5 March 2012

Scott Mandia, climate communicator

Posted by Callan Bentley

I recently became aware of the work of Scott Mandia, professor of physical science at Suffolk County Community College in New York (and an AGU member). When faculty at two-year colleges do prominent, important things on the national level, I sit up and take notice. After all, I’m similarly interested in science education’s vital role in society and I’m similarly ensconced at a community college (NOVA). Scott graciously agreed to let me ask him a couple questions about his work, and to post the resulting digital “interview” both here and in the next issue of the Geo2YC newsletter, Foundations (which I edit).

CB: Could you please tell me about your background? I’m interested in hearing about the formative experiences that developed your personal interest in science, your academic path, and research interests.

SM: When I was growing up I always thought I would be the next Stephen King. I loved to read scary books and to watch horror films. However, I was always a curious kid and I did enjoy science. It was high school where I really got turned on by science and thought that would be a career path for me.

I lived in California until age 16 so there really was no “weather”. When I moved to the east coast (Massachusetts) I experienced the seasons and all of the varied weather that comes with them. My best friend’s father worked for the National Weather Service in Boston and he would bring old maps in to school for me to look at. I decided that I wanted to be a TV weather forecaster and would go to college for meteorology.

I enrolled at University of Lowell (now UMass-Lowell) in their meteorology program which was a mirror image of Penn State’s program at the time. While a college student, I interned for Channel 7 news in Boston and really enjoyed the limelight of television although I could see that it was not a secure job, especially if one wished to be a family man. I saw that the path to a major market would involve a lot of luck and several relocations.

While a junior in college, I was approached by a local school district to speak to a group of 4th graders about weather. I brought a few props and did a few experiments. The kids loved it and I had fun. My name was put into a speakers list that was used by various school districts and I began to receive more and more requests. After doing several of these talks to groups ranging from 1st grade to high school, I realized that teaching could be more fun than weather forecasting.

I went to Penn State for graduate school and I requested a full teaching assistantship. After my very first class with college students, I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to be a college teacher. In fact, I requested teaching assignments above my normal research assistance and my thesis adviser granted me a course every semester because he knew I would be happy and happy graduate students are productive graduate students.

While there, I did my Master’s thesis on tropical squall lines and how these systems influenced heat fluxes between the ocean and atmosphere. This data was to be used in global circulation models. I enjoyed my research but, to be very honest, I loved teaching much more. Talking to people is always more rewarding that staring at a screen or pushing a pencil around the paper. I still feel that way today.

How did you come to work at a community college? How long have you been there, and what are your thoughts on community and junior colleges in American education?

I never thought I would end up at a community college. One day my office-mate at Penn State walked in and dropped a piece of paper on my desk and said, “Scott, this has your name all over it.” It was a community college teaching position at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, NY with minimum degree requirement of MS Meteorology. It never occurred to me that I could teach at the college-level without having the Ph.D. I called the dept. chair and realized that this job was perfect for me. I was fortunate to have been offered the job and have been teaching here for 21 years now.

I tell my students every semester that if there was one thing I would do differently it is that I would have gone to a community college for my first two years. I sat with 200 other students in my physics and calculus classes at U of Lowell. I would have learned so much more with 35 students per class like we have here at Suffolk.

Given the current economic downturn, the affordability of community colleges when paired with the high quality of undergraduate education offered, makes two-year colleges very attractive. The past few years my institution has had large increases in enrollment so the value is becoming well-known.

Tell me a bit about your interest in global warming – when did you become aware of the problem, and what are your motivations in educating people about it? What techniques have you employed to further understanding of climate?

Global warming was not on my radar until 2007. I knew that humans were part of the problem but I did not understand that we were the main drivers of global warming until the IPCC (2007) reports were released. After reading these reports, it was pretty clear to me that humans were changing the climate and that we needed to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases if we wished to remain in the climate in which our species evolved.

One day in early 2008, I walked by a colleague’s class while he was teaching geology and I heard him say that man-made global warming was a big hoax to generate research grants. Stunned, I lingered and listened. The gist of that lecture was that climate change was a natural cycle and that the sun was responsible for today’s climate. I asked instructor where he was getting his information given that the IPCC report was pretty clear that his position was incorrect. The next day he gave me a bunch of literature from The Heartland Institute. After reading these documents I knew the “science” presented within was incorrect and misleading and was laced with political commentary. I thought to myself, “Wow, if an actual geologist believes this stuff what chance does the average American have”?

Around the same time, I read Mooney & Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. Reading this book convinced me that scientists were not doing a good enough job communicating their work to the public and that is why Heartland Institute anti-science propaganda was so effective. I decided that I would create a Web site that bridged that gap. That site is Global Warming: Man or Myth? The Science of Climate Change.

Since that time I have also added social media to my tool belt. I use Twitter and Facebook groups to push quality science to the general public. Web pages are only useful if people keep coming back to the page. With social media, information goes to them instead. I am a huge fan of Twitter. The only drawback to social media is that it is self-selective. I always worry that I am preaching to the choir when I need to reach those on the fence.

One group I co-founded with Drs. John Abraham and Ray Weymann is the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. This group is made up of over 140 climate scientists who respond to climate-related inquiries from the media and our lawmakers. The media is in the best position to deliver accurate science information to the general public and to our elected leaders but only when they have access to that information. The Climate Science Rapid Response Team is committed to delivering that service. We are advocates for science education. To date we have responded to about 250 inquiries from various individuals including members of The White House & Congress and across the entire spectrum of journalists – even from college newspapers.

I have two very small boys and as a parent I want what we all do: to leave our children a better and safer world than the one we grew up in. Climate change could very likely make tomorrow’s world less safe, less healthy, and more costly to my children. I feel it is my duty as a parent and as a citizen to try to prevent that from happening.

Describe the inception, history and goals of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, including your role in it. (When this was announced in mid-January, it was the news that brought your name to my attention.)

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was established with one goal: to protect the scientific endeavor. Scientific research has brought us amazing advancements in technology, medicine, and in our basic understanding of the planet. Over the last twenty years, a small handful of politically-motivated think tanks and legal foundations, because they disliked certain scientific findings, have taken legal action against scientific institutions and individual scientists. In recent years, the legal attacks have intensified, especially against climate scientists.

The scientific method is designed around the belief that skepticism is good. Results should be subjected to the utmost scrutiny through the peer review process, followed by close examination and replication by others in the scientific community. Those whose ideas do not live up to the standards of rigorous science have instead chosen to litigate.

For the individual scientist these legal actions are a painful burden. Academic salaries were not designed to support ongoing legal expenses. Legal actions also have taken many of our brightest scientific minds away from their research to focus on frivolous lawsuits. This state of affairs is unacceptable. The United States of America should be the leader in science and technology, and it cannot do so if unscrupulous people subject our scientists to these actions.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was established to make sure that these legal claims are not viewed as an action against one scientist or institution, but that they are seen as actions against the scientific endeavor as a whole. As such the Fund will defend climate scientists who are dragged into litigation and act aggressively to protect the interests of the scientific endeavor.

In addition, the Climate Science Defense Fund will create platforms and opportunities for members of the scientific community to gain a better understanding of the legal issues surrounding their work.

Joshua Wolfe and I are co-managers of this effort but we have received a tremendous amount of help from organizations that understand the importance of this effort. I wish to especially thank Jeff Ruch, Executive Director, and his staff at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility for being our fiscal sponsor and for all of their guidance to this point. It has been a marriage made in heaven.

What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing such goals from a two-year college setting?

Not sure how to answer this question. CSLDF is not really “college” work at this time nor do I wish it to appear that SCCC is affiliated in any way with CSLDF.

My work with Climate Science Rapid Response Team is certainly supported (in spirit only) by my college. Again, I am unsure how to answer this question.

Well, this is one I was personally wondering about, since I’m a community college professor who also pursues non-job-related outreach and research. While it isn’t a job requirement, I feel motivated to do it, including partly for the reasons you describe about citizenship and a better future for the next generation. So I guess what I was getting at there is: Does being employed at a community college serve as an advantage to your outreach (say, because it gives you more time, that colleagues at a 4-yr. university would be spending on research) or is it a hindrance (where, say, people take you less seriously because you “only” teach at a community college)? You follow what I’m saying? There are lots of people doing climate science education – I’m interested in your perspective on it specifically as a 2-year college faculty member.

I do not think I have more time because I teach more courses than the four-year faculty but they are doing research in place of some teaching. I think it is a wash.

Some have claimed that “I am just at a community college” so why should anybody listen. That has become rare now because actions speak louder than credentials. What my work does show is that if one wishes to become a science communicator, it can be done from a two-year setting or from a high-powered four-year research institution. It is the person and not the location that matters. The top climate scientists have been very supportive which shows that they are not elitist in the slightest. Before I was involved in CSRRT or CSLDF, Gavin Schmidt adding my global warming web site to Realclimate’s “Start Here” page because he thought it was useful for beginners. He had no worries that I was a community college professor. Good science information is good science information.

Tell us about the positive and negative feedback you’ve gotten for being a community college professor taking such a public stand on a controversial issue.

Almost all of the feedback has been wonderful. There are many people working hard to communicate the science so that people realize it is not a controversial topic and that the solutions to the climate change issue will secure our health, our security, and our economic future. I am just one of many and I receive a lot of advice from others. Anything that I do is really a group effort.

I’d like to thank Scott for taking time to share his work with the readers of this blog. Thanks!