This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 12th, 2010.
Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. Over the course of my first two shows as a point of inquiry host, a common theme is emerged. First, in discussing vaccine denialism with Paul Offit and then in talking about climate skeptics with Michael Mann. My guests have noted that the Internet has given new momentum to these anti science crusades. And it’s not just that the Wild West of science blogging is evolving in ways that often make you wish there was a sheriff in town. At the same time, traditional science journalism is vanishing from the ailing mainstream media, leaving less and less professional reporting to counterbalance whatever’s appearing online. For instance, according to the Pew Organization, if you watch five hours of cable news today, you can expect to see just one minute devoted to science and technology. And according to the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, from the year 1989, the year 2005, the number of major newspapers featuring weekly science sections shrank from 95 to 34. As a matter of sheer economics, this decline of traditional science journalism may make perfect sense. Newspapers have seen their business model destroyed by the growth of the Internet and particularly by the growth of online advertising. So now the folks upstairs in the news business are saying they can’t afford the luxury of having a special section written by nerds about nerds and for nerds. But that doesn’t bring in enough cash. When you think about things from the perspective of what citizens really need to know about the world and about themselves, it’s downright frightening to contemplate what has happened to science journalism. We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, a time of private spaceflight and personalized medicine amid a climate and energy crisis. And in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics, the media ought to be bursting with this stuff. It’s precisely the opposite is happening. Take the story of Sabin Russell, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle. He was the paper’s top reporter on global health and infectious disease. But last year, he took a pressured buyout even as H1N1 or swine flu first appeared in Mexico. So here’s a journalist who had a lifetime of knowledge about how to cover a truly pressing story. And yet when the moment arrived, there was nowhere for him to write about it. Or consider the story of today’s guest on point of inquiry. One of the greats of science journalism and now yet another writer without a newspaper. Andrew Rafkin was the science and environment reporter for The New York Times from 1995 through 2009. I first got to know his work because during the 2000s he was the guy breaking all the front page stories about how the Bush administration was suppressing and fording science along the way. Rivkind also created the blog Dot Earth, which has been phenomenally successful and influential. Any man is something that I consider a true badge of honor for any journalist, namely provoking Rush Limbaugh, as he did in this famous clip in which Limbaugh denounces Rafkin and truly extreme terms.
This guy from The New York Times. If he really thinks that humanity is destroying the planet, humanity is destroying the climate that human beings in their natural existence are going to cause the extinction of life on Earth. Andrew Rifkin, Mr. Rifkin, why don’t you just go kill yourself and help the planet by dying?
Limbaugh later backed away from his words amid widespread public outcry. But last year, Rivkind announced he’d be taking a buyout and leaving the Times. Instead, he accepted a post as a senior fellow of environmental understanding at Pace University in White Plains, New York. He’ll be continuing to write the Dot Earth blog, but will focus on teaching and to book projects that I hope we’ll hear more about shortly. The new works will complement existing rapkin. Books like The North Pole Was Here, a work about the vanishing Arctic aimed at middle and high school students. As I understand it, Andy will also have a lot more time on his hands to play with what he calls his rustic, rootsy band, Uncle Wade. So with Andy’s help and with the help of readers who posed questions on the point of inquiry forums, I want to use this show to explore the future of science communication in a dizzying transitional time. I also want to discuss some of Rogan’s most impactful stories and what he’s learned by reporting from across the globe about the true vulnerabilities of our planet of nearly seven billion, headed toward nine billion by 2050, as Revlon’s likes to point out. But before the show starts, let me remind listeners that we are very active online forums for point of inquiry. So if you want to get involved in a conversation about today’s show, I encourage you to visit Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums and then click on Point of Inquiry.
Andy Rivkind, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Hey, it’s good to be with you.
It’s great to have you. You are a journalist who’s reported from disaster areas around the world. You covered Katrina. You covered the Asian tsunami. And you served for years. The Times global warming ace reporter. And yet you also recently wrote, and I quote, I no longer see journalism on its own as the single best use of my remaining days. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Yeah, there’s there’s several layers.
One is that journalism itself is becoming a smaller part of an expanding pie of how we communicate and learn. And if I stay within the boundaries of that little wedge, I’m running up against several problems. One is budgets. Just the fact that it’s harder for journalistic enterprises to keep in business. I’ve got to go to the Arctic three times for The New York Times and the early 2000s. And the chances of me being able to do that again are nil, literally nil because of budget constraints. So, you know, my my mandate was to cover the global environment, but I had no ability to do that. Another is just if you do this long enough, you know, a couple of decades, two and a half decades writing about science and the environment, you start to realize there’s some limits on efficacy. One is limits on the quality of education of your readers. There are big roadblocks to understanding that I can’t overcome as a journalist, you know. So by moving to academia, I’m hoping to create a course that essentially helps generalists. Young students in many fields get at least a sense of how to think about a changing planet.
I want to read you a comment from our forums from Shawn McCorkell, which I think summarizes what a lot of us are thinking about the state of science in the media today.
And so I’ll quote Shawn. He says, Widespread science, illiteracy, like you mentioned in the U.S., is a major problem with many newspapers shutting down science sections and so many people getting information solely from propaganda vehicles like Fox News. It seems like it can only get worse, further reducing the chances of any political action to successfully address various large scale environmental problems. What do you think? Well, yeah.
We face a tough time and the electronic the online media, I think, can cut two ways. One is we’ve always I think humans generally have a tendency to look for information that suits pree establish lines of thinking. There’s a lot of social science pointing at that. And the media’s and now with the online universe. You can kind of go out there and shop for whatever suits your preconceptions and live in a comfort zone, whether you’re a Huffington reader or a news busters reader. Kind of find your place, and that is me. Not a great aspect of the information world we now are immersed in. The flip side, though, is the amazing ability now to get an idea through online communication where it’s most likely to have an impact.
The upside, I think, will in the long run outweigh the downside of compartmentalization. And I see this everywhere I go. When I was in Istanbul last fall reporting my story on an inevitable earthquake that’s going to really hammer that city. Something caught my attention. It was the kids in the slum in Istanbul who had no access to computers at home. There’s a community center there and there. They do have the online world.
And these little kids are running up to me instead of saying Medaka or whatever they’re saying, Facebook, Facebook and not. That says we’re going to solve the world’s problems.
But it immediately struck me that these kids, the only impediment to them having a global conversation, like with my son in the Hudson Valley in New York is language. And that’s easily circumvented. So we’re we are poised to have ideas and interactions and exchanges take place across some of the most frustrating barriers in the world, the North-South barrier, the rich, poor barrier in ways that haven’t happened before. And I think that’s going to outweigh potentially could outweigh all that compartmentalization.
I think you yourself, in the last year, I mean, I think you’ve seen the downsides of online commentary. It leaves you. It leaves you pretty overworked. It leaves you under fire in a million battles at once. I mean, how do you remain optimistic? I know that you’ve experienced this just as much as I am.
It’s it’s very toxic right now, particularly. And now I think there’s some several reasons for the toxicity. And one of them. Yeah. Is right. The blogosphere, which I’ve chosen to inhabit for nearly three years. It can be incredibly enervating experience to feel these waves of often uninformed, passionate attack go in different directions. But at the same time, and I’ve you know, this I still have kind of a bipolar reaction to it. It’s it’s exhausting and frustrating. But once in while I see people on my own daughter, Earth, commentator, commentary and the commentary kind of evolve and actually have some reasons exchanges and whittle away some of the ridiculousness. It’s not the preponderant thing. And what you’ve seen. One reason I think the IPCC came under assault now and not when the report first came out in 2007, was that the right wing side of the blogosphere didn’t exist then, at least in the way it does now was the the aggregators of all things skeptical know were created late that year. What’s up with that most popular blog? Aggregating skeptic climate stuff didn’t exist from the IPCC report roughened. Now now you have this sort of a thousand pairs of eyes or hundreds of thousands of eyes. You know, when some assertion gets out, there can immediately dove in to the IPCC details and find those few flaws that suit someone’s agenda. And then the amplifier gets turned on and it gets up into sort of the Rush Limbaugh George Will. And that’s that of that aspect is really astonishing to see.
I want to ask about your Rush Limbaugh experience. But first, I mean, you know, you mentioned what’s up with that at the Times and daughter. You got sort of get it from both sides, don’t you? Because, I mean, you know, the conservatives will criticize you. But I know you’ve also at large sort of online battles with Joe Romm of Climate Progress blog. I should say, has also been invited on to come on point of inquiry at some point. Do you want to talk about the Andrew Rescan, Joe Romm thing? Oh, yeah.
Well, you know, Joe, he’s very experienced in the realm of energy policy. That’s where he worked in the Energy Department. He now works for a group with a very specific agenda, getting certain kinds of legislation passed to limit greenhouse gases. And so he’s he’s an advocate who has has a blog that’s become quite influential. And he has he serves a purpose. He’s a key can drive people crazy. He has a tendency to pick out small scale errors and details that are glitches. And that can be helpful. We all we all need guidance from everyone on staying within the bounds of reality. But he tends if you look at the large scale issues, whether cap and trade is remotely realistic with the kind of strength of a you would need to actually be noticed by the atmosphere.
There you see, I think, a tendency for him to be beholden to his underlying agenda, where facts that don’t suit it just kind of get ignored and things that do get amplified in ways that are not necessarily in tune with reality.
And so you had. Many, many arguments with Joe Romm, and then you had this thing with Rush Limbaugh where he literally said, and I don’t fully understand the context of what you said, but he suggested that you should kill yourself.
Yeah, well, you know, I, I kind of I was speaking about three very tricky things. The population growth, United States consumer habits and climate and one risk. This was I was participating via video hookup with the Wilson Center event and a and basically I said, look, if you if you’re going to go with the whole carbon centric meme and we’ll have carbon credits for this, that and the other. And you live in America where we’re heading from 300 million to 400 million people in the next 34 years, why shouldn’t family have get carbon credits for having fewer kids? It was a what I would call a thought experiment, you know. And that got picked up by some right wing blog. And then that got picked up by Rush Limbaugh, who I’m sure never saw the original video thing. And I had also blogged on the same issue. And yeah, he said, well, you know, if you think people are the worst thing that ever happened to planet Earth and Mr. Redken of The New York Times, what do you just go kill yourself and save the planet by dying?
You do a good impression, unfortunately. And it’s just hearing that video.
The audio is amazing. And of course, I wrote a thorough kind of critique of what he had said on Earth. And then he said the next week, kind of driveling, sort of almost apologizing.
I think, you know, suicide is the realm you don’t go into without having to draw a lot of ire from people who’ve actually experienced the loss of family members and stuff like that. So. So he he almost apologized, but not quite.
Well, let me read you another question from our forums from Pasko Lapoint. I think I’m pronouncing his name right, who looks ahead to a world of audience fragmentation and the production of a lot of science content on blogs rather than in traditional media. And he says the following, quote, Some of these people will have to be paid somehow. The people on the blogs, the market invisible hand, does not seem to be the best way to promote quality science journalism. Do you believe the charitable trusts? Not for profit organizations are the best hope for the future of science journalism. Do you see other roads?
I think there clearly is a nonprofit model that can work potentially. I’m not sure it gets you the scale and thoroughness that you would need. You see this and.
There’s established now efforts of that sort supporting investigative journalism that’s much harder for conventional media to sustain. Mean, I could see it happening with with science. But the next question, of course, is and this is something I struggle with. And when I left full time staff of the times, you can do a lot of the specialized work on the Web that will never reach the general audience because it’s not on the front page of a newspaper next to the story about the Yankees or about the stock market.
You don’t get that spillover that as part of the one the wonderful aspect of a front traditional front page or to something, the nightly newscast. And so that’s another reason it’s kind of that moved out of, you know, toward education a little more, because I I’m not sure that if I wrote the most effective blog on daughter, if, you know, I’m still basically writing it for people who are already interested in these issues. And it’s not going to really get in front of the eyeballs of people who I would love to think I could learn something.
But who never even know it’s there because it’s in this little silo.
And a lot of the specialized journalism that’s out there, whether it’s in Discover magazine or on on a Web site, is the same. And that is that same issue.
Well, that’s a great transition to talking about some of your most impactful stories at the paper, because I think you I was gonna ask you basically what you just said. Doesn’t it feel much bigger when you have a front page New York Times thing than when you do something really ingenious on the blog? The ones where you really shook things up? I think you probably felt your your influence where a lot of those stories during the Bush administration about interference with science, like the one that had James Hansen of NASA playing the whistleblower. Right?
Yeah. Yeah. You know, traditional as a traditional journalist working for a newspaper, when you get when you have a story that has impact. There is a great feeling, there’s no question about it, whether it was and the work I did during the Bush administration showing, you know, in one case, an oil lobby, former oil lobbyist working in the White House, whittling away at a climate report to soften it or the Hansen story, which was not just about Jim Hansen. The stories I think, that really led to change were the subsequent ones showing it was a widespread pattern within NASA, not just issues that there’s nothing quite like that. Although, again, you know, when I really step back and take the cosmic view of all this, those were still essentially small scale. You know, people left their jobs in the White House as a result. And but there were negative. You know, sort of like accomplishing a transformation of our energy system in the next 30 or 40 years globally. To give new energy options to a growing human population will not happen on the basis of negative reporting, meaning bad guy over here did something bad. Now he’s gone. That it’s great. A small scale thing, but not great in the bigger way. So that’s part of it. Again, what sort of led me, despite the lure of those journalistic kind of achievements of shifting gears a little bit.
And I want to get onto to what you’re working on now. But I guess I’ll say one other question about politics and science, because you own the politics and science beat during the Bush administration. This story has flipped now, and the politics and science story is still powerful, but it’s a very different one. It’s sort of the roles are reversed and the other administrations under fire for sort of the same charges.
Yeah, well, there’s Dave Roberts addressed. I don’t think he posted on this, but he tweeted on this issue that, you know, essentially everything’s reversed. And he kind of is speculating. And that’s why the sort of anti greenhouse folks are energized right now because they have a convenient target in the White House. And the situation is more interesting because he’s almost guaranteed to disappoint environmentalists at the same time. So so you have a more powerful situation for things going away from action, potentially under a Democratic president than you did under a Republican. In fact, I recently heard a theory that you only really you will only get meaningful climate legislation under a Republican president.
Well, that’s been the history. Yeah.
And there’s a thesis for that, which is he can drag along, you know, his base Republican supporters and get Democrats on board, which is something that, as you can see right now, is impossible for a Democrat to get Republican support.
It’s an interesting theory there.
Well, you’re you know, you’re a climate and energy expert as a journalist, but you’ve also written a great deal about various sorts of geophysical disasters. And sometimes you’ve been proximate right after they occurred and after Haiti. In Chile, they’re on everybody’s mind. So I’d love to talk about your journalism on this subject and the thoughts it’s prompted. I guess I’ll start by asking you to sort of explain to us what you were arguing in this, I think widely read New York Times Week in Review article that you did after the Asian tsunami. And it was called the. Sure of calamity.
Yeah, well, and this is shaped how I’ve been thinking and writing about climate as well.
And I articulated this specifically once on the blog or I said that basically climate change is not the story of our time. Despite many efforts to make it that at least this is my feeling. And it’s all these other issues revolve around one reality, which is that the human species has gone from one billion to seven billion, close to seven billion people, and just a scattering of generations, with another two billion coming almost unavoidably in the next two generations. So we’re on at our resource thirst, as when you amplify that simple growth via what comes with prosperity is a greatly increased thirst for the gifts that energy provides. We’re a we’re in this growth spurt that’s having extraordinary implications both for the environment around us and for our own vulnerability to inevitable hard knocks. And the hard knocks include the future of calamity focused on the reality that we have. There are two trends underway urbanization and population. So population concentration and growth in the face of persistent poverty leads to enormous vulnerability, whether it’s on a floodplain or in an earthquake zone.
And in South Asia, we have epic influxes of people into cities in places like Pakistan and parts of India who are living in housing that was built yesterday. As I wrote in this pit story recently, both engineers are involved in the construction of only three percent of the buildings being built in the world today. So it’s like, you know, we’re setting ourselves up for real calamity.
And a lot of it is just people being concentrated near the sea, which is where a lot of things can happen, whether it’s a tsunami or a hurricane, typhoon or whatnot.
Right. Low lying places.
Yeah, for sure.
Some of the hard realities of the climate challenge are that these exposures are mainly in places that are not driving the change. So, you know, the countries that are the industrialized countries that are the lion’s share of emissions have come from so far, have largely and are largely shielding themselves from climate risk through technology and wealth, whether it’s crop insurance or ways to build coastal structures that are less vulnerable. We have. So we’re contributing to changes in climate and coastal and sea level while girding ourselves pretty effectively, at least for a good long while, against those impacts that are going to come mainly in places that don’t have any history of getting emissions to the area yet and that have no money.
But we also I think you’ve written about this. We also have a couple bull’s eyes in terms of major disasters that we’re not paying any attention to, like in the Pacific Northwest. Right.
Well, it’s not just poverty that leads to vulnerability. It’s human nature.
And in Oregon, not just Oregon, other places where there’s a known extraordinary seismic risk. Cities and communities are still not doing much to guard buildings that matter most like schools to make them less likely to fall down and kill thousands of kids and teachers. This this really I focused on mainly after the Sichuan earthquake. And essentially what you saw in Sichuan province, almost unavoidably will be seen in lots of places in Oregon where this that extraordinary fault offshore of the Cascadia fault that. Will generate an extraordinary earthquake, most likely in this century and can pretty plausibly in the next few decades, if not tomorrow, that will destroyed 100 schools. The schools are listed. They’ve been studied. We know where they are. The ones that are very likely are certain to fall down when that quake hits. And I just you know, if my kid was in one of those schools, I’d be pretty energized. But at the same time, on a day to day basis, you know, we’re thinking about school budgets. We’re thinking about books. We’re thinking about hiring more teachers. These are legitimate Real-Time issues. And so making the case for retrofitting schools is hard.
And you think it’s something about human psychology that’s not uniquely American or not non American, but we just can’t conceive of the biggest risks.
Well, people should have a have a look at some of the writings of Paul Slovak, who’s a psychologist from from Oregon. Well, he’s he teaches at the University of Oregon, who I was with him recently at a meeting on other kinds of. Risks where he just, you know, showed all this evidence for how there’s just a certain categories of problems that we will not get. Right. And part of what I’ve been testing on daughter is this really hard question. Are are we able as a species to start recognizing the things ahead of time that we know we’re not going to get right using our conventional gut thinking, which is mostly what our politics are built around? I don’t know if we have the discipline to say, hey, you know, this climate problem, this business of earthquake resilience, we recognize we’re going to do badly. So we need a new procedure, a new power, a new way to create policy in situations like this. That’s sort of a weird thing to think about. But I think in a way, that’s sort of where we have to go.
But the existing way of making policy would have to create that forward looking thing in the existing way of creating policy is never forward looking.
Yeah. So my guess is that in the most in most cases, we’ll still get it mostly wrong.
And this gets us this gets to the points, the main points and dot earth, which are resilience, how to build at least the capacity to soften inevitable hard knocks and to do a little bit better at this category problems that I call slow dripps, which are, you know, the sort of the engineering equivalent of the Rusty Bridge where, you know, the line between inadequate maintenance and maintenance of a bridge is something you see every day in terms of how we deal with other kinds of.
Risks the loss of biodiversity is mostly a slow drip, for example, and so that’s the other big category, along with the hard knocks, which are the hard knocks, by the way, include a flu pandemic, earthquake, and in the end, climate change and other real studies that basically say, I mean, I think this is what you’re suggesting, 2050, where nine billion strong and you’ll see it in the disasters that they’re just taking larger human tolls.
I mean, is that fair to say that that’s what you expect to happen?
Right. In that piece, there were just in the earthquake arena, there are cities where now there is an anticipation of humans experiencing their first million casualty disaster, Tehran being at the top of most lists. So that’s a big deal. And of course, in developing countries, any kind of huge earthquake in a big city, in a developing country has a long lasting ramifications reduce the GNP or GDP growth. It’s not just the actual loss of people and the disastrous loss of stuff, but it can really blunt the road toward progress in many ways.
Well, since we’ve been doing all this happy talk, I have a question that will take us even further down those lines from the forums. Someone who goes by GHC says, quote, In the unlikely event of a doomsday scenario occurring in our lifetimes. Do you think the world would be prepared for the massive numbers of refugees and the sheer amount of destruction that could be caused? Is there any way that the world could prepare itself for these? I shouldn’t let you know.
I don’t think we’re prepared.
You know, even even here in the Hudson Valley, when when we had our epic snowfall less than two weeks ago, when I was without power for four days and we had to sort of melt snow to fill the toilet tank, to flush the toilet. It’s getting pretty darn cold.
You know, on that on that micro level, we had discounted the need to be prepared.
And I don’t you remember after 9/11, all the talk of duct tape and everyone thinking it’s a case with this, there is total silliness and much of that, but not in some of it, that we are really as tuned to the need to be prepared for disruption at various levels that will happen.
Well, I hope some progress is made. I’m not optimistic. You know, I wrote a lot about hurricanes and, you know, I wrote about the people who knew about Katrina before Katrina happened. And then you look at all the other cities that where there’s a disaster scenario from a hurricane. Tampa looks really bad. Miami looks really bad. New York City looks like it could be really bad. You just go down the list and you say, is anybody really preparing? And you just check. No, no, no, no, no.
That gets back to my strong feelings after the Sichuan earthquake. When I said, you know, why didn’t that serve as the wakeup call for Oregon as well as for China? And so even today, with all of our immersive media, with our ability to feel our our hearts wrenched by those mothers are going to those devastated schools. There’s still a separation that allows us to say, oh, that’s over there. And I can go on with my life in Oregon and not not expect someday to be kneeling in front of my own school saying, why didn’t we? Excellent. So that gets back to the fundamental issue of human nature. And that’s, again, you know, in an academic setting, I’m hoping I kind of explain that a little bit more. I’m not going to be I’m not a social scientist. I’m still basically a communicator and. But if there’s a way I can give you experiment with online tools to facilitate our ability to look in the mirror more and say there’s climate problems, not just excited me or this earthquake problem, it’s not just China, it’s here. And then I’ll feel I’ve accomplished something a little more.
Well, I’ll just I’ll shift gears now here at the end, because you’re going to have some more time on your hands in your new sort of blogging teaching capacity. And I guess you’ll get get to go back to playing with the band, Uncle Wade.
So you’re looking forward to that, too, I think.
I have a really desperate to do more music of the fate of Uncle Way, the slightly uncertain now that we will be playing music together for a long time to come. Yeah, music is a must for me.
Well, we are going to take the liberty of playing a little clip from one of your songs, Chewing Gum.
It’s an old Carter family song. A wonderful one.
Well, we’ll let our listeners enjoy it. And any Rafkin, it’s been great to have you to talk about the future of the media and the planet.
Thanks for having me on, Chris. I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week on the subject of the show. Please check out my blog at blogs, dot Discover magazine, dot com slash intersexual. Also, be sure to visit our online discussion forums to continue the dialog by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show give me a sense of feedback at point of inquiry, Dawn.
One of inquiry is produced by Atomizing in AMRs New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalen. They show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.