29 April 2017

Smart People Listen to Those Who Dwell in Facts, Even When They Are Uncomfortable!

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Those of us who attended the seminar on climate and communication at NASA Goddard last week.

NASA gave us a look at the James Webb Telescope in the clean room. It launches next year and will replace Hubble, which is the greatest single scientific instrument ever made. My photo.

I was invited to a seminar at NASA Goddard last week which combined some top climate experts with meteorologists who work in media. We shared ideas on how to better communicate science, but the highlight was an update from some top NASA and NOAA climate experts. Dr Ben Santer went over the satellite temperature record, (and in the process destroyed some of the lingering myths that keep being repeated), and he was followed by Dr Gavin Schmidt (at NASA GISS) who gave us an update on what the numerical modelling and the observed temperature data is showing. I hadn’t met Dr Schmidt before and I wish that the average person could spend three hours talking with both he and Ben Santer. (Here is a clip I spotted that includes both of them.)

Jason Samenow, from Capital WeatherGang at the Washington Post, joined us too, and in his previous life, he helped write the EPA’s excellent website on climate change that disappeared Friday night. The old site is here and fortunately, teachers can still use this archive to teach real science. John Cook who started the Skeptical Science website joined us as well (We are working on a joint talk at the AMS Broadcast Meteorology conference coming in June).

I cannot help but think that a lot of journalists would have gotten a lot out of this two-day seminar. One person, in particular, is the New York Times Public Editor who seems to have forgotten that while journalism is about giving both sides, that mandate is trumped by the responsibility, to tell the truth, and not mislead. The Times recently hired Bret Stephens (who has written some very questionable things on science, to put it mildly) as an editorial columnist, and to say a firestorm of criticism followed would not be an understatement. The NYT public editor defended the hire by saying: “The crux of the question is whether his work belongs inside our boundaries for intelligent debate, and I have no doubt that it does,” Bennet told me. “I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.”

Fair enough, but his first column is just out and he fell under that bar when he complained that climate deniers are “called imbeciles”.  Just my two cents worth here, but when I quit seeing billboards saying “It’s the Sun Stupid” or “CO2 is good for you!”, I’ll bet that goes away. I’d much rather see a debate on the Times editorial pages about how best to tackle the climate mess we are in. That’s what is desperately needed. Better yet, take the time to learn why these myths that populate the internet and certain media sites are laughably wrong.

In the meantime, you can easily understand why these ridiculous myths are just that.  Below is a talk by Ben Santer that is very similar to what he talked with our seminar group about. It’s worth watching since he almost singlehandedly destroys the sun argument while proving it WAS the CO2 and other greenhouse gases. 

Now watch Gavin Schmidt’s Ted Talk

It’s human nature to want to listen to people who tell you things you want to be true and give them credence over those who say things that are uncomfortable. There’s even a scientific name for it: cognitive bias. Science allows us to find the facts in spite of this human bias. This is why attempts to erase science or spread misinformation will ultimately fail. Today’s students and their science teachers understand scientific method much better than their parents do, and I’m actually quite optimistic that this era of misinformation will pass. To borrow a phrase from Carl Sagan, the candle of the enlightenment is indeed flickering, but there are plenty of folks who will clear the wax away and block the breeze.

Actually, a bunch of them were in Washington DC today, and my friend Bob Henson was one of them. Bob wrote one of the best books about understanding climate change and he posted the photo below on his Facebook page today.