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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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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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A letter to the CDC’s CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD regarding banned words, censorship and scientific integrity

The Post is reporting on a list of seven “banned” words at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including: “vulnerable” “entitlement” “diversity” “transgender” “fetus” “evidence-based” “science-based”
Really.
The CDC has one of the stronger scientific integrity policies among federal agencies, so I wrote the following letter to CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD, the acting director for science at the agency. His office can be reached at (404) 639-7570 or OADS@cdc.gov.
ATTN: Acting Associate Director for Science
CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD
From: Aaron Huertas, founder and principal, Science Communication Media
Re: scientific integrity violation at CDC
Captain Mac Kenzie:
Thank you for your service to the public. The CDC is a life-saving science agency and its scientists and employees embody the public service mission of federal science. As you know, performing that mission requires communicating clearly and freely with the public and policymakers, whether in the midst of an outbreak or when describing the need for scientific research into deadly diseases.
I’ve been working in science, policy and politics for more than 10 years, with a focus on helping researchers grapple with politicized scrutiny of their work. As you might imagine, I was distributed to read in the Washington Post today the following:

The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
It’s not clear to me if this list is an attempt by political appointees to censor career staff or if it represents a form of self-censorship designed to avoid political scrutiny. In either case, it is wrong. And I think this ban on phrases constitutes a violation of the CDC’s own scientific integrity policy, which I understand your office implements.
Several relevant bullet points from that policy stand out, including the following:
  • CDC embraces intellectual honesty and transparency in its release of information to fully empower public decision making.
  • CDC considers diverse cultural and societal values and beliefs when developing messages.
  • CDC does not use trickery or deceptive communication techniques to advance public health recommendations or its reputation.
  • CDC’s good reputation is not sacrificed for the sake of any past, current, or future employee or partner.
  • CDC embraces the idea that plain language works best to eliminate ambiguity in its research results and health recommendations for the public.
  • CDC does not withhold information only to avoid embarrassment.
It’s clear to me that scientific censorship is not only wrong because it hides the truth from the public, but it’s wrong because it perpetuates injustice.
If public employees are banned from using the very words “science-based,” “diversity” or “transgender” how can people trust science agencies to tell them the truth about science or about about public health outcomes for groups of people who are marginalized in society? Further how can scientists who work at the agency or members of the public take the agency’s commitment to diversity at face value if agency employees are banned from using the very word “diversity”?
I strongly urge you and your colleagues to address this issue head on, publicly, and to use the banned phrases today and every day, as loudly as fulfilling your mission requires doing so. The CDC has always been one of our most independent and trusted science agencies. Please do not let the Trump administration or a Republican Congress or fears about budget cuts perpetuate censorship and injustice. Please know that the scientific community and the public will support scientists who speak out. Now’s the time to stand up for truth and stand up for science justice.
Sincerely,
Aaron Huertas
Washington, DC

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Here’s What the New America Foundation Should Have Said About the Google Story

The New America Foundation, a prominent think tank in DC, is facing scrutiny over its decision to sever ties with a program that was critical of a major funder, in this case Google.

Libby Watson, writing for SplinterNews, notes that the exposure and fallout is all too typical of how corporate money influences think tank research in Washington. As someone who has followed the fossil fuel lobby’s funding of climate denial think tanks, in particular, I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, when public interest think tanks (and advocacy groups) have undisclosed conflicts of interest exposed, they tend to react defensively rather than constructively. In New America’s case, the organization compared the New York Times’s initial report to “fake news” and questioned the behavior and motivations of Barry Lynn, the head of the team of scholars who were fired.

New America Foundation’s press room. (Source: New America Foundation)

New America’s president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter doubled down on some of these assertions on Friday. Interestingly, Slaughter shared more details about a process of pre-screening and advanced notice for Google that she sought to impose on Lynn, in this case for a public statement he issued praising an EU anti-monopoly ruling against Google. Slaughter says she had no intention to censor Lynn, but pre-screening and advance notice policies are often used to censor researchers, including at federal science agencies. Similarly, such advance notice processes have come under scrutiny when fossil fuel companies have funded research, too. Even under the best circumstances, including when the people involved have good intentions and feel they’re working in the public interest, such reviews encourage researchers to self-censor.

So instead of responding defensively, public interest think tanks should realize they have a problem and try to solve it. They surely can’t stop the influence corporate money has on politics. Many also feel they can’t afford to do their work at the scale they’d like to without taking corporate money. But for think tanks that do take corporate money, what they can do is make those funding relationships more transparent and free of conflict.

So here’s an idea for how the New America Foundation should have responded:

“The New York Times has raised serious questions about our organization’s funding from Google and how we treated scholars who are critical of the company’s actions. As a public interest institution that influences policymaking, we understand that responding to this scrutiny is part of our job.

“Think tanks and other groups that seek to influence policy haven’t done enough to examine the implications that corporate sponsorship has for our work. This is an increasingly fraught area and we need to do more. As public funding for independent scholarship has shrunk, companies have stepped in to fill the gap. In many cases, this has led to companies exerting undue influence on research and public communication from scholars. While we stand by our work and our decisions, we have to recognize that organizations that take corporate money to sponsor scholarship, including think tanks, advocacy groups and universities, risk losing public trust. We need to do better.

“In the coming months, the New America Foundation will create a set of conflict of interest and transparency policies that will govern all of our funding relationships. We’ll publish those policies in draft form online and solicit feedback and comments all along the way from subject matter experts, journalists, our peers, and the public. We hope that in doing so, we can begin to identify and implement a new set of best practices in our field. Our ability to serve the public and to continue to do good work demands it.”

Maybe the New America Foundation will get there. Maybe another think tank or advocacy group will first. But this definitely won’t be the last story I read about a corporate conflict of interest at a DC think tank.

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When Integrity-checking is More Important than Fact-checking: More Bad Faith from Bret Stephens

Yesterday, I posted a quick series of Tweets in response to Bret Stephens’s latest climate column for the New York Times. I was surprised to see my musings get so much traction, including shares from journalists, editors, scholars and thoughtful, passionate people who are fed up with our society’s inability to address climate change.

So, why did my little rant resonate? I think it’s because I don’t make the mistake of treating Stephens’s arguments seriously. After all, he doesn’t treat the topic I’ve worked on for more than a decade seriously. For instance, when he was at the Wall Street Journal, he published conspiracy theories about climate scientists. His move to the Times simply means that he’s had to clean up his arguments a bit, justifying climate inaction for other reasons.

Anyone who’s worked on climate policy for more than a few years has heard every iteration of Stephens’s arguments. But he doesn’t seem to care. For instance, instead of responding to substantive criticisms of his track record from climate experts, Stephens complained about the tone of a Tweet from someone named Jay with a dog and cat avatar and 289 followers. Later, after scientists thoroughly and sometimes hilariously factchecked his first climate column, he left Twitter. Not exactly the paragon of #NeverTrump conservative intellectual courage he bills himself as.

Tellingly, Stephens only responded to his climate critics obliquely when fellow columnist Gail Collins asked him about what kind of climate policy he actually supports. He made a hand-waving call for more research, something policy experts would be happy to tell him is wholly insufficient for reducing the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Stephens also plays the refs, trying to appeal to journalists, think tankers and other columnists, eagerly pointing to incivility in response to his bad ideas as evidence that his ideas aren’t bad. But this sort of discourse-policing doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t slow the rise of the seas, help a community recover from a storm or put an electron of clean energy on the grid. All it does is make people with bad ideas feel better about themselves.

As law professor David Kaye put it in response to this point:

So it’s helpful to ask what someone with the same conservative ideology but more integrity would do in Stephens’s situation. A conservative columnist who actually cared about addressing climate change would use their column to advance conservative ideas on adaptation and energy markets. For instance reforming our broken flood insurance system is one of the rare areas where libertarians and greens have been able to work together on climate policy and it’s obviously relevant to storm recovery. A conservative columnist who cared would see the conspiratorial parallels between birtherism and climate denial and try to cure the rot in their own movement.

Alas, that’s not Bret Stephens. He cares more about people being polite to him online than he does about addressing climate change. But Stephens’s writings are an object lesson for other issues. When we run into people like this in public debates, yes, science advocates and policy wonks should factcheck their claims. But we should also integrity-check their actions. When we ask ourselves what a constructive person with integrity would do in their shoes, it makes their lack of intellectual honesty all the more clear.

 

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Katharine Hayhoe, Master Science Communicator, Talks Shop with America Adapts

Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist who’s one of the best science communicators out there, just did an excellent interview with the America Adapts podcast. I’m a long-time fan of Dr. Hayhoe’s work and hearing her talk shop with an adaptation professional like host Doug Parsons was excellent.

Some key takeaways:

  • Climate researchers are like physicians for the planet and she feels a moral duty to speak out when research has public impact.
  • It’s important to stay positive, especially on bummer issues like climate change.
  • If we just argue about facts, we can unintentionally deepen divides on polarized issues.
  • Regarding “preaching to the choir:” When she gets invites (and she gets LOTS of high-profile invites) she asks herself if someone else would get invited to it if she declined. If not, she’s a lot more likely to take it up so she can represent climate research to new audiences.
  • She constantly experiments and iterates with her presentations and is even doing some social science research to figure out what works best with different audiences.

Give it a listen – I always come away from Dr. Hayhoe’s work feeling inspired, grounded and yes – optimistic.

Parsons’ podcast is also a rich resource of people talking about the climate realities we’re dealing with right now. Those conversations are so important for understanding the stakes of the choices we face when it comes to future climate change.

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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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Responding to Science News Coverage: From Corrections to Celebration

This was originally written as part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. You can check out all the installments in a pay-what-you-can ebook. And, of course, there’s more to learn at the online course.

This installment covers what to do after an interview. Science coverage is no longer a series of news clips. It’s an ongoing conversations in which journalists, scientists, audiences and editors are participating. In this chapter, I share best practices for asking for corrections, amplifying good coverage and understanding the distinctions journalists make between factual accuracy and the angles and context they use to shape a story.

 

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Nuclear Power Used to Be a Science Issue, Now Its Economic

Nuclear power was a science issue until is wasn’t. In the 1950s, policymakers agreed that nuclear energy could harness the destructive power the American military and scientific establishment unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to produce electricity instead. We would tame the atom and use it for peace. Ford even toyed around with the Nucleon, a nuclear-powered concept car.

Ford_Nucleon

Feel free to bring this up any time someone says electric vehicles are impractical.

But nuclear power policy shifted in the 1960s and 70s. Citizens wanted more of a say in how nuclear power plants were sited and operated. The environmental and peace movements questioned the utility of nuclear technology itself, especially as the Soviet Union and United States adopted positions of mutually assured destruction. Eventually, Congress sundered the duties of the Atomic Energy Commission – which promoted and regulated nuclear power and made nuclear weapons, too – and created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After the Three Mile Island accident, U.S. nuclear power plant construction ground to a halt.

Two political scientists argue in a seminal work on policy change in the United States that this change-over is one of many examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution playing out in U.S. politics, rather than in the Galapagos Islands. As more people found they had a stake in the nuclear power debate, the more diverse and chaotic the debate became, until a new order was established. Along with that shift, the influence of science reporting on the topic diminished as political debates intensified and as more people focused on the running and regulation of nuclear power rather than the promise of nuclear technology.

That history has long informed my skepticism when I talk to advocates and scientists who are enthusiastic about nuclear power. I sympathize with them, though: I grew up in a nuke plant town; the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station was part of the landscape along Highway 9. We paid little mind to the sporadic evacuation drills at school in the event of a nuclear accident. And while a few parents pulled their children out of our high school on September 11th because they had heard false reports that nuclear power plants would be targeted next, I remember shrugging it off with a few of my buddies – why would anyone attack South Jersey when they were that close to Philly and New York?

have classmates who’ve worked as security guards at the plant – obviously security stepped up after the attacks. Years after graduating high school, when reviewing an NRC safety incidence report from the plant, I recognized the name of another classmate’s father. In nuke plants towns, it’s our neighbors who are in charge of keeping the plants safe. 

My home town seal even features an atom:

Yeah. yeah, I know the atom doesn’t have enough dots! Also pictured: sailboat, pheasant.

So my problems with nuclear power plants that exist today are narrow: let’s make sure the safety engineers and inspectors at the plants can do their jobs, by all means. And let’s figure out the waste problem, at some point, please.

But as far as climate change goes, there is something kind of nice about nuclear power plants that are operating today: they’re producing low-carbon electricity and they’re already paid for. But when we talk about the future of nuclear power, it’s not science or even safety that dominates the debate – it’s economics.

To no one’s surprise, it’s remains stupendously expensive to create a facility that uses controlled fission reactions to boil water and make electricity. And, in an essay for Gullies.org, I argue that that’s where opeds in favor of nuclear power should focus. It’s too easy to assume that green skepticism about nukes is what’s holding the technology back – that’s the sort of simplistic “but you’re a hypocrite” rhetoric that plagues our politics.

When it comes to curing energy production of its carbon blues, we need cogent arguments on economics and, indeed, economies of scale. Such arguments are becoming easier to make for wind, solar and renewables. And in a world with many energy options, the renewable success story makes the argument for nuclear power worse.

You can read the essay here. Enjoy!

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Nerd Nite DC on Saturday

Nerd Nite DC’s line up is looking real strong. Check it out!

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