16 March 2015

A Thank You to Rep. Raul Grijalva, Narrative Killer

With this post I'd like to express a sincere Thanks to representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). As most readers here will know, Rep. Grijalva is "investigating" me based on his belief that I do research and public service as a consequence of shadow payments from fossil fuel companies. Ridiculous, I know.

I'm thanking Rep. Grijalva not for the media exposure (e.g., NPR, NYT) nor for the bump in sales of my books (e.g., THB, TCF, D&CC), and not even for the many bits of fan mail via email and Twitter from the fringes of the climate debate. Rather, I am thanking Rep. Grijalva for doing more than his part in helping to kill a narrative.

For more than a decade, leading elements of the science and media communities have advanced a narrative which said that conservatives were stupid and/or evil and were singularly responsible for pathologically politicizing science.  Reality, as the saying goes, has a liberal bias. It turns out that concerns over the "politicization of science" were themselves subject to politicization.

I wrote about this in 2003:
Politicization of science is a problem irrespective of the ideology of those doing the politicizing. Our scientific enterprise is too important to allow putative concerns about the politicization of science to become just another weapon in partisan battle.
And in 2005:
It is clear that there is an ample supply of people willing to use concern over the politicization of science as a political bludgeon to score points on the Bush Administration. It is also clear that there are plenty of others aligned with the Bush Administration willing to do exactly the opposite. The question I have is, where are the analysts (including reporters) who care about the politicization of science irrespective of possible advantages that are lent to today’s partisan political battles?
A decade ago the face of the "Republican War on Science" narrative was a journalist named Chris Mooney, then a fresh-faced 20-something who had capture the zeitgeist in a book by the same title. I offered a detailed critique of of the "War on Science" framing in 2005.  I think that critique stands up pretty well.

For his part, Mooney followed up his "War on Science" book with a bizarre book on eugenics, claiming that US conservatives were somehow genetically inferior.  Mooney turned his prominent role in Republican-bashing into a spot on the board of directors of the American Geophysical Union (I kid you not), as an "expert" in science communication hired by the National Science Foundation to tour the country, training young scientists (still not kidding), and ultimately as a reporter for The Washington Post. Not a bad resume for an English major who has dabbled in eugenics.

This critique is less about Mooney, who I met once and seemed a nice fellow, and more about the power of a narrative. One that has been so fully accepted and reinforced by significant parts of the science and media communities. Mooney captured that narrative and went along for the ride. One day, hopefully, we'll look back at this era and ask "What the hell were we thinking?"

Writing in The New Republic last week Erik Nisbet and Kelly Garrett offered a welcome tonic to the "war on science" meme and a good indication that perhaps, just perhaps, that narrative has reached its sell-by date:
[P]olitical journalism too often treats science like a political issue to be debated by non-experts in televised partisan theater. This type of media coverage about scientific issues often obscures the actual scientific evidence and consensus and unfortunately only deepens polarization by providing partisan cues for both conservatives and liberals.

Our study’s findings suggest that such intensive, polarizing media attention depresses the public‘s confidence in the scientific community for liberals and conservatives alike.

The second lesson is that that science communicators who target conservatives specifically as somehow uniquely deficient when it comes to understanding science turn the focus to a clash of ideologies and away from promoting communication that bridges ideological gaps about science issues—and yes we think such gaps can be bridged!

Demonizing a third of the population in science policy debates by claiming they have an insurmountable psychological deficit does nothing to promote a solution to the challenges of effective science communication—and unfortunately represents our human biases at work.
Nisbet and Garrett are reporting on research which provides a solid empirical basis for rejecting the politicization of the politicization of science as a way of doing business in science or in journalism. It is neither accurate nor effective. Other scholars doing excellent work in this area include Dominique Brossard, Brendan Nyhan, Dan Kahan. Dietram Scheufele, Matt Nisbet, among others. But despite all this good empirical, historical and political research, the "war on science" narrative still has deep roots and fervent adherents.

Which brings me all the way back to Rep. Grijalva. In his "investigation" of me -- someone who probably shares many of his policy preferences, including on climate -- Rep. Grijalva has admitted to not liking my peer reviewed research (and logically the assessments of the IPCC). It is hard to maintain a uniquely Republican "war on science" meme with this type of high profile nonsense going on. Of course, in his Washington Post column, Mooney hasn't acknowledged Rep. Grijalva's "witch hunt." Probably just something deficient in his partisan brain.

As I have often written, there is no "war on science" being conducted by Republicans or by Democrats. There is however plenty of politics. Politics can be conducted in ways that contribute to common interests, or in ways that are pathological. The science community has tried the latter for a decade. It is time to move beyond the toxic partisanship of the most recent science wars. Oddly enough, Rep. Grijalva's overreach helps us to move in that direction.