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Friday
Apr212017

The challenge of doing science journalism in a polluted science communication environment

 

Boy, this is a tough one.

It's not hard to see how linking Zika to climate change risks infecting the former with the polarizing virus carried by the latter.  Not hard, either to model such an effect in the lab (Kahan, Jamieson, Landrum & Winneg 2017).

On the other hand, if this piece is conveying the truth about the health hazards being created or magnified by climate change, isn't such reporting essential?

I guess I have two reactions.

First, highlighting Gore is not a good idea.  He brands as a partisan issue anything he gets involved with.

Second, the most important thing is that science journalists engage in shared critical reflection on dilemmas of this kind. Such reflection attests to and helps inculcate a professional norm, one that assures journalists exercise their judgment in a manner sensitive to the impact of their craft on the science communication environment.

That sort of norm, and the quality of deliberation it promotes, were clearly on display in the science community's debate about the effect of their upcoming march on Washington.

The importance of having a collective discussion like that, on all the occasions that warrant it, might turn out to be the most valuable lesson of that event.

So what do you think?


 

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Reader Comments (12)

I believe that overall, it has to be conceded that decisions on matters of policy can't be made in an environment free of politics, unless those decisions are all going to be set by one dictator (who may still need considerable political maneuvering to stay in power).

So, what happens in a democracy in which there are some protections for rights of minorities and also some thoughts about proceeding in ways that benefit the greater social good?

I think that the important thing to realize is that multiple outcomes are possible based on the same scientific data. It all depends on the kind of future that we want to have.

Scientists like to perform their experiments in laboratories where questions can be stripped down of confounding variables and investigations can focus on one component exclusively. The real world is not like that.

When it comes to Zika:

The statement above by Gore is true: "Changing climate conditions change the areas in which these diseases can take root and become endemic".

But IMHO, there is a very high bias towards the east and gulf coasts in the US and parts of Europe, in asserting that this is a reason to be concerned about climate change. Is Zika less concerning if focused in now tropical regions of the world? In some areas, the overall global changes in climate are likely to cause drying and desertification. Would we then expect such regions to support climate change on the basis that they might see less of the anges aegypti mosquitoes?

There are a wide number of other areas in which science informed attempts to control the negative outcomes of Zika overlap with other societal values. Key West was disinterested in being the subject of an experiment using genetically modified mosquitoes, in my opinion, because in the air conditioned environments of most of the people there, mosquitoes just don't have that much impact, and thus drastic measures seem unnecessary. Expansion of air conditioning, or at least window screening in areas of South Florida and Puerto Rico could have significant positive impact on Zika infections. Is then Zika an argument in favor of more coal fired power plants? We could also focus on breeding grounds, like old tires; http://www.ijias.issr-journals.org/abstract.php?article=IJIAS-14-272-34. Some countries have seen much less of the infant microencephaly seen in Brazil, apparently partially because of the availability of abortion: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/22/abortion-information-zika-virus-birth-defects-latin-america-study. Outside of normally accepted moral values, infanticide is also a possibility. Humans that survive these epidemics tend to end up being virus resistant. A vaccine, if one is developed, could also work.

Science can help policymakers weigh the potentials for utilizing various Zika control schemes and the relative risks and societal outcomes thereof.

But the decision is inherently political.

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

=={ First, highlighting Gore is not a good idea. He brands as a partisan issue anything he gets involved with. }==

Agreed that Gore is not a particularly good choice.

On the other hand, would there be any good choice?

Perhaps Bob Inglis, who got driven out of the Pub Party and ridiculed because he didn't toe the party line on climate change?

Katherine Hayhoe, who gets death threats and FOIA'd for presenting her views on climate change?

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Gaythia -

=={ But IMHO, there is a very high bias towards the east and gulf coasts in the US and parts of Europe, in asserting that this is a reason to be concerned about climate change }==

Good point, and the rest of your comment is likewise good, IMO.

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

This seems like an unresolvable dilemma, to me.

It seems to me to be important to speak about the variety of potentially harmful outcomes of continued ACO2 emissions. On the other hand, we know that there is always potential blowback from "scary" messaging - where the public becomes less concerned about those risks because people don't like dealing with risky shit or because speaking of those risks stimulates identity-protective cognition.

IMO, the only way to effectively communicate about these issues is through structured stakeholder dialogue in the model of participatory/deliberative/discursive democracy. But the likelihood of such deliberative styles of decision-making related to climate change are minimal. So, given that (IMO) this dilemma is unresolvable, the one feasible thing that I would hope for is that communicators (on controversies directly related to science or other controversies as well) become more informed about evidence on effective communication. Such knowledge might not change how Gore communicates about these issues, or it might not lead to him seeking to find more effective spokespeople, but at least it could lead to people operating from misconceptions about the effectiveness of their actions.

Eh. On second thought, that doesn't seem very feasible either - since rather than evaluating evidence on effectiveness, the vast majority seem more interested in filtering that evidence so as to reaffirm what they're already doing.

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"On the other hand, if this piece is conveying the truth about the health hazards being created or magnified by climate change, isn't such reporting essential?"

Glad you put an 'if' in here, which is a great place to start. Quite aside from the Gore problem, bold campaigns that grab one aspect or another of an immature research area and then project this as a scientific certainty, can only contribute to division and confusion, i.e. further 'pollution'. The paper in Nature Communications (abstract below) published a few months back does not necessarily reflect reality, and there is contradictory research. Yet while this domain (mosquito vector) is not one I know, it appears to abound with complications and caveats. Hence the certainty that the public will glean from the above bold pictures and quotes as delivered by authority figures, seems to me to be unwarranted.

' The recent emergence and spread of vector-borne viruses including Zika, chikungunya and dengue has raised concerns that climate change may cause mosquito vectors of these diseases to expand into more temperate regions. However, the long-term impact of other anthropogenic factors on mosquito abundance and distributions is less studied. Here, we show that anthropogenic chemical use (DDT; dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and increasing urbanization were the strongest drivers of changes in mosquito populations over the last eight decades in areas on both coasts of North America. Mosquito populations have increased as much as tenfold, and mosquito communities have become two- to fourfold richer over the last five decades. These increases are correlated with the decay in residual environmental DDT concentrations and growing human populations, but not with temperature. These results illustrate the far-reaching impacts of multiple anthropogenic disturbances on animal communities and suggest that interactions between land use and chemical use may have unforeseen consequences on ecosystems.'

https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13604

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

"Agreed that Gore is not a particularly good choice. On the other hand, would there be any good choice?"

Yeah. Paul Reiter.

https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200506/ldselect/ldeconaf/12/12we21.htm
https://malariajournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2875-7-S1-S3
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240549/

There are highly qualified mosquito experts who have previously demonstrated scepticism about claims of climate change affecting their prevalence and infectivity. If you can persuade Paul Reiter that your science is sound, climate sceptics are likely to take that as an indication of solid science with no obvious holes a sceptic can use.

The problem, of course, is in first persuading Paul Reiter that Al Gore isn't talking tosh again. Which given that Reiter has already shown evidence indicating that mosquito prevalence doesn't depend on climate very much, but is far more dependent on economics and human countermeasures, it very likely to be a high bar to jump over I'd say - without having studied the science in detail myself - that Al Gore is simply re-using the same old untrue story about climate change spreading mosquito borne diseases and applying it to a new and more current news story to try to give it relevance.

But if you can get Paul Reiter's endorsement, I'd take the claims seriously enough to actually look into them and check them out for myself. So would other scientifically knowledgeable climate sceptics, and others would then listen to and follow those.

I don't think it's going to happen, though. For many reasons.

April 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Yes!

I'm sure that appealing to the authority of Paul Reiter will dramatically change the landscape of the communication space. Unprecedent agreement will ensue.

Especially since he is an activist.

April 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

=={ Maybe the article could have been written in voice that evoked curiosity rather than one that provoked culturally partisan resonances of climate change? }==

So then, there's your chance. One issue with your material that I am challenged by is the lack of longitudinal data. I tend to doubt that your data presents the potential for real world differences in outcomes as much as a static snapshot of where people currently are. That is why I am dubious about your confident assertions of causality.

Obviously, this would be an unscientific test, but how do you think you could rewrite your post to promote curiosity? Try it out and see what happens. You have a somewhat fixed readership. How might you do something that produces results different than what has happened in the past? You wouldn't get verifiable results, but you might acquire some useful information.

April 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- I did write the post in a manner intended to provoke curiosity. If it didn't--in you or others--then I must not be so good at that.

April 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

=={ @Joshua-- I did write the post in a manner intended to provoke curiosity. If it didn't--in you or others--then I must not be so good at that. }==

Or maybe it would be a mistake to think that the manner in which you write the post would explain whether or not other people respond with curiosity.

April 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"I'm sure that appealing to the authority of Paul Reiter will dramatically change the landscape of the communication space. Unprecedent agreement will ensue. Especially since he is an activist."

And climate scientists aren't?!

The point is he's a scientist-activist for the other side, respected by them as an authority, so if you're going to use argument from authority to try to persuade opposition partisans, then you'll obviously need to use a opposition partisan authority.

It means you've only got one guy to persuade/argue with - one who already knows a lot of the science. That's got to be easier than arguing with millions of them.

April 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Al Gore's claim is not new - was first made by the IPCC in the 1990s, and even at the time strongly contradicted by Paul Reiter (NB the link is to Breitbart, mercifully briefer than the NYT, and I double-checked quotations to original sources cited - useful practice for both publications).
http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/01/24/delingpole-the-trump-effect-cdc-cancels-major-climate-change-conference/

The apparent Democrat-Republican split on belief in science might vanish in the manner of other statistical mirages if "democrat-government-promoted science" were excluded from science overall. There is no Republican who refused to board an airplane because of sudden doubts on the Navier-Stokes equations, but many who question Al Gore's physics.

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

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