Tag Archives: Science

Fact or Faction

The Sticky Truth

The election is right around the corner and the world is in a tizzy about the outcome. News sites and Facebook feeds are brimming with analyses of the latest Trump gaffe, the panic surrounding the “new” Clinton emails, and what they mean about the polls. But to what extent does new information actually filter through our consciousness to influence our system of beliefs?

I’ve discussed America’s difficult relationship with the truth before. The media certainly shapes the way that the public interprets information – whether or not viewers believe the news being reported is true. Of course, that’s assuming that they actually care if something is true. In the case of Trump, for example, his supporters view him as a truth-teller even though he continues to spout easily disproven lies. Some have actively claimed that they would support him regardless of whether he is telling the truth. Meanwhile, Hillary “enjoys” a persistent aura of untrustworthiness in spite of having lied significantly less than her competitor.

We are in an age where many Americans proudly proclaim their disbelief in science. How do you get through to people who are so enamored of their own convictions that they will not accept anything that proves them wrong? A study in 2010 showed that “misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts — and often become even more attached to their beliefs.”

Part of the solution is changing tactics. No one likes to be patronized and hitting someone over the head with dull and dry statistics certainly is not a winning strategy. Scientists and communicators have had to tackle these problems when trying to fight the uphill battle against climate change denial. A great blog called Skeptical Science first introduced me to this interesting approach to debunking myths: fight sticky ideas with stickier ideas. Use humor, snappy soundbites and unexpected metaphors to make the truth circulate. Hey – who doesn’t love a good meme?

Truthiness: How Hard Can the Windbags Blow?

Truth, Fact, Interpretation, Misdirection – In An Age of Liars, We Need A Decoder Ring

Think about this: we know the difference between truth and lies. Presumably, we form our opinions from the information given to us. Certainly, this ought to be the case for things like policy decisions. Shouldn’t our elected officials be able to incorporate relevant facts and factors into their plans of what to do next? Stephen Colbert’s “Truthiness” is alarmingly relevant right now.

When I was in college, I took a tremendous class from well-known writer Francine Prose, called “Language, Literature, and Lies.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a great primer for my work in PR. One of the most lasting exercises was to read the same big news story in three major outlets (The New York Times, The New York Post, and The Guardian). We pored over the articles, picking out how the authors referred to their subjects (e.g. President Obama, Barack Obama, Obama, Mr. Obama, the president, etc.), which snippets of quotes they chose to cite, how they framed an issue, and who they gave the last word. Subtle choices conveyed biases. As humans, it is nearly impossible for us to describe happenings completely objectively – the nature of language is that it necessarily filters everything through our own lens; our own version of truth.

That said, while most media outlets use specific language to shape their version of events, they still stick to the same basic facts in news. That’s something we expect; why read or watch news if none of it is true? So it is jarring to note that when it comes to picking candidates for the presidency, many voters are keen to disregard flat out lies so long as they serve a particular agenda. The author of Wag the Dog recently wrote a biting op-ed about this in Al Jazeera, and multiple papers have referenced Politifact’s “Truth-O-Meter” with regards to candidate claims (it ranges from true to pants on fire).

I’m a big proponent of free speech, but I do believe that there is a difference between fact and opinion. Facts are, by nature, true. They are true whether you believe them or not. The converse is not the case. Unfortunately for some of us dreamers, simply believing something very fervently does not magically make it true. There is a danger to pandering to that falsehood. We can handle the truth, and we must if we expect to do anything helpful or relevant in life.

Stephen Colbert: Truthiness

Climate Change Scientists Take Nantucket Sleighride

Take Your Own Nantucket Sleighride: How Old Whaling Ships Are Helping in the Fight to Stop Climate Change

In the wake of the recent UN climate change conference in Paris, there’s lots of discussion about the subject. Some argue that the accord that was reached is historic and a huge step in the right direction, while others argue that the accord doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Meanwhile, there are scientists and others who get up every day and fight the battle against climate change as best they can, accord or not.

And so, one on-the-ground tidbit that got very little attention in all the hubbub about the Paris conference was this, as reported by the Associated Press: “Maritime historians, climate scientists and ordinary citizens are coming together on a project to study the logbooks of 19th-century whaling ships to better understand modern-day climate change and Arctic weather patterns.”

This fascinating project called Old Weather: Whaling will comb through approximately 2600 whaling logbooks, dating from 1756 – 1965, because they can yield valuable information about longitude and latitude measurements, weather conditions, the presence of icebergs and the edge of the ice shelf. This can help climate scientists compare weather and ice conditions, then and now, and can also help create advanced computer models that, based on the information from the logs, might be able to predict future conditions.

According to the AP story, Kevin Wood, a climate scientist with NOAA’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Ocean and Atmosphere at the University of Washington and a lead researcher on the project calls this a “virtual time-traveling weather satellite.”

“We can build an enormously detailed reconstruction of the conditions at the time … and we can we can understand how the climate has been changing over a longer period of time,” Wood said.

The Old Weather: Whaling project is led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The New Bedford Whaling Museum (Massachusetts) is, “transcribing and digitizing its own logbooks, as well as original data sources from the Nantucket Historical Association, Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and the New Bedford Free Public Library.”

The digitized logbooks are being placed online and the public is asked to help sift through the thousands and thousands of pages of material. There are already 20 whalers’ logbooks online.

So here’s something you can “do” about climate change. You can actually participate in a project that will advance climate research. Check out Old Weather: Whaling to learn more. Meanwhile, have yourself a good Nantucket sleighride! (While you’re at it, go ahead and listen to Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride.”)

Then and Now: Home Ec

So, we’re trying something new on the LCG blog: an occasional piece which takes a subject and looks at it through my eyes (old person) and through the eyes of an LCG associate (young person). When we started looking at some of these subjects, it occurred to us that some of the concepts had changed radically – often, but not always, for the better – over the course of the last 40 years or so. We thought it might be interesting and fun to see what this clash of decades might produce.

 

Then (Linda Cronin-Gross)

 

Today, we’re tackling a subject that always used to make me shudder – Home Economics.

If you were a girl who went to school in the US during the 60’s and early to mid-70’s, you’ll know that those two words often struck fear and loathing in your heart. It meant sewing, and maybe cooking, as part of your high school curriculum.

Of course, Home Ec – short for Home Economics – was pretty much only the domain of girls. If you were a boy, you’d probably get some kind of woodworking or “shop” class. Because, you know, girls can’t understand things like saws and hammers. And manly men don’t need to know how to cook or sew; that’s what a wife is for, no?

I pretty much hated Home Ec, which was required in my all-girls high school. I remember making a Pepto Bismol-pink corduroy shift dress with matching beret. Unfortunately, I can still picture those items – ghastly.

Believe me, I would have much preferred making a birdhouse, but that kind of class simply wasn’t offered. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for this programmatic gender divide to exist.

Of course, it’s a good thing to know how to cook and sew, but no one was preparing us to be Vera Wangs or Julia Childs (or would that be Julia’s children?). Home Ec’s real objective was to prepare us girls for marriage.

I am happy to report that I never made another shift (the design world really should thank me), but did learn how to cook from my mother, whose father was a chef by profession.

But the idea of learning how to run a home, to be able to cook, sew and generally take care of daily chores is good one. Managing a home was quite a job back in the day when there were few modern appliances. When Home Ec was introduced, it was seen as a kind of science; in addition, many women were able to access college specifically because of the Home Ec track.

But as things evolved, both politically and scientifically, Home Ec sort of devolved into a training program for potential brides.

 

Now (Sonya Landau)

 

Unlike my counterpart, I never took the dreaded course, but it always seemed to me that the idea had potential. I was lucky enough to grow up with parents that taught me both how to cook and how to build stuff, and was the odd child who balanced tomboy tendencies with a desire to learn sewing and knitting (I treasured my dolls and toy cars equally). Again, I was privileged with the means and the personal drive to pursue learning about my chosen topics.

The part that always interested me about the class was the “Economics” in the title. Looking around at my generation, which graduated college just at the height of the Recession, I know I’m not the only one who would have benefited from financial literacy. As young adults, we are met with a barrage of predatory schemes from banks, credit card companies and others that are well aware we know next to nothing about money.

Our educational system does not place any emphasis on preparing us for adult life when we are released into the real world. That is equally true for those who continue to higher Ed and those who enter the workforce directly. Any tips on money management often come either from personal trial and error or as cautions from family and friends. Not only that, but few of us have even the smallest amount of knowledge about taxes. If we can’t make informed decisions about how to spend and save our budgets, we can’t expect for the decisions we make to be good ones. How can we make choices when we don’t know our options?

It’s no surprise that our country is renowned for its percentages of debt – credit card debt, student loan debt, payday loan debt, the list continues. Granted, most of that blame lies on the enormous corporations that regulate loans and influence tax codes, but a lot of this could be avoided if consumers (and students) had a better understanding of the ins and outs of the system.

Nor is it impossible to get this information across in an engaging and empowering way. Our new favorite show, John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” has tackled issues like income inequality, wealth inequality, payday loans, student debt, and the IRS. He has garnered international attention and support for his well-researched, educational and entertaining programs.

Obviously, I don’t envy Linda her Pepto Bismol dress, and I don’t advocate a return of the ubiquitous class in the form of housewife training, but I do think that we could all benefit from a thorough education on actual home economic skills. Oh, and learning how to make something more than ramen and toast couldn’t hurt either.

Science and Politics: When Feelings Trump Facts

Looking back on it, there was a time when the US was set on making science a priority in learning. Advancing our technology and teaching our children to strive toward excellence in math and science put us ahead in the Cold War and we desperately wanted to catch up with and surpass the advances made by other countries. The US made major progress – we even became the first nation on earth to land people on the moon!

By its nature, science is constantly growing and evolving (see what we did there?). We know more now than we did before – DNA, genes, the solar system, cancer research, etc.

So when did it become not only politically expedient, but popular to deny science? Science has long faced opposition from religious sources/forces, but more recently, it has been filtered most often through the lens of politics. Cases in point: we hear about climate change, evolution and vaccinations, and can immediately conjure up the last time we saw major opponents to their acceptance. These people are shown prominently in mainstream media, but more than that, are in charge of policy. Here’s where it becomes a problem.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica science is:

…any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.

The key word in that definition is “unbiased.” That means science should be an impartial resource that is equally relevant and accessible to those with myriad political opinions.

LCG has touched on this topic before, specifically with regard to news coverage of hot debate:

For us, it brings up the journalistic idea of balance wherein journalists try to get “both sides” of a news story. But what if there is no balance? Certainly, while part of the climate change story does include the fact that there are some people who deny that humans are helping to cause global warming, the deniers, by and large, are basing their claims on right wing political views, not real science. Should journalists feel compelled to include that in their stories? Currently, the jury’s out on this one, but we certainly don’t think so.

While it’s true that not everyone is a scientific genius, that does not excuse deliberate scientific illiteracy. We have professional scientists worldwide who have studied these issues extensively for decades and reached almost unanimous consensus. Not only that, some of the most important aspects have national and global consequences. Vaccination, for example, is vital to maintaining public health (as we recently saw with the measles outbreak); opinion does not counteract fact, and the ramifications of ignoring that truth can be catastrophic. Similarly, this applies to climate change. 97% of active climate researchers and the Academies of Science from 80 countries agree that humans are causiJng climate change. Of course, there should be room for political debate, but it should be over how to act, not whether to bother. For the record, it is possible to be a Republican climate scientist.

Many of us learned about scientific reasoning and methodology in school. Our society’s development owes so much to this field of study (think what would happen if we were still debating the morality of electricity instead of using it!). We are doing a disservice to ourselves and our country to turn our backs on science.

We remember past generations for their progress in this field; how will our descendants look back upon us; upon our actions and inactions? Can we really afford to make science a partisan issue?

The ever fabulous John Oliver illustrates our point.

Or, to put it differently, there’s this:

Week of November 18, 2013

Our clients are always up to something, and we want to make sure they get the credit they deserve for their latest ventures. In recent news, Theater Three Collaborative has just launched an Indiegogo campaign to help fund a full production of its new eco-drama about climate change. Meanwhile, NYUFASP has published a series of emails taking stock of the administration’s overinflated salaries as compared to the financial struggle enforced upon the faculty and students. Theater Three Collaborative (TTC) has started an Indiegogo campaign to help with funding a full production of its new eco-drama, Extreme Whether. The play has received numerous accolades from renowned scientists, writers and environmental activists including world-famous climate scientist James Hansen, and prominent arctic ice scientist Jennifer Francis. TTC has presented several readings of the play so far, one of which featured Zach Grenier of TV’s The Good Wife. TTC plans for the play to run from March 20 – April 13, 2014 at Theater for the New City, with each show followed by a “Festival of Conscience” discussion with a major scientist or environmentalist. The Extreme Whether Indiegogo campaign includes premiums for each level of giving, ranging from tickets to the play to Sniffley the frog umbrellas (Sniffley is a character in the play), to a tour of Parsons-Meares Costumes, one of New York’s major costume shops.  Parson-Meares has designed costumes for all TTC productions since 1995, and builds costumes for Spider Man, Cinderella and other major Broadway shows. There is also an option for a home-cooked meal by the playwright. NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYUFASP), which has been fighting against the NYU administration’s excesses and ill conceived projects has put out a list of the salaries given to the “essential” administrative staff. It is increasingly clear that the gap between their compensation and that of the professors is ever widening, even as the students bear the brunt of this increase. This only adds credence to the fact that the NYU 2031 expansion plan is part of a wider pattern of spending which seems determined to add to the debt owed by its students (who already carry one of the highest debt loads in the nation), to the detriment of its academic offerings. This is a disturbing trend for a so-called “institute of higher learning.” Meanwhile, LCG is happy to announce that we will be working with Professor Barbara Winslow, who runs the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College. She has written a definitive biography of Shirley Chisholm – which will be out this month – and we are thrilled to be helping her publicize it.

Climate Change and Balance in the Media

We have a couple of clients involved in climate change – esteemed climate scientist Micha Tomkiewicz and a theater group, Theater Three Collaborative; the theater group is trying to fully produce a climate change play called, “Extreme Whether.”  So, we are always on the lookout for developments in climate change and in opportunities to join the conversation.

Recently, we noted an interesting media development on climate change that caused quite a stir.

On October 8th, the LA Times’ editor of its letters to the editor, Paul Thornton, declared that he doesn’t print letters asserting that “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change.” He went on to say, “Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us. Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

The right wing news site, NewsBusters, actually kicked off the whole controversy when it claimed that LA Times’ editorial writer Joe Healy, in a longer piece, had said that “letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.” That is what prompted Paul Thornton to write his piece and to correct NewsBusters.

As you can imagine, the responses came fast and furious, especially from climate change deniers, accusing the LA Times of impeding free speech, among other things.  Of course, Newsbusters itself was one of the first out of the gate:  “So letters to the editor ‘that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change…do not get printed.’  That’s quite a statement coming from a writer not named Al Gore.” And, naturally, the right wing “commenters” were out in force.  “It’s not just in California; liberals in the media are doing it everywhere. The primary tool of Marxism is propaganda. The truth hurts their cause;” “Climate change: this is not science – it’s mumbo jumbo.” “At the risk of stating the obvious, the MSM (mainstream media) has devolved into a Soviet-style propaganda arm for the Washington establishment and virtually every leftist cause brought forth. The fact that the Feral Government is devolving into a fascist oligarchy is undoubtedly more than coincidence.”

For those who believe in actual science, however, it was welcome news to hear the LA Times express out loud what virtually everyone has known for quite a while:  climate change is real, and humans have contributed to it.  If you read the whole piece that Thornton wrote you will see that he is not actually saying that the LA Times will never print a letter in opposition to the human-induced climate change theory; what the LA Times is objecting to is printing the kind of silly, baseless non-scientific claims that are often made by the right when referring to climate change.  Thornton says, “As for letters on climate change, we do get plenty from those who deny global warming. And to say they “deny” it might be an understatement: Many say climate change is a hoax, a scheme by liberals to curtail personal freedom.”

To follow up on the Paul Thornton’s column, Mother Jones magazine asked the opinion page editors of the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Tampa Bay Times, USA Today, the Plain Dealer, The Houston Chronicle, the Denver Post, and the San Diego Union-Tribune if they’d follow the Washington Post’s lead on climate change denier letters to the editor.  There was a general consensus that most of the outlets wouldn’t publish “factually inaccurate letters,” but, except for the Washington Post, whose editor agreed outright with the LA Times, many of the other outlets responded cautiously or in line with their paper’s editorial stance on climate change.  The whole article, How 9 Major Papers Deal with Climate Denying Letters, is a very interesting and enlightening read and a peek into how editorial and opinion pages are molded.

For us, it brings up the journalistic idea of balance wherein journalists try to get “both sides” of a news story.  But what if there is no balance?  Certainly, while part of the climate change story does include the fact that there are some people who deny that humans are helping to cause global warming, the deniers, by and large, are basing their claims on right wing political views, not real science.   Should journalists feel compelled to include that in their stories?  Currently, the jury’s out on this one, but we certainly don’t think so.