Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Monday, October 28, 2013

We are losing science

The symptoms are all there. Science is in decline, at risk of collapsing. It has become an oddity in a world where if you learn from experience you are considered a flip-flopper and where your manhood is in doubt if you even think of changing your mind on the basis of new data.

Science is, first of all, a continuous fight against your instinct, your will to believe despite the evidence. It takes training to arrive to the point where you understand that your beautiful multi-faceted theory has been smashed to tiny bits by a single, ugly fact. But this is the way science works.

Unfortunately, what's happened in recent times is that our beautiful theories on the continuous progress of humankind have been smashed by the single ugly fact of the finiteness of our planet (including the finite capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of the combustion of hydrocarbons without overheating).

Even more unfortunately, most people have taken this discovery on the part of scientists as a betrayal. Science had been always bringing nice toys to people: from cars to smartphones. How can it be that, suddenly, scientists started talking about the need of doing away with all those shiny things we like so much? It can't be true.

The result is a series of attacks against science that come from several directions. Some people seem to think that science has become a conspiracy to get fat grants from the government. And, at the same time scientists are paid by the crude oil lobby to hide the real miraculous discoveries, from cold fusion to abiotic oil, that would easily solve our problems. Some people seem to think that science is a hideout for ultra-liberals or communists who are striving to destroy the American way of life. Therefore, they must be stopped by all possible means; if sending them to jail is too difficult, there is a simpler way that consists in denying them research grants on the really important issues.

Scientists have already been the objective of "purges" when their position didn't fit with the accepted political views of the time. There have been many examples in the past and, today, the symptoms are all there.  

Is Science Another Failed Institution?

The Greatest Intellectual Feat of Mankind

by George Mobus

I love science. All science and sciences. I've spent a lifetime reading every popular science book I could get my hands on in every imaginable discipline. And in fields in which I was intensely interested I read the textbooks and the journal articles. Science as a way to understanding has been my passion. It therefore gives me great pain to entertain the possibility that the institution of science is yet another failed institution of Homo calidus.

Read the complete post at "Question Everything"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We could have powered our tanks with wind and solar!

One of the best of the series of the manipulations of Downfall (Der Untergang). This one is dedicated to climate change and it is eerily appropriate to our present situation. (h/t Luca Lombroso)

Why trolls are so effective in the debate

Comments can be bad for science. That's why, here at, we're shutting them off.

It wasn't a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.

But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests. In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?). Then, through a randomly assigned condition, they read either epithet- and insult-laden comments ("If you don't see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you're an idiot" ) or civil comments.

The results, as Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought.

Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science.

If you carry out those results to their logical end--commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded--you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the "off" switch.
Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story.

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

There are plenty of other ways to talk back to us, and to each other: through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, livechats, email, and more. We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion. We hope you'll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don't do it for us. Do it for science.

Suzanne LaBarre is the online content director of Popular Science. Email suzanne.labarre at popsci dot com.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The only good use of fossil fuels

Roy Spencer's opinions on Climate Change are highly debatable, to say the least. But, on this point, I think he got it right. The only good use for fossil fuels is to use them to replace fossil fuels. 

Roy Spencer came up with this rather counterintuitive suggestion in an interview with Catholic Online:

COL: Let’s say tomorrow, evidence is found that proves to everyone that global warming as a result of human released emissions of CO2 and methane, is real. What would you suggest we do?

SPENCER: I would say we need to grow the economy as fast as possible, in order to afford the extra R&D necessary to develop new energy technologies. Current solar and wind technologies are too expensive, unreliable, and can only replace a small fraction of our energy needs. Since the economy runs on inexpensive energy, in order to grow the economy we will need to use fossil fuels to create that extra wealth. In other words, we will need to burn even more fossil fuels in order to find replacements for fossil fuels.

h/t Brian Angliss

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The problem with watching Fox News

From "Science Daily" (h/t Nate Hagens)

People Often Think An Opinion Heard Repeatedly From The Same Person Is Actually A Popular Opinion

May 21, 2007 — Whether people are making financial decisions in the stock market or worrying about terrorism, they are likely to be influenced by what others think. And, according to a new study in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA), repeated exposure to one person's viewpoint can have almost as much influence as exposure to shared opinions from multiple people. This finding shows that hearing an opinion multiple times increases the recipient's sense of familiarity and in some cases gives a listener a false sense that an opinion is more widespread then it actually is.

In a series of six experiments that included 1044 students, from the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Rutgers University, University of Michigan -- Dearborn, University of Toledo and Harvard University, researchers sought to understand individuals' accuracy in identifying group norms and opinions. The experiments included dividing students into three groups, (three person control group, single opinion group and repeated opinions group). 
Participants in the three person control group read three opinion statements each made by a different group member. The participants in the repeated opinion group read the same three statements but they were all attributed to one group member. Those in the single opinion control group read one opinion statement from one group member. 

The studies found that an opinion is more likely to be assumed to be the majority opinion when multiple group members express their opinion. However, the study also showed that hearing one person express the same opinion multiple times had nearly the same effect on listener's perception of the opinion being popular as hearing multiple people state his/her opinion. 

Researchers examined the underlying processes that take place when individuals estimate the shared attitude of a group of people and how that estimation of collective opinion can be influenced by repetition from a single source. Since gauging public opinion is such an essential component in guiding our social interactions, this research has implications in almost every facet of modern day life.

"This study conveys an important message about how people construct estimates of group opinion based on subjective experiences of familiarity," states lead author Kimberlee Weaver, (Ph.D), of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "The repetition effect observed in this research can help us to understand how our own impressions are influenced by what we perceive to be the reality of others. For example, a congressman may get multiple phone calls from a small number of constituents requesting a certain policy be implemented or changed, and from those requests must decide how voters in their state feel about the issue. This study sheds light on the cognitive processes that take place that may influence such a decision." 

Article: Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion From Its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like a Chorus. Kimberlee Weaver, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Stephen M. Garcia and Norbert Schwarz, University of Michigan, and Dale T. Miller, Stanford University; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 92, No. 5

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The 2057 IPCC report: 99.9999% probability that global warming is caused by human activity

h/t Carlos de Castro

(Note: the image above is copyrighted by Chris Madden. I tried to buy the license for reproducing it at but I received no answer to my query - it appears that there is something wrong with the site. If the copyright owner would like to contact me, I am ready to pay for the license at any moment)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Up yours, IPCC!

George Monbiot has produced a chilling assessment of the way the recent IPCC report has been ignored. Here are some excerpts.

Climate Breakdown

How governments bemoan the problem but keep stoking the fires.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th September 2013


What the (IPCC) report describes, in its dry, meticulous language, is the collapse of the benign climate in which humans have prospered, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other lifeforms depend. Climate change and global warming are inadequate terms for what it reveals. The story it tells is of climate breakdown. This is, or so it seems, a catastrophe we are capable of foreseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent.


But denial is only part of the problem. More significant is the behaviour of powerful people who claim to accept the evidence but keep stoking the fires. This week the former Irish president Mary Robinson added her voice to a call that some of us have been making for years: the only effective means of preventing climate breakdown is to leave fossil fuels in the ground(9,10). Press any minister on this matter in private and, in one way or another, they will concede the point. Yet no government will act on it.

As if to mark the publication of the new report, the department for business, innovation and skills has now plastered a giant poster across its groundfloor windows: “UK oil and gas: Energising Britain. £13.5bn is being invested in recovering UK oil and gas this year, more than any other industrial sector.” The message couldn’t have been clearer if it had said “up yours.”

Complete article

Friday, October 4, 2013

A face that looks like you just can't reason with it

The Asian giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is a species of hymenopterans insect of the family Vespidae. It has a length of 5 cm and a wingspan of 7.5 cm. In Summer 2013, swarms killed dozens of people in China and injured more than 1,500 with its powerful venomous sting. Photo:

We cannot say for sure that the spread of giant hornets in China is related to climate change, even though there are elements that link the two things. So, we may not be able to use the IPCC jargon to state that the link is "likely" or "very likely," or whatever. And yet, it may be "likely" that this kind of news could be somewhat more effective than the ponderous IPCC reports in communicating the dangers ahead. 

From Desdemona Despair by Jim  

By Madison Park, Dayu Zhang, and Elizabeth Landau

3 October 2013

HONG KONG (CNN) – A thumb-sized wasp with an orange head has killed dozens of people in China and injured more than 1,500 with its powerful venomous sting.

The Asian giant hornet, known scientifically as Vespa mandarinia, carries a venom that destroys red blood cells, which can result in kidney failure and death, said Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist at the Southwest Biological Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

But perhaps a bigger problem than the toxicity of the venom is allergy, Schmidt says. Some people are naturally more allergic to stinging insects than others; a sting can trigger a deadly anaphylactic reaction, which may involve airway closure or cardiac arrest.

The giant hornets, the largest hornet species in the world, have killed 42 people and injured 1,675 people in three cities in Shaanxi province since July, according to the local government. Thirty-seven patients remain in critical or serious condition.

In person, the Asian giant hornet looks like "the wasp analog of a pit bull" with "a face that looks like you just can't reason with it," said Christopher K. Starr, professor of entomology at University of West Indes in Trinidad & Tobago.


The spate of attacks could be caused by the unusually dry weather in the area, authorities say. The arid environment makes it easier for hornets to breed. Urbanization could also be a contributing factor, as humans move into hornets' habitats.

Some experts cited in Xinhua stated additional factors such as increased vegetation and a decrease in the hornets' enemies, such as spiders and birds, because of ecological changes.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

IPCC: playing the climate roulette

The publication of the latest report by the IPCC has generated plenty of the usual unscientific denialist criticism. But also some serious criticism on the fact that the report is not effective as a way of communicating the urgency of the climate problem. Here is an example; an excerpt from an article on The Oil Crash, blog, in Spanish)

by Carlos de Castro (translation from Spanish by Ugo Bardi)

We are playing Russian roulette and science is inviting us, unintentionally, to play it. If I see a fire in the building where I live and I run inside to alert my neighbors screaming, "Fire! Fire"", my neighbors are not hoping that someone should provide a demonstration with a 90% probability that I am a reliable guy. In addition, if they are told that I tell the truth only 10% of the times, would they still continue sitting and watching TV?

Read the whole article

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What's missing from the latest IPCC report?

By Gwinne Dyer

It’s the feedbacks, stupid.

Without the feedbacks, we could go on burning fossil fuels and cutting down the forests, and the average global temperature would creep up gradually, but so slowly that most inhabited parts of the planet would stay liveable for a long time.

But if we trigger the feedbacks, the whole thing goes runaway.