Conveying Science Across Partisan Lines

17:10 minutes

Michael E. Mann. Credit: Karl Withakay , via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Last month, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing to discuss climate science and the scientific method. Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the committee, opened the hearing by saying “alarmist predictions amount to nothing more than wild guesses” and that “much of climate science today seems to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific methods.” The Washington Post called the hearing the “latest in a series of recent House science committee hearings to challenge the existence or seriousness of climate change.” Climate scientist Michael Mann was one of the witnesses who participated in that hearing. Mann talks how he approaches these contentious conversations about climate change.

[These are the best science books of 2016.]

Plus, a study out this week in the journal Nature Human Behavior looked at difference between the science books read by liberals and conservatives by analyzing online book purchases. Sociologist Michael Macy, who was an author on the study, explains.

Segment Guests

Michael Macy

Michael Macy is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences in Sociology and Director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Michael Mann

Michael Mann is author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia University Press, 2012) and distinguished professor in department of meteorology and geosciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. After the election, there was a lot of talking about political bubbles, that the information we read in how we access is drawing us into tighter circles around party lines. Conservatives reading books and blogs that liberals may not even have heard of. It goes both ways.

This makes sense for news or political books, but does it hold up when it comes to science? A group of researchers looked at just that. They tracked what science books conservatives and liberals were buying. The study was published this week in the journal, Nature Human Behavior.

Michael Macy is an author on that study. He’s also a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Dynamics Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca. Welcome to Science Friday.

MICHAEL MACY: Thanks, Ira. Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. You looked at co-purchases of books people bought online. Tell us what you did in your study and what you found.

MICHAEL MACY: Yes, we looked at Amazon and Barnes Noble book recommendations where if you go on Amazon and you buy a book, there will be a little section underneath where Amazon says customers who bought this book also bought. And that’s based on co-purchase patterns.

So we use those data that are available on the Amazon website through their API. And and we looked at hand-coded liberal and conservative books, and then, we looked to see when people bought one of those liberal or conservative books, what other books did they buy? In particular, what other science books did they buy?

IRA FLATOW: And what did you find? Did you find there was a common thread?

MICHAEL MACY: The common thread is that liberals and conservatives are both interested in science. In fact, they’re more likely to buy books on science than they are books on, let’s say, performing arts, or sports, literature, religion. They’re more likely to buy books on science.

So they share an interest in science, at least, science in general. But that’s about as far as it goes. They don’t buy the same books, and they don’t buy books on the same topics.

IRA FLATOW: So what of topics do liberals or conservatives buy?

MICHAEL MACY: Well, we found that conservatives are more likely to buy books in applied science, that is sciences that are motivated mainly by problem solving, things like medicine and law. Whereas, liberals were more likely to buy books on basic science, that is science that is motivated by empirical puzzles or by theoretical curiosity.

IRA FLATOW: What type of science– you mentioned that they liked science, where does the Twain meet? Is there one science they both like?

MICHAEL MACY: Yes. It turns out that at least we can all agree on dinosaurs.

IRA FLATOW: Why am I not surprised?

MICHAEL MACY: Paleontology is one of the areas that liberals and conservatives do tend to buy the same books. Also, in oceanography, plant science, veterinary medicine, zoology. Those are topics where liberals and conservatives can agree.

IRA FLATOW: So what you’re finding is basically what we hear on blogs and whatever that the bubble exists in the book buying business, too.

MICHAEL MACY: Yes, that’s right. And, in fact, we also found another difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives had a tendency to purchase books in science that were mostly purchased by other conservatives. And were books that had a somewhat more political slant. Whereas, liberals were more likely to buy books that would be purchased by just a general audience for science, including people who don’t buy any political books.

IRA FLATOW: Does it tell you anything about how each of these groups view science in general?

MICHAEL MACY: Well, we can speculate from that pattern that conservatives are somewhat more interested in science that confirms political opinions and political beliefs. Whereas, liberals were somewhat more likely to see science just for science’s sake. For sure they read science books that are consistent with the liberal viewpoint and not books that have a conservative viewpoint. But they also are more interested in books that just would be interesting to anyone on that topic.

IRA FLATOW: Fascinating. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Macy.

MICHAEL MACY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Michael Macy is Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences in Sociology and Director of the Social Dynamics Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Climate change can be one of those issues that draws the deepest divide between liberals and conservatives, and the place where this can be most apparent is in Congress. Last month, the House Science Committee held a hearing on climate change and the scientific method.

Lamar Smith, Chairman of the Committee, Republican chairman, opened the hearing by saying that quote, “much of climate science today seems to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas, and questionable predictions than on the scientific methods.” Unquote.

The stated goal of the hearing was to evaluate the science of climate change, but critics say well, it was just meant to attack the science. One of the expert witnesses on that panel was Climate Scientist Michael Mann so he’s here to talk about the role of scientists in the contentious congressional hearing process.

Dr. Mann joins us to give us views. He’s the distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State. Also, author of The Madhouse Effect, How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving us Crazy. We did reach out to representative Smith’s office for a comment, but we have not yet received a response. Welcome to Science Friday, Michael.

MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, Ira. Always good to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: How would you describe the hearing?

MICHAEL MANN: Well, I think you summarized it quite well. It was clearly intended by Congressman Lamar Smith, who is a climate change denier, he does not accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. He has spent much of his time as the chair of the House Science Committee going on the attack against climate scientists.

Issuing subpoenas to demand their e-mails. Trying to cut funding for climate science and government funding agencies. So he has taken on an adversarial position when it comes to the science of climate change. And the hearing was, I think, intended to try to convey his doubts and his critiques of the science. And there were three witnesses that actually are sort of in the fringe of scientists who do not accept the science of climate change. Or the reality of the impacts of climate change.

And I was the sole representative of the scientific consensus that climate change is indeed real and human-caused.

IRA FLATOW: You knew what the committee was about and the lion’s den you were going into, why even go into something like this?

MICHAEL MANN: It’s a fair question. When do we engage and when do we decide to not legitimize what appears to be a forum for just fomenting doubt and confusion in the public mindset? And I’ll tell you, my good friend Bill Nye, the Science Guy, has really demonstrated, I think, that you do sometimes have to take the science straight to the critics.

You really do have to take on science denial because if it goes unopposed, then some of it becomes accepted. The doubts, the confusion comes part of the discourse, and it clouds the public understanding of science. And so we do need to do our best to inject science into those fora.

And that’s what I saw my role as being, to really communicate why it is that there is such a widespread consensus about human-caused climate change. Why it is that scientists are convinced by the evidence by multiple independent lines of evidence that human caused climate change is real and it represents a risk. It presents a threat that we need to do something about.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think there’s anybody in that room whose mind you can change about this?

MICHAEL MANN: Well, there’s the famous adage, Upton Sinclair, it’s very difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it. And I think that probably applies large to too much of Congress. But I saw, as the relevant audience here, onlookers, the public staffers, other policy makers, who may be genuinely confused. Even though there is overwhelming scientific consensus, they may have bought into the myth that there is a scientific debate about the reality of climate change.

And so, yes, there are partisans whose minds are made up. They don’t see this through the lens of science anymore, but through the lens of ideology. And it’s going to be difficult to reach them. But there’s this broad, sort of confused middle, as I describe it, who thinks there’s a debate because of the fractious public discourse over this issue. And if they can be led to understand that there is not a debate, then they may indeed be able to make quite a bit of progress in not only their acceptance of the science but their interest in trying to do something about it.

IRA FLATOW: Do you take issue with scientists who say, and some of them even are pushing back on the march on science that’s coming up in a couple of weeks, that scientists should not get involved in politics?

MICHAEL MANN: Well I used to be one of those scientists, frankly, and back in the late 1990s, my co-authors and I published the hockey stick curve, and it became an icon in the climate change debate. And I quickly found myself at the center of attacks by climate change critics looking to discredit the hockey stick curve as a way of supposedly discrediting the case for concern over climate change.

And through those experiences, and through my efforts to try to push back against the misinformation and disinformation and to try to inform the discourse over climate change, I’ve become convinced that we play a critical role. That scientists voices need to be heard. I made this case in an op ed a few years ago in the New York Times entitled, if you see something, say something, that draws upon, of course, the motto of our Department of Homeland Security.

Look, the taxpayers are paying us to study this problem. It would be a dereliction of our responsibility if we didn’t do our best to at least inform the public and political discourse over this issue. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about what we do about this problem. There isn’t a legitimate debate to be had anymore about whether the problem exists.

IRA FLATOW: As a journalist, I got a note from Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat from Florida, on the Senate committee on science commerce and transportation. That he is holding a hearing about extreme weather in West Palm Beach in Florida on Monday. They’re discussing resilience and re-insurance. That seems like it’s something out of the ordinary, like we’re taking it down to the grassroots level.

MICHAEL MANN: Absolutely. In Miami Beach, Florida, look, they don’t have time to debate the science of climate change. They’re dealing with the impacts right now. They are on the front lines of the impacts of climate change in the form of sea level rise, combining with potentially more dangerous storms that threatens our coastlines.

Or you talk to farmers in Oklahoma and Texas who lost 25% of their cattle in the unprecedented 2011 heatwave and drought. You talk to Californians who had been dealing with an unprecedented drought, a devastating drought, only now to be dealing with the opposite extreme, flooding. And there is an emerging scientific literature demonstrating that climate change is impacting many of these extreme weather events.

So look, there is a legitimate debate, as I said, to be had about the policies, but there are conservatives who are coming on board. Increasingly, you see some Republicans coming out and saying look, let’s get on the right side of the science. We can debate what to do about it, but our people are dealing with these impacts as well. And we need to act.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact, I’ve seen some conservatives saying now that President Trump has said that he may be pulling out and does not believe in the Paris Accords, that China now is going to be seen as the biggest country in the world that is going to embrace doing things about carbon emissions. And the US is going to look second. And they were actually unhappy with that position.

MICHAEL MANN: This is unilateral economic disarmament. The greatest economic revolution of this century is the clean energy revolution. And China recognizes that, and they’re leading the world. They’re selling their solar panels to the rest of the world. Profiting from that, actually flooding the market and bringing down the cost of solar energy.

The rest of the world recognizes that the future of our global economy is in renewable energy. And the question we have to ask is whether we get onboard or we get left behind.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Michael Mann.

Some scientists who are skeptical of the climate change consensus, they want to put together what they’re calling red teams that would probe these findings and be funded by Congress. Do you think this could happen?

MICHAEL MANN: One of the things that Lamar Smith has said publicly, the chair of the House Science Committee we were talking about, is he would like to get rid of peer review at the National Science Foundation and replace that with congressional oversight. That is, of course, very frightening to the world scientists who understand that peer review is sort of the gold standard.

It’s what keeps science on this path towards understanding and truth. It’s what Carl Sagan referred to as the self-correcting machinery of science. And now, you have political partisans, like Lamar Smith, who want to basically gut that. Interfere with this process that has served us so well over the centuries, that with the technology and science that we now rely upon, to threaten that by trying to insert political ideology into decisions about what gets funded.

And we know what those decisions will be. If Lamar Smith were to have his way, we would not see funding for climate change research. We would not see funding for studies even of resilience of how we deal with the impacts of climate change, which people in red states and blue states alike are now dealing with.

And so, it’s deeply disturbing. This idea of red teams, what that really means is they don’t like the message that they’re hearing. The overwhelming message of the world scientists, the US National Academy of Sciences, all the national academies of all the industrial nations, all the scientific societies in the US that have weighed in on the matter, all on record as being convinced by the many lines of evidence that human-caused climate change is real, and it’s a threat.

And they don’t like the message that they’re hearing and so they want to somehow create an alternative universe that tells them what they want to hear rather than what’s true.

IRA FLATOW: Talking about the upcoming science march, do you think this will have any lasting effect or is it a one shot protest?

MICHAEL MANN: I hope it does have a lasting effect, and I will be there. I will be speaking at the rally. I’ll be marching with my good friend, Bill Nye. And I’m very excited that so many scientific societies and organizations have come on board endorsing the march, AAAS, the American Geophysical Union, the American Physical Society, a pretty conservative scientific society.

Because they recognize, collectively, that science right now is under threat, a threat unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in this country. And scientists, I can tell you, I am one and many of my friends are fellow scientists, we sort of prefer to be left alone in our labs or out in the field. Doing what we love doing. Studying nature. Understanding. Trying to gain an understanding of the way things works. We’re furthering our understanding of the natural world.

The last thing scientists want to be doing is getting political and being out in the streets marching. But essentially, we’ve been forced into that by this unprecedented attack on science that we’re seeing.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, if we had more scientists in Congress, might have a little more support? And that’s a topic for another show. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State. Author of The Madhouse Effect, How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving us Crazy. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MICHAEL MANN: Thanks so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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