Category Archives for Climate Change

Responding to Roger Pielke Jr. Misrepresenting My Employment History

Update June 10 2018: Roger chimed in on a Twitter thread with two other climate folks. I asked him, once again, to correct his misrepresentations of my professional relationships. He told me to go to his university to make a research integrity complaint even though this obviously isn’t a research integrity issue. When I asked him for evidence to back up his claims, he muted me. 

Roger Pielke Jr. is a political scientist based at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s made some contributions to the literature on how scientists interact with policymakers. He’s also a contentious public figure who regularly criticizes climate researchers for their communications and advocacy work, particularly when it doesn’t comport with his preferred methods of political communication and advocacy.

This puts Pielke Jr. in a strange position: although he says he supports some climate and clean energy policies, his work is also regularly cited by right wing political actors who want to undermine the credibility of climate science and climate scientists. At the same time he hasn’t been able to convince climate researchers that his theories about the best way to do political advocacy are correct.

I’ve had a mild share of public disagreements with Pielke Jr. over the years. Unfortunately, he’s decided to make those disagreements personal and has acted uncharitably and unprofessionally toward me in response, accusing me of being part of a conspiracy meant to undermine his work as opposed to someone who simply disagrees with his views.

Over the past few years, Roger has:

  • falsely accused me of being paid to attack him by the Center for American Progress (source / screencap)
  • falsely accused me of being linked to what he thinks was a Tom Steyer-backed campaign to attack his work (source / screencap)
  • made up a quote from me regarding a dispute he had with a member of Congress (source / screencap)
  • published my correspondence without my permission (source / screencap)

When I asked Roger to stop doing this, he accused me of leading a cabal of climate scientists against him. Really. (source / screencap)

Politics is contentious. So researchers who participate in it should be willing to disagree without being disagreeable. As I’ve written previously, dealing with misinformation directed at one’s professional relationships can be difficult. But it’s best to collect the misinformation in one spot, debunk it, and hold the people spreading the misinformation accountable.

So this is an attempt to practice what I preach. I truly believe Roger wants what’s best for the scientific community and society. I do, too. If we disagree about how to get there, so be it. But there’s no need for him to misrepresent my employment history.

Below, see some useful context as well as the correspondence Roger and I agreed to publish online before he stopped responding to me. I’ve also included his subsequent tweet in which he attempted to decontextualize our conversation and falsely accuse me of leading a cabal of climate scientists against him.

If Roger would like to correct anything in this post, he’s welcome to contact me at his leisure. I look forward to him eventually addressing the points I’ve raised and correcting his public misstatements about me.


March 2014 to July 2014: Pielke Jr.’s Tenure at 538

In March 2014, Pielke Jr. got a gig writing for Nate Silver’s data, politics and sports site 538. He used his first essay to go back to a favorite topic: extreme weather damage and climate change. This is not a uncontroversial topic and Pielke Jr. got pushback from scientists, climate writers and bloggers at Think Progress, the news and commentary arm of the Center for American Progress, and Forecast the Facts, (later ClimateTruth.org), an advocacy organization that was created to foster accuracy in climate coverage.

Pielke Jr. thought those criticisms were unfair and out of bounds, but he also responded to them with clearly out-of-bounds behavior of his own, writing to scientists and their bosses demanding they retract their public criticisms and noting in at least one case that their disagreements with his work might be “libelous.” That’s not a word people who work for media outlets usually throw around, especially in the United States, and 538 apologized to the scientists Roger emailed. Nate Silver, 538’s founder, told the Huffington Post: “We made clear that Roger’s conversations with them did not reflect FiveThirtyEight’s editorial values.”

Later, Pielke Jr. described 538 as being reluctant to publish more from him. Fast forward to 2016: Pielke Jr. found that he was mentioned in one of the emails hacked from John Podesta. The email is from a CAP employee telling Tom Steyer the founder of NextGen Climate (now NextGen America) and a board member at CAP about their efforts to hold 538 accountable for publishing Pielke Jr.’s article. If Steyer or Podesta bothered responding, it wasn’t in the hacked archives, but Pielke Jr. went on to write an oped in the Wall Street Journal based on this single email, comparing people who disagreed with him to “thought police.”


February 2015 – Publishing correspondence without my permission and making up a quote from me

In 2015, Pielke Jr. got a letter from Rep. Raul Grijalva asking about his financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Pielke Jr. thought this was inappropriate, echoing other letters right-wing members of Congress have sent climate scientists demanding a variety of information from them. He approached me to ask what the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I worked for nearly a decade, was doing about it.

I sent him a note explaining what we were working on, shared a blog post from a colleague about the incident and asked him to stay in touch. I also told him university counsels usually don’t have researchers’ interest in mind when these incidents happen and that I’d advised other scientists in the same situation to obtain their own counsel. This is pretty standard political advice and indeed, the same advice I’d offered other researchers in similar situations. But Pielke Jr. would later accuse me of telling him to “lawyer up.” I pointed out to him that I never said that and, well, I don’t like when people put quote marks around things I didn’t say. Michael Halpern, my old colleague, pointed this out to Roger on Twitter and Roger responded by publishing my correspondence online without my permission.

My Employment History

  • I worked full time at the Union of Concerned Scientists from 2002 to October 2015.
  • I worked at Cater Communications, a bipartisan clean energy firm from October 2015 to December 2016 as a full time employee and continued to consult for the organization for several months into 2017. During this time, we worked with ClimateTruth.org (formerly Forecast the Facts) as a client. (Their former communications firm had dissolved and I reached out to them.) This was more than a year after Pielke Jr.’s falling out with 538. None of ClimateTruth.org’s work involved Pielke Jr., including the work in which I was involved.
  • During the 2016 election I became increasingly worried Trump would win. I took a leave of absence from my day job to run a field office for NextGen Climate (now NextGen America), Tom Steyer’s group, in Athens, Ohio from September 2016 to November 2016. This work involved registering students to vote and mobilizing them to do so. It had absolutely nothing to do with Roger Pielke Jr.

Pielke Jr. Keeps Making Stuff Up About Me – Our Correspondence

In April 2017, I criticized Pielke Jr.’s over-reaction to scientists disagreeing with him. He accused me of being paid by CAP to attack him and blocked me on Twitter, so I wasn’t able to respond to this accusation at the time.

In February 2018, I commented on a thread with Pielke Jr. and a few scientists and journalists to point out Roger’s habit of accusing people who disagree with him of being politically biased. Roger accused me of trolling and asked me if I was “still on Steyer’s payroll” and then linked to an article about the Podesta email.

Roger failed to respond to me on Twitter, so I emailed him with a request that he stop accusing me of being paid to attack him. I also told him that given his habit of publishing correspondence from me online, that I’d like us to both publicly post our responses. Roger responded and agreed to publish our correspondence publicly.

You can see that correspondence on Twitter and reproduced here below. I think a fair-minded assessment of this exchange is that I am extremely blunt and direct with Roger. At the same time, I think the reader can see how Roger’s responses go from denial, to changing his story, to defensively telling me I can only complain to his university and, finally, abandoning the conversation and publicly accusing me of leading a conspiracy of scientists against him.

That latter point is quite interesting. One of the reasons I kept all this in a continuous thread on Twitter and am reproducing it here is that it’s very easy for misinformers to decontextualize information online. When I advise scientists on how to correct misinformation about their work, I urge them to keep a single thread going on a medium they control, whether a blog or their own Twitter feed.

Here is our correspondence, including links:


My initial note to Roger:

Hello, Roger.

You recently made another inaccurate claim about me in response to my public criticism of your views. As you might have seen, I posted on Twitter to document these claims, including the time you made up a quote from me and two unfounded accusations about getting paid to attack you. I’d appreciate it if you could acknowledge having read my messages.

If you could refrain from spreading lies about me and my work, that’d be super nice, too. This is part of a pattern of unprofessional conduct and immature behavior on your part. Please stop. No one else is to blame for your professional failures but you.

Finally, given your history of publishing correspondence from me online without my permission, you can consider any interactions you have with me a matter of public record. I certainly will.

Thanks,
Aaron Huertas

His response

Hi Aaron,

Sorry, I have not seen your messages. I muted you on Twitter after your latest unprovoked trolling. I’m giving mute a try rather than blocking these days for a select few enthusiastic folks on Twitter.

And yes, I am happy to consider our email exchanges on the record, such as is the case when one works in an official capacity as as a PR spokesperson (or for that matter, as a professor at a public university in Colorado).

All best,
Roger

I reiterated the issues I wanted to focus on and clarify:

 

Uh-huh. So you muted me after you implied I was being paid by Tom Steyer to attack you and posting a link that didn’t back up your claim. Or am I being paid by CAP? You can’t seem to get clear on that.

Anyway, lying about someone’s work, making up a quote from them and publishing their correspondence without their permission are all forms of trolling. What I’m doing is disagreeing with you. I realize it’s a fine distinction in this day and age, but it’s clear in my mind. Anyway, no one has ever paid me to criticize you or your work.

So grow up, dude, especially if you’re still trying to make a career out of telling other academics how to behave.

-Aaron

Roger’s note back was not responsive to all of my claims. At this point, he retreated from accusing me of being paid to attack him with providing services “pro bono.” I’m not sure Roger understands that that still involves having an actual relationship with an organization.

Aaron,

Please publish this response in full:

1. I asked you on several occasions if you were still funded by Tom Steyer, as it is a matter of public record that you had been previously

2. In response, you confirmed that at times in recent years you were in fact paid by organizations funded mainly/solely by Steyer

3. Several of Steyer-funded organizations led a successful national campaign to have me fired from a job

4. Later, thanks to Russians and Wikileaks we know that there was an organized, well-funded, multi-year effort against me by Steyer-funded groups

5. Perhaps your continuing public trolling of me has been provided pro bono and was not part of your job description for these Steyer-funded groups

I am glad for the clarification of these facts and happy to have them out in the open.

Roger

I asked Roger to return his focus to his actual statements and whether or not they are correct as opposed to his new narrative:

I referenced two Twitter posts. One where you accused me of being funded by CAP to attack you and another where you accused me of being funded by Steyer to attack you. “Several occasions” would be news to me, but maybe you’ve done some post-and-blocks before and I didn’t know. And, yeah, it’s a matter of “public record” because I’ve blogged and tweeted about it, including more recently in response to you! Lol.

You and 538 parted ways in 2014. I ran a NextGen field office in Athens, Ohio more than two years later, from September 2016 to November 2016. And I told you about that after your latest outburst, too. I was doing GOTV with students. It had nothing to do with you.

I worked with ClimateTruth.org from 2015 to 2016 through my old firm, well after they rebranded from Forecast the Facts and well after their public criticism of your work at 538 had wrapped up.

So your little conspiracy theory doesn’t even have internal logical consistency. Nor have you ever accounted for the fact that you abused your position at 538 by sending threatening emails to scientists who disagree with you. Always easier to blame others for your faults, as per usual for you.

Additionally, saying that my public disagreements with you are provided to anyone “pro bono” is a stupid, misleading way to put it. I have never had a professional relationship with any organization that carried any expectation of work related to you.

We’re both people with strong opinions who post on Twitter. Not that uncommon! The difference is I don’t make shit up about you then block and mute you while accusing you being a troll.

Also way to ignore making up a quote from me. Great cherry pick there, dude.

Seriously, try taking some responsibility for your own words and actions for once.

Hang loose,
Aaron

Roger stopped responding me, but I followed up, again pointing out specific areas where he refused to acknowledge basic points about my employment history and his actions:

Hey, Roger,
It’s weird that you keep ghosting on me after I point out how you don’t have your facts about me or my work right. But I’m asking you to dig deep here, buddy.
Can you please acknowledge the following points?

-You did not ask me about my employment history or status on “several occasions.”

-I have never had a paid or unpaid relationship with any organization involving any campaign focused on you or your work.

-I have never been paid by CAP.

-My work with NextGen (Steyer’s org.) involved running a field office in Ohio and doing GOTV work with students, i.e. nothing to do with you.

-My work with NextGen and ClimateTruth.org both post post-date your fallout with 538.

-You published correspondence from me online without my permission, regardless of your unique personal beliefs about professors publishing emails from staff at NGOs. (You don’t work for a media organization, last time I checked.)

-You accused me of telling you to “lawyer up” despite the fact that I never told you to “lawyer up” which constitutes making up a quote from me.

Finally, I don’t know that you’ve proven “Several of [sic] Steyer-funded organizations…” did anything related to your brief tenure at 538. I think you’ve proven that someone at CAP emailed Tom Steyer about your work at 538, as you shared in the Daily Camera article, but if he didn’t write back that doesn’t seem like much of a conspiracy you uncovered. But hey, maybe you have more evidence you haven’t publicly shared with anyone or maybe you’re under some kind of NDA. Beats me. Regardless, I’m sure it’s very comforting for you to believe that your professional failures are someone else’s fault and not yours.

And again, it’s weird that you keep leaving out the part where you abused your position at 538 by sending threatening emails to scientists who disagree with you. As Nate Silver told the Huffington Post at the time: “We made clear that Roger’s conversations with them did not reflect FiveThirtyEight’s editorial values.”

So can we get clear on the stuff about me personally? And if you have the guts, your 538 Wikileaks conspiracy theory? Because if anyone did all that to you, you’d be emailing their bosses and berating science advocacy groups into taking your side. Instead, all I’m doing is calling you out publicly and encouraging you to deal with your own behavior and the inaccuracies you’ve spread about me.

If you continue to dodge these points, all you’ll have demonstrated is your continued lack of professionalism.

Cowabunga,

Aaron

Roger still didn’t respond to me, so I continued to follow up via email and on Twitter.

 

Are you going to respond to me or not? If not, why not? Is it because you can’t admit you’re wrong when confronted with your obvious misrepresentations of fact?

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not letting this go.

Thanks, dude!

After these messages, Roger finally did respond. Not to my points, though. Instead, he decided that he would accuse me of spreading false information about him without identifying what that false information is. Then he hid behind his university position.

Aaron,

I am requesting that you (a) stop spreading falsehoods about me online, and (b) that you also stop harassing me online and via email.

If you sincerely believe that I have engaged in research or academic misconduct, then rather than continued online and personal harassment, I would encourage you to file a formal complaint with the University of Colorado for an official adjudication of your various (false) allegations.

I won’t be responding further.

Thank you,

Roger Pielke, Jr., Professor
Environmental Studies
University of Colorado

I responded to Roger again to let him know this wasn’t the end of it. Unfortunately, we will continue to run into each other in these public debates.

Well, Roger, it’s good we’re doing this publicly, because what’s clear is that I’ve laid out your falsehoods in detail and you refuse to answer for them.

You also can’t seem to document any falsehoods on my part in item (a) there, but whatever.

You lying about me in public doesn’t constitute “research or academic misconduct.” If you’re lying about me in the peer-reviewed literature, let me know, I guess? As I’ve said from the outset, the problem is that you’re engaging in unprofessional, childish behavior in response to simple disagreemeents. The fact that you’d rather hide behind your university’s complaint process instead of dealing with the facts in front of you speaks directly to your lack of intellectual honesty and your lack of professionalism.

Further, as I wrote to you yesterday, I’m not in the business of running off to people’s bosses and places of employment to resolve disagreements for me. That’s your go-to move. And according to public reporting, it appears to be one the major reasons you were fired from 538.

I understand that you won’t be responding. Big whoop. The fact is that we’re both involved in the climate policy debate and will be for the foreseeable future. All I’m saying is that as a professor, as a public communicator and as someone who I truly believe does care about science and science policy, I expect you to do better when you participate in public debates.

Later alligator!


At this point, Roger surprised me.
He tweeted to his followers that I was leading a cabal of climate scientists against him.  Importantly, he did so outside the Twitter thread and email chain we’d maintained in an attempt to decontextualize and reframe our interactions.

Pielke Jr.’s tweet accusing me of participating in a conspiracy theory against him. The three other accounts tagged are all senior scientists who would laugh at the idea of anyone leading them in such a campaign.

This message was re-tweeted dozens of times, including by climate deniers, a birther conspiracy theorist and a few right wing think tank scholars. I wrote Roger again:

Hey, buddy. Hope you had a nice day getting retweeted by climate deniers and cranks. Also glad to know I’m the leader of a group of senior scientists in your latest conspiracy theory. Truly, it feels like a promotion! Again, I’m not interested in complaining to your bosses about your work. That’s stupid. We’re both adults here. What I am going to do is to challenge you—personally and professionally—to do better and to take responsibility for your words and actions.

Keep on keeping on!

If you’ve read this far…
I hope that was useful or just mildly chuckle-worthy. Needless to say, I don’t think Roger is a trustworthy figure in our field. But facts are facts. If he has anything to correct in this post, he’s welcome to contact me and lay them out for me. The idea that I know more about my employment history and professional affiliations than he does honestly shouldn’t be that difficult to grasp. I wish Roger no ill will. I hope he recognizes that spending his career criticizing other people’s communication and advocacy choices means he needs to be able to demonstrate the ability to grapple with criticisms of his communication and advocacy choices, too.

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For Scientists, Public Engagement Means Finding Their Advocacy Comfort Zone

I’m writing a series of posts on science communication and policy for Sigma Xi, the country’s leading scientific honors society.

The first installment covers how scientists think and talk about advocacy, including some social science reviews and advice from one of my old professors and a long-time Hill staffer who recently did a stint at the Food and Drug Administration.

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Why XKCD’s Earth Temperature Timeline is Such a Good Online Graphic

Randall Munroe of XKCD has produced another creative visual representation of climate data. I made a quick video walkthrough of what it does well, including:

  • Flipping the axis and taking advantage of a purely online data representation.
  • Defying the audience’s expectations by scrolling down to go forward in time instead of going from left to right.
  • Emphasizing just how stable our climate has been over the millennia before modern, industrially-driven climate change started dominating the system.
  • Nice integration of an important footnote.
  • Representing climate choices at the end by focusing on varying emissions pathways and how far they take us off this relatively stable path we’ve been on for so long as a species.

Update (9/13/16): This is interesting. Over at Scienceblogs.com, Greg Laden points out that many of the historic markers in the graphic fall into the trap of highlighting a story we tell ourselves about the inevitable progress of Western civilization that can be misleading. For instance, advances in agriculture and metalworking took place across multiple cultures. It’s also worth noting that some of our ancestors probably tried out agriculture and didn’t like it that much. As Laden notes, it’s still a darn good graphic, especially on the science; it’s just worth considering some of the biases we carry into these conversations, especially since the “inevitability” of burning tons of fossil fuels hangs over the climate debate quite a bit, too.

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When it comes to news writing, do scientists “say” or “conclude”?

Adam Siegel, a security analyst, management consultant, and blogger, made an interesting point on Twitter in response to a Washington Post headline about a sea-level rise study.

Indeed, people say all manner of things that may or may not be based on data and expertise. The verb “say” is ubiquitous in news writing and is perhaps uniquely democratic: it can describe statements from the proverbial “man on the street” just as easily as a speech from the president of the United States.

So do scientists and other analysts deserve different verbs when we’re talking about their research? I think there’s a case to be made that verbs like “conclude” or”find” are more precise for describing how scientists conduct analysis and…well, find things out and draw conclusions.

Naturally, if scientists are expressing an opinion – about a peer’s work or a matter of public dispute, for example – they might be “saying” something just like anybody else.

There’s a another way to think about this, too. Data and evidence can also do things like “show” and “demonstrate.” Writers might also attribute analytic findings to a paper, a research project or a scientific enterprise rather than to researchers themselves. Of course, that sometimes removes the human element from the equation, something scientists are used to doing in passive-voice academic writing.

These might seem like minor points at first blush, but I think Siegel is onto something. Certainly, in my own writing, I tend to use those more precise verbs, but then again, I’m used to scientists editing my prose!

It also reminds me of some other discussions I’ve had about people “believing” in climate change or evolution, a word that can easily conflate matters of fact with matters of opinion and faith. [Edit: Siegel just pointed me to one of his own posts on this very point.]

I do wonder, in the aggregate, if these small language choices are more powerful than we think. For now, I’ll have to file this under “topics I wish I could test in social science.”

Update 3/3/2016:

On Twitter, Beth R. also suggests the verbs: measure, examine, analyze, observe, find, determine, conclude.

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Be Brave, Even as You Find Your Science Communication Voice

Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill, two scientists who study the ocean and climate, published an interesting and, at times, challenging conversation on Medium yesterday that touched on an overlooked aspect of professional development in science communication.

As Hill puts it:

What is missing in many of these discussions and documents is how engaging in science communication will impact the scientists themselves. How will scientists walk the line between relaying scientific information and expressing personal views? How will researchers weigh the impact on their career — both positive & negative — that arise from speaking publicly about their work? How can universities and research institutes provide support to scientists who chose to spend time engaging and communicating?

Myhre agrees, noting:

We have almost no conversation within our community about how science communication and media exposure might impact individual scientists. I think this is where much of the moral quandaries exist.

They go on to discuss the hard work scientists have to do examining their own values and, indeed, their ultimate goals, when it comes to communicating to the public, policymakers and media. They also critically examine the practical trade offs scientists have to make when they prioritize communications work.

These are questions every scientist who does research of public import has had to grapple with, but it’s clear that a new generation of scientists is making a significant argument that Myhre articulates succinctly and powerfully:

Our institutions are responsible for evolving along with us.

Absolutely. The communications landscape has radically shifted since I earned my degree in the field. It will continue to do so under our feet and fingertips. Scientific societies, universities and training programs have to embrace constantly shifting communications best practices and effectively convey them to scientists.

But let’s not let these concerns hold us back, Myhre and Hill argue. All these changes mean we also have room to experiment, to figure out new things and to do so knowing that science has so much tell us about our world and about ourselves. Myhre and Hill conclude with a hopeful message suitable for framing and desktop backgrounds:

Be brave: there has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.

In fact, I found their message so inspiring, I went ahead and made a desktop background out of it. You can download it by clicking on the image below.

MyhreHillBeBraveBackground

(It’s 1600 x 1200 and the base layer image is from NASA — naturally! — and was taken by Apollo astronaut William Anders.)

You can follow Myhre and Hill on Twitter. Their conversation is well worth a full read; it also includes a discussion of routine sexism in media coverage focused on female scientists that will ring true for many readers, too. Myhre also has another excellent Medium piece in which she guides readers through her process for carefully developing main messages around her research.

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New Report: Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse

academicengagementmichiganI finally caught up on my reading over the holidays and was pleased to examine a rich presentation of views on science communication from the University of Michigan.

The report is based on a conference the university held called”Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse,” which featured many of the leading lights in science communication, such as Dietram Scheufele, who smartly acknowledged that most debates involving science aren’t about facts, but about the “messy space” where science and values intersect.

Similarly, former Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.-D) challenged the participants to consider what flipping the conference’s title might mean and why the idea of “public and political engagement in academic discourse” tends to give us pause. It’s a thought worth contemplating: technology and democracy are making all institutions, including universities, more open to public participation – and public scrutiny. Academics are increasingly embracing that openness, along with greater transparency about their own values.

Andrew Hoffman, who directs the university’s Erb Institute, organized the conference, which also included keynotes from NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and the always-positive, always-inspiring glaciologist Richard Alley. Hoffman’s book on climate communication, which I’ve reviewed previously, is an excellent resource for scientists, students and citizens on how people think about climate science and climate policy.

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American Geophysical Union Has Been Leading the Way on Science Communication

John Abraham has a nice writeup in the Guardian about the American Geophysical Union’s science communication work. The organization’s Sharing Science initiative,  in particular, is a growing hub for Earth scientists who are looking to convey their work with everyone from kindergartners to cabinet members.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 2.46.30 PM

Two AGU staffers having fun with literal interpretations of scientific jargon. These posters were deployed all over the conference and derive from work done by Susan Joy Hassol and Richard Somerville.

I’ve worked with AGU staff for several years on member workshops and I was particularly struck this year by how ready scientists were to think through tough communications problems.

Like a lot of people who have run workshops with scientists, I’ve often found that I need to lead off by explaining why science communication is a good thing, why it doesn’t have to involve dumbing down your message and why it’s not up to somebody else (the media, the education system) to do it for you. More than once, I’ve had scientists ask me very critical questions about the very premise of even doing science communication in the place. Not that I minded — critical thinking and openness is one of the things I love about the scientific community.

But over the past year…I just haven’t had to do that. Scientists increasingly see and feel the need for better, stronger, faster, cooler science communication. And I think it’s easier than ever – thanks to the Internet – to see what happens when ignorance wins out over reason and conspiracy theories, misinformation and just plain goofiness on science-related topics proliferate.

Other societies are doing great work, too, of course, but I suspect AGU has been out front on a lot of communications work, in part, because Earth scientists are used to dealing with public controversies on two big hot-button topics: evolution and climate change. Importantly, it’s a society that’s open to lessons from other fields, too, including epidemiologists, tobacco researchers and historians of science.

There’s a lot to learn when PhDs take on science communication. For scientists, societies are often the very first place they turn to for help. AGU is right on to create a “positive feedback” effect of their own when it comes to fostering accurate, effective science communication

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Scientists and Journalists Aren’t on the Same Side, But They’re Often Heading in the Same Direction

What you’re getting into: about 3500 words, a 12-18 minute read

Scientists often assume that journalists are on their side when it comes to educating the public about scientific topics. That’s true for a lot of basic science, like, say, when journalists write about the discovery of a new exoplanet or explain the work of a scientist who just won a major prize. Those typically aren’t controversial topics, so scientists and journalists alike are simply trying their best to explain some cool science.

The second we start talking about anything perceived as controversial outside the lab, though, the rules of engagement can dramatically shift. It’s incredibly easy for scientists, science communicators and journalists to talk past one other when we’re dealing with topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering, as well as science funding. And it can happen when journalists hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable, too.

The good news, I think, is that we can do better. And doing so requires being clearer about when we’re talking about science and when we’re talking about competing values and how science fits into societal debates.

Below, I offer a story, some observations and suggestions. I‘d love to hear more.

Policy, politics and cultural coverage isn’t pure science coverage

I talked past a reporter pretty badly back in 2011. Members of Congress had invited several scientists to testify about whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions were justified. One member — a lawyer by training — used his time to pepper scientists with loaded questions while demanding simple yes or no answers, a standard tactic at such hearings. Of course, that’s anathema to any scientist.

Here’s how a major news outlet ended an article about the hearing:

Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.

“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”

The scientists promised to provide written answers.

Like a lot of folks working on climate science communication at the time, I thought this was a problematic ending. To a reader unfamiliar with these issues, it could sound like these were mysterious questions for which science had no good answers. (Briefly, here are answers on Mars, 1970s climate science, and why rates of change are more worrisome than absolute temperature.)

I fired off an email to the reporter, arguing — quite well I thought — that his reporting was unfair to the scientists who testified and detrimental to public understanding of science.

He told me, in so many words, that edifying the public about Martian climate variance wasn’t the point of his article.

First of all, I hadn’t been the first person to contact him, so he felt like he was getting pressured (reporters hate that) and his reporting on the hearing was accurate. That was, in fact, what happened at the hearing and an informed reader, he argued, would know exactly where the politicians and scientists stood in relation to one another. Further, his story also focused on an exchange in which a representative made it clear that climate science — and risks from industrially driven climate change — were well-established in the scientific literature.

I realized that in his mind, my complaint wasn’t really about science; my complaint was that he hadn’t beaten up a member of Congress for giving scientists a hard time. 

House.gov image edited by the author

We also had different audiences in mind. My complaint was based on the assumption that the article’s audience would be otherwise uninformed about climate science or policy. He assumed that readers would be well-armed enough to draw their own conclusions.

Maybe I was right, but that and $3.25 will get you a Chai Latte at Starbucks. The point is that I was telling him to do science communication and he was reminding me that he was doing political reporting. In the ensuing years, I think journalists have done a better job reminding readers where climate science stands when politicians challenge or reject the evidence, but the exchange taught me a broader lesson: just because a story has a lot of science in it doesn’t mean it’s going to get treated like a science story.

Journalists and scientists are both committed to accuracy

Journalists and scientists do both care deeply about accuracy and credibility. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the noble ideals of both professions rest on uncovering the truth and boldly going where the facts lead, regardless of one’s beliefs or biases. And, yeah, okay that’s true, but the day-to-day is a lot more brass tacks: in both professions, credibility is currency and too many errors over time can sink a career.

Real errors are a problem, of course. And scientists and journalists are both sometimes guilty of intransigence when people point out errors in their work. Regardless, both professions benefit from the self-correcting nature of the larger enterprises around them. A bad story will get factchecked by other outlets in ways that are similar to how a bunktastic scientific paper will fail replication by other scientists.

The problem I’m writing about isn’t really about factual errors, though; it’s about what happens when science-related stories move out of the lab, into the world, and yes, into the political arena. We need to be careful about how we think and talk about accuracy in that context, because it’s easy to talk past each other based on assumptions about what audiences know and what role journalism is playing in a given debate.

This is important to get right because science is still the best tool we have for learning about the world and journalism is still the best tool we have for informing the public about what those scientific tools have uncovered.

Journalists and scientists have different audiences and jobs

Scientists care deeply about what policymakers and the public think about their fields, especially on issues that are perceived as controversial. When politicians and interest groups seek to highlight, inflate and manufacture controversies, scientists’ desire for accuracy often puts them in the position of wanting journalists to downplay or actively challenge those outside attempts at influencing the public and focus on what is well-established among scientists.

But when those same outside interests groups focus on controversies, it’s journalists’ job to report on them. Their commitment to fairness means bringing in all the stakeholders in a debate and reporting what they believe and why, even when it cuts against the science.

So sometimes, when scientists are demanding accurate reporting, what they’re really asking is for journalists to critically assess inaccurate views from outside the scientific community. Journalists can’t always do that, especially on deadline when they’re covering noisy policy fights. I‘d argue that this often puts the onus — rightly or wrongly — on scientists to repeatedly make their views clear to journalists and media outlets. That means consistently reminding journalists what scientists have to say about these topics and why prevalent misinformation is wrong.

Factcheck.org added a science feature in early 2015 specifically to grapple with scientific claims in the political sphere.

Arguing about whose side science is on has gotten so popular, Factcheck.org added a science feature in early 2015 specifically to grapple with scientific claims in the political sphere.

Of course, journalists have a responsibility, too. They can’t pass on inaccurate information simply because there are quote marks around it. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for instance, describes several ways reporters can handle political disputes about established climate science ranging from explaining the ideological roots of rejecting climate science to simply noting what the science does say in their own journalistic voice. Additionally, media outlets have a special responsibility to report on industry attempts to influence the public and policymaking, whether on climate change or toxic chemicals.

The bottom line is that scientists and science communicators shouldn’t conflate their disappointment with some media reporting with their deeper disappointment in a society that is often simply out of step with scientists on a host of topics. It’s journalists’ job to report on science-related societal controversies accurately, but it’s not journalists’ job to actively push the public toward established science. That also means that science communicators and scientists need to think more about how they can help journalists do effective, accurate reporting around contentious societal debates.

Journalists aren’t here to help anyone’s cause, including scientists’

There’s another type of complaint scientists often have with reporting on and around science: the story is going to be abused by people who want to attack the broader scientific field.

For instance, scientists understandably gripe about the “Darwin was wrong” trope that regularly pops up in biology reporting. In 2009, New Scientist even used it as the title for a cover story. Scientists bemoaned the choice, noting that creationists quickly hopped on the article as “evidence” that mainstream biology was in shambles.

Of course, anyone motivated enough to pick up a copy of New Scientist probably already has their mind made up about the theory of evolution, but scientists rightfully worry about how groups outside the scientific mainstream will use — and more often, abuse — reporting on scientific topics. It can happen with any scientific finding, even seemingly routine ones, on vaccination, industrial agriculture, dietary and nutrition choices, and anything anyone wants to pick a fight about for reasons that usually have nothing at all to do with actual science. Because scientists enjoy so much public trust, advocates always want to have science on their side, so they’ll comb through literature, trade reports, and science-related press releases and media coverage hunting for anything they can use (and dismissing what they can’t).

Ideally, media outlets should anticipate this sort of thing.

Here’s that New Scientist cover.

NewScientistDarwinWrong

And here’s how National Geographic arguably handled it better with a clear message for people who bothered to crack the magazine open.

Evolution_not_wrong

Of course, science communicators and scientists would probably much rather see something like this.

DarwinDay

To which a science journalist might say: love the Warhol thing, but where’s the conflict for a good story?

Ice, Ice, Maybe

Scientists and journalists had to artfully deal with a rather odd combination of substance and perception recently when a NASA-sponsored study — by accounts, an outlier — found that Antarctica is gaining ice mass overall even as the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, as sea levels continue to rise, and as global warming goes on broadly in line with what scientists have been saying about it for decades.

At first blush, the study’s findings are a head-turner that runs counter to the simple main message the public has heard from scientists for decades: global warming melts ice and raises sea levels pretty much everywhere. Of course, there are a lot of nuances under that statement, which scientists have talked about repeatedly, especially when it comes to the rate of melting and the geographic differences between places like Greenland and Antarctica, but at the headline level or broad public awareness, this was surprising news.

figure-dmdt-mapPredictably, ideological media outlets that routinely criticize mainstream climate science used the study to try to throw cold water on climate science. Here’s an opinion writer taking a fat, sloppy swing at it in the UK’s Express:

ExpressMeltdownMyth

Nothing like ALL CAPS to make the CREDIBILITY OF YOUR ARGUMENT clear.

Some mainstream outlets jumped on it as a surprising study. From their perspective, it wasn’t their main job to beat the public over the head with the basic science on global warming and melting ice sheets or to correct what those ideological sources have said: it was their main job to report on a new and interesting “man bites dog” science story.

USA Today, with its incredibly broad audience, probably captured that reaction best:

USATWaitWhat

Other journalists and outlets, notably Chris Mooney at the Washington Post went out of their way to put the study in deep scientific and policy context. They and their editors even used valuable headline space to address potential misinformation about the study, something that almost never happens when outlier studies get big coverage.

MooneyAntarctica

Andrew Freedman at Mashable took a similar approach in his reporting, while the headline took on the inaccurate narrative about the study directly.

Mashable

Of course, Mooney and Frbeedman are well-versed beat reporters with arguably more engaged audiences. That’s the exception, not the norm, and the onus is still on scientists and scientific institutions to anticipate inaccurate takes on new research and plan their communications accordingly.

For it’s part, NASA’s social media account tried to squeeze as much nuance as it could into 140 characters:

Still the agency’s press release might have done more to emphasize what is known about long-term ice loss and sea-level rise globally. Interestingly, the study’s lead author was pretty blunt about how people outside the scientific community would misrepresent his research in an interview with Nature.

“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” As global temperatures rise, Antarctica is expected to contribute more to sea-level rise, though when exactly that effect will kick in, and to what extent, remains unclear.

Such awareness is common among scientists working in controversial fields and they should be open about it, just as public health researchers devote plenty of time and thought to how their own studies are received. It’s all about helping audiences — and reporters — enjoy an accurate view of the science.

Journalists also have to hold scientists and institutions accountable

Buzzfeed’s Brooke Borel recently wrote about controversies surrounding biologist Kevin Folta and communications work he did related to GMOs, some of which was done in coordination with biotech companies running anti-labeling campaigns. Naturally, pro-and-anti GMO forces attempted to assign ideological positions to Borel’s article, but there was another thread of more interesting criticism (at least for me). Some scientists complained that the article would 1) provide more ammo for anti-GMO groups attacking Folta and other scientists and 2) discourage other researchers from doing science communication.

Borel’s response was straightforward and sensible. In a series of Twitter messages she wrote: “As science writers/journalists/etc, we hold a strange position sometimes. I love science. I admire scientists. But it’s also my job to think about both critically. My job as a science journalist is not to advocate for science and scientists at all times, no matter what.”

Indeed, scientists are often public figures who can and should face public criticism from time to time: many enjoy taxpayer support and they are often trusted, powerful figures in society. So even while scientists and science communicators rightfully condemn politicized attacks on researchers, they should also expect and even welcome journalistic scrutiny. Another journalist, Rose Eveleth, put it well, too:

When scientists get involved — or unwillingly find themselves involved — in public communication on controversial science-related issues, we’re not in the world of pure science reporting any more. In these debates, scientists are just one of many actors pushing for their voices to be heard above the democratic din.

Even science education and science funding choices aren’t purely about science. As climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has argued, any societal debate that involves science also involves value judgments.  

Science gets inserted into these debates in perfectly accurate as well as questionable ways all the time. It can be tough for journalists and scientists to figure out how to best respond. But I think we can all do better.

A series of hopefully helpful, but not exhaustive suggestions

Far be it from me to pontificate about a host of complex problems without at least suggesting some solutions. Here are a few ideas for how scientists, journalists and media outlets, as well as press officers at scientific institutions can help address these issues. (I’d love to hear feedback and talk about additional ideas.)

For scientists

  • Anticipate misunderstanding of your work — both intentional and not — and insist that public information officers and reporters anticipate it, too.
  • Demand accuracy, but understand when journalists aren’t just reporting on the science.
  • If you have a problem with a story, be direct, clear and forthright about it. Journalists are used to criticism and it’s easy for them to write you off as a hater if you come across as griping. (With exceptions for hacks and fabulists, of course.)
  • If you think a piece was missing context, but wasn’t expressly inaccurate, ask for an update, a chance to do a guest post (if possible, depending on the outlet), or just blog about it on your own.
  • If a reporter won’t correct a real error and you think it’s important enough, you can go over their heads to an editor or, if that doesn’t work, call them out online, but before you do that, ask someone with an outside perspective, preferably a press officer at your institution or a fellow scientist with lots of media experience, how strong your case really is. Ask them to think about it purely on the merits — as if they were reading about it online instead of chatting with someone they known and respect.

For journalists (and media outlets)

  • Build and link to explainers on controversial topics so audiences who are new to an issue or need a refresher can go back to that content when something new breaks. You have no idea how much scientists would love to see this and well-done explainers are often evergreen traffic sources. It’s also a great way to not have to reinvent the wheel when a new controversy erupts.
  • Understand the prevalent misinformation around a scientific topic and anticipate how scientists will see work as feeding into or pushing back against it. If you’re relatively new to a topic, ask scientists you’re interviewing what sort of inaccuracies they would want you to avoid in reporting. They’ll have plenty to share, believe me.
  • If you a know a piece will be received as controversial, take a look at how Brooke Borel quickly, openly and non-defensively responded to such criticism. Do that. Your storytelling is incomplete without responding to your audience.
  • Be open with scientists about what you’re looking for and where their work fits in, especially if it’s a controversial topic. Scientists worry a lot about their media coverage and much of that anxiety can come from unnecessarily fearing the worst.
  • If a scientist perceives missing context outside of pure scientific facts as a type of error, explain the distinctions as you see them and consider offering to update the story with more commentary from the scientist or about the science. It’s painless and can enhance the story.
  • You can and will tick off scientists even if your work is accurate. The mere act of not using jargon and keeping things short can create explanatory gaps from a scientist’s perspective. Give them a break. If you get a critical email from a scientist, use it as an excuse to help them understand your work. If they’re still grumpy, offer to buy them a coffee or beer.
  • Similarly, if an editor tells you to oversimplify some cool, complex topic you discussed with a scientist, stand up to that editor and stand up for your audience. I’m a big believer that people who are wiling to read entire stories are also wiling to understand and think about them, too. (Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.)

For institutions and press officers

  • Don’t over-hype outlier findings, especially on controversial topics. Yeah, I know, this is tough one, but that’s why it’s important to give scientists the last-right-of-review on press materials. A university press officer looking to get attention for a study will often present it as “overturning” mainstream findings, for instance, and everyone involved should know that that usually leads to inaccurate reporting.
  • If a scientist seems worried about how some of their work will be received, listen. Pause. Tell your boss that the story is complex and needs to be handled carefully. Meet with the researchers and talk through some if-then scenarios you might run into when you release their new study.
  • If a scientist produces an outlier finding, point back to the mainstream science in the headline, subheadline and first paragraph of a press release. It’s hard to mistakenly overemphasize what is well-established. Figure out the 140-character version of the accurate takeaway for social media, too.
  • Non-jerkishly, but aggressively follow up on scientists’ behalf to correct inaccuracies. You’re allowed to be the bad cop sometimes. As Randy Olson has argued, if science communicators were 10 percent as aggressive as Hollywood publicists, mainstream reporting on scientific topics would be a lot more accurate.

A few additional thoughts based on some feedback from Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (and a former colleague):

  • For scientists: Don’t disengage and don’t let the fear of being misunderstood prevent you from trying to communicate. The long-term benefits of working with the media outweigh any drawbacks you might see over the course of your career. I’d add that it’s up to scientists to tell their own stories, otherwise other people will tell those stories without them.
  • Scientific societies are also a great resource for members interested in sharing their work. For it’s part, AGU has launched a whole new “Sharing Science” initiative well worth checking out, especially if you’re into the geosciences.
  • Societies are also a solid resource for journalists who want to connect with independent scientific experts on literally every scientific topic.

On climate specifically, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research curated a lot of great resources as part of their Climate Voices initiative. If you’re interested in helping audiences sort through how their values relate to scientific findings, I strongly recommend this presentation by Jeff Kiehl, who not only has degrees in natural science, but who is also a licensed analyst. (Pretty cool, huh!)

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