Chris Mooney – Storm World

August 17, 2007

Chris Mooney is an acclaimed writer about subjects at the intersection of science and politics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New Scientist, Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, Slate, Mother Jones, The Washington Post, The LA Times, and The Boston Globe, and he has appeared widely in the media, on programs such as The Daily Show with John Stewart, NPR’s Science Friday, and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. His blog, called The Intersection, was a recipient of Scientific American’s 2005 Science and Technology web award, which noted that “science is lucky to have such a staunch ally in acclaimed journalist Chris Mooney.” The author of The Republican War on Science, his newest book is Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Mooney discusses Storm World, the science behind the controversies surrounding possible links of global warming to increased intensity of storms, and the nature of scientific debate. He also talks about the need for scientists to better frame their science for public understanding, and how the “science versus religion” frame may undercut the agenda of scientists.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 17th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry M.D. Jay Growthy Point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest Chris Mooney to talk about his new book, Storm World, I want to invite our listeners. If you’re enjoying this show week after week should be said, we do this kind of on the side in addition to our full time jobs. Well, let us know that you enjoy the show by becoming a friend of the center. Doing so helps support the Center for Inquiry as it works to carry out its mission to advance science and reason in society. 

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I’m pleased to have Chris Mooney back on the show this week. He’s a critically acclaimed science writer who treats subjects at the intersection of science and politics mostly. His writings have appeared in Wired and Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines in The New Scientist Sleigh. Mother Jones, The Boston Globe, really all over the place. And you may have seen him on TV. He’s been on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He’s been on the radio on NPR. Terry Gross and NPR Science Friday. He’s the author of the bestseller The Republican War on Science. He joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about, among other things, his new book, Storm World Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming. Chris, welcome back to the show. 

Good to be with you again. Your new book, Chris, is about the movers and shakers, the scientists who are studying the possible links of climate change to these mega storms. Just did this week we saw that there are a couple more big storms brewing. It seems like the past few decades, maybe we’ve seen not only an increase in the number of these storms, but an increase in the intensity of these storms. In your research for the book, did you find that most scientists are making that connection? 

They’re kind of hammering it out right now. Some of them are pretty convinced that there’s something going on that’s unusual. It’s probably caused by human induced global warming, that there is rightly point out that our hurricane records quickly get pretty poor. The further you go back in time. Well, maybe there were lots of storms that we just didn’t detect them. For example, we had a first Category five storm ever recorded in the Arabian Sea in June. Well, what if there was one there? Three hundred years ago, would we really have known it was a Category five storm? And the answer is no. 

So the findings are still out. 

Yeah, there’s valid arguments on both sides. But I think everyone, pretty much everyone would agree that global warming is happening. There’s one major exception would agree that global warming is happening. And if it’s happening, there’s going to be some kind of effect on her. 

Unlike your last bestselling book, Republican War on Science, Storm World is more like a cultural history of science at the frontiers of global climate change. It’s not as much about those who oppose the notion that climate change is actually happening. You’re from New Orleans. In fact, I spoke at your mother’s rationalist group there years ago, I think. How did coming from New Orleans change your perspective on storms and on global warming? I guess I’m asking, is this a personal issue for you? Is that why you’re invested in this topic? 

I think the personal side of things, the fact that my mother lost her home in Katrina and the fact that before that even happened, I’ve been watching my family evacuated regularly, certainly put hurricanes on my radar screen more than they might have been on their radar screen for somebody who had no connection to the area. But that said, you know, the book is not sort of an angry denunciation of government or failures during Katrina, although that happened. And the book isn’t taking sides saying global warming is going to kill us all by making hurricanes worse. The book is really a piece of science journalism. And as you mentioned, it’s about the scientists who study on what they’re like, what they’ve learned, who they trained and how they’re all falling out now. 

Yeah, it’s a it’s an account of this big struggle. But, you know, within climate science, between researchers who were collecting all the data and looking at the facts and figures about the growing intensity of these storms or the possible growing intensity. And then on the other side, there’s these theoretical scientists who are trying to come up with models to explain why this might be happening. Tell me where the conflict is there. You said that there’s not really consensus that’s developed about why we might be getting these big storms. Where’s the where’s the fight within the science? 

Well, on the one hand, you have it more theoretically inclined scientists, as you mentioned, and their theory explains how hurricanes work explains in the thermodynamic systems. In essence, they’re drawing energy from the warm ocean surface. They’re processing up high into the atmosphere and they process it. You know, the energy is being used to work and the work is the driving, the wind and waves and potential destruction, the result. So they predict that if you put more energy, potential energy into the sea surface, then you’re going to be able to achieve more potential intensity for your hurricane. And they’re contradicted by a lot of scientists who are more empirically inclined in general, know much more about hurricanes, databases, fact, you know, have experiences flying into storms. Now, I know how hard it is to get good data on hurricanes. It’s not like it’s very safe thing to do. And so. Result. 

They are more inclined to doubt some of the arguments about intensification because they know how hard it is to get the data together and they question whether data is good enough. You just mentioned whether or not get there to do. You can’t do it from, you know, from the sea. You can actually fly a plane in some very. But there there’s calibration issues with that. 

So, Chris, you you talk about the long history between these scientists and the animosity that has sometimes developed. Do you think that these scientists personal relationships, their long histories. Does it hurt the science? Does it keep science that the best ideas and science from rising to the top? 

Maybe, maybe some of the animosity temporarily distorts just use the scientific process. But, I mean, the scientific process is always a process that the central actors in which are human beings and human beings are good to know each other. They’re going to have various kinds of relationships with his teacher student or whether it’s intellectual combat. And so all of this plays out in real time. And that’s the way it is. 

Science is is something that’s done by society. It’s not completely idealized. Right. That that said, you know, I think that it’s exacerbated a great deal when you have a real scientific debate superimposed on top of that massive media coverage and huge political stakes. And that’s when the debate really starts to get politicized and people really start going out with each other. So Thorwald’s is a case study of how all that happens. 

But in the long term and long term, this kind of thing will lead to better scientific knowledge. The fight will lead to productive answers, new ways of thinking about things. Eventually, some kind of consensus. 

I want to talk a little bit more about the science itself. But before that, I just want to say how impressed I was that you really communicate in this book the nature of scientific debate. Not only all these personalities involved, these incredible battles between these scientists with their egos, their research agendas, maybe, but also about how a debate in science happens, how it works. What do you think the reader of your book, who isn’t a scientist, can take away from your account of that debate of how science debate happens? 

Well, yes, science isn’t necessarily the idealized process that some would like us to think it is. 

It’s actually done by real people in real time. And they have conflict. And often the process can be quite messy, especially when you get the media and the politicians getting involved, too, which is what happened with the hurricane, global warming battle after Katrina and information so getting pulled every which way. And in fact, the debate itself resembles kind of an intense storm. And that’s the metaphor that I use. That said, you know, science isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly better than any of the other systems. Winston Churchill once said democracy. 

How exactly is it better you have all these heated debates? How’s it better? 

Because what happens when you have heated debates is more scientists, you know, with other towns, other abilities start diving in. And in the long term, we get lots of publications. 

You get lots of great minds working on the same subject, and they haven’t things out. They find out what’s reliable, what is it? At the very beginning of the debate, it can really look like, you know, there’s no way to tell who’s right, who’s wrong. But over time, with the scientific process does sort of narrow things down and we get more reliable answers. The problem is, if you’re watching it in real time, you can get wrong. 

Let’s treat some of the science itself. Your book is heavy on the science. It’s unlike Republican War on Science, which talks a lot about the science policy interface and the public policy implications. The movers and shakers in that arena, you actually treat the science itself in this book. What would a rising sea levels? How would rising sea levels actually affect the intensity of these storms? We’ll also talk maybe about the melting of polar ice caps. 

There will rising sea levels would not in any way that I’m aware of, directly affect the intensity that hurricanes can achieve, but and rightly so, one of the most certain outcomes of global warming. We’re going to get rising seas. In fact, we already have rising seas. Once you have a hurricane and it’s moving toward landfall, if the sea level is higher than the storm surge and the hurricane, which is its most destructive aspect, is going to be able to penetrate further inland. 

So rising sea levels make storms more destructive to us. 

Yeah. Any time when they hit land. 

Well, what about the melting of the polar ice caps? That just contributes to the rising sea levels. 

Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, the rising for different reasons. 

One of them is that, you know, water, there’s warmer expands and so you have warmer water, you have our seas. And then the second is if there’s melting of land base, a large melting of land based ice, which which hasn’t happened yet, there’s been glacial melting. We haven’t you know, Greenland hasn’t slid into the ocean yet. Then you get a really dramatic sea level and. Really scary long term scenarios for global warming. 

You just mentioned a minute ago the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Does the public get these possible connections between global climate change and these massive storms and hurricanes? I’m curious what you’d have to say about how that connection could be made clearer if there really is a connection without overstating that connection as some of the reporting in the news about Hurricane Katrina may have done? 

Well, I think for much of the public, there’s a kind of intuitive connection between hurricanes and heat. 

Right. These storms develop in the warmest parts of the ocean during the warmest parts of the year. And people talk about how the sea surface is sort of the jet fuel and people kind of get that. 

And that’s how it links easily to go warming in their mind. What they don’t get are many of the niceties of the debates that, for example, no individual storm can be blamed on climate change. That’s just an area of physical reasoning. Global warming might change them all in the aggregate, but you can’t really detect that in any one of them. And so those kinds of nuances were people lost, especially as the debate got really politicized, became the first me being, I think. 

Would you guess that the the media feeding frenzy actually helped the cause of global warming activists in substance? 

That may well have. I think that Katrina was definitely a focusing event that helped raise attention and global warming. There’s been a number of such events and one of them, of course, is the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth that had a very big impact in building in terms of the amount of attention that people are paying to global warming. I think in some sense, the media attention both hurt and helped the science. It hurt the science by polarizing scientists involved and getting them to fight on each other, because suddenly there was all this attention and there because the quote, good at saying things about each other and so forth and that really, you know, heightened tensions. But on the other hand, all of the attention on the subject meant that a lot of new scientists wanted to come into the field. And now you see all these publications coming out about the hurricane or what relationship that is going to greatly increase our ability to make statements about in this context. 

I want to talk about climate change skeptics. You know, the public is giving more attention to global warming than ever before, partly because of this media attention. Are there still people out there who deny that global climate change is real and that humanity is responsible for that? Even Exxon seems to have changed its tune on the matter and now concedes that human beings seem to have a big effect on rising temperatures around the world. Are climate change skeptics the way they frame the issue as a genuine controversy within the science? And you talk about some controversy with the connection of storms in your book. Are these skeptics, these climate change skeptics, still having an effect on how the public views the issue? 

Well, the debate is locally left behind. That’s not to say there are scientists who are still out and out skeptics that humans are causing any global warming or very substantial global warming to greenhouse gas emissions. One of those skeptics is actually you might call him that main, quote, character in my book, Bill Gray, because he’s been for a long time the nation’s leading hurricane scientists. And he just doesn’t accept this global warming. Who is he would see it. And there’s certainly a lot of members of the public out there who, although the science has gotten more concrete than ever, still, you know, because maybe they’re going to conservative blogs or conservative radio for their information, I’m not sure. But they still dismiss it out now. 

I want to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Chris Mooney’s storm World Hurricanes, Politics and the battle over global warming through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Chris, you showed that there are real questions within the media rajko community, the climate change community, about the tie between global warming and these big storms. But even though we don’t have all the information, even though we’re uncertain about the connection, you still have a call to action if the science isn’t complete. What should people be doing about the problem? 

There might not actually be that problem connecting storms with global climate change. 

Well, you know, people have to realize that. I think policymakers especially realize that science is almost never complete. It’s always the best available information at any given time. And for hurricanes, the best available information at this time suggests that the storms are probably changing, definitely going to change and probably not in a way that we would like. So we should be preparing and in fact, we should be preparing even if the storms aren’t changing because we’re so massively exposed in the United States, something like 50 percent of the US population live within 50 miles of the coastline. 

Then why isn’t the solution just having everybody move inland? 

Well, that’s not practical to do. 

You can’t really uproot people that way. The solution is rather investing in better hurricane forecasting, better evacuation planning, their building codes, in some cases taking really concerted measures to try to protect places, maybe to engineering and also rethinking some of the insurance policies and other policies that have helped the people in their Sandy Worthy’s conflict. 

So there are real things that we can do as a society, even though the science is incomplete. 

Absolutely. And on global warming, the science is much more complete right now. The answers are cap your emissions. 

But they’re getting ready to adapt because they’re committed to some changes. And there’s nothing we can do about it. 

I want to switch gears a bit, Chris, and talk about this notion of framing science. It’s a topic that you’ve treated in your recent talks and you’ve written a little bit about it. You show in the book how unable some scientists are to effectively communicate their concerns to the public based on their research. How did researching and writing Storm World affect your own views about the need to better frame science to the public? 

Well, I’ve actually done two books now that are, broadly speaking, about the interface between science, politics and some extent the media and with first the Republican one science and second stonewalled. I started increasingly seeing this incredible disconnect between what scientists understand and how they communicate that knowledge to each other on the one hand, and what politicians understand, what the public understands about that science. Huge divide. One that I think we need to bridge. Everyone’s responsible for the divide and we’re addressing it. Politicians don’t often take sides nearly as serious as they are to the media, often covers it, just sort of like that to create drama rather than taking information usually. But scientists have a role here as well because scientists are not well trained at communicating their knowledge to members of the public. Are not necessarily experts in the particular area we’re discussing. 

And that goes double or triple when you’ve got a highly politicized area and there’s mass media coverage in this context. I think scientists really do have to be strategic about how they communicate and that here we’re talking about just a limited set of issues like evolution, global warming, stem cell, global warming, American family. 

In that context, with so much media attention, if scientists don’t get strategic about communication and they’re not going to like themselves. 

Tell me a little about this public speaking tour you’ve gone on with Matthew Nisbet, who’s also been on the show. You call it speaking Science 2.0. What have been the reactions to that? 

Well, when we originally proposed this idea about framing science that had scientists need to be conscious about their message is effective, different public, essentially, and that grew in part for me out of Stormwatch. 

We we we created a lot of controversy. And I think there was actually some misunderstanding. 

What we’re suggesting is suggesting that scientists be inaccurate or that they spin. We just suggested they learn more actually scientifically about how the public understands media biases and what kinds of messages are likely to result in more productive responses from the public. 

We found that when we took the show on the road, if you will, and we’re still doing a number of future events. We’ve done about six and seven so far when we engage with audiences in that more deliberative format rather than sort of on the blogosphere where things get a bit distorted, sometimes we find that there’s actually a lot of openness to what we’re suggesting. And it may go a little bit far for some scientists, but they’ve actually been willing to engage with our arguments in quite a lot of detail and either agree or disagree or disagree and rebut. But I think it’s been a productive process, and that’s what I want to do it. 

Do you think that the way you’re framing the notion of framing science as working as some scientists is, as you just touched on, kind of see you as telling them to pipe down, to not speak? The truth of it rocks the boat that they should sugar coat things if it upsets the overly credulous in our society, especially when it comes to the science and religion debates, your framing of the notion of framing science, while a lot of people who hear that, especially in the blogosphere, science blogs,, places like that here you as saying scientists need PR agents? 

Well, I think scientists need an awareness, actually a scientific awareness of how the public understands scientific information, which is that the public is not always very well versed in that, rarely very well versed in the details. So on these controversial issues, it would behoove scientists to go into communicating with some knowledge of the audience that they’re speaking to. And I think that we really put that notion in the center of that. They created a lot of responses. And, yeah, a lot of people did disagree with it quite vigorously. And all that disagreement did center on the science or religion issue much more than any of the issues that we raised involved with communicating something like climate change. But we started that debate, and I think it’s a healthy debate started because assigned to the community is really frustrated lately. Why do we have all this great scientific knowledge? And yet it isn’t getting through to the policymakers, it isn’t getting through to the public. What are we doing wrong? Scientists are ready to start thinking hard about that question. I think that the suggestion about framing is one direction, which that kind of deliberative process can go. 

Chris, along these lines, you and Matt Nisbet wrote a piece for The Washington Post about framing science. And you kind of took Richard Dawkins to task for highlighting the controversies between science and religion, but not, you said, not promoting science as as an alternative, instead really highlighting the controversy. But he didn’t write a book. You know, The God Delusion was not about science acceptance so far as the claim that God exists is the scientific claim. It was a book against God being a delusion. 

Oh, certainly. 

And Richard Dawkins, just like any any public intellectual, is free to address any topic. This is interest to them. But Richard Dawkins history clearly is one of our leading defenders and explainers of evolutionary science. So that’s what everyone knows him. And it’s the act of enjoining the atheist. Message with the pro evolution message that we say backfires, it backfires in the figure of Dawkins’, it backfires in other places and it backfires in America, specifically because this is such a religious country and because the fundamentalist Christian conservatives are afraid that evolution is an assault on their faith. In that context, you really cannot get past the wall they have put up. If you go in there attacking their faith, that is not going to be a productive strategy of communication. There may be other reasons to discuss, you know, does God exist and so forth and so on. I have my own views on this. I don’t think God exists personally. But when it comes to trying to explain evolution to the American public, I don’t think you go at their religion. 

If there are real implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution, real atheistic implications and Richard Dawkins says there certainly are. Should he not say it for fear of the kind of P.R. repercussions? 

No, no one’s saying, you know, let’s restrict anybody’s freedom of speech, and that wouldn’t be possible anyway. What we’re saying to the scientific community, broadly speaking, is let’s be strategic about how our messages are affecting people. And, you know, if some scientists and there are many out there that don’t agree with Dawkins strategies, then whereas their counterstrategy. And that that’s a more productive question to ask. And no one is going to be shut off. And no one’s going to be prevented from speaking. I think a lot of people would disagree with the idea that evolution necessarily entails racism. I think that you can go from an understanding of Darwin’s theory and what it means to really questioning religion. And many folks have done so. And I actually happen to be one of them. But it’s not necessary that you do. 

Chris, what do you want people to have taken away from Storm World? They read the book. You read about this interesting controversy with within this field in science. Is there a big call to action? What do you want people to take away? 

Well, there’s called a call to action on how to address global warming and how to address of her vulnerability to hurricanes. But there’s an even bigger call, and the call is to scientists, to politicians, to the media and to some extent, to the public. 

We all have a lot of work to do if we’re going to get better at translating very complicated scientific information into relevant political decision making and into public acceptance in the media often dropped the ball and the politicians up. 

Drop the ball on the scientist themselves, dogmatic the ball to the media, to politicians. 

So everybody needs to get better because these are where some of the toughest issues are going to be in the future at the interface between science and politics. If we don’t figure out how to wander through this mess a little better than we’re going to have a lot of problems. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Chris Mooney. 

Thanks for having me. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Cook’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.