfuller wrote:
As a 'lukewarmer'I can only say that Chris Mooney has not oriented the direction of this piece in a way that would advance the discussion. It's obvious why Michael Mann wants to reduce attacks like those brought on by Climategate--he behaved abominably and does not like the very justified criticism he is now receiving.

And it's not what scientists are saying that is getting the climate change movement in such trouble--it's specifically those charged with communicating their message that is letting their side down--including Chris Mooney's work elsewhere. Anybody reading the shrill panic messages of Joe Romm at Climate Progress or the arrogant screeds at Real Climate can tell you that they're not getting the job done. Nor are the pronouncements of politicians, who mostly hector the electorate and make promises of emission reductions that will take effect after they leave office.

The real street fight that took place is revealed in the Climategate emails and documents, and shows gutter fighting by Mann and his tribe of colleagues to illegally evade Freedom of Information requests, punish journal editors that dared publish papers by articles, distort data used in publications specifically oriented at policy-makers, and hide the disorganised chaos that their efforts have produced in climate databases.

As for Mann himself, this isn't the first time he's been called on the carpet for sloppy science. The original Hockey Stick chart was exposed by a Congressional committee investigation led by a prestigious statistician who pointed out in his report that letting such a small group of scientists serve as referees, co-authors and promoters of each other's work was bound to lead to the situation that has now been revealed in the leaked emails.

I believe that global warming is a real problem that needs to be addressed now. I think that Candidate Obama's energy program of investment in R&D, a smart grid, weatherising homes and offices and higher mileage standards are exactly what we should do in the short term. Sadly, his agenda got hijacked by exactly the people who have produced this public relations and communications disaster, and he ended up introducing omnibus legislation for Cap and Trade, and got suckered into letting EPA proceed with an endangerment finding which will allow Republicans to tie the administration up indefinitely in litigation.

At every opportunity, the people who have been charged with communicating the science to the public have failed miserably--this includes you, Mr. Mooney. And obviously, giving a couple of 'Strategic Communications for Dummies' lessons to Michael Mann didn't work out so well.

Until you realise that your communications strategy has failed utterly, you will be stuck with more Copenhagens, Climategates and ongoing sagas about the business affairs of the head of the IPCC.

You are the problem. Shutting up, getting off the stage and letting saner heads back into the decision-making process is the solution.

Shouldn't someone be afforded the opportunity to apprehend climate science in a venue beyond an eighth grade comprehension level? Shouldn't someone be afforded the opportunity to use all of their intellectual ability?

In a science as economically and politically sensitive as climate science, shouldn't some (a lot?) of looking over the shoulder be welcome? It does not seem to be. What I saw in the climategate letters wasn't particularly unusual for academia - infighting, backbiting, stroking, obfuscation, inflation, etc. - but is that the standard of practice that we want for a science whose conclusions are already having great consequences?

I just don't understand a great need for secrecy with lab notes and data sets and all the rest when the impact is so large.

A lot of folks think climate scientists are trying to sell them a pig in a poke. It will take more than more of the same eighth grade pablum to sell them it's not.

Chris Mooney should not be listened to on this subject. He is hardly a casual observer. He dared to accuse the Bush Administration of censoring science, but looks the other way when those who support anthropogenic global warming are caught red handed doing the type of thing that supposedly so offends him. The fact that he's still talking about the "consensus" is proof that he's very far behind the curve on this one. Earth to Chris, THERE IS NO CONSENSUS. Even if there were, that's not how science is settled.

Chris, I challenge you to put the words "hide the decline" into a context that doesn't mean climate science is being fudged.

By the way Chris, are you willing to engage in a public debate on this subject? I'm available if you are.

In the meantime, here are some online documentaries you might want to watch. They'll help you learn the truth about global warming erh uh I mean climate change.

Mark Gillar

Ha! You thought the militant atheism movement would be rankled? fella, you just hooked yourself some AGW denialists: blog-length comments, NO CONSENSUS CAPS, and Hooterville Gillar.

Have a nice day.

By neurospasm (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

@Dave McK: I have read a number of the e-mails. "Hide the decline" refers to a data technique that takes into account a phenomenon reported in 1998 (by Briffa and colleagues, PDF) that shows tree ring data has, for some reason, become less responsive to temperature changes than the actual measured temperatures. Tree ring data is used over hundreds of years as a surrogate measure of temperatures. Taken out of context, the phrase sounds rather damning.

Moreover, scientists use terms within their fields (such as "trick" or "scheme") that have different meanings than when used colloquially. When the scientific term is used in the lay context, I can see how it can be interpreted as diabolical.

John Cook at Skeptical Science has a nice explanation of the most contentious excerpts of the Mann e-mails.

@DanWV: I appreciate your enthusiasm but cutting and pasting large swaths of someone else's comments is not what we do here. If you don't have original thoughts to contribute, simply leave a URL for the rest of the readers to refer to in this discourse.

@Mr. Gillar - It is very difficult to take your statements seriously given your website that exploits the the lives lost in the Air France crash and the Minneapolis bridge collapse for the sake of joking about global warming.

I'm always blown away by the trend of "ur sciez sux and my opinion rox!!!" It's emblematic of the anti-scientific attitude in our country. Science is amoral---what we do with knowledge is not. You can deny scientific findings if they don't agree with your ideology, but that doesn't change them.

I think part of the problem is the fact that so many Americans are complete morons.

Think about it.

Science selects for we who have got brains, generally. It takes a certain amount of ability to think analytically and dispassionately.

The rest of the population is largely in professions where there is less or none of this vital selection.

By Katharine (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

Not that EVERYBODY in other professions is totally dumb; many of the commenters on this blog who are in other professions obviously show the ability to comprehend a certain amount of it.

But this is not about them; this is about the majority.

By Katharine (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

I like Mooney, but it really is troubling that he has such a tin ear for how his polemics--right or wrong--sound to actual scientists. He is telling scientists what their New Year's resolution should be? For realz?

This Carbon Tax has nothing to do with the environment.

At the bottom of this page

From the Climate Research Units own web site you will find a partial list of companies that fund the CRU.
It includes:

British Petroleum, 'Oil, LNG'
Broom's Barn Sugar Beet Research Centre, 'Food to Ethanol'
The United States Department of Energy, 'Nuclear'
Irish Electricity Supply Board. 'LNG, Nuclear'
UK Nirex Ltd. 'Nuclear'
Sultanate of Oman, 'LNG'
Shell Oil, 'Oil, LNG'
Tate and Lyle. 'Food to Ethanol'
Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, 'Nuclear'
KFA Germany, 'Nuclear'

You might what to check out what these and the other funding companies actually do.

This is all about making Nuclear Power, Liquefied Natural Gas and Food to Ethanol more cost competitive.

They have been paying for the research and getting the results that they have paid for, the results that you accept, and drive you to demand low CO2 products. They have the products you now want so desperately, and they are ready to deliver.

The raw data, the computer models and the methods used by the CRU have not been released, only the results. The CRU does not do science; they are in the anti-CO2 business.

I do not see a difference between this and Merck, their 'researchers' and Vioxx, the government and 'thousands and thousands' of doctors believed them, as did a lot of people.

It is business, it is capitalism.

Science Fiction from the Climate Research Unit.

The CRU is has not been practicing the scientific method for almost two decades. The scientific method requires that the researcher publish the original data, models and procedures needed for a skeptical analysis of any of their work. Since they are not using the scientific method then they simply are not doing science, they are writing fiction.

Ponds and Fleishman may have been wrong about cold fusion, but they were at least real scientists. They did their experiments, published the results and their data, procedures and description of the apparatus and the methods. They where shown to be in error, fine, but they were still scientific in their work. The outputs from the CRU are in comparison junk, so I ask, why are these fictional 'research' papers allowed to remain in the realm of scientific publications? Why do people continue to quote the CRU as if they were the work of Albert Einstein rather than the work of Mark Twain?

What is the definition of global temperature? If one postulates global warming one needs to know what global temperature is. I remember a couple years back when I became quite suspicious of Global warming when Al Gore wouldnât shut his yap about it that I tried to ask this question on a different site and was referred to as a mass murderer for trying to define terms. I had hoped for a discussion of different temperature data sets, the understanding that these data sets are only a small sample of the Earthâs temperature at any one time, the limitations, precision and accuracy of the data, how the methodology for sampling temperature may have altered over years, decades, centuries.

Never got that far of course, but even saying one knows global temperature with any degree of accuracy needs to be demonstrated. From there can one determine with any confidence, given changes in methodology, past trends in temperature? From there can one make predictive models of temperature change (and have they been confirmed!!) especially on the scale of decades and centuries, as this seems to be the idea underlying much of âthe sky is falling, the sky is falling ⦠give us your moneyâ political discourse of late. If one ever confirmed that future temperature trends were accurately being predicted, would one have any confidence that they understood the underlying causes and from there the necessary changes (ie the âgive us your moneyâ part). Funny that the solution proffered to a postulated future trend in global temperature is an attempt at man-made global cooling.

Finally, one should recognize when surrogates are being used in place of actual temperature readings, i.e. tree ring data might reflect not just temperature but for instance CO2 concentration, coral reefs, local predator populations, ice cover, ocean salinity and ice particulate content etc, etc.

I would think given the complexity of the climate the last thing anyone would want is some global treaty to attempt anthropogenic climate change.

I'm a doctoral level biological scientist and as Darwinian as you will find. I find it hard to believe that you, as a scientist and apparently a teacher of science and the scientific method, aren't the least bit suspicious of the character and published work of the CRU crew or their apologists in the press. I'm wondering just who is in denial here. I don't think it's me. I used to accept AGW dogma, but after looking closely at the science and politics over the past two and a half years, I am unconvinced that the modest amount of warming that occurred in the 20th century is distinguishable from natural background. Certainly, current climate models are unable to make accurate predictions. Kevin Trenberth's answer is that the data must be wrong. Not a very scientific assumption except where the surface temperature data has fudged to give the desired warming.
Sorry, but it's no longer about Rush Limbaugh and right wing nuts, or statements taken out of context, it's about (very likely) biased science. I think there's a good reason that there haven't been "all that many other scientists helping in that [defending Mann, et. al.] effort." A large number of real scientists in other fields don't like the smell and think they may have been had along with the uncritical press.

*sigh* Abel, you are too nice.

Chris Mooney is a poseur.

He says one thing in 2006, then the opposite in 2008, then the opposite in 2010. I mean, this is basic consistency of thought. If you go to your physician for a checkup in 2006, and she says "You need to increase fish in your diet for your heath." In 2008 she says "Dont eat fish, the mercury will kill you." In 2010 she says "You need to increase fish in your diet for your health."-- What would you think?

Youd quit listening to her until she provided for evidence for her changes in opinion.

And then she throws a bitch-fit when you ask for said evidence and accuses you of being sexist and a Nazi and anti-Christian for not listening to her advice.

Furthermore, Mooney has *zero* ethos on this topic. *ZERO* Mooneys pet-project is global warming, right? Dude came to Oklahoma last year, home of crazy-ass anti-global warming nuts. Mooney did not advertise to anyone (including me) that he was coming to OK, despite the fact I am friends with all the scientists down at OU through our evolution education activities. Mooney spoke to a class of journalism students, got right back on his plane, and ran home. Mooney had a golden opportunity to show one of his most vocal opponents (me) exactly How It Should Be Done(TM), how to present science to unbelievers, and dude ran away.

I repeat, you are very kind, Abel, but Mooney is just not worth the time/effort/praise you put in this commentary.

The scientists involved in 'Climategate' actually did a comprehensively excellent job of communicating with the public. In fact, they communicated so well that they motivated governments around the world to invest billions in climate change strategies, prompted citizens to riot in in the streets, got professionals to wager their reputations, scared countless children into fearing the future, and that's only a short list.

On a related note: those who call Climategate 'no big deal' persistently rely on the leaked emails, and on how they might be construed. The real story is to be found in the computer code and the data which came along for the ride. The code and data are starkly unambiguous in this case, and so, too, are the conclusions which may reasonably be drawn from them.

By Schiller Thurkettle (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

@CPP - No, it wasn't Mooney saying this should be our New Year's resolution; I came up with that title myself based on the timing of his op-ed and my post. Sorry to mislead you into thinking it was his opinion.

@David44 - My statement was based more on the fact that the most vitriolic and dismissive statements came from Limbaugh and Beck. I don't disagree that some scientists have questions about AGW. Actually, I feel that as someone who teaches the scientific methods, the fact that some scientists disagree gives us a great learning opportunity for how difficult it is to interpret results from experimental designs that are not prospective.

@ERV - I don't think I'm being unusually kind to Mooney - in fact, I disagree with him that anything could've been done post-CRU hacking. I read your post as well as your comment but my feeling is that Mooney, or anyone, has the right to change his opinion over two or three years as they gather more data or experience. In fact, it's done often in medicine and in contrast to your example, I'm glad we change our minds in medicine based upon constant reevaluation of data.

For example, the guidelines for estrogen hormone replacement therapy in post-menopausal women is a perfect example of how changing one's opinion, or that of an entire medical discipline, is a Good Thing. Modifying one's stance or opinion, is a show of reason, not always a weakness. Most certainly, I don't view Mooney, or anyone like him, as a poseur for changing his opinion. I especially give a lot of latitude to folks younger than I because they may not have yet accumulated life experiences that challenge their thinking or have lived through the shattering of dogma by the revelations of new data.

I can't speak for Mooney not making time for you in Oklahoma. Having interacted with him and other writers with his level of popularity, it is quite common for these folks to simply not have time in their schedule for me or overlook me when coming to my area - I may simply not be their most important concern on this particular visit. Since you note he came for a journalism class visit, I might consider that his schedule just didn't permit time to also have a scientific engagement with you or anyone else at OU, particularly since he had to blow out of town immediately thereafter. Life is busy and I tend not to take these things personally or read too much into them.


I read ERV as saying that Mooney in OK reached out to only journalism students, not the scientists for which his message is allegedly framed. I don't think ERV is taking a lack of a meeting with Mooney personally, just that not delivering or at least advertising his "scientists should have way with words" message to actual scientists seems inconsistent.

Mr. Mooney phrase "do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus...." is strange.

Isn't consensus a non scientific term, usually political. In any event even if there was a consensus on global warming, how do you disprove a general agreement on something.

What the emails did show was that man made global warming hasn't been scientifically proven. The bad grammar of Mr. Mooney's piece is shameful.

For the most part the alarmists refer to the consensus, which probably never really existed, as some kind of proof. It isn't, it's merely an assertion that there is agreement, not warming.

They seem to be more interested in characterizing skeptical enquirers as stupid or moral rejects than discussing science.

How about explaining how the raw data got dumped. Or countering the allegations that the coolest Russian temperature data was ignored. or that the last few decades of temperature data for Australia and New Zealand were edited to show a warming trend where none existed.

Tell us why NASA hasn't answered a simple FOI request from skeptic author Chris Horner within the prescribed 20 days after two years.

Now there are reports that atmospheric carbon dioxide has not risen in the last 150 years because the Oceans have absorbed the excess carbon dioxide humans pumped out. How about commenting on that.

I read some of the email threads from CRU. My reading of them was that there was fraud and coverup.

Discover magazine and the Washington Post should do some honest reporting rather than jacking up a political hack like Chris Mooney.

Daryl @ "Now there are reports that atmospheric carbon dioxide has not risen in the last 150 years because the Oceans have absorbed the excess carbon dioxide humans pumped out. How about commenting on that."

That is a misinterpretation of "Is the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO emissions increasing? W. Knorr. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, 21, doi:10.1029/2009GL040613, 2009" Which essentially says that while the atmospheric carbon dioxide has indeed risen, just as reported by the consensus, the fraction of the (increased) CO2 which remains in the atmosphere has remained unchanged around 40%. IOW, the fact that 40% of our emissions accumulate in the atmosphere remains unchanged.