It was a truly groundbreaking moment in television. Educationally driven science content was once anathema on primetime television, but earlier this year, Seth MacFarlane, Neil deGrasse Tyson and company set out to prove that wrong with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a remake of the classic Carl Sagan-hosted show from 1980.
And if today's Emmy nominations mean anything, the result is a major triumph. Cosmos has received 12 of them.
That's not quite as good as the 19 for Game of Thrones, or 16 for Breaking Bad, but it's a very significant number, and it includes nominations for "Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series," "Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming" (for writers Ann Druyan and Steven Soter), "Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming" (for director Brannon Braga).
In fact, that's actually a tie with HBO's True Detective, which also got 12 nominations.
Recently, I interviewed Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the face of the new show, who remarked on how to interpret its success. "You had entertainment writers putting The Walking Dead in the same sentence as Cosmos," said Tyson. "Game of Thrones in the same sentence of Cosmos. 'How's Cosmos doing against Game of Thrones?' That is an extraordinary fact, no matter what ratings it earned."
The Emmy nominations will certainly give entertainment writers another such opportunity. In fact, it's already happening. And when a science television show is celebrated by the deacons of popular culture, that can only be good news for the place of science in American society. (Note: the Showtime climate change documentary Years of Living Dangerously also received 2 Emmy nominations.)
The Cosmos nominations are for:
Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series
Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Art Direction for Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality Competition Program
Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Main Title Design
Outstanding Musical Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score)
Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music
Outstanding Sound Editing for Nonfiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera)
Outstanding Sound Mixing for Nonfiction Programming and
Outstanding Special and Visual Effects.
The full list of Emmy nominations can be found here.
To listen to our Inquiring Minds podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can stream below:
We've known for some time that as Republicans become more highly educated, or better at general science comprehension, they become stronger in their global warming denial. It's a phenomenon I've called the "smart idiot" effect: Apparently being highly informed or capable interacts with preexisting political biases to make those on the right more likely to be wrong than they would be if they had less education or knowledge.
Now, a new study in the journal Climatic Change has identified a closely related phenomenon. Call it the "rich idiot" effect: The study finds that among Republicans, as levels of income increase, so does their likelihood of "dismissing the dangers associated with climate change." But among Democrats and independents, there is little or no change in climate views as levels of income increase or decrease.
The study, by Jeremiah Bohr of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was based on an analysis of pre-existing data from the 2010 installment of the General Social Survey—a leading source of survey information about the US public. In addition to questions about levels of education, income, and political party affiliation, the survey asked the following: "In general, do you think that a rise in the world's temperature caused by climate change is extremely dangerous for the environment, very dangerous, somewhat dangerous, not very dangerous, or not dangerous at all for the environment?"
Bohr looked specifically at those individuals who chose the "not very dangerous" or "not dangerous at all" options. And he found that at the lowest income level, the probability that a Republican would give one of these dismissive answers was only 17.7 percent. But at the highest income level, it was 51.2 percent. Here's a visualization of the chief finding, showing how the likelihood of a Republican giving one of these answers changes in relation to wealth:
This therefore leads to a surprising conclusion: "At the bottom quintile of income, Republicans are not significantly different from either Independents or Democrats" with respect to their denial of climate risks, the study reports. It's only as income increases that Republicans become so much more likely to be deniers.
So why does this occur? There are several possibilities discussed in the paper.
The first is that income is actually a proxy for something else: Namely, being politically aware. It's possible that being wealthy is related to paying more attention to politics and your political party, and people who do so would be more aware of what those who agree with them on other issues actually think about global warming. (The study controlled for another possible influencing factor, education.)
The other possibility, though, is that climate denial is a defense of economic interests. "Among individuals with conservative political orientations, there is a correlation between occupying advantageous positions within industrial economic systems and an unwillingness to acknowledge the risks associated with climate change," Bohr writes. "Perhaps to validate their economic interests, these individuals are more likely to process information on climate science through political filters that result in denying the risks produced by climate change."
These days, perhaps the most hotly debated issue in climate change circles has little to do with science. Rather, it is over how to communicate that science to a public that still does not get it.
The leading communication strategy at present is built on a now famous 2013 paper—whose main result was tweeted out by no less than President Obama—finding that 97 percent of scientific papers (those that took a stand on the matter, anyway) supported the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. This result is often simplified down to the idea that "97 percent of scientists accept the consensus that humans are causing global warming." Spreading this simple message, say supporters, is a critical way to get people past the wrongheaded idea that climate science is still subject to "debate."
The strategy has its critics, including Yale science communication researcher Dan Kahan, who contends that the approach will backfire among conservative ideologues. A new study just out in the journal Climatic Change, however, suggests not only that the "97 percent consensus" message can be effective, but that it will work best when expressed in the form of a simple phrase or (eat your heart out, USA Today) a pie chart. Like this one, which is an actual image designed to spread the "97 percent" message:
The new paper is the latest collaboration by the George Mason and Yale projects on climate change communication, headed up, respectively, by Ed Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz. They set out to test not only whether the "97 percent consensus" message works, but whether it works best when conveyed in one of three formats: as a simple statement ("97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening"), as a metaphor (for instance, "If 97 percent of doctors concluded that your child is sick, would you believe them? 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening"), or as a pie chart. The actual pie chart used in the study is pictured at right.
The study had 1,104 participants, who were divided up into 11 separate experimental treatments. One group read the simple statement, one group saw the pie chart, eight groups received a variety of different climate communication metaphors, and there was, of course, a control condition. Before and after encountering one of these messages, participants were asked their estimate of the current degree of scientific consensus on climate change.
The upshot was that all of the messages worked, to an extent, to improve people's perception of scientific consensus. However, the simple phrase fared the best—improving the subjects' perceptions of scientific consensus by 17.88 percentage points—and the pie chart came in second (14.38 percentage points). The various metaphor-based messages (using the doctor metaphor above, a similar engineering metaphor, and so on) were all roughly equal in their effectiveness, but none was as good as the simple image or phrase.
Notably, however, the pie chart proved most effective among one group—Republicans—that is notorious for being the most difficult audience to sway on climate change. The effect was pretty impressive, as this figure shows:
The authors do not speculate on why Republicans, and Republicans alone, seem to respond more strongly to pie charts. However, their bottom line conclusion is this: "presenting information in a way that is short, simple and easy to comprehend and remember seems to offer the highest probability of success for all audiences examined."
This study probably won't end the debate over whether telling people that "97 percent of climate scientists" agree on climate change is the best way to save this rock. But it certainly validates something that writers, bloggers, and media outlets have long known: You keep it simple, and you show pretty pictures.
Super Typhoon Neoguri as glimpsed by astronaut Reid Wiseman from the International Space Station
UPDATE, 11:30 AM on July 8: Typhoon Neoguri has weakened, and is no longer a Super Typhoon. But it is still headed straight at Japan, and in particular, at the island of Kyushu, with landfall expected on Thursday. For the latest forecasts from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, see here.
Japanese forecasters are calling it a "once in decades storm." And at Kadena Air Base, a US military installation on the island of Okinawa, one commander dubbed the storm "the most powerful typhoon forecast to hit the island in 15 years."
Super Typhoon Neoguri, currently sporting maximum sustained winds of nearly 150 miles per hour and just shy of Category 5 strength, is heading straight at Japan's islands, and its outer bands are currently battering the island of Okinawa. Here's the forecast map from the Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center. As you can see, the forecast for tomorrow brings the storm up to maximum sustained winds of 140 knots (161 miles per hour), or Category 5 strength (click for larger version):
The Western Pacific basin, home to typhoons (which are elsewhere called tropical cyclones or hurricanes), is known for having the strongest storms on Earth, such as last year's devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan. July is, generally, when the Western Pacific typhoon season really starts getting into gear, but August, September, and October are usually busier months.
Neoguri will weaken by the time it strikes Japan's main islands, but as meteorologist Jeff Masters observes, "the typhoon is so large and powerful that it will likely make landfall with at least Category 2 strength, causing major damage in Japan."
One pressing issue is the safety of Japan's nuclear plants. In the wake of the 2011 tsunami and the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, it's important to consider whether a similar vulnerability arises here.
Fukushima is located north of Tokyo on Japan's largest island, Honshu. By the time the typhoon reaches that point, it is forecast to be considerably weaker. But there are a number of other reactors spread across the islands; perhaps most exposed will be the southwestern island of Kyushu, where the current forecast has the typhoon making its first major landfall.
According to reporting by Reuters, there are two nuclear plants on the island. A company spokeswoman for Kyushu Electric Power Co. told the news agency that it "has plans in place throughout the year to protect the plants from severe weather."
Will that be good enough? According to Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the good news overall is that Japan's nuclear plants are currently shut down, awaiting permission to restart as they institute stronger safety protections, including the construction of higher seawalls. A shut-down plant is still not without risks, because "you still have to provide cooling for the fuel," says Lyman. But overall, he thinks that the newer protections, combined with the fact that the plants have been cooling while shut down, suggests less vulnerability than existed in 2011.
"I would say that they're probably in a better position than they were to withstand massive flooding from a typhoon, and the fact that the reactors have been shut for some time, increases the level of confidence," Lyman says. "But there's still issues, and we'll just have to hope that if there's a massive flooding event at one of the reactors, that the measures they've already put into place will be adequate to cope with them."
Here's a stunning NASA image of Neoguri, snapped yesterday:
It is obvious to anyone who has traveled around the United States that cultural assumptions, behaviors, and norms vary widely. We all know, for instance, that the South is more politically conservative than the Northeast. And we at least vaguely assume that this is rooted in different outlooks on life.
But why do these different outlooks exist, and correspond so closely to different regions? In a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and discussed more here), psychologists Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gelfand of the University of Maryland propose a sweeping theory to explain this phenomenon. Call it the theory of "tightness-looseness": The researchers show, through analysis of anything from numbers of police per capita to the availability of booze, that some US states are far more "tight"—meaning that they "have many strongly enforced rules and little tolerance for deviance." Others, meanwhile, are more "loose," meaning that they "have few strongly enforced rules and greater tolerance for deviance."
The 10 tightest states? Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The 10 loosest, meanwhile, are California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont. (Notice a pattern here?)
The 10 tightest states? Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina. (Notice a pattern here?)
Harrington and Gelfand measure a state's tightness or looseness based on indicators such as the legality of corporal punishment in schools, the general severity of legal sentences, access to alcohol and availability of civil unions, level of religiosity, and the percent of the population that is foreign. But really, that's just the beginning of their analysis. After identifying which states are "tighter" and which are more "loose," the researchers then trace these different outlooks to a range of ecological or historical factors in the states' pasts (and in many cases, lingering into their presents). For as the authors write, tighter societies generally have had to deal with "a greater number of ecological and historical threats, including fewer natural resources, more natural disasters, a greater incidence of territorial threat, higher population density, and greater pathogen prevalence."
That applies nicely to the United States. The "tight" states, it turns out, have higher death rates from heat, storms, floods, and lightning. (Not to mention tornadoes.) They also have higher rates of death from influenza and pneumonia, and higher rates of HIV and a number of other diseases. They have higher child and infant mortality. And then there's external threat: The South, in the Civil War, was defending its own terrain and its own way of life. Indeed, the researchers show a very strong correlation between the percentage of slave-owning families that a state had in the year 1860, and its "tightness" measurement today.
It makes psychological sense, of course, that regions facing more threats would be much more inward-looking and tougher on deviants, because basically, they had to buckle down. They didn't have the luxury of flowery art, creativity, and substance abuse.
Tight states have higher incarcertation and execution rates and "lower circulation of pornographic magazines."
Still not done, Harrington and Gelfand also show that their index of states "tightness" and "looseness" maps nicely on to prior analyses of the differing personalities of people living in different US states. Citizens of "tight" states tend to be more "conscientious," prizing order and structure in their lives. Citizens of "loose" states tend to be more "open," wanting to try new things and have new experiences.
Other major distinguishing factors between "tight" and "loose" states:
Tight states have higher incarceration rates and higher execution rates.
Tight states have "lower circulation of pornographic magazines."
Tight states have "more charges of employment discrimination per capita."
Tight states produce fewer patents per capita, and have far fewer "fine artists" (including "painters, illustrators, writers").
Most striking of all, the authors found "a negative and linear relationship between tightness and happiness" among citizens. Put more simply: People in loose states are happier.
In sum: It's a very interesting theory, and one with quite a scope. Or as the authors put it: "tightness-looseness can account for the divergence of substance abuse and discrimination rates between states such as Hawaii and Ohio, reliably predicts the psychological differences…between Colorado and Alabama, helps to explain the contrasts in creativity and social organization between Vermont and North Dakota, and provides some understanding concerning the dissimilarity in insularity and resistance toward immigration between Arizona and New York."
In these days of extreme political dysfunction, America itself is in increasing need of an explanation. Now, maybe, we have one.