Climate expert warns of blogosphere's divisiveness
Editor's Note: Late this morning we received the very sad news that Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who is the subject of today's blog post, passed away suddenly this morning of an apparent heart attack while on a flight from Stockholm, Sweden to London, England. Stanford's press office has confirmed the news, and issued a statement. Andy Revkin of the New York Times DotEarth blog has a post online now that includes reflections from Ralph Cicerone, the President of the National Academy of Sciences.
I recently came across a fascinating interview in Stanford Magazine with a prominent climate scientist there, Stephen Schneider, who has spent decades pondering and trying to improve climate science communication.
A professor of interdisciplinary environmental studies who has published widely on climate change, Schneider authored the 2009 book "Science as a Contact Sport." Recently, he has spoken out against the "political assaults" and hate speech directed at him and some of his climate researcher colleagues.
In the interview, Schneider makes a thought-provoking case that the blogosphere is fracturing, rather than unifying, the public when it comes to climate science and policy. After witnessing what passes for productive dialog on climate blogs during the past several years, I am tempted to agree.
Schneider also details why he thinks scientists in general are such lousy communicators, what the long-term impact of the "climategate" emails controversy is likely to be, and offers some helpful hints at how the media and politicians can more effectively communicate the uncertainties and long-term risks associated with climate change.
Here are some key passages that I found particularly noteworthy...
When asked whether the "so-called democratization of media makes it easier or harder for you to get your message across," Schneider responded:
Let's start with how it makes it easier. Now everybody can get information instantly. When I started, nobody talked about [global warming]. Now we're getting all this pushback, [which] means that we've made some progress. You have to have that long-term perspective. So the blogs help spread the word.
Here's the blog problem: We build up a trust [based] on which blogs just say what we like to hear. At least in the old days when we had a Fourth Estate that did get the other side--yes, they framed it in whether it was more or less likely to be true, the better ones did--at least everybody was hearing more than just their own opinion. What scares me about the blogosphere is if you only read your own folks, you have no way to understand where those bad guys are coming from. How are you going to negotiate with them when you're in the same society? They're not 100 percent wrong, you know? There's something you have to learn from them and they have to learn from you. If you never read each other and you never have a civil discourse, then I get scared.
It's fractionation into preexisting belief without any chance of negotiation and reconciliation. I don't want to see a civil war, and I worry about that if the blogosphere is carried to a logical extreme.
On the recent vilification of climate scientists by skeptics such as Marc Morano of the website Climate Depot, who has been advertising scientists' email addresses to encourage followers to harass them:
I've always had people complain when they don't like me, and that's the way it should be. But they don't complain in four-letter words. They don't tell me that I'm a traitor who should be executed for treason, which according to the police is close to a death threat but not quite beyond the First Amendment. My Brit police friends, who actually had me send them these hundreds of emails, have told me that in the U.K. that would be investigated, but it's not in the U.S. There are some very, very ugly Nazi websites that have a number of us on them; I don't want to mention names. They're the ones who encourage the shooting of abortion doctors, and, let's put it this way, we have some authorities looking at them. They're on a terrorist list. That's pretty scary. Most of the hate emails I get are just ugly.
On the media's tendency to give equal time to climate-change dissenters, who doubt that climate change is manmade (note: this happened as recently as last Friday, when a USA Today story on recent temperature trends quoted one climate scientist and two skeptics who do not conduct climate science research):
The reason that we do not ask focus groups of farmers and auto workers to determine how to license airplane pilots and doctors is they have no skill at that. And we do not ask people with PhDs who are not climatologists to tell us whether climate science is right or wrong, because they have no skill at that, particularly when they're hired by the fossil-fuel industry because of their PhDs to cast doubt. So here is where balance is actually false reporting.
What the media needs to do is not to ignore outliers--we should never ignore outliers--[but] to frame where they sit in the spectrum of knowledgeable opinion. The good reporters always did that. They said, 'There are a small number of people, many of whom are funded by particular industries, who make the following point.' That's completely legit, because now the public knows where these guys sit.
But now, given the new media business-driven model, where they fired most specialists and the only people left in the newsroom are general-assignment reporters who have to do a grown-up's job, how are they going to be able to discern the north end of a southbound horse?
The primary lasting impact will be that it has delayed climate policy by a year or two--which, if the Congress tips away from Democrats, could delay it by eight or more. A number of countries believe that we should all have collective action to protect the commons. But if the biggest polluter in history, the United States, doesn't do anything, [other countries] can use that excuse to do nothing. I do not believe it'll have any long-lasting impact on the credibility of climate science, because it is fundamentally sound.
On how hopeful or pessimistic he is about the future of the environment:
I really trust this generation of kids to make a difference. I know we can invent our way out of some of the problem. What we have to do is convince the bulk of the public, that amorphous middle. We're never going to convince that 25 percent who absolutely believe it's a conspiracy against American religious and economic freedom, and that this is some UN plot to take away our hegemony. And we don't need to convince the other 25 percent that is already convinced. It's that 50 percent in the middle that will listen to an argument, that is not immoral or deeply ideological, but that's a little lazy and ignorant, often quite frightened. We have to get to them to create a tipping point for a majority. And that can be done. My fear is that it's going to take a hurricane to take out Miami or fires in the West before they finally wake up. I just hope that it's milder crises sooner, and not more extreme events later.
The full interview is available online.
The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.
| July 19, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science
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