«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
A journalist following this story has to deal with the following circumstances: first, this is a big story—a majority of the American public now overwhelmingly believes that climate change is a major problem and poses a serious threat. Thus, the question of who is right about the science is a big, important question. Second, the journalist will encounter well-credentialed scientists who have deeply held, even passionate views on the subject. Most will be strong advocates for the IPCC consensus and will wonder why a journalist would consider another view. Others, fewer in number, will cite histories of natural fluctuations in world climate or will challenge the utility of the models or point to other work that, in their view, makes the scientific position on global warming “controversial.” Under those circumstances, many good reporters will consider it fair and reasonable to discuss the matter with several people on each side. In and of itself, this is not a problem. But the IPCC consensus involves hundreds of scientists, and its conclusions all rest on research published in peer-reviewed journals.
The historian of science Naomi Oreskes, at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed the consensus on climate change four years ago (the 2008 consensus is far stronger):
In its most recent assessment, IPCC states unequivocally that the consensus of scientific opinion is that Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities: “Human activities... are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents...
that absorb or scatter radiant energy.... [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”1 IPCC is not alone in its conclusions. In recent years, all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members’ expertise bears directly on the matter have issued similar statements. For example the National Academy of Sciences report, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, begins: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.” The report explicitly asks whether the IPCC assessment is a fair
summary of professional scientific thinking, and answers yes:
“The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.”
1. Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306 (2004): 1686.
See also her outstanding book with Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).
In fact, today only six or so scientists regularly appear in opposition to the consensus, and most of them do not publish original research. If the reporter has a short deadline, she may resort to one or two scientists on each side of an issue. When this happens in the climate change arena, most people in the research community are horrified.
What should the poor reporter do? She should be concerned about two important attributes. The first is the scientists’ qualifications: the kinds of journals they have published in and other credentials, such as invited articles, membership in scientific societies and academies, support from agencies that award grants on the basis of peer review—indeed, information of the kind she might get by taking advantage of the type of sources Oreskes mentions. The second concerns possible financial conflicts of interest. The journalist should ask hard questions about whether the scientist is getting financial support and from whom. In the case of climate science, certain energy companies and foundations, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the George C. Marshall Institute have all supported scientists who actively publish critiques of the IPCC consensus. Support from those sources might raise questions that would not arise from a National Science Foundation grant.
Journalists should also be attuned to evidence of a more organized agenda.
Oreskes and Robert Porter have studied the development of a particular strategy on the part of those who dispute the evidence for global warming. Early contacts were made between these individuals and others, including scientists who had challenged the epidemiological consensus on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. The common theme of both campaigns, which the climate group learned from the tobacco scientists, is that one should “teach the controversy”—that is, present the underlying science as unclear because
6 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IAsome scientists have expressed disagreements with the consensus. When the “controversy” is abetted by support from particular industries or foundations, money again enters the picture.
Journalists should not, however, assume guilt by association. A conflict of interest or the prospect of financial gain is a matter quite different from that of scientific competence. Science requires authors to declare all their support, and publishes any information that might suggest to the reader the existence of a potential conflict. But determination of the paper’s scientific merit is conducted independently of the assessment of potential conflicts of interest, and the two should not be confused. Some reporters are apt to make conflict of interest or financial stakes a proxy for serious judgments about competence, and that may mislead the reader. Neil Munro, a Washington investigative reporter who contributes to National Journal, warns reporters to include outside financial sources when writing about academic researchers. For example, in a piece called “Doctor Who?” in Washington Monthly, he compares two biologists who work on stem cells. Dr. David Prentice of Indiana State University believes that all the medical promise of stem cell research can be met with adult stem cells; Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University is a partisan for the use of embryonic stem cells. “Part of the explanation, of course, is simply an honest difference of opinion among scientists,” Munro says. But he then goes on to elaborate the financial advantages Prentice might gain from a biotech company he hopes to found, and the fact that Weissman has “made millions” in companies using stem cell technology. Munro points out that neither man has kept his affiliations a secret. Munro’s objection is to the press, which invariably refers to Weissman as “a biologist from Stanford.” (I should disclose here that I am one of those, too.) Munro’s objection is interesting given that he himself is a reporter. He takes care of a significant difference of opinion by explaining it in terms of financial interest and ignores evidence of a stark difference in competence.
Weissman has published numerous articles in top-tier peer-reviewed journals and is widely regarded as an innovative leader in cell biology. He is a member of the National Academy of Science (not merely a chair of one panel, the distinction Munro allows him) and is a recipient of a number of prizes and awards.
David Prentice has no peer-reviewed publications. His website refers to a letter in Science that was unreviewed and soon followed by a letter from three distinguished scientists contesting nearly every claim he had made. All of this information was readily available to Munro.
The advice to reporters to disclose financial relationships is good advice.
But Munro would have made it better had he included an admonition to follow the credentials as well as the money.
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THE LESS-COVERED ISSUESClimate change and the stem cell debate are the current poster children for scientific issues that converge with public policy, which means that they cannot help but be political. In each case, federal action has failed to follow public preference. The result has been a down-migration of jurisdiction—with states passing referenda to support stem cell research, California pushed its own emissions standards by passing AB 32, and mayors are organizing to reduce the carbon footprints of their cities. This is an interesting development that probably ought to get more press than it does.
So should another problem: a growing scientific suspicion about the number of “fixes” now making their appearance in the climate/energy space.
Most scientists do not regard biofuels, especially corn-derived ethanol, as workable—either economically or as a means of reducing carbon emissions once all costs are accounted for. An equal skepticism attends the number of “carbon offsets” available to households, industries, or even individuals who have taken on a sense of obligation to reduce their carbon footprints. Some offsets doubtless do achieve a carbon-neutralization effect—but these are rare and do not include random acts of tree planting or the fertilization of bits of ocean with nutrients that might produce blooms of phytoplankton.
Journalists can do much to help create a more balanced and knowledgeable account of science for the public. But to leave the burden on the press would be foolish as well as unfair. Scientists need to do much more of the work themselves: by learning to speak more clearly about what they are doing, by getting out into the real world to talk more directly to the public, and by taking care to be scientifically sound and rigorous as they connect their own work to public policy.
A number of incentives make this difficult to achieve. Scientists training in the iconic Ph.D.-granting departments seldom are urged to work on their communication skills. Too many of their mentors are exclusively interested in their students’ progress toward completion of a dissertation. A joke current in molecular biology is that the professors are determined to create clonal offspring. Graduate students are commonly instructed that instead of undertaking a course involving some kind of outreach they should focus on their theses.
I once asked Bob Berdahl, the thoughtful president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), if it might be possible to find out how many science departments in AAU member institutions offered seminars or courses on how to discuss science with the media or the public. He said he would try, but then predicted that the answer would be few or none.
The actual picture is now not quite that bleak. The Pew Foundation has sponsored some efforts of that kind, and the highly successful Aldo Leopold program has been coaching and teaching young scientists at media relations for some years. The best institutional PIOs help their science faculties make press contacts and often work to improve the clarity of communication between
8 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IAscientist and reporter. But discouragingly little is happening at the great research universities, as Berdahl warned. Even worse than for a graduate student to be told “that’s a waste of your time; stick to your thesis” is for his colleagues to warn him about the dangers of being “Saganized”—that is, of becoming popular enough as an explainer of science to risk the contempt of more “serious” researchers, a contempt that owes more than a little to envy.
A final problem that must be addressed is that of resource concentration.
The influential national media—heavily concentrated in the Boston-New YorkWashington area—pay much more attention to science than do daily newspapers elsewhere, let alone cable television and talk radio. Areas of higher media concentration are, not surprisingly, areas that produce mergers of science and media. For example, that Corey Dean—then of The New York Times—and Dan Schrag of Harvard University were involved in a seminar that accomplished just such a merger is hardly an accident. Nor is it surprising that Andy Revkin, also formerly of the Times, consults regularly at Harvard and Stanford about climate change science. In the long run, the business of relationship-making must be extended to more disparate, less comfortable situations in which we reach the majority of Americans with institutions, people, and technologies we haven’t yet connected. I wish I were a better example of what can be done, but I’m as limited as many of the rest of you. I hope the young scientist in the Leopold program and the young science writer from the San Jose Mercury News will be able to show us the way.
About seventeen years ago, I was asked to host a series on public television called Scientific American Frontiers. I was excited by the prospect because I had been reading for almost three decades every article in every issue of Scientific American. This is not to say I understood everything I read. I had no formal training in science and sometimes I couldn’t even understand the magazine’s pictures. But I loved science and I would spend hours puzzling out articles written in what at first had seemed like a foreign language, but with practice eventually became more familiar.
Now, on the television show, I would spend whole days talking with scientists about their work. For the eleven years the show ran, I had a chance to exercise my curiosity, and along the way we developed an unusual kind of science show. I wouldn’t ask formal questions set out in a didactic way; instead the scientists and I would have an impromptu conversation—a spontaneous attempt on my part to truly understand their work. If I didn’t get it, I would keep after them until I did. Sometimes there was an amusing sense of frustration expressed on both sides. But their genuine effort to help me understand brought out the scientists’ human side. They were relaxed, they spoke simply, and they were often funny. They weren’t lecturing me; instead, we were having a conversation.
I began to realize how important this distinction was one day when a scientist was explaining her work to me on camera. She was engaging and clear.