We Need a New form of Outreach

American Thinker has a particularly compelling and polished version of the usual vile garbage, put together in what starts to look like a coherent argument. Of course it is built on the usual foundation of overvalued nitpicking:

“We can’t even believe in “official” measurements, as data sets relied upon to track global temperatures have again been shown to be contaminated and otherwise compromised.”


“Remember the sea ice that doomsters warned would soon be gone? It’s now at the very same level it was in 1979.”

and outright lies:

“this IPCC report, much-hyped-and-hallowed by alarmists and media-drones alike, represents the combined work of only 52 carefully cherry-picked UN scientists”

Unfortunately, amidst all this garbage they score a legitimate political point here. The public’s confidence in the scientific consensus as somewhat understated in the IPCC reports is, by various measures getting worse. That part of the article is not lies.
Although Obama is closely enough connected to the scientific community that he understands the tragic dynamic behind this situation, and although he has a lot of power, he is probably not going to make much of a dent in this situation anytime soon. Yes, green jobs will help, and it does help that people see peak oil as real. The alliance between fossil fuel (especially coal) people and an especially malicious and divisive streak among market fundamentalists goes on. They are not going to make our lives any easier, and so the sort of unmitigated nastiness seen in the American Thinker article is not going away or even abating. Worse, as it triumphantly crows, it is succeeding.
We need to reinvent the relationship between science and the public. That is an absolutely crucial step and it needs to happen fast. This is outside the capacity of NSF, which likes to support what it calls outreach but does so in a structurally ineffective way.

New mechanisms for communication between science and the public are desperately needed.
Dr. Chu? Dr. Holdren? Hello?
Update: Churlish of me to complain on a day when Obama takes such strong positive steps. For which I am grateful; I wasn’t aware this was coming.
And what do you expect of a country where people don’t “believe in” evolution anyway? Still I hate to see these polls headed south and I think it’s an important long-term goal to reconnect (or at least connect) science and society.

Update 1/28: Some related points on a comment by Gavin Starks on Tim O’Reilly’s “Radar” site:

We’re all aware of the emotive language used to polarize the climate change debate.

There are, however, deeper patterns which are repeated across science as it interfaces with politics and media. These patterns have always bothered me, but they’ve never been as “important” as now.

We are entering an new era of seismic change in policy, business, society, technology, finance and our environment, on a scale and speed substantially greater than previous revolutions. The sheer complexity of these interweaving systems is staggering.

Much of this change is being driven by “climate science”, and in the communications maelstrom there is a real risk that we further alienate “science” across the board.

We need more scientists with good media training (and presenting capability) to change the way that all sciences are represented and perceived. We need more journalists with deeper science training – and the time and space to actually communicate across all media. We need to present uncertainty clearly, confidently and in a way that doesn’t impede our decision-making.

On the climate issue, there are some impossible levers to contend with;

  1. Introducing any doubt into the climate debate stops any action that might combat our human impact.
  2. Introducing “certainty” undermines our scientific method and its philosophy.

When represented in political, public and media spaces, these two levers undermine every scientific debate and lead to bad decisions.

A tough nut, indeed.

Tierney vs Holdren

NYTimes science reporter John Tierney goes after Obama appointee John Holdren, about whom I have written admiringly of late, with both guns a-blazin’.

Along the way he expresses concern for how Lomborg gets treated in certain circles and has a kind word to throw in for Roger Jr.. It’s sticky stuff, not as easily dismissed as the usual denialist tripe, as I have argued before. This stuff is badly wrong, but it needs to be handled with care.

Update: Three guesses what Joe Romm thinks.

John Holdren On the Climate "Skeptics"

John P. Holdren, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard and the director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, summarizes effectively in an op-ed that appears in the International Herald Tribune.

First, they have not come up with any plausible alternative culprit for the disruption of global climate that is being observed, for example, a culprit other than the greenhouse-gas buildups in the atmosphere that have been measured and tied beyond doubt to human activities. (The argument that variations in the sun’s output might be responsible fails a number of elementary scientific tests.)

Second, having not succeeded in finding an alternative, they haven’t even tried to do what would be logically necessary if they had one, which is to explain how it can be that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong.

The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.

It’s an effective short opinion piece. But for copyright I’d paste the whole thing. There’s more here; nothing surprising but very well put.

Update: In comments to this article, Richard Reiss sent along another excellent article by David Sington about the skeptics. An excellent point that I had about given up trying to make, made very well:

In fact, only three factors determine the planet’s energy balance: the sun’s output, the Earth’s reflectivity, or albedo, and the thermal properties of the atmosphere, which are affected by the level of certain trace gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor. Reduced to its essentials, the greenhouse effect is a problem in 19th-century classical physics, and the basic theory was worked out with pencil and paper in the 1890s. To say that increasing CO2 levels leads to more heat trapped in the atmosphere is really no more scientifically controversial than saying you’ll feel warmer if you put on a sweater.

The difficulty arises when you try to work out what this extra heat energy will do. Will it lead to increased rainfall, or more cloud, or higher winds? It will raise temperatures, but by how much? This is where the complex computer models and the (legitimate) scientific arguments come in—accompanied by the occasional science filmmaker!

Update: See also the follow-up at Dot Earth.