Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?


There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change. I’ve discussed the communication conundrum a few times as well, and assigned blame to various quarters, e.g

The media:

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints.


Most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language.

Though of course both statements in isolation miss the broader point, which is that

there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc.

Enough self-quotation. Discussions are raging at Keith’s, Eli’s (check out John Fleck’s comments), mt’s, Stoat, with very interesting discussions in the comments sections.


John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and it’s their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.

To which many journalists would understandably reply: Exchange “scientists” by “journalists” as well while you’re at it. And both would be right.

John Fleck points out that, apart from egregious examples that exist e.g. in the opinionsphere journalism,

the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely – climate change – are doing a creditable job.

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press “significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change,” but that what Boykoff calls the “prestige press” (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a “false balance” problem, Boykoff’s most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he’s got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the “false balance” thing.

William puts the lion’s share of responsibility with the public:

But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertainment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.

There’s something to that. Over the years, even the evening news and the weather forecast have changed in its narrative and appearance so as to be more about entertainment than about information. Election debates. Blogs. People want entertainment and they want it now. Gimme a quick fix, quick. Next, what’s next? There’s no time for learning or reflection.

Jonathan Gilligan has a similar line of thought as William, putting the responsibility on the public to consume the information they chose to:

There are lots of great books by scientists and journalists, so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?

Yes, there’s bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can’t trust the general public to figure out what’s trustworthy, then it’s game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.

While rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) isn’t the type of medium that we can expect to cover slowly unraveling stories in any depth. But even deadline news journalism is usually put in a certain context, where such issues can be touched upon. And there’s also background journalism, science journalism, and other kinds of communication (by scientists, journalists or whomever) that could rise to the occasion.

Which gets us to the point that it’s really about. Quoting mt:

the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”


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69 Responses to “Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?”

  1. TimG Says:

    Gilligan has it backwards.

    It is not up to the public to ‘figure out who is trustworthy’.

    It is up to the scientists to convince the public that they should be trusted.

    The problem with most defenders of the consensus is they assume that getting a few papers rubber stamped by their buddies makes them a trustworthy source of information.

    It does not work that way. To be a trustworthy source of information you either have to:

    1) tell people what they want to hear;
    2) be completely neutral and non-partisan;

    1) is why the the left wing has jumped on the AGW bandwagon. It fits perfectly with their anti-corporate, big government world view.

    But to reach people on the right 2) is necessary and unfortunately most defenders of the consensus insist on being partisans and take sides in the political fight. This guarantees that people on the other side will treat them an hostile and untrustworthy. It also alienates people in the middle that sympathize with some aspects of the right wing view.

  2. William M. Connolley Says:

    I wonder if an additional problem isn’t the slow cycle of climate news. Since IPCC AR4 a few things have changed, but nothing really substantial: if you want to understand the science, you’d be better off just reading the IPCC report, freely available online, rather than any journalism. But that, obviously, sells few papers and also (psychologically) doesn’t give the reader the “feel” of being up-with-the-in-crowd.

  3. magnus westerstrand Says:

    Still got the same question, why does it work so much better in some countries then in other?

  4. Eli Rabett Says:

    You know, when you start kicking dirt down the Rabett hole, you get a ticked off bunny and sometimes you just need to get the kickers attention.

    While mt and you and lots of other folks are right, that there is enough blame to go around and a lot of it is structural, there has been a concerted effort to blame the science side for not doing what it is not talented to do, and a look over there, which goes WAY BACK when talking about the PR muscle on the anti-science side. That PR can only reach the public through the journalists which makes their behavior particularly crucial and points to widespread and serious problems in copy copying. It ain’t just climate, and all three cultures need to change, science, journalism and the public. Pay attention, it’s your kid’s future and your old age.

  5. Marco Says:

    TimG: outright nonsense. The right wants 1 at least as much, if not even more. Just look at the recent HECC hearing, where the Republicans invited Donald Roberts to testify. The man knows NOTHING about climate science, but since he had a nice-sounding scare story about the ban on DDT, he was invited to tell that story and just link that to CO2 regulation.

    Of course, the Republicans also have had Monckton as a witness at those hearings, which should tell anyone with half a brain how much “the right” wants a “non-partisan” and “neutral” story.

  6. Tom Fuller Says:

    Science has had very little difficulty in communicating on other subjects of interest until the last decade or so. What has changed so that accurate information on subjects ranging from vaccines to climate change is now being contested so vigorously?

    It’s obviously coincident with increased access to the Internet and faster cycle times for releasing different takes on information.

    The release of Web 2.0 tools involve mediated access to a database which formats input into one of several web-friendly outputs. The one science is currently using ineffectively is the weblog. The one that would be more natural for communicating sequentially referenced information is the wiki.

    A truly intelligent community effort would be based on a wiki with linked weblogs for topic discussion. I have mentioned this on several occasions at weblogs ranging from Real Climate to Climate Audit. No response. I guess when it gets really important someone will actually try it.

  7. Bart Says:


    Focussing on your first point, in any situation where there is conflicting information, you ought to somehow figure out who to trust. People do that all the time, about which car to buy, with information about health or climate, anything about which different sources of information are mutually inconsistent.


    Yes, that’s what I was aluding to in my last paragraph and was also discussed at Kloor’s. However, thick dense pieces of science-rich writing are only interesting to specialists and to nerds (the IPCC reports are not really examples of relaxed sunday morning reading while enjoying an eggs benedict). The general public gets their info from the mainstream media and incfreasingly also from the internet. With the current lack of deep interest, I’m afraid that entering into the news cycle is still very important in order to trigger more interest and raise the scientific literacy enough so that deeper sources of information become palatable.


    I agree, all three cultures (and counting) need to change.

  8. willard Says:

    As for everthing else, Ari has a list:

  9. Bart Says:


    That’s a good question. Though I’m not sure to what extent the premise is true (the science not being vigorously contested until a decade or so ago – Einstein serves as an example) I think to the extent that it is true, the internet indeed has a lot to do with it. Perhaps also the increased individualism or other cultural factors; dunno really.

    The idea of a community-sustained wiki is a good one indeed. On a small scale, SkepticalScience is kind of going into that direction.

  10. adelady Says:

    My pet dream is that science (not just climate) should be a routine item in television’s daily news bulletins. “And now for the Finance update.” … “Over to you for the Science report” ….. Sport ….. Weather.

    A couple of days a week would probably be about cute, ugly, weird clouds, animals or plants and their habitats on many channels. But 2 or 3 times a week something interesting. And I’m not talking about amaaazing medical breakthroughs that might possibly lead towards a possible plan for a trial in humans 10 years hence. A bit of technology would be good, too.

    It doesn’t have to have the thrill of Mythbusters, but getting the public at large accustomed to taking in this information would be a good thing, even if we didn’t have a climate and ecology to worry about. Let’s face it. They listen to people drone on about currencies and watch them point at stock exchange graphs. Science has much more photogenic topics.

  11. TimG Says:


    The op is about what scientists need to do in order to gain the trust of people across the political spectrum. The only option available is to become religiously non-partisan. Religiously non-partisan means explicitly refusing to make comments about what policies, if any, should be adopted.

    I only mention 1) because many consensus defenders seem to think that people on the the left see climate scientists as trustworthy because people on the left ‘understand science’. This is nonsense. People and politicians on the left are more than willing ignore any science that does not suit them (nuclear power, GMOs, vaccines, et. al.). Their willingness to trust climate scientists only exists because the AGW narrative suits their political objectives.

  12. Bart Says:


    I don’t think that’s quite true. How else would you explain this:

    Polls show that as late as 1997, Republicans and Democrats had virtually indistinguishable views on the science of global warming. But an aggressive campaign by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks to cast doubt about the scientific evidence that human activity is warming the planet changed that. Today, public understanding of climate science reflects a deep division along partisan lines. Tea Party Republicans are particularly inclined to deny the reality of global warming, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.


  13. Michael Tobis Says:


  14. TimG Says:


    In 1997, I had no reason to question the science but I opposed Kyoto because I saw it as pointless exercise that would enrich middlemen.

    I came to question the science because I stumbled on climate audit about 4 years ago when I looking for info on sea level rise. It took a lot of reading opinion from both sides before I eventually concluded that SteveMc is basically right and the folks at RC can’t be trusted.

    In short, what changed is in 1997 scientists were see as fairly objective players. Unfortunately, their own actions have exposed many climate scientists as partisans who interpret data according to their own predetermined conclusions.

    I realize you would love to blame it on some big-oil conspiracy but you are fooling yourself.

  15. Tom Fuller Says:

    For me it went the other way. I started off as a skeptic (partly because of the rigid doctrinaire approach at Real Climate and other similar sites) but managed to work my way through the math thanks to some of the people Bart would classify as skeptics. I became a Lukewarmer despite the blog scientists, essentially.

    I’m a progressive (U.S.) democrat, so I find this left/right stuff amusing. Global warming isn’t a domestic political issue. Energy policy and taxes are.

  16. TimG Says:

    On trust:

    Here is latest in the hockey stick/climategate files:

    At the time Mann says:
    “I’ll contact Gene about this ASAP”

    Now he says:
    “I felt Eugene Wahl had to be aware of this e-mail … it could be used against him”

    My *opinion*: he is lying now and depending on the sycophants in the science media to lap it up because they don’t want to harm the ’cause’.

    I realize that many people here deperately want to believe that Mann is not lying (Bart may even delete this post because I have ‘slandered’ Mann).

    But it is my *opinion* (and the opinion of many others) and is people here want to understand why a large segment of the population does not trust climate scientists you have to recognize that the behavoir of the scientists is a huge factor. Pretending that climate scientists are blameless victims is a delusion that will change nothing.

    The way out the hole is a ‘religious non-partisan’ approach to discussing science with the public.

  17. Tom Fuller Says:

    Well, for some reason my comment at Real Climate was rejected six times:

    “What are the ethical responsibilities of an intermediary who conveys a message? Michael Mann knew from prior correspondence that what Phil was requesting was questionable at best. By forwarding the correspondence to Wahl, is he implicitly endorsing Jones’ request?

    Does Mann have a duty of care or ethical responsibility in this case? I believe so. I believe he owes Wahl something–I’m not sure what. I strongly believe he owes Jones a caution regarding his behaviour. And I believe he owes something to a larger group, although I am not sure if that group is science, society, or what.

    You people sure do create interesting dilemmas for yourselves and the rest of us.”

  18. Deech56 Says:

    Here’s what you have to consider:

    “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science….Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.”

    Scientists and science journalists are up against a political campaign to cast doubt on the science in order to further Republican inaction.

  19. MapleLeaf Says:


    The media have clearly failed to report on the science. The media and journos (some of them prominent) have failed on a number of ways:

    1) Insisting on presenting false balance
    2) Failing to do their research, consult experts and fact check– in doing so, they have become active participants in an orchestrated misinformation campaign i.e, FUD)
    3) Failing to hold those in contempt of the science accountable, and failing to expose their lies and disinformation– now there is a juicy story or dozen.
    4) Failing to engage scientists and facilitate in communicating the scope and seriousness of the problems expected with AGW
    5) Over-hyping the consequences about AGW– catchy headlines sell, and sometimes they fall into the trap of over-hyping things– that too hurts the science in the long run

    I have said this many times before– the IPCC needs a professional and dedicated PR team whose members have some experience working in the sciences. They also needs a graphics team to generate cool flash movies etc to communicate the science to the public. Sadly, people are now suggesting cutting funds to the IPCC, one of the reason for some of their gaffs and inability to be good communicators has been a lack of resources and funds.

    The scientists are finally coordinating to improve their communication skills, but ultimately this does not absolve the media for their truly horrific coverage of the AGW file and their failure to hold the disinformers and anti-science crowd to account.

    This is a very sad time for science journalism, and that is not anyone else’s fault but the media outlets and that of the journos. It is I suppose also the public’s fault for not demanding better.

    And to those who unequivocally trust McIntyre, Mosher and Montford et al., and buy into their orchestrated campaign of lies and slander, then they are just gullible fools who are deluding themselves. EOS.

  20. Tom Fuller Says:

    Maple Leaf, do you have specific examples?

  21. Tom Fuller Says:

    I should say that I trust McIntyre, Mosher and Montford. But that’s from actual experience with them. They are not orchestrated and they are honest. Nobody is correct all the time, but I would happily serve as a character witness for any or all of the three.

  22. MapleLeaf Says:

    Bart, I forgot another one:

    6) Journos stating (misguided, misinformed) opinion as fact.

  23. Tom Fuller Says:

    Examples, please?

  24. MapleLeaf Says:

    I trust, the physics, and it does not paint a cheering picture.

    CA (including Mosher) orchestrated the vexatious FOIA requests…and they still have done nothing with those data that they were demanding and which they knew they had no right to. McIntyre lied (by omission) about having the Yamal data. McIntyre who when advised not to reveal the name of anonymous reviewer, went ahead and did so anyhow. He has quite the rap sheet, and now he is disseminating yet more demonstrably false nonsense. And FWIW, I’m sure even members of the mafia can secure character references/witnesses, even though those character witnesses themselves might be dodgy.


    “And to those who unequivocally trust McIntyre, Mosher and Montford et al., and buy into their orchestrated campaign of lies and slander, then they are just gullible fools who are deluding themselves.

    Anyhow, this is OT and can go to the open thread.

    Let us take the focus off the dismal failure of the media and journos, and those claiming to be journos.

  25. MapleLeaf Says:

    Fuller, if you need examples at this point in time, then you have clearly not being paying any attention, no surprise there I suppose. And how am I supposed to provide examples of something that the media have (largely) failed to cover? :)

    Anyhow, my post was addressed to Bart, not you. Bye.

  26. Tom Fuller Says:

    I have rarely seen so many completely inaccurate and/or false statements in such a short space. You are to be complimented on both your field of vision and your taste for koolaid. Well done. All wrong. Well done. You’ve even convinced the East German judges.

  27. Tom Fuller Says:

    So, umm, no examples then. Just statements that I know are lies followed by buh-bye. Why am I less than surprised?

  28. MapleLeaf Says:


    One notable example that gained traction in denier circles was Fred Pearce’s mangling of Mojib Latif’s WWC3 talk, forgiving for now his more recent failings. There are other examples by David Rose (Rosegate), Corcoran and Gunter in Canada (the former who is justifiably being sued for libel by a climate scientist), Jonathan Leake and the Amazon fiasco, Andrew Bolt (too many to mention) and even at times Revkin. And that is by no means a complete list, not any any stretch of the imagination. Really there are more examples than one can shake a stick at, I do not think that providing specific examples is the point of this post though….a moot point really, as we would not be having this discussion if there were not an obvious issue.

    With that said, I am happy to provide some more examples to back up my points 1-6 at your request. Others can feel free to provide more examples as well.

  29. J Bowers Says:

    Fuller — “Science has had very little difficulty in communicating on other subjects of interest until the last decade or so. What has changed so that accurate information on subjects ranging from vaccines to climate change is now being contested so vigorously?”

    Ummm, tobacco ring a bell?

    Same story, same shills, same FUD, same MO, same delays, just add the internet.

  30. MapleLeaf Says:


    What surprised me is that The Economist as in my opinion, for the most part, done quite a good job at covering the climate science and AGW.

  31. Tom Fuller Says:

    J Bowers, I was around for the tobacco wars. They were called cancer sticks long before the Surgeon General’s report in 65. Everybody–everybody–knew that the tobacco companies’ protestations were bull back then. They just didn’t want to quit.

  32. J Bowers Says:

    Dr Brian Cox knows how to communicate science, and has strong opinions on the subject. Here’s his Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture of last year, ‘Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy’, where he often uses climate change to illustrate the good (Dr Iain Stewart’s ‘Climate Wars’), and the bad (‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’).

    3 parts.

  33. Tom Fuller Says:

    Sorry I can’t watch Brian’s video. Care to summarize?

  34. Obscurity Says:

    Hi J Bowers,

    Yes, Dr. Brian Cox did an excellent job.

  35. J Bowers Says:

    Fuller — “Everybody–everybody–knew that the tobacco companies’ protestations were bull back then. They just didn’t want to quit.”

    Historians’ testimony on “common knowledge” of the risks of tobacco use: a review and analysis of experts testifying on behalf of cigarette manufacturers in civil litigation. Kyriakoudes (2006)

    Defence historians unduly limit their research materials, ignoring industry records and, therefore, critically undermine their ability to evaluate industry activity in the smoking and health controversy as it unfolded in historical time. A consequence is that defence historians present a skewed history of the cigarette in which the tobacco industry all but ceases to exist.
    …to bolster their legal defence that in the past, the public has known and understood the hazards of smoking…

  36. TimG Says:

    J Bowers,

    The trouble is climate science does not come close to living up to the ideals expressed by Dr. Cox. In fact, many of claims of climate science are nothing but opinions which have no real supporting evidence. Yet when sceptics question the basis for these opinions they are told to shut up and stop questioning their ‘betters’.

    If Feynman was alive today I think we would be a climate skeptic. There is simply too many claims that fall into what he would call ‘cargo cult science’:

  37. Tom Fuller Says:

    J Bowers, I repeat–I was there. We all knew. Hell, the Elizabethans knew. And we all knew the tobacco companies were lying. And we thought they were both sick and slick. And we kept on smoking. I lost my mom and a double handful of relatives to cancer. And I kept on smoking. Until 2 and a half years ago.

  38. J Bowers Says:

    TimG — “In fact, many of claims of climate science are nothing but opinions which have no real supporting evidence.”

    Complete and utter BS.

    “If Feynman was alive today I think we would be a climate skeptic.”

    If Feynman were alive today I think he’d tell Mosher, Fuller and Montford where to stick their books, have zero time for Singer, Michaels, Spencer and Christy, and would be backing Mann, Jones and Santer to the hilt against constant smear campaigns.

  39. TimG Says:

    J Bowers,

    You obviously have not understood what Feynman said. In that link I gave you he provides a good example of how the “consensus” was wrong for decades because people were afraid to challenge the (wrong) claims of a famous scientist. In the oil drop example, scientists doctored their data in order to make it better match the “consensus”.

    The evidence for group think/cargo cult science within the climate science field is overwhelming.

  40. J Bowers Says:

    Fuller — “J Bowers, I repeat–I was there. “

    Tom, you’re not actually contradicting my original comparison . If anything, you could even be bolstering the comparison if you throw the word ‘addiction’ into the mix.

    The whole point to the tobacco PR campaigns and ensuing shill science was to counter the increasingly published scientific research linking tobacco and disease since the 1950s, and cast enough doubt to enable the public to question their need to give up their addiction to their nicotine delivery systems. If crack were legal, there’d be a similar campaign by the crack industry to impair any legislation to regulate it.

    And don’t lecture me on smoking.

  41. J Bowers Says:

    @ TimG

    If you want cargo cult science look no further than WUWT, “Best science blog of the year”, or Climate Etc., and read the comments.

  42. tom fuller Says:

    But their campaign didn’t work with the public. We all knew.

  43. J Bowers Says:

    Tom, for every person who you say knew, I’ll be able to cite an example of someone claiming their granny smoked 50 a day and lived to age 90.

    “Doubt is our product”. The point to the campaign was to halt legislation. It worked for 50 years. People stayed addicted. The US government threatened sanctions against countries who threatened to stop tobacco freebies to kids in shopping malls abroad to get them addicted. Profits remained sky high.

    Same MO, same shills, same result.

  44. tom fuller Says:

    No, i’m sying we all knew. The show trials were all about the government, the courts and the insurance companies fighting over control of reparations money. It wasn’t aimed at us.

  45. Deech56 Says:

    Can y’all “lukewarmer” types quit the Appeal to Feynman arguments? It’s Ash Wednesday and I can’t play any drinking games tonight.

  46. Eli Rabett Says:

    # Tom Fuller Says:
    March 10, 2011 at 01:41

    Examples, please?

    Go to #

  47. Sou Says:

    The members of the public who lack understanding of climate change fall into different categories, two of which are the uneducated (a particular problem in the USA with it’s falling education standards), and the wilfully ignorant (those who choose not to believe what they don’t want to believe, despite evidence).

    Scientists are apparently now expected to ‘educate the public’. It wasn’t always so. It used to be that scientists developed knowledge and that science communicators acted as the bridge between new scientific knowledge and the various audiences such as technology developers, governments and the general public.

    On matters of huge public importance such as climate change, it’s up to governments to educate and inform the public. Some of them are doing a better job than others.

    It often takes a mix of regulation and information/awareness programs such as with anti-smoking campaigns – television advertisements on the deadly affects of smoking, cigarette taxes, laws prohibiting selling tobacco to minors, laws prohibiting smoking in certain places and laws prohibiting tobacco advertising.

    Journalists are a mixed bunch. Editors are probably as much or more to blame for misinformation as journalists themselves – sneaking in misleading headlines and choosing what articles to print and where.

    Politicians wear a lot more of the blame because they get information that is often not available to the public, and don’t share it. In some cases politicians deliberately misinform the public, such as some of the republicans in the USA. This latter probably arises from the corrupt political system such as corporations paying for votes, as is common in many western countries.

    It’s harder to hide the evidence when it affects major population centres. Not quite as hard when weather disasters occur in more sparsely populated areas. As the weather worsens from climate change it will be harder to hide than it has been to hide the adverse affects of tobacco smoking (the latter can be hidden in hospitals and cemeteries).

  48. Tom Fuller Says:

    Sou, if you’re going to be this wrong, could you at least be interesting? Blame the messenger, blame the audience, lather, rinse repeat.

    Two areas where you refuse to look: The message, the message’s authors.

    Sou, your message is incoherent babble. Every day 3 new things are invented or discovered that will be destroyed by climate change. Some day. Meanwhile America is burning 40% of its corn in fuel tanks to fight climate change. While poor people around the world are starving. None of this is exaggerated. None of it is made up.

    Your message is poor. It deserves to fail.

    The ‘authors’ take jets to climate conferences and leave limos running for hours. They buy houses on the sea. They use more electricity than towns.
    They delete emails. They ‘hide the decline.’ None of this is exaggerated. None of it is made up.

    The authors stink. They deserve to fail.

    So spare me your drivel about how journalists are letting you down. You are letting yourselves down.

  49. sidd Says:

    Mr. Tom Fuller writes on the 10th of March, 2011 at 06:36:

    “The ‘authors’ take jets to climate conferences and leave limos running for hours. They buy houses on the sea. They use more electricity than towns.
    They delete emails. They ‘hide the decline.’ None of this is exaggerated. None of it is made up.

    The authors stink. They deserve to fail.”

    As to conferences, I agree that videoconferencing would help, but facetime is important. The next three complaints about limos, houses and electricity have naught to do with the science, instead attacking the messenger. The last two accusations, contrary to Mr. Fuller’s assurance, are exaggerated and misleading.

    I am sorry that Mr. Fuller believes that Prof. Lonnie Thompson and Prof. Richard Alley and a myriad others deserve to fail in their efforts to communicate the danger in loading the atmosphere with fossil carbon.


  50. Marco Says:

    TimG: if you define the left as people who want big government, you’re running low on people on the left…

    Perhaps that explains why there are so few politicians anti-vaccine. Of course, there’s the Virginia case, where Byron, a Republican, cited just about all the known pseudoscience from the anti-vaccine movement to end mandatory vaccination to prevent cervical cancer. Choice quote from Byron: “There is not a consensus among doctors on Gardasil’s safety”.
    Note that the attempted ban on vaccination went through the House without trouble, with votes essentially along party lines.
    Also, a Pew poll found that Republicans were less likely to take the swine flu vaccine:
    Doesn’t quite fit the claims you make.

    Tom Fuller: it has simply become easier to attack the science, whenever it contradicts one’s ideology. In the old days, it was much harder to gather a sufficiently large group of like-minded souls to make enough noise.

  51. Marco Says:

    Tom Fuller claims:
    “Meanwhile America is burning 40% of its corn in fuel tanks to fight climate change”

    Marco states:
    The main reason Bush pushed this activity was to reduce oil imports. You know, domestic energy production = better. He made it quite clear he doesn’t believe in climate change.
    Oh, and then there was some unsurprising enthousiasm of Republicans who come from mainly agricultural states about that same move (and from farmers). They saw the subsidies to their state and thought “hmmm…money!”

  52. Bart Says:

    There is a new open thread for off topic discussions. E.g. take the Wahl and Mann stuff over there.

    No verbal ping-pong please.


  53. TimG Says:


    When it came to the swine flu it was clear that the scare was most likely another media manufactured crisis. The risk was simply too low to justify taking a vaccine.

    When I talk about anti-vaxers I am talking about people refusing the well established vaccines that come with serious public health consequences if they are refused (mumps, small pox, et. al.). The people refusing vaccines tend to be same crowd who are against GMOs and are generally left wing.

  54. Sou Says:

    Tom, I know you’re supposed to be a journalist so I can understand that you write more than you read (or comprehend). You attacked my post but as you say in your comment, you couldn’t understand what I wrote (incoherent babble), which is probably why your comments are off base. In my post, for example, I referred to a lot of the blame going to editors. I also said politicians have to share the blame.

    I am happy to make an exception and blame you personally for a lot of the mischief, if I thought anyone read what you wrote except on blogs like this one. Would that make you happy?

  55. Sou Says:

    Apologies, Bart, for my previous post. I usually resist feeding the troll.

  56. Heraclitus Says:

    Bart, I’m sorry but I think you are going to need to go down the route of stronger moderation. This looked to be a really interesting discussion but has degenerated to the point where my heart sinks to see each new comment.

    For what it’s worth I think blame is only interesting to the extent that it moderates behaviour. Clearly the public is ultimately to blame for poor discrimination on the information they seek out, but blaming the public is not going to achieve anything in the short to medium term.
    Scientists could be communicating better and moves to improve direct communication with the public should be encouraged but this is not their primary purpose.
    So it is the journalists who should bear the greatest proportion of blame because communication is their job and they can do their job better. Blaming them has some chance of moderating their behaviour, although it seems that resilience to blame is an inherent characteristic of those who become the most influential journalists. Shame flows like water off a duck’s back.

  57. Marco Says:

    TimG: the Pew poll still contradicts your claim that “the left” is more anti-vaccine than “the right”. Whether the swine flu was a media-hyped scare or not, those supposedly anti-vaccine “lefties” supported vaccination more than “righties”.

    Another small problem with your claim is that the vaccines you mention are highly government-backed. So, is the “left” now PRO-government or ANTI-government?

    And to make a link to the story at hand here: with vaccination we once again see how many journalists went awry. While scientists repeatedly said that Wakefield’s data was not supported by general observations, several journalists (and newspapers) went on a rampage anyway. Some still maintain their stance of Wakefield as some type of Galileo. Several others never acknowledged they were complicit in the spread of the MMR scare, claiming they “merely reported the facts”.

  58. MapleLeaf Says:

    Regarding “Eli Rabett Says:
    March 10, 2011 at 04:51……”

    For once I have to disagree with you Eli , was Fuller not asking for examples of failures by actual/real journalists?

  59. klem Says:

    “There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change.”

    Climate scientist and the media are to blame. Remember, a couple of years ago the majority of the public believed that ACC was real, but over the next couple of years that number fell dramatically. In other words most people understood ACC and were believers but later they converted to skeptics. Science lost them. Up to that point in time, scientists did a good job of communicating the science to the public, but the media began reporting the sensational stories, hyping the fear factor. Night after night on TV, daily in the papers, magazines and radio were stories of ACC catastrophe. This went on for years, the more fear they sold the more money they made. Every study which was released was media cherry picked and hyped which made the fear worse. And the more fear studies were released, the more attention and fame was drawn to the scientists responsible for them. It was a science/media feedback loop, everybody was making money. But this feedback loop was unsustainable; the public hit a point of fatigue (most issues last about 3 years before fatigue sets in). Also the silencing of opposing opinion also was a major error, especially on the web. A couple of years ago you could not say anything against ACC without being deleted, I could never have post this message for example. Censoring opposing views is ideologically driven not scientifically driven; this helped to awaken the public that something smelled fishy. I don’t think scientists were to blame fully, but a feedback loop with media sensationalism, money and scientific fame, scientists lost their credibility. Now the public does not believe anything they say. Cheers.

  60. J Bowers Says:

    klem — “Remember, a couple of years ago the majority of the public believed that ACC was real, but over the next couple of years that number fell dramatically.”

    It didn’t fall “dramatically”. Since two harsh winter spells and the hacked climategate emails were released, there was a slight drop, but the average percentage of those who accept that mankind is changing the climate hovers around the 63% mark, while those who believe it’s natural or not happening at all is 25% to 30% (UK and US respectively).

    30% of the US population, regardless of fake scandals or manufactured controversies, distrusts science regardless ofthe field.

  61. Heraclitus Says:

    klem: “Night after night on TV, daily in the papers, magazines and radio were stories of ACC catastrophe. This went on for years, the more fear they sold the more money they made. Every study which was released was media cherry picked and hyped which made the fear worse.”

    This doesn’t appear to match any version of reality I lived through. Did I miss something?

  62. Steve Bloom Says:

    It’s an oft-repeated meme in a certain sector of the blogosphere, Heraclitus. What’s notable about it is the lack of reference to the actual science (to say nothing of misrepresenting how much of the science actually gets into the mass media, and more to the point where and with what frequency), and so it is saying IOW “I refuse to believe anything very bad can happen, so anyone who says it might be is making stuff up.” Fuller, Kloor and Revkin all have versions of this problem, the former obviously more severely. Bart and Michael Tobis, e.g., seem persuaded that such people are persuadable and so spend a great deal of time beating their heads against that wall. IMHO such people will only be persuaded when reality gives them a good shake, and by that I mean a climate change-induced event or series of events that affects them or those they can identify with in an obvious way. A bit of ice-free summer water in the Arctic, e.g., won’t do the job.

    My two cents on the root of the problem: In science many admiring words get said about scientists with good physical intuition who do work on the cutting edge, e.g. Jim Hansen or Mike Mann. Problem is, everyone has a physical intuition, in most cases formed by influences having nothing to do with science, and when Hansen, Mann or whoever else produces work that contradicts it and has direct implications for the way such people prefer to live their lives, pushback in inevitable.

  63. Anna Haynes Says:

    Yo, Bart, could you delete my above comment please?
    (March 11, 2011 at 00:09)
    My id got the better of me; I am trying to teach it who’s boss.

  64. Sou Says:

    ClimateProgress has a timely post illustrating how the media is not doing its job properly and letting down the public:

  65. Tom Fuller Says:

    You muddy your messages and choose the wrong spokespeople to make your points.

    You can blame the media all you want, but the problem starts at home.

  66. Eli Rabett Says:

    Frankly Tommy, it ain’t about you. The bunnies are talking about journalism, not public relations.

    Still, a long time ago Eli learned never to believe anything anyone said about themselves on line, which, among other things is why he never bothers.

  67. Science Communication : jfleck at inkstain Says:

    […] I see Bart also has done a nice job of skipping through all the ill-tempered things we said and assembled a nice summary of the […]

  68. thingsbreak Says:

    Bart, I added some thoughts at Kloor’s that you might find relevant:


  69. greenheretic Says:

    Tim G actually has some good points. The current approach to discussing climate change often directly or implicitly is framed in a way to draw conclusions that are partisan in nature. Always keep in mind that most people already have their preferred conclusion in mind and will (even in some cases unconsciously) work the data or information to fit nicely with their idealism.

    I would agree that if we are going to speak to those on the right or the middle, our rhetoric needs to change. Forget about convincing them of climate change, and start explaining to them how green tech is good for energy security and keeping America as the world’s strongest economy.

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