Climate Science Rapid Response Team

A common source of irritation for me is terrible science reporting, particularly in relation to climate change. If you were to follow mainstream news sources, you would think scientists are in an utter state of confusion over climate change, and that they just can’t seem to agree on even the most basic concepts. If you were to read right-wing publications, then you would think that climate change is nothing more threatening than a part of your ‘regularly scheduled’ climate cycle…a left-wing conspiracy to bring the economy to a screeching halt. And if you were to read left-wing publications, you would notice a tendency to consistently raise the intensity and volume of the threat. In other words, it’s hard to find accurate, unbiased reporting on the latest studies that includes all of the pertinent details you need to understand what the researchers are actually saying. As a consequence it is difficult to make heads or tails of what’s going on.

One of the reasons that the reporting is so bad, in my opinion, is that science stories don’t always make good news. They certainly don’t all naturally make excellent headlines that will excite people, and this is exactly what news outlets need to make their headlines stand out amongst the potentially thousands that people come across each day. This means reporters have to find something gripping in any story they report on, and in climate change studies I find this is often not even the main take-home point of the original study.¬† In fact, it is not uncommon to seize upon a single interesting line in the discussion section (which can be speculation….it is of course, for the purposes of discussion) and run with it. For this reason, climate science can seem as confusing as rocket science, and with as many contradictions as nutrition and health¬† (wait…is tofu good for me this week, or not?). This is particularly the case f you don’t follow up on stories or only read the big key messages. For instance, I noticed many people were confused by reporting on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. One week you would read all about the bleaching is dying a slow painful death because of climate change, and you would hear what a dire situation we will have on our hands in a few years. Within a month there would be another story where people would read about reefs recovering 10 times faster than we thought they would, yet this is still bad news in the context of climate change as it is due to a unique combination of factors.

And let’s be honest, how many people have the time or inclination to sift through it all and understand exactly what the latest research is saying? I can see why people would be confused, whether they are trying to follow along or not.

It is on topics like this – topics that are big, relatively new, and the subject of much current research – where many of us begin to notice inconsistencies or contradictions on what seems like a daily basis. If you are like me, you will often have a hunch that the reporting is getting it wrong, or at the very least leaving out a big pieces of the story that are essential to the narrative. Yet most of us don’t have access to journal articles, or the time to read the reports that are often released on this topic. So what to do?

Ask a climate scientist who is familiar with the research, of course.

What, you don’t have a friendly local climate scientist you can turn to?

This is one of the reasons I got so excited when I was listening to a (not so) recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview with John Abraham and Scott Mandia about the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. I am decades late on finding out about this (in internet terms…a year is like a decade on the internet, right?), but I am excited nonetheless. Here is a team that will not only field your questions, but they have enlisted 135 climate scientists that will provide a prompt answer:

The role of this endeavor is to provide highly accurate science information to media and government representatives. We believe that scientists have an important role in communicating the science directly with the general public. We encourage questions from recognized media sources and from governments. We will work hard to ensure that all questions are answered as promptly as possible. [Source.]

As Chris Mooney points out in the interview, scientists aren’t exactly known for their media savvy or their quick responses, so this fills an important gap. For the most part, I think it’s fair to say that the narrative on climate change has been created primarily by news outlets, politicians and well…people other than climate scientists. As a highly politicised issue, scientists are not exactly well-placed to address the mis-reporting and are – rightfully so – loathe to engage in the ideologically-driven dialogue. Scientists are often criticised for their inability to communicate their work to the public, so it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve ended up with a mis-match between what science says, the media reports and what the public believes.

If you have the time, I would highly recommend listening to the Point of Inquiry Interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to here. One of the things that stood out for me the most was the distinction between being an advocate for science education and an advocate for taking specific actions. I think the scientists here have struck a good balance: they are seeking to clarify misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and sometimes muddled reporting whilst not advocating for a specific policy response. This is a tough balance to strike, but I am happy to see that they recognise that it is possible to be an advocate for science without compromising their integrity as scientists.

Now, if only people would post more questions….

You can read the enquiries and public responses here.

Book Review: The Invisible Gorilla

I read a lot of books on scientific and skeptical themes, many of which I heard on some of my favourite podcasts, such as Point of Inquiry. I highly recommend that podcast and website as a way of sifting through the millions of books out there. I have read many books after listening to interviews with the authors, and they rarely disappoint. Point of Inquiry was, in fact, one of the first mediums that taught me that there even was such a thing as a skepticism as a ‘movement’ or school of thought. Up until then, I just thought I was a weirdo, but once I discovered skepticism, it was like I had won the lottery. Only in this lottery, I mainly won a whole slew of resources and an avenue to meet others with a similar love for science and reason, and I was faced with an overwhelming number of decisions about where to invest my time. So much choice! Anyway, it was through this discovery that I found that not only could I read these books, but that perhaps there would be others like me who would want to talk about them! So I did what any good book nerd would do: I started a book club. A skeptical one, at that.

So far we’ve read some excellent books, such as Bad Science (one of my favourite books, and one I will review at a later date. You can actually read one of the book’s chapters here.) and the Invisible Gorilla. This time, it wasn’t Point of Inquiry that pointed me to the book, rather it was a fellow member of the Perth Skeptics. One of the founders of that group, Kylie Sturgess, also has a podcast and she even interviewed the authors.

I’ve delayed writing this post because I loved this book so much, and have so much to say, yet I don’t want to say too much about it because I really want people to read it. Basically the premise of the book is this: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do, and the way we see ourselves does not align well with reality in many surprising ways. The subtitle of the book is “And other ways Our Intuition Deceives Us” and that’s a very appropriate subtitle indeed. The authors take the reader through a string of stories and scientific evidence that challenge our instincts. The book is well-written, highly readable, entertaining, and endlessly fascinating. It helps you understand not only how many ways our brains deceive us, but also how many things they are prone to missing altogether.

This is one of those books that I wish I could make mandatory reading. Of course, I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone who reads it would believe the information it contains, but that’s okay. For people who are genuinely interested in learning more about how the brain works, why it works that way and its limitations, this book will give you the basics and direct you to many resources to learn more. It’s a beautiful book for skeptics, in that in the process of reading, you may go through a bit of a crisis because you suddenly feel that your mind is not at all what you believe. As stated in the summary of the book on its website, “Reading this book will make you less sure of yourself-and that’s a good thing.”

Gee, I’m really selling this, aren’t I? “Read this book, it will make you doubt everything you know about yourself!” Well, firstly I wouldn’t go that far, unless you are prone to existential crises. And second, I think that a bit of doubt can be a very constructive thing, especially if it creates more awareness about how to overcome, limit, or (at the very least) acknowledge that we don’t always know or see the things we think we do. I realise that this is all a bit opaque, so let me end this by listing a few of the ‘illusions’ the authors cover in the book. They are ‘illusions’ because our intuition tells us they are true, but research tells us how they are not:

  • The illusion of attention refers to our mistaken beliefs about the way attention works. We experience far less our visual world than we think we do. We miss things happening right in front of usall the time, and we are much worse at multi-tasking than we would like to believe. Our brain has a limit on the number of things we can pay attention to, be it in real life, a movie, etc. This is why we are so notoriously bad at talking on a mobile phone while driving, why we may think that something ‘jumped’ out in front of us while driving or why a radiologist can miss something that they weren’t told to look for. We aren’t good at noticing the unexpected, but we think that we are because, well, it just seems so obvious, especially in hindsight. This illusion is where the authors discuss the source of the book’s name, this video.
  • In discussing the illusion of memory, the authors debunk the myth that even our most vivid memories are accurate. Remember where you were on September 11th? Or when JFK was shot? In the book the authors discuss how even the most salient memories are subject to distortion. They even discuss something that has happened to me on a number of occasions that I had always pondered. Ever hear someone recall a story that happened to you and get really confused? I have. Well it turns out that this is all part of the illusion of memory – we can even take on other people’s memories as our own once they have told us the details of a story.
  • The illusion of confidence was among my favourites in the book. This is a reference to our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, especially in relation to other people. (The chapter is titled”What Smart Chess Payers and Stupid Criminals Have in Common”.) In this chapter, the authors also discuss how this illusion causes us to interpret others’ confidence as a valid signal of their own abilities. Consequently, we trust confident people more, and this can have very serious consequences. For instance, a confident witness is often viewed by juries to be a truthful witness, but as the illusion of memory shows us, confidence in our memory of an event does not mean it is more accurate.
  • The illusion of knowledge causes us to think we know morethan we actually do. Often, we have just surface knowledge when we think we actually have a deep understanding. I think we can all relate to this in our experiences with, say, recent University grads at work or with a friend who went to a seminar and suddenly considers him/herself an expert. However, we all have this illusion. It’s what causes us to think we know how common every day objects (e.g. a bicycle, toilet) work, and it’s also what leads us to believe projects will take much less time or resources than they actually will.

I will stop there because the fun in reading this book is in the narrative, and knowing too much about it ahead of time could spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that the authors do provide reasons for these illusions, and offer advice on how we can work with them. Though you may find yourself doubting your entire life during the first chapter, I promise it gets better. And I also promise that this doubting is precisely why this book is so excellent and enjoyable to read.

As a side note, I personally enjoyed that the book critiques Malcolm Gladwell’s work a number of times. If you’ve ever read Gladwell’s work and have been agitated by the grand conclusions he draws from minimal evidence, I think you will appreciate these comments! If you’ve never read Gladwell’s work, you probably wouldn’t even notice the critiques.

Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal

I am going to admit something: I tear up ever time I see a commercial about Tasmanian Devils.

I hate to admit when I get weepy over animals because I’m used to people discounting vegetarians as ‘sappy’ people who have unrealistic, romantic notions about animals. “Nature is cruel, and vegetarians don’t want to admit it,” they will say.

Well, yes, I suppose nature is cruel, if you want to ascribe human characteristics to it. I, however, prefer to just admit that I like the natural environment and the animals that live in it. Always have. Vegetarian or not, I don’t think there’s anything illogical or overly emotional about that.

But back to the Tassie devils. If you don’t live in Australia, then you might not know that there is a devastating disease affecting the Tasmanian devil population right now called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The disease is one of only three known cancers that is contagious, and it has affected at least 60% of the Tasmanian devil population. The disease was first discovered in 1996, and by 2009 the Australian government had declared the devil to be endangered. For more information on the disease, see the FAQ’s here.

I couldn’t find the commercial online, but here’s something similar [WARNING: Some of the images in this video of the disease are disturbing.]:

I am not sure what it is about this problem that makes me so emotional. There are a lot of animals in danger throughout the world for various reasons, and I think about those as well; but there is something about this issue that really nags at me. I know that it is only human to focus on iconic species (e.g. the bald eagle, the giant panda), particularly those that seem to represent an entire place. The Tasmanian devil fits that bill. Perhaps it is the fact that this disease is spreading so rapidly and that it doesn’t have a simple solution, unlike species extinctions that are driven almost entirely by land use change. Perhaps it is because I watched too much Looney Tunes as a kid. Whatever it is, it’s something that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I hope to organise a fundraiser for the Tassie Devil Appeal in the next year, but in the meantime my intention with this post is simply to encourage others to learn more about the DFTD and donate if they desire. To do both, visit the official page of the Tassie Devil Appeal. Have a look around at the information, research, videos (they even have ‘home movies‘) and the images. Visit the appeal on Facebook or the program on Facebook here.

I also recommend reading the news on the topic when you can. One of the things I think that touches me about this campaign is that they have done a good job in balancing the gravity of the situation with the sense of self-efficacy. Far too many environmental campaigns focus too evil on the fire and brimstone, and lose sight of the fact that you need to provide people with a sense that their actions will be effective. The situation is very serious, but there is good news to be found in the research, e.g.

Finally, just for fun: if you want a clue as to why they are called devils, watch them eat! It also provides a clue as to why this disease spreads so easily. They do not take kindly to another devil trying to get a bite of their meal.

What about the children?

Genetically modified foods, the contents of processed foods, organics, and sustainable food systems are among the hot topics in the media and health conscious. These topics were indeed contributed to my eventual decision to major in Environmental Science, and were major topics in many of my classes. My favourite class was even called “People, Pesticides and Politics”. It was brilliant. The fact that I was part of a relatively small group of environmentalists in amongst the same agriculture school (Michigan State University) as the agribusiness majors made the conversation all the more interesting, particularly considering the school received quite a bit of funding from the big companies like Monsanto and Dow. I honestly feel like the conversations I had about GMOs and sustainable agriculture during this time were some of the richest, most enlightening conversations of my life because everyone at the table was knowledgeable and genuinely interested in solutions, even though we were often at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

If you ever visit the outback, you will find heaps of these in the toilet. Flushing them was very disturbing for me, a lover of frogs.

Unfortunately, the conversations about GMOs and sustainable food systems I hear these days are one-sided and often involve ill-informed individuals. On both sides of the spectrum, people are incredibly passionate, and that makes me very happy. However, in spite of all of the mental energy I have put into this topic over the years, I can’t help but feel left out. I can’t find sources that aren’t biased (please, please recommend them if you know of any). I can’t find sources that don’t stretch or misuse data. I am no expert, so when I can identify flaws in the research I must admit that it turns me off from believing the rest. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but I can’t help but tire of the Chicken Little approach to the discussion around food. Either the sky is falling because we are doing it wrong, or the sky is falling because changing the way we will do it will never feed the world. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but I don’t think I can ever know where it is with the information that is available in the mainstream press right now. Of course I can read it in the journals, but I know my limitations. I am no toxicologist. I am no agricultural scientist. Nor a soil chemist.

Take, for instance, this recent report that was released about the link between RoundUp in birth defects. If it is accurate, then it is scary stuff considering the prevalence of RoundUp around the world. So I tried to look into it further, but I quickly became overwhelmed. The story itself has only been covered by anti-GM media sources. I can’t find much about Open Source Earth. As far as the academics who wrote the report, well, their credentials look fine, but considering the article isn’t in a peer reviewed journal I would have to dig deeper to feel more comfortable with the source. While I would like to believe that academics are above writing reports that are biased, I know this isn’t the case. In addition to a fair bit of experience with this recently, time and time again meta-analyses and experiments have shown that results are subject to researcher bias (whether consciously or unconsciously). In addition, the report starts by citing toxicology research. Again, I would have to go back and read that research to feel comfortable that it is being used in the right way, particularly as the research was done on frog and chicken embryos. Though alarming news for frogs and chicken, I would need to know more about how this translates to humans.

Do you see where I am going with this? There are so many layers that it’s hard to even know where to begin. Yet I am left feeling like there is something wrong with me because I have studied these subjects in University, but I am unable to form a steadfast opinion on these matters. On the other hand, it seems that everywhere I turn people have strong opinions on these topics, and they are confident in their accuracy. Meanwhile, I am stuck in an existential fit just trying to make sense of it all. The life of a skeptic, perhaps?

However, the event that really prompted me to write this post was not a moment of frustration with the black and white debate around agriculture. That’s an ongoing struggle. In this case, it was a realisation, courtesy of my boss, that arose from a discussion of this research.

Recently, I have repeatedly heard variations of the following assertion from people who do not believe the proverbial sky is falling (not to be confused with the anti-GM arguments above…see, I don’t discriminate.):

Don’t people realise that [X] (e.g. CEOs, farmers, Monsanto employees, geneticists, etc.) eat the food too? And they feed it to their children?

The statement is generally used to illustrate the point that there can’t be much truth to the claims that [substance x] is bad for us. After all, they rely on the food system too, so they would want to change it if it were causing harm. This argument has never sit right with me, and though I could rant about it quite a bit (as I am prone to do), I could never quite pinpoint why it was so illogical. Jo Ann to save the day.

The food on their children’s plates tells us little of the safety of that food. The risk perception literature gives a clue as to why that is. People will always do their best to avoid accepting something if it would be a serious blow to their worldview. We do this to protect ourselves. Think about it: if you worked for a company, and you learned that your chief product could be harming your children, and you really believe in this product, would you really give it up so easily? We’d like to think that there would be some sort of unequivocal proof that they couldn’t ignore, and if they did…well, then it’s a conspiracy. But science doesn’t usually work that way, and people don’t work that way either. Of course you know so-and-so who read Food Inc and it changed their entire worldview. Or that other person who watched “Meet your Meat” and never touched a hamburger again. But this only works when people are open to it. It doesn’t work for the majority of people (I assure you millions of people have read that book and saw that film and never changed a thing). This is precisely the reason that so many people find climate change research so confronting. If they accept it, then they have to accept a massive shift in the way they live. It’s terrifying. It’s so terrifying, in fact, that it’s easier for many people to deny it altogether. You can shove evidence their way, but in many cases it won’t even make a dent.

So what about the parent working at Monsanto? Even when faced with research that suggests health problems could be caused by RoundUp, we cannot assume that people at Monsanto would react for the sake of their own health and their children’s. Agree with it or not, the people at Monsanto believe in the products they sell. Whilst it would be easier to imagine them as fat cats in suits, puffing a cigar and laughing maniacally all the way to the bank, the fact is that they are human beings with human traits. Even if they are faced with evidence that their products are causing problems, it may take them a very long time to shift from their position. On the other side of the spectrum, we could have research suggesting that GM foods are good for us and the planet, but you aren’t going to convince someone who is vehemently opposed to GM foods. Unfortunately for those of us somewhere in between, there is not easy answer to who is right. I value the work of those that are challenging widely accepted practices like those who are writing about GM foods, but I recognise that they are human beings just like those at Monsanto. Unfortunately, we cannot look at the food on their plates to know who is right. If only it were that simple.

There are countless books and research articles on this topic. From smoking to landfills to sunbathing, this has huge implications for the way we communicate with one another. Once you start to recognise the patterns in risk perception generally, it is fascinating to look at yourself and others. And though it doesn’t make human beings less frustrating when you feel like your message just isn’t getting through, it will certainly help you make sense of it.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a classic risk communication book. Slovic has many good books on risk perception.