Category Archives for Science communication

Speaking Out Against Jordan Peterson in DC

Earlier today, I joined fellow civil rights supporters in speaking out against Jordan Peterson. I’m one of many writers who has extensively examined the misrepresentations at the heart of Peterson’s political advocacy. But as much digital ink as we’ve spilled saying why Peterson is wrong, we too often fail to say what a progressive alternative to his individual worldview could be, including for the young men who flock to his shows. So I offered one up here for men (and others!) who are interested in advancing justice in society and, well, having a good time doing it.

Video of our speakout below and with my remarks (I skipped over a few bits in the interest of time). We had a lot of good conversations with Peterson fans and folks who were just interested in what he had to say. A lot of people were not familiar with his advocacy in Canada. Two white nationalists hollered at us, one guy in a MAGA hat who spouted some “Proud Boy” rhetoric and another guy with white nationalist tattoos who didn’t like an organizer pointing out his tattoos.

My name is Aaron Huertas and I’m a working class white guy from South Jersey. I grew up on Bruce Springsteen, professional wrestling and American history.

I’m here today because I’ve read my history and Jordan Peterson has not.

I’ve made a career here in DC doing two things:

  • Helping scientists fight censorship
  • Helping more people vote

We’re speaking out today as progressive men to offer an alternative to Jordan Peterson. Because he ignores the great history of civil rights movements. And he misuses his authority as an academic psychologist to distract from civil rights debates.

At his core Jordan Peterson doesn’t understand discrimination. He thinks the only way we exist in the world is as individuals. And if you’re an individual who isn’t discriminated against, yeah, it’s easier to think you’re just an individual!

But I’ve been discriminated against because of my class. When you grow up working class you learn that you’re less than, that you’re gonna be a smoker and a druggie and you’re gonna go to jail if you don’t watch your back. That your labor is worth less than everybody’s elses.

So I understand that. And when I talk to the working class women in my life, I know they face double discrimination because of their gender. And when I talk to working class black women in my life, I know they face triple discrimination because of their race, too. Add to that where you’re from, who you love, what language you speak, you name it. And I don’t think people who aren’t the same as me are trying to threaten me or take anything from me—I see other people who are trying to survive and thrive in this world together.

I have no guilt about what I born into or the advantages I’ve had. But what I do have is a responsibility. And that responsibility is to stand with women and people of color against injustice:

  • The injustice of not having a living wage in this country.
  • The injustice of workers not being able to organize in this country.
  • The injustice of women who face sexual harassment and assault and are denied their legal rights to hold their abusers accountable.
  • The injustice of a government that tries to control women’s bodies.
  • The injustice of a Supreme Court that lets states discriminate against black voters to prevent them from exercising their rights.

Now Jordan Peterson came to fame complaining about a civil rights law in Canada that would do things like protect transgender people from getting kicked out of their housing for who they are. He said the state was trying to force him to use gender pronouns he didn’t like. That was a conspiracy theory.

Civil rights lawyers told him you’re wrong. Civil rights scholars told him you’re wrong. Trans activists told him you’re wrong. The legislators who wrote the bill told him you’re wrong.

And every time, he said, nope, this debate is actually all about me.

That’s not just misguided and silly—it’s selfish and it’s so narrow-minded.

When journalists ask Jordan Peterson about #MeToo, he says it’s about how women and men aren’t getting along in the workplace.

No. It’s about predatory men attacking and harassing women.

And we have a real civil rights debate in this country about it. Sexual predators are finally being brought to justice. States are expanding the statute of limitation for sex crimes.

But Jordan Peterson doesn’t talk about that. He says you can’t go too far left! The Maoists made everyone dress the same! That’s really what he wants to contribute to the conversation, complaining about how people in China dressed under communism.

Now Jordan Peterson claims he’s not political. But he’s an individualist ideologue who punches left. He says he’s saving young men from becoming right wing reactionaries by teaching them to be individuals. But he doesn’t offer any proof that he’s done that. Meanwhile, dozens of videos a day go up on Youtube from right wing groups promoting Peterson’s views. He shares his platform with people who spread discredited race science and he poses for pictures with white nationalists who use him for propaganda purposes.

Jordan Peterson is an irresponsible academic. He’s an irresponsible advocate. He’s weighing on laws and debates on which he has no expertise. He’s ignoring and misrepresenting the positions of civil rights advocates.

Peterson wants to celebrate individual freedom. But there is no such thing as individual freedom in a world where people still face discrimination over who they are.

Jordan Peterson is here to give his followers excuses to ignore discrimination.

I’m here to say that fighting discrimination together makes a better world for all of us.

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Responding to Roger Pielke Jr. Misrepresenting My Employment History

Update September 4 2018: Roger finally acknowledged that I’ve never had any paid or unpaid relationship with any organization involving any campaign focused on him or his work. That was easy. I sincerely hope that Roger learns how to engage in debates about climate policy and science communication without making things up about people who disagree with him. 

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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Correcting Misinformation About Me and My Work at Science 2.0

Update 4/24/18 – Looks like the misinformation about me at Science 2.0 was deleted. Included an updated screenshot below. No one from Science 2.0 or ACSH reached out to let me know that it had been corrected or to offer any explanation as to how this happened. Alex Berezow, a senior fellow at ACSH has some less-than-helpful responses to me on this, though. I hope this exercise is useful to others who may find themselves in similar situations in the future.

I was surprised to see a Google Alert land in my inbox on Saturday letting me know that I got some coverage in Science 2.0, a site founded by Hank Campbell, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, a group that pushes back against criticisms of private-sector science and science policy. Unfortunately, the coverage involves an anonymous “news staff” writer making up a conspiracy theory about me.

The post is about disputes over neonicotinoid pesticides. The writer states that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists:

…have continued to raise money promising donors they will get [neonicotinoids] banned. They have been using a variety of techniques to reach their target goals. Union of Concerned Scientists even got one of its political strategists, Aaron Huertas, placed on a panel about science communication last week, to help groom young science communicators to their side.

It’s hard to know where to start with what’s wrong with this statement, but here’s a shot:

  • I’ve never worked on neonicotinoid science or policy.
  • I’m proud of my work with UCS, where I served in various communication roles from 2006 to 2015. But I haven’t worked at the Union of Concerned for three years, so it’s hard to imagine how one could accurately describe me as a political strategist for the organization.
  • The panel on science communication at which I spoke was sponsored by the National Communication Association, which asked me to participate, and Johns Hopkins University. In other words it had nothing to do with UCS, which did not place me on the panel.
  • The author’s imaginary motivation for my participation is funny on multiple levels. First, I can certainly think of better ways to push an anti-neonicotinoid agenda if that were my goal. Second, I didn’t speak about neonicotinoids or pesticides at the panel. Third, a good way to determine someone’s motivations is to, you know, ask them what their motivations are instead of making stuff up about them on a blog. For the record, I like participating in educational programming and training sessions because I think building the scientific community’s advocacy and communication skills strengthens democracy and serves the public interest. And I would have happily told whoever wrote this post that if they had bothered contacting me.

The most ironic part about this? The panel I spoke on was about dealing with misinformation in science communication!

I’ve contacted Campbell multiple times, but haven’t heard back from him. I tweeted to him on Saturday, sent him a DM earlier today, and left him a voicemail via ACSH’s publicly posted phone number. I’ve also contacted ACHS’s communication lead, Erik Liefe, and Alex Berezow, one of its senior fellows. Neither has responded to me. I DMed Campbell again to let him know I was going to write on this to correct the record and that I’d be happy to include any updates or responses from him or Science 2.0. I sent a similar email to Liefe.

To be clear, I don’t know who does these news updates at Science 2.0 or who has editorial control over them or if the site is formally affiliated with ACSH. What I do know is that they published false information about me and I’m willing to spend some time getting that corrected. At this point, I’d also like to know who actually wrote this update, why they didn’t contact me, and why they felt compelled to invent a conspiracy theory about me and my work.

This is actually the second time this year someone with a presumed position of authority has made something like this up about me and my work. Earlier this year, I asked Roger Pielke Jr. a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder to correct unfounded public statements he made that I’ve been paid by the Center for American Progress and NextGen Climate to attack him. He declined to do so, instead inventing a conspiracy theory in which I’m leading a group of senior climate scientists against him. Really.

Anyway, the reality is that there are some odd ducks in the science policy community! Sometimes they make deeply uncharitable assumptions about other people and their work, especially those of us who do advocacy and communication for a living. As I told the panel on Thursday, the best thing to do in response is to publicly ask misinformers to correct the record in a venue you can control, whether that’s a Twitter thread or your own blog or a web property operated by an institution you trust.

And for the record, here’s how the Science 2.0 page looked as of Monday morning. I hope they correct their misrepresentations of me and my work, but given Campbell’s non-responses so far, I’m not gonna hold my breath.

But on the upside, now I know how to spell neonicotinoid!

 

And here’s an updated screenshot from 4/24, when the sentence about me was finally deleted.

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Beyond the Blame Game: Harvey’s Climate Coverage Shows Us How to Responsibly Respond to a Disaster

Climate scientists, science communicators and journalists have been doing a great job responding to Hurricane Harvey. This is the result of many years of hard work and lessons we’ve learned about being heard clearly amidst a disaster.

Not Communicating in Not an Option

There’s always discussion about climate change after a major weather event. Scientists can participate in that discussion or cede ground to climate deniers. This time around, I heard almost no one in my field say that we needed to wait days or weeks to talk about the long-term changes to our planet that are making storms like Harvey worse. The accelerated news cycle has probably contributed to that, but it’s also a strategic choice and a good one.

It’s About Trends, Not Just Today’s Storm

For years, journalists would ask scientists, “Can we blame this storm on global warming?” It’s a natural instinct and “blame game” style questions are often an outgrowth of how media outlets tend to cover politics. For scientists, research on attributing single events to climate change is not that far along. By contrast, the science linking long-term trends in sea level rise and heavier precipitation to making ALL coastal storms worse is quite clear. And importantly, it’s the latter science that is best suited to informing rebuilding and planning decisions.

Unfortunately, when scientists would answer “blame game” question by saying, “No, but…” journalists would naturally write stories downplaying climate links to storms. Scientists have learned their lesson. Now they say, “Here’s what we do know…” and talk about the long-term trends. Many journalists, too, have invested more time and energy in climate coverage, putting today’s storms in deeper context.

All the Pieces Matter

It’s impossible to separate politics from discussions of disasters. Harvey shows us how civic planning, long-term climate adaptation and community resilience intersect. ProPublica’s in-depth reporting on Houston’s infrastructure is a must-read. Hopefully, other cities will take heed before the next disaster strikes. And hopefully Houston can rebuild in ways that offer more protection to people. Disasters also remind us that our neighbors are often our best source of protection. Deep community organizing isn’t just something we need to strengthen our politics – it’s something we need to strengthen our relationship to one another as neighbors.

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Seven Guidelines for Making a Newsworthy Science Press Release

Every once in a while, someone in media or communications will declare the press release is dead. But the truth is that it just keeps evolving. And if you need to send information to a whole bunch of journalists at once…well, you need to write a press release. Understanding what goes into a good science press release is critical not just for scientists who have to write one on their own, but also for scientists who need to make sure they’re on the same page as their institutional communication staffers.

So here are seven guidelines to keep in mind when writing a release. BUT first – make sure you have your main messages done. Those need to get reflected in a release as well as any other communication you’re doing.

We should also define our terms before we dive in because I often hear the terms “press release” and “statement” used interchangeably, but they are definitely two different things. A press release is about something new and is written like a news story. A “statement” is a reaction to something else happening in the news and includes a quote from a credible source. In many ways, the purpose of a press release is to advertise a possible story to a journalist. By contrast, the purpose of a statement is to give a journalist a quote they can drop into a story they are already writing.

Okay, let’s get into it!

1. Press releases are for the press, not other audiences.

It feels odd to have to say this, but press releases should be written for journalists first and foremost. Too often, I see releases loaded up with attempts to market a university, sell a product, or propagate some political spin. Journalists don’t want that kind of fluff. They need hard news, facts and figures, and quotes that help put research in context for their audience. Using a press release as a conduit for other types of communication is a recipe for having reporters ignore the message. Further, doing so dilutes journalists’ impression of a source as relevant and useful, making them less likely to respond to future releases.

So the main thing I ask when editing a press release is this: Does it help a journalist do their job? If not, it probably doesn’t belong in the release.

Of course, we often face institutional pressure to include a lot of extra information in press releases. People want to toot their own horns, promote their pet projects and put in more and more information. A good press officer will push back, reminding everyone that a press release’s main audience is journalists. Additionally, we have plenty of other outlets where we can post things that aren’t immediately relevant for journalists, including blogs and social media accounts.

2. Embargoed releases make it easier for journalists to cover new research.

If you can wait to promote your research, offering an embargoed copy of a press release and the research itself to a targeted list of reporters is the best way to go. An “embargo” simply means that the reporters agree not to publish until a set time and date, usually a few days in the future. It gives them time to plan on coverage, dig into the research, interview scientists, and, importantly, pitch editors on a story. Usually, only a subset of reporters who regularly cover a topic get an embargoed copy. And note that an embargo is not an “exclusive.” That latter term means that one and only one outlet gets the story.

The alternative – blasting something out “for immediate release” – can wind up hitting reporters’ inboxes while they’re working on something else and usually results in less coverage or no coverage at all.

Do reporters break embargoes? Very rarely, in my experience. And if they do…well, that means someone covered your story, so it’s not a totally bad thing! If anyone ever breaks an embargo – intentionally or not – you can ask them to take a story down, but you probably won’t have much luck. Instead, you’ll have to alert everyone else who has the story that the embargo has been “lifted.”

When to lift an embargo? Earlier in the day is almost always better, especially since so many news outlets produce morning newsletters. A 6AM embargo is common and some organizations even say 12AM as a way of saying, “really, any old time in the morning is fine by us.” And, of course, don’t break your own embargo by publishing the research on your site before stories hit.

3. Quotes should be quotable, meaning they can be inserted directly into news stories.

Don’t use quotes for expository purposes. Use them to say something about why the research matters, what was interesting about how it was done, or what scientists recommend in response to their research, e.g. personal recommendations for the reader of an eventual news story, policy recommendations, or avenues for future research.

For examples, here’s an unnecessary, expository quote: “The eclipse will last for about two minutes and forty seconds and will cover more than 88 percent of the sun locally.”

These are objective facts that can be conveyed on their own and attributed to a source without them reflecting someone’s perspective.

Now here’s an example of a quote a reporter would find more useful: “If you stay home, you’re still going to see a really amazing astronomical event, but the total eclipse is worth the trip.”

It helps answer an obvious question a journalist would ask: “So…is it worth it to drive to where people can see the totality?” And it’s the type of quote a local TV or radio reporter would want to use to help their audience figure out their plans for eclipse viewing.

Institutions should also be wary of loading up a release with quotes. If too many spokespeople try to get involved in a release, it can quickly turn into a wall of text and disembodied voices that just isn’t very useful for journalists. If other people want to be on call to help answer inquiries, great, but adding too many additional voices to a release just makes it harder for journalists to sift through it and find the information they need. And in a lot of cases, journalists are only going to quote one person from an organization, anyway.

Finally, reporters are almost never going to use fluff quotes in which one speaker thanks someone else for funding or their hard work or partnerships. Unless the contribution someone made is truly newsworthy to someone outside an institution, save those quotes for a blog post or social media.

4. Subject lines and headlines need to grab the reader.

Journalists’ inboxes and newsfeeds are full of press releases. What gets a journalist to open an email? A subject line and headline that feels timely, interesting and relevant to their beat. (And, although this should go without saying, the research has to actually back up the headline!)

So a good headline for a study might be: “New study finds NYC subways could face more Sandy-like flooding.”

It’s new! It’s local. It gives the reader the most striking finding right away. Heck yeah, they’re opening that. Doubly so if they’re a local reporter in New York City. A TV or radio reporter who doesn’t cover science stories often might even pick up on that given local interest in the subway system.

A less compelling headline would be: “Researchers find coastal flooding growing more extreme.” This is more generic and doesn’t tell the reader anything unique about the research. Importantly, it’s missing what’s new! A beat reporter who covers science and coastal regions might be interested, but the TV or radio reporter is not going to notice it.

Of course, a big study about coastal flooding might have lots of compelling findings for different locations, which brings me to my next point…

5. Make modular releases.

It’s more work, but modular releases can really pay off. If a scientific study has findings related to all 50 states, it can be worth doing 50 versions of a release, or at least version for where findings are of possible significant interest. Similarly, changing up releases based on beat can be useful. A press release about a medical device might be of interest to a policy beat reporter, a consumer reporter and a business reporter. They’ll each be looking for a different angle and might even benefit from different headlines, different lead paragraph, and different lead quotes.

Of course, that all takes more time. And there’s no way around it, good media relations work is definitely time consuming.

6. Give reporters everything they need to do a story.

Press releases should have email addresses, phone numbers and relevant handles for a press officer and / or lead researcher, not just a generic contact. Importantly, releases should have a link to where the press release lives or will live online – this is critical for making news easy to share on social media, especially for journalists who may be interested, but can’t do a whole story.

Press releases should end with “boilerplate,” giving journalists additional information about a researcher, lab, or institution, including relevant links to sites and social accounts that may be useful to their work.

The news is also increasingly visual. If there are any relevant images, charts or even videos from a study, it’s good to put them online and link to them in a release. Even if there aren’t visuals to draw from, consider generating an image with a few key takeaways about the research that’s sized for Facebook and Twitter. Journalists can share those images while appending their own commentary and reporting.

7. Set your expectations and put in the work necessary to achieve them.

Journalists are understandably weary of PR people sending them irrelevant press releases and myriad follow ups. Over the years, I’ve seen the efficacy of blasting out press releases to big lists of journalists plummet. Strong results come from newsworthy, targeted pitches that are based on understanding a reporter’s beat, their outlet’s audience and their interest in a given topic. And that, of course, requires time and people power. The bottom line is that the more widely a researcher or organization wants to get coverage, the more work they need to put into making that happen.

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Science as Service: The Role of Researchers as Public Advocates

I wrote a post-Science March opinion piece for Undark.org. The bottom line? We need to do more to help people see the public service role science plays and the tangible benefits it provides in our lives. Scientists also need to take on new advocacy tasks that they’ve previously figured might be someone else’s job, like making sure people get out and vote. Enjoy!

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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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The March for Science is an Amazing Opportunity, Let’s Embrace It

The March for Science went viral last week and the scientific community is trying to figure out what it means. In my mind, it’s a major opportunity for scientists to become more engaged. Those of us who have worked in science policy and science communication for years should welcome new colleagues and friends aboard, share what we know, and help make the marches and associated events a success.

It’s also a good time for us to get real about the relationship between science and politics as well as each of our individual and institutional takes on what engagement, advocacy, and political action really mean.

Here are a few more thoughts:

The marches are part of a growing suite of engagement options for scientists. Scientists are increasingly interested in getting involved in policy and politics. The institutions that serve them have invested a lot of new resources on this front, but many scientists seem to be wondering if that’s enough. Indeed, part of the reason we’re seeing viral responses to efforts like 500 Women Scientists, Indivisible, Rise, the Women’s March, 314 Action, and now the March for Science is that people are looking for answers through new channels. They feel major urgency and they aren’t seeing that reflected wholly by the leaders in their community. Scientific societies and advocacy groups should be excited to see so many new efforts popping up and should find ways to channel some of this great energy into concrete, effective action. At the same time, there’s no singular or perfect way to be a scientist in public life. Some scientists will want to march. Some will want to Tweet. Some will want to meet with members of Congress. Some will want to work to make their universities more welcoming for everyone who wants to do science. Some will run for office. Scientists are human, after all, and importantly, they are also citizens who will interpret what citizenship means differently. The key is being clear about our values and what sort of public engagement we think is effective and why.

Scientists have marched before and it’s been super cool. In 2012, Canadian scientists marched on Parliament to protest cuts and censorship. By all accounts it was a successful event that helped highlight the valuable role science plays in public life. Similarly, when 500 Women Scientists participated in the Women’s March, I think everyone felt great about it, including other marchers who yelled, “Yay science!” when they saw researchers in lab coats. A scientists’ rally outside the American Geophysical Union last year was similarly well-received. Bottom line: this is not unprecedented, though the size and scope of this march may be a new thing for the scientific community.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. THEY ARE SO FREAKING COOL!!! Photo by @this_life

We can improve the relationship between science and politics, but we can’t wish it away. American politics has radically changed in the past 10 years and the prospect of returning to the post-War, bipartisan political order seems dim. But regardless, when we say we want to “keep politics out of science,” we’re engaging in what I would bluntly call a form of politics-denial. Politicians and ideologues will always try to interfere with and disparage science they don’t like and use science and scientists they do like in service of political arguments. At the same time, political choices influence the types of science that get funded. We should also remember that the politicization of science is not new, at all. Robert Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped because of his political beliefs, including his skepticism about nuclear weapons policy. Even Einstein found his work attacked by reactionary anti-Semites, writing to a friend in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Fast forward to today and censorship and immigration bans are having concrete, material effects on science and the scientific community’s ability to serve the public. Of course this is political and therefore “politicized.” As I wrote after the election, scientists have to do a better job grappling with their relationship to power. So many parts of our community have been sheltered from politics, but we’re really in a different spot now. Scientists have also lost a lot of power and getting it back will involve both more effective engagement on the civic, education and policy front as well as direct engagement in the political process. We have to make the case for science and thankfully, we can, because science, done well, fundamentally serves the public interest and makes people lives materially better.

Marches are open and democratic; get creative. Some scientists wonder if a march is effective. Most people who participate in marches wonder the same thing! I would say to them: find a way to participate that’s effective for you and your audience. If you’re coming to DC for the march, do you want to meet with your member of Congress or the folks who represent your field to Congress at a scientific society? If you’re hosting or participating in a sister march, can you marry that with a teach-in on a local issue you care about? That’s the beautiful thing about big, democratic events. They are what we make of them! So let’s get creative and have a good time. This is new and it’s worth figuring out what we want it to be, together.

Given the above, you can see why I view negativity about the march as premature and unhelpful. Dr. Robert Young’s essay in the NYT expressing concerns about the march, for instance, presented it as if it’s a trade-off with doing in-person civic engagement at the local level. It simply isn’t, but those sort of responses are typical of some of the negativity we often see and hear in our community when someone tries something new. Slate’s Eric Holthaus has a good rejoinder, including links to other scientists’ commentary. Bottom line: if you don’t think the march is a good idea, come up with a better one and do that. It’s a big world out there and as Katharine Hayhoe once told me, we need to do a better job building each other up instead of tearing each other down.

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More and More Scientists are Ready for Political Action

This is such an exciting time for science communication. In my ten years working in this field, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of interest for engaging with policymakers and taking political action from American scientists.

Last week, I was happy to march with 500 Women Scientists and was even happier to hear other marchers yell, “Yay science!” as they saw fellow marchers in lab coats walking by.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. Photo by @this_life.

I also wrote an op-ed for ArsTechnia about why more scientists should run for public office. 314 Action, which is taking the lead on this work, has more than 400 researchers who say they’re ready to take the ultimate public engagement step and run. (I’ve pointed my site RunForScience.org their way and look forward to working with them!)

And then there’s the Scientists’ March on Washington, which just went viral overnight. Wow! This is really happening. I love it.

It’s also interesting to think back to my time working in science policy during the George W. Bush administration. It’s slightly hard to remember, but that was before Twitter became such an important conduit for the science and political press. Back then, leaks and alternative means of speaking out were a bit more cumbersome. Today, in response to the Trump administration putting a freeze on agency Twitter accounts, more than 40 “alternative” science agency accounts have popped up. And memos about new agency policies are showing up on sites as far-ranging as Gizmodo and the Washington Post.

You can delete a Tweet, but you can’t delete the truth. 

As disappointing as the election results surely were for many of us in the scientific community, it’s heartening to see researchers respond with grace, humor, and a deeper commitment to public service.

Of course, some scientists will say that political advocacy or action aren’t warranted or that scientists should stay out of politics. They’re free to think that, of course, but politics has way of failing to stay out of science and scientists’ attitudes toward advocacy are on a spectrum, from scientists that keep their heads down all the way to researchers like Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who run for public office.

What we’re seeing right now is massive growth in the number of scientists who are finding that advocacy and political action aren’t just optional – they’re necessary to ensure that science and democracy continue to flourish.

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D’oh! How Science Communicators Can Responsibly Deal with Mistakes

I’ve written before about what to do when a journalist gets something wrong. But what about when a researcher or an institution is the one at fault? Mistakes happen, after all, from transposed figures to inaccurate press releases to the research itself getting corrected or – oof – retracted.

In such cases, science communicators should be transparent, thorough and quick to respond. It’s the right thing to do and copping to mistakes and working with journalists to correct them can actually enhance a source’s credibility over the long haul.

Take Responsibility for Corrections and Act Quickly

As a long-time NASA media staffer and former journalist once told me, when he has bad news, he wants to be the one to tell it. I think that maxim holds true for corrections. If someone else catches a mistake and starts complaining about it to journalists via comments, emails or on Twitter, a science communicator might feel like they’re on the defensive. A failure to respond quickly can even look suspicious to journalists.

When someone finds a mistake, science communicators should let journalists know as quickly as possible so they can correct it. Check to see if news aggregators and bloggers picked up the same mistake and contact them, too. Be thorough. Don’t leave a journalist out and put them in the position of having to explain to an editor why another outlet issued a correction and they didn’t.

In some cases, a mistake might warrant a more thorough review. Perhaps a key researcher got left off the press release approval email chain and now they’re going through it with a fine-toothed comb. If that’s going to take a while, it’s worth letting journalists know what’s been found so far while giving them a time by which you expect to have a fuller assessment.

It may be the case that only some of the journalists who covered a story conveyed the incorrect information. Communications staffers in damage-control mode may be tempted to just contact them and avoid having to tell other journalists who dodged the bullet that something went wrong. Don’t do it! Contact everyone who covered the story or expressed interest in it. If it looks like a journalist doesn’t need to update their story, let them know they’re probably in the clear up front: “I don’t think your reporting reflected this error or was based on it in any substantive way, but I wanted to let you know…”

If an institution blasted out a press release with an inaccuracy, they should also send a corrective note. Yes, it sucks! But they should do it anyway. Science communicators have to hold themselves to a very high standard.

This can be a messy process, for sure, but given how rapidly news spreads online and how quickly mistakes can get propagated through secondary and tertiary sources – especially partisan ones – it’s worth the effort.

Figure Out an Internal Review Process Ahead of Time

People have very different reactions when it’s time to correcting errors. It’s worth taking the time now – not when people are panicked about a potentially embarrassing or simply annoying error – to come up with a process for responding.

Save panic for the real emergencies. This is just a correction!

Assign a lead and backup in the communications team to handle corrections. Have a similar plan for how the scientific team should be engaged. Ask executives to lay out a process for when they should get a heads up and when they need to be at the table for decision-making. In short: have a plan now so the team doesn’t have to waste precious time figuring out who needs to be on a conference call or an email chain in the moment.

Everyone at an institution should agree on principles of transparency, thoroughness and speed in advance of an error. When a real correction comes along, that’ll make it easier for everyone to focus on upholding those principles rather than pointing fingers.

The truth is that corrections can hurt. Some people will react with initial denial. Our brains beg us to explain away mistakes instead of copping to them. Others may want to rush to correct the record, imagining worst-case scenarios and ruined relationships with reporters. Still others may use a correction to undermine someone internally or even try to throw them under the bus to a reporter (yuck!). More commonly, a junior staffer may find a mistake that obviously came from a superior who has sway over their placement and salary, so they hesitate to bring it up.

In science communication, everyone should feel like surfacing and responsibly correcting errors is an important, if unpleasant, part of their jobs.

Be Clear About Corrections on the Web

Along with having a ready plan with your team, it’s important to have a consistent policy for issuing corrections on an organization’s website. Consider posting a correction policy for public consumption. It’s worth being transparent.

Many media outlets, of course, are grappling with the same issues. Slate was an early adopter among news sites for using the limitless publishing format of the web to make corrections not only more transparent, but also a regular weekly feature.

Slate is relatively transparent about its corrections and even compiles them in a round-up.

Institutions do themselves a disservice when they try to bury corrections. Quietly updating web copy after a mistake has been discovered is routine. Sometimes people don’t notice. Other times they screengrab the before and after and make fun of the institution on Twitter. The Internet has a long memory and journalists have copies of original press releases in their inboxes. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We can’t pretend it wasn’t.

So what to do? Annotations, strikethroughs and footnotes with anchor tags are my preferred method for issuing – and consuming – corrections. They allow the reader to see what was there originally and what changed and why. In extreme cases, where multiple corrections are required, it may be worth creating a corrected copy and an original copy to preserve readability, but for almost all other instances, these context-heavy systems are sufficient and respect the audience in a way that opaque updates do not.

What else?

I seriously hope I didn’t make any mistakes in this post, of course. But if I made an error of omission, let me know! I’d love to hear more about what works and doesn’t work when we have to – gulp – make a correction.

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