Archive for the ‘Media and the Public’ Category

My supervisors are so distinguished that they now exist in cartoon form! If that’s not the mark of a successful science communicator, I’m not sure what is.

Here is Katrin:

And here is Matt:

A former supervisor of mine also got a cartoon:

There are 97 cartoons like this over at Skeptical Science, a site which is quickly becoming a force of nature. This campaign reached millions of people through Twitter alone, and was even retweeted by President Obama.

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The back gardens of Mayflower, Arkansas aren’t looking too good:


Yes, that’s oil. Canadian oil, no less. You’re welcome.

I’ve heard surprisingly little about this event, which occurred when an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday. It appears that the press have limited access while the cleanup crews are at work. National Geographic had a good piece, though.

Call me cynical, but I think the Canadian media are purposely keeping quiet on this one. It’s a very inconvenient time for a pipeline to burst, given that all levels of government and industry are pushing for Keystone, Northern Gateway, Energy East, etc., etc.

News of this event is largely relying on Mayflower citizens leveraging social media. There’s no way to verify their photos and videos, but they’re striking nonetheless. Here’s a video of the situation on a residential street – note the lack of cleanup crews.

The oil is going straight into the storm drain, the man in the video says, which makes me shudder. I don’t know anything about Mayflower’s stormwater system, but where I live those storm drains are about three steps removed from the Red River. Once oil got in there, I can’t imagine it ever getting out.

I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media – here’s a typical example. In reality, they’re everyone’s problems. Environmentalists (as much as I detest that label) are just the people who realize it. We are not a special interest group; we represent everyone. When it comes to disasters, from short-term spills like the one in Mayflower to millennial-scale impacts like climate change, Canadian oil will affect everyone indiscriminately.

Side note: Sorry I have been so absurdly quiet recently. I am busy building two climate models – just small ones for term projects, but so enjoyable that everything else is getting neglected. I’ll be posting much more on that in about a month.

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Here’s a classy way to slam people you disagree with: compare them to terrorists, dictators, and mass murderers.

Such was the focus of a recent billboard campaign by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a PR group that denies the existence of human-caused climate change. The only billboard that was actually displayed featured Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and read, “I still believe in global warming. Do you?”

The message is clear: if a monster believes something, citizens of good moral standing should believe exactly the opposite. The Internet was quick to ridicule this philosophy, with parodies such as the following:

Similar billboards featuring Charles Manson and Fidel Castro were planned, but never publicly displayed. Heartland also considered putting Osama bin Laden on a future billboard. On their website, they attempted to justify this campaign:

The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

Given that a majority of Americans accept global warming, people did not take kindly to this campaign. Public outcry and negative media coverage led Heartland to cancel the project after 24 hours. However, their statement showed little remorse:

We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.

Even though the campaign has been cancelled, the Heartland Institute continues to suffer financial repercussions. Dozens of corporate donors, including State Farm Insurance and drinks firm Diego (which owns Guiness and Smirnoff) have ended their support as a direct result of this campaign. Earlier in the year, Heartland lost financial backing from General Motors after internal documents exposed some of the group’s projects, particularly the development of an alternative curriculum to teach K-12 students that global warming is fake.

Will they recover from this failed campaign? Given Heartland’s reliance on donations, their prospects look poor. It seems that the Heartland Institute, previously one of the most influential mouthpieces for climate change denial, is going out with a bang.

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At one of Canada’s top comprehensive universities, a well-known climate change denier was recently discovered “educating” a class of undergraduate students about global warming.

The Instructor

Tom Harris spent much of his career acting as a PR consultant for fossil fuel companies. Today he directs the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), an advocacy group closely tied to the Heartland Institute. In fact, Harris is listed as a Global Warming Expert on Heartland’s website, and spoke at their 2008 conference. However, with a background in mechanical engineering, Tom Harris is hardly qualified to comment on climate science.

The ICSC’s position on climate change is, unsurprisingly, similar to Heartland’s. Their list of Core Principles includes the following gems:

  • Science is rapidly evolving away from the view that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ are a cause of dangerous climate change.
  • Climate models used by the IPCC fail to reproduce known past climates without manipulation and therefore lack the scientific integrity needed for use in climate prediction and related policy decision-making.
  • Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant – it is a necessary reactant in plant photosynthesis and so is essential for life on Earth.
  • Since science and observation have failed to substantiate the human-caused climate change hypothesis, it is premature to damage national economies with ‘carbon’ taxes, emissions trading or other schemes to control ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions.

More recently, Harris began teaching at Carleton University, an Ottawa institution that Maclean’s magazine ranks as the 7th best comprehensive university in Canada. Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective looks innocuous enough, claiming to teach “the history of earth climates, geological causes of climate change and impact that rapid climate change has had on the biosphere”. As we’ll see, the real content of the course was not so benign.

The Watchdog

The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) is a Canadian society dedicated to scrutinizing scientific claims made in advertisements, classrooms, and the media. As part of the skeptic movement, they mainly address paranormal phenomena and alternative medicine, but have recently broadened their interests to include climate change denial.

Four members of CASS living in the Ottawa area became aware of Tom Harris’ teaching activities at Carleton, and requested access to videotapes made of his lectures. Earlier today, they published their findings in a disturbing report.

As Heard in University Lectures…

“We can’t even forecast how these clouds are going to move in the next week,” Harris remarked in the first lecture. “Our understanding of the physics is so bad that we can’t even do that. So to think that we could do a whole planet for 50 years in the future…” This kind of misconception, conflating weather and climate predictions, is understandable among laypeople whose only experience with atmospheric modelling is the 5-day forecast presented on the news each night. For a university instructor teaching a course dedicated to climate change, however, such an error is simply unacceptable.

But the next lecture, it got worse. At the time, sunspots were the lowest on record, and some scientists speculated that the Sun might return to Maunder Minimum conditions. However, this slight negative forcing would cancel out less than ten percent of global warming from greenhouse gases, were it to even occur. The numbers, though, didn’t stop Harris, who claimed that “we’re in for some real cooling come around 2030 because we’re going back to the conditions that existed at the time of Napoleon. So cold weather is coming.” Forget about global warming, his message was – global cooling is the real threat.

The misconceptions, oversimplifications, half-truths, and flat-out nonsense continued throughout every single lecture, leading to a whopping 142 “incorrect or equivocal claims” as tallied by the CASS report, which quoted and rebutted every single one. It’s as if Tom Harris was actively trying to hit every argument on the Skeptical Science list.

In the last lecture, the students were presented with “take-away slogans”:

  • The only constant about climate is change.
  • Carbon dioxide is plant food.
  • There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes.
  • Prepare for global cooling.
  • Climate science is changing quickly.

This clear exercise in creating young climate change deniers seems to have influenced some, as shown by the RateMyProfessors reviews of the course. “Interesting course,” wrote one student. “Nice to have some fresh perspectives on global warming rather than the dramatized fear mongering versions. Harris really loves to indulge in the facts and presents some pretty compelling evidence.”

Crossing the Line

There is a line between ensuring academic freedom and providing unqualified individuals with a platform for disseminating nonsense. It is clear to me that Carleton University crossed this line long ago. I am astounded that such material is being taught at a respectable Canadian university. If the Heartland Institute’s proposed curriculum comes through, similar material might be taught in select K-12 classrooms all over the world. As an undergraduate student, the same age as many of the students in the course, I am particularly disturbed.

I have encountered climate change misinformation in my university lectures, both times in the form of false balance, a strategy that I feel many professors fall back to when an area of science is debated in the media and they want to be seen to respect all viewpoints. In both cases, I printed out some articles from Science, Nature, PNAS, and the IPCC, and went to see the prof in their office hours. We had a great conversation and we both learned something from the experience. However, it took an incredible amount of courage for me to talk to my professors like this, not only because teenage girls are naturally insecure creatures, but also because a student telling their science teacher that they’ve got the science wrong just isn’t usually done.

Even by the time they reach university, most students seem to unconditionally trust what a science teacher tells them, and will not stop to question the concepts they are being taught. Although many of my professors have encouraged us to do research outside of class and read primary literature on the topic, nearly all of my peers are content to simply copy down every word of the lecture notes and memorize it all for the final exam.

By allowing Tom Harris to teach the anti-science messages of climate change denial, Carleton University is doing a great disservice to its students. They paid for a qualified instructor to teach them accurate scientific knowledge, and instead they were taken advantage of by a powerful industry seeking to indoctrinate citizens with misinformation. This should not be permitted to continue.

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This Valentine’s Day, one of the most vocal lobby groups attacking the science of climate change had its internal documents leaked to the public – exposing its sources of funding, secret projects, strategies, and goals for the world to see.

Manufacturing Doubt

You’re probably aware of the influences of corporate-funded lobby groups on social issues. They seek to bring down public health insurance, lower taxes for the wealthy, and prevent environmental regulation. They publish advertisements, print op-eds, and meet with politicians, all in an attempt to advance a free-market agenda. More often than not, they’re backed by corporate interests – pharmaceutical companies, tobacco firms, and the oil industry, to name a few.

You might question the fairness of allowing certain people to amplify their voices simply because they have more money, but at least these lobby groups are spreading around legitimate ideas. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion on matters of public policy, and nobody can be “right” or “wrong”. However, on matters of science, there is a physical reality out there, so people can be wrong. Try arguing that your incorrect answer on a physics assignment deserves full marks, because it represents your personal opinion on the photoelectric effect. You probably won’t get very far.

Unfortunately, certain lobby groups have a long history of promoting blatant falsehoods about areas of science that threaten their free-market fundamentalism. Everything from the harmful health effects of smoking to the causes of acid rain to the consequences of the pesticide DDT has been attacked by these groups. The strategy has been the same every time: repeat long-debunked myths ad nauseum, overemphasize uncertainty, and question the integrity of scientists studying the issue.

Human-caused climate change is currently the most fashionable scientific phenomenon to deny. Although 97-98% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm, public acceptance lags far behind, and is heavily split along political lines. Scientists have investigated and ruled out every conceivable alternative hypothesis for global warming – so why aren’t their conclusions reaching the public? The answer is that other influences are getting in the way, muddying the message for their own financial and ideological benefit.

The Front-Runner

In recent years, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute has led the way in this crusade against climate science. Their communication style seems to be “quantity, not quality”: whatever rumour currently claims to disprove global warming will be picked up and amplified by the Heartland Institute, whether or not it contradicts previous statements from the organization. For example, they will frequently claim in the same document that 1) the world is cooling and 2) global warming is caused by the sun. Logically, you can’t have it both ways. However, doubt, not logic, is the goal here – if a message casts doubt on the scientific consensus, it qualifies for the Heartland newsletter.

This lobby group’s extreme conservative agenda is apparent in paranoid overtones about socialist conspiracies and bigger government. “If AGW [anthropogenic global warming] is true,” they write, “then stopping or preventing it requires higher taxes, more income redistribution, more wilderness preservation, more regulations on corporations, ‘smart growth,’ subsidies for renewable energy, and on and on…[we] ‘looked under the hood’ and concluded concern over the possibility of catastrophic global warming was being manufactured to advance a political agenda.”

Heartland has accepted thousands of dollars in funding from oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, and industrial giants, such as the Koch brothers. However, most of the funding for their climate change projects now comes from a single individual, who is obviously extremely wealthy, and currently anonymous.

A Scientist Steps In

Enter Dr. Peter Gleick, a prominent climate scientist and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. He has had run-ins with the Heartland Institute before, and – like many scientists in the field – is deeply disturbed by their disinformation campaigns. So when he received an anonymous package in the mail in 2012, containing a confidential memo that appeared to be from the Heartland Institute, he was intrigued.

The memo, entitled “Heartland Climate Strategy”, contained many phrases that would later raise eyebrows. Perhaps most distressingly, Heartland was planning to bring denial into the classroom, by developing a school curriculum “that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science”. They were also hoping to pursue funding from “corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies” – presumably the fossil fuel industry – and to continue sponsoring the NIPCC reports, whose purpose was “to undermine the official United Nation’s IPCC reports” (widely considered to be the most authoritative reviews of climate science in existence).

Finally, Heartland discussed its “funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message”, and more general coordination with “groups capable of rapidly mobilizing responses to new scientific findings, news stories, or unfavorable blog posts”. To those familiar with who’s who in the world of climate denial, the list of people and groups Heartland mentioned supporting were extremely enlightening. At the end of the document, Dr. Gleick discovered why the memo had been sent to him in particular – Heartland was bemoaning the fact that Gleick had published articles in Forbes magazine. “This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out,” wrote Heartland – a rather hypocritical statement from an organization that regularly accuses the mainstream media of censoring their views.

This memo was certainly very interesting, but was it authentic? It could have been faked by someone seeking to discredit Heartland. Gleick wasn’t willing to spread around the document unless and until he thought it was legitimate. And out of frustration, he went one step too far: in what he now describes as “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics”, he pretended to be a Heartland board member, and requested that Heartland send several other documents to his “new email address”, which they did.

These actions were unethical, and possibly illegal, but they raise some interesting moral questions. Is it acceptable to lie in order to expose a bigger lie? Where does investigative journalism end and unjustified dishonesty begin? Since Gleick identified himself and apologized for his actions, he has been demonized by Heartland and its allies, but others have described him as a “whistleblower” who put his reputation on the line in order to uncover the truth. We must also consider whether scientists are being judged more harshly than lobby groups. As activist Naomi Klein tweeted, “What about the fact the Heartland Institute impersonates a scientific organization every day?”

Release and Reactions

The documents that Dr. Gleick obtained by email, including a budget, a fundraising plan, and minutes from board meetings, confirmed many of the contents of the Climate Strategy memo. Names, monetary figures, and project descriptions all matched up – with the exception of one figure that may have been a typo. Satisfied that the Climate Strategy memo was legitimate, he scanned it, and sent all the documents anonymously to DeSmogBlog, a Vancouver-based website composed of journalists that seek to expose the financial and ideological motivations behind the climate change denial movement. DeSmogBlog published the documents on Valentine’s Day, and they went viral within hours.

The Heartland Institute was outraged. They insisted that the Climate Strategy document was fake, a claim for which they provided no evidence and which has since been contested. They threatened legal action against anyone who dared report, link to, or comment on the leaked documents – an obvious scare tactic to prevent the story spreading. (Such threats have no legal basis, otherwise the media would not have been able to write about governmental memos from Wikileaks, which were illegally obtained.)

It’s interesting to note Heartland’s hypocrisy in this situation. Several years ago, when emails from climate scientists were stolen and published online, the Heartland Institute was of the first and loudest voices to report, link to, and comment on the emails (in this case, completely out of context), in a blatant attempt to discredit climate science right before the Copenhagen Summit. Where is that attitude of freedom of speech and information now?

The Fallout

Whether or not the Climate Strategy memo was faked, the contents of the other documents have spurred a public pushback against Heartland. There have been calls for federal hearings regarding the flow of money in the organization, and complaints to the IRS to revoke Heartland’s tax-free status as a charitable foundation.

Does this incident matter, in the grand scheme of things? Not really. Climate science will continue to show that the Earth is warming, humans are the cause, and the consequences will be severe. Lobby groups will continue to attack these conclusions. However, it’s high time that we looked at these lobby groups a little more closely.

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It’s hard to overestimate the influence of John and Hank Green on the Internet, particularly among people my age. John (who writes books for teenagers) and Hank (who maintains the website EcoGeek and sings songs about particle physics) run a YouTube channel that celebrates nerdiness. This Internet community is now a huge part of pop culture among self-professed teenage nerds.

Hank’s new spin-off channel SciShow, which publishes videos about popular science topics, has only being going for a month but already has 90 000 subscribers and 1 million views. So I was very excited when Hank created this entertaining, polished, and wonderfully accurate video about climate change. He discusses sea level rise, anoxic events, and even the psychology of denial:

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I went to a public lecture on climate change last night (because I just didn’t get enough of that last week at AGU, apparently), where four professors from different departments at my university spoke about their work. They were great speeches – it sort of reminded me of TED Talks – but I was actually most interested in the audience questions and comments afterward.

There was the token crazy guy who stood up and said “The sun is getting hotter every day and one day we’re all going to FRY! So what does that say about your global warming theory? Besides, if it was CO2 we could all just stop breathing!” Luckily, everybody laughed at his comments…

There were also some more reasonable-sounding people, repeating common myths like “It’s a natural cycle” and “Volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans“. The speakers did a good job of explaining why these claims were false, but I still wanted to pull out the Skeptical Science app and wave it in the air…

Overall, though, the audience seemed to be composed of concerned citizens who understood the causes and severity of climate change, and were eager to learn about impacts, particularly on extreme weather. It was nice to see an audience moving past this silly public debate into a more productive one about risk management.

The best moment, though, was on the bus home. There was a first-year student in the seat behind me – I assume he came to see the lecture as well, but maybe he just talks about climate change on the bus all the time. He was telling his friend about sea level rise, and he was saying all the right things – we can expect one or two metres by the end of the century, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s enough to endanger many densely populated coastal cities, as well as kill vegetation due to seawater seeping in.

He even had the statistics right! I was so proud! I was thinking about turning around to join in the conversation, but by then I had been listening in for so long that it would have been embarrassing.

It’s nice to see evidence of a shift in public understanding, even if it’s only anecdotal. Maybe we’re doing something right after all.

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