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.
It's the 4th of July, and you love your country. Your likely next step: Fire off some small scale explosives, and drink a lot of beer.
But that last word ought to trouble you a little. Beer? Is that really the best you can do? Isn't it a little, er, uncreative?
Amy Stewart has some better ideas for you. Author of the New York Times bestselling book The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World's Great Drinks, she's a master of the wild diversity of ways in which, since time immemorial, human civilizations (virtually all of them) have created alcoholic drinks from the sugars of their native plants. "We have really good evidence—like analyzing the residue on pottery shards—really good evidence of people making some kind of alcoholic beverage going back at least 10,000 years, and probably much longer than that," says Stewart on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast.
In other words, human beings pretty much always find a way when it comes to getting hammered. Indeed, you could argue that learning how to do so was one of the first human sciences. In a sense, it's closely akin to capturing and using solar energy: Making alcohol, too, hinges upon tapping into the power created by the sun. "It is not much of an exaggeration to claim that the very process that gives us the raw ingredients for brandy and beer is the same one that sustains life on the planet," writes Stewart in The Drunken Botanist.
Amy Stewart. Delightful Eye Photography
Here's how it goes: The sun pours down vast amounts of energy upon the earth and fires the process of photosynthesis in plants. Plants take in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, give off oxygen, and produce sugars.
It is from these sugars that the world's diverse alcohols—ranging from cane alcohols to agave alcohols to tree bark alcohols—spring. But human cultures, spread across the world, had very different plant species to work with, so the resulting alcohols are also very different. "There's all these processing steps you have to take to get at the sugar, but people were highly motivated to do that," Stewart explained on Inquiring Minds.
One of the most interesting processes, originating in ancient Mexico, involved cutting into the stalk of the huge agave plant to get its sap to flow. But then, the agave sap seekers would cover up the puncture, letting sap pile up up, only to release it again—after which they would repeatedly scrape the plant's insides, a process "which irritates the plant so much that sap begins to flow profusely," explains Stewart in her book. One agave plant, Stewart reports, can generate more than 250 gallons of sap.
Once you've got a hearty supply of plant sugar, in the form of agave sap or whatever else, the second vital step of the alcohol process involves yeast. In the process of fermentation, these tiny microorganisms take sugar and break it down into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. For yeast, the alcohol is a waste product. For us, apparently, it's a necessity. In the case of agave sap, the tradition is to let it ferment not only in yeast but a special kind of bacteria that lives on the agave plant. The result is pulque, a whitish, sour and low alcohol liquor sometimes compared to yogurt. (Using different processes, and different species of agave plant, gives you tequila and mezcal.)
But that's just one of the myriad ways in which humans make alcohol. Forget your grapes-to-wine and your grains-to-beer pathways—they're so unoriginal. "When you look at what the whole world drinks, you get a very different picture," observes Stewart. "Around the world, sorghum is probably the plant used to make alcohol more than any other." It is used to make anything from home-made beer in Africa to a high proof liquor called maotai in China.
So what are the implications for your July 4 libations? Stewart encourages making patriotic choices—but, the right patriotic choices.
First, here's a drink that's probably a lot less patriotic than you think: Some spruce beer claiming to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin. The history of liquors, writes Stewart, is "riddled with legends, distortions, half-truths, and outright lies," and one of them involves Franklin. I'm always highly suspicious of any story that involves a Founding Father," says Stewart. "You always want to look at that stuff with some scrutiny."
The claim is that Franklin invented spruce beer, a very old drink that, Stewart explains, explorers actually used to fight scurvy because spruce trees contain ascorbic acid. When Franklin died, a recipe for spruce beer was found in his papers. But it turns out Franklin had merely copied the recipe from a book called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in 1747 by an Englishwoman named Hannah Glasse.
Franklin "never intended to take credit for her recipe," says Stewart. "But nonetheless, you will see these microbreweries all over that do Founding Father beers, and they'll have this Benjamin Franklin spruce beer. And I'm sure that they are never going to go back to put Hannah Glasse's face on that bottle."
So what's a more authentic patriotic drink? Stewart gave us a recommendation, and a recipe.
"Two of the things that we drank a lot of in our early days were hard cider, apple cider, and corn whiskey, like bourbon," says Stewart. "Those are very American drinks, and very much part of what the Founding Fathers were drinking. So, the two of them together actually make a drink called a stone fence."
Here's the recipe, as explained by Stewart on the podcast:
A "stone fence," prepared at the Inquiring Minds podcast mixology laboratory.
All you do is take hard cider, which is the lightly alcoholic, fizzy kind of cider, and pour it in a glass with some ice, and add a little splash of bourbon, like an ounce, ounce and a half at the most. And give it a good stir. And that's the drink.
Now, people really experiment with this drink. Sometimes they'll do something a little bit like a mint julep, where they'll add some mint, and some simple syrup, and maybe a little squeeze of lime juice to it. Sometimes people will add a little bit of fruit syrup, like cassis, or I don't know, blackberry liqueur, or something like that, to make it a little bit of a fruitier, kind of red drink.
So it's a nice template to explore. You've basically got something kind of fizzy and dry, and you've got the bourbon as a base alcohol. And then you can sort of add to that. But the nice thing is, it's reasonably light. You can really dial back the bourbon, and have something that you can drink during the day when it's hot.
So enjoy yourself (safely) this July 4—and when you have a drink, remember that alcohol production is a global scientific endeavor, based on an understanding of botany and also of the world's diverse cultures.
"Knowing a little bit about what the plants are, and where they come from, and how they got turned into alcohol, you actually can make a better drink if you know some of that stuff," says Stewart.
To listen to the full Inquiring Minds interview with Amy Stewart, you can stream below:
This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a conversation with Mother Jones reporter Molly Redden about how the Supreme Court flubbed reproductive health science in the Hobby Lobby case, and of Facebook's troubling recent study that involved trying to alter users' emotional states.
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that most private companies can decline to cover their employees' contraception for religious reasons. This verdict is wildly controversial as a piece of legal reasoning—but its scientific logic is wanting, as well. The contraceptive drugs and devices at issue in the case, after all, do not cause abortion, as Hobby Lobby Stores, the company at the center of the case, claimed. So Hobby Lobby didn't just have religious objections to those drugs; it had false religious objections.
Yet amazingly—and as we'll explain further below—Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court's conservative 5-4 majority, seems not to have cared whether the entire basis for Hobby Lobby's beliefs was true. And that's not the only example of the high court, or at least one of its justices, offending against science and scientific thinking in a legal opinion. Let's review some other recent examples:
1. When the court decided that companies can't patent genes: In June of 2013, the Supreme Court issued one of its most scientifically derided opinions, in the case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. At issue was whether a company can patent a gene. And the court ruled overwhelmingly that Myriad Genetics, which had patented the well known BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (mutations of which are tied to breast and ovarian cancer), couldn't keep those patents. After all, these genes occur in nature, and Myriad merely discovered their sequence and isolated them. Only a "synthetic" form of DNA, which a company has created, can be patented, according to the court.
"I cannot pretend to know who they got to do their biology background research, but any genetics graduate student could have done far better."
That might appear to make sense (not that you should trust appearances in this area), but the court's decision—written by Justice Clarence Thomas, but joined by seven other justices—made a number of scientific errors. Steven Salzberg, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, found "no less than three errors of fact" in the first paragraph of the decision. Without nerding out too much, suffice it to say that the court appears to have misunderstood the following key genetic terms: "exon," "intron," and "cDNA." "I cannot pretend to know who they got to do their biology background research," writes Salzberg, "but any genetics graduate student could have done far better." For his explanation of how the court erred, see here. (Note: It is not clear these mistakes were material to the decision, and the official ruling on the court's website no longer contains the "cDNA" error identified by Salzberg.)
And then there was Justice Scalia. He did not simply join the majority; he wrote an opinion "concurring in part and concurring in the judgment," noting the following:
I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.
We'll leave it up to you to decide what's worse: a court that gets the facts of genetics wrong, or a justice who throws up his hands and says he isn't even going to try to understand them?
2. When Scalia said facts don't matter because judges are inherently biased: But this wasn't Scalia's worst scientific moment. That may have come in 2011's ruling in Brown v. Plata, a lawsuit over California's overcrowded prisons, in which the court narrowly affirmed a lower court ruling that the state must to reduce its prison population, so as not to violate the rights of prisoners. One major issue under consideration in the case involved whether releasing a large number of "low-risk offenders," so as to alleviate cramped conditions, would lead to a public safety risk to the public.
Based on "relevant and informed expert testimony" from criminologists and prison leaders, who provided "empirical evidence" and possessed "extensive experience in the field of prison administration," the Supreme Court majority found "substantial evidence" that "prison populations can be reduced in a manner that does not increase crime to a significant degree."
"I am saying that it is impossible for judges to make 'factual findings' without inserting their own policy judgments, when the factual findings are policy judgments," Scalia wrote.
Scalia's dissent was, basically, postmodern. He more or less directly stated that judges can't consider facts objectively in many situations. Damn the evidence—the lower-court judges were just finding the facts that they wanted to hear:
…the idea that the three District Judges in this case relied solely on the credibility of the testifying expert witnesses is fanciful. Of course they were relying largely on their own beliefs about penology and recidivism. And of course different district judges, of different policy views, would have "found" that rehabilitation would not work and that releasing prisoners would increase the crime rate. I am not saying that the District Judges rendered their factual findings in bad faith. I am saying that it is impossible for judges to make "factual findings" without inserting their own policy judgments, when the factual findings are policy judgments.
In a paper in the Harvard Law Review dissecting the case, Yale law professor Dan Kahan eviscerated Scalia's dissenting opinion (which was joined by Justice Thomas), calling it "a species of cynicism toxic to reasoned self-government."
3. When the court shrugged over whether preventing a pregnancy is the same thing as getting an abortion: And then there's Hobby Lobby, a lawsuit partly based on a faulty scientific premise. In the case, Hobby Lobby objected to paying for four types of emergency contraceptives: Ella and Plan B, which are pills, and two types of intrauterine devices. Women may use any of these four devices after intercourse to prevent pregnancy. In its brief to the court, the company argued that these drugs and devices "may prevent an embryo from implanting in the womb," which the company's owners consider abortion.
But this is scientifically unfounded, for two reasons. First, medical science defines an abortion as the termination of a pregnancy, and a only pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants in a woman's uterine lining. A fertilized egg by itself—which usually takes 5 to 9 days to reach the uterine lining—is not a pregnancy. So preventing implantation is not an abortion. Second, Ella, Plan B, and the two IUDs don't even do what Hobby Lobby says they do. While it was once believed that these drugs and devices prevented implantation, research conducted in the last decade has failed to turn up any supporting evidence. Emergency contraception, the new consensus goes, can only make it harder for sperm to fertilize an egg or delay ovulation—it can't prevent pregnancy once an eggs has been fertilized.
Still, the craft supply chain and its supporters are fond of saying that the FDA's Birth Control Guide says the contraceptives question may prevent implantation. But for reasons explained by the Daily Beast, it's very difficult for the FDA to update its labeling. The label for Plan B, for example, hasn't been updated since 1999.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists presented all this to the court in an amicus brief. But the court's five conservatives didn't seem to care. In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the four contraceptive methods objected to by Hobby Lobby "may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus"—entertaining Hobby Lobby's crank theories about reproductive health. In a footnote, Alito explains, "The owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation…do not so classify them." It's a disturbing show of agnosticism about reality—and whether it actually matters.
4. When the court downplayed race-based voting discrimination: In 2013's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court's conservative majority hobbled the 1965 Voting Rights Act by striking the formula used to determine which states are "covered" to be unconstitutional. The court reasoned that, compared with the 1960s, racial discrimination has declined in the states required to get federal permission before changing any voting laws or practices. These are mostly Southern states.
However, in an amicus brief to the court, a group of law professors and political scientists clearly demonstrated that conditions of discrimination persist in these states. They presented a wealth of evidence, including survey data on racial attitudes as well as the actual presence of impediments to voting in these states. For instance, the top seven states in which whites showed anti-immigrant prejudices in a 2010 study—Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alaska, and Arizona—were all states covered by the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court effectively dismantled. A 2000 survey found that 37 percent of whites in covered states agreed with the statement, "Blacks have too much influence in American politics today," compared with just 21 percent of whites in other states. And in these covered states, the prevalence of practices such as requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship to vote was also considerably higher.
"The Shelby CountyCourt failed to acknowledge the substantial empirical evidence of systematic racial disparity that continues to this day in locations originally targeted by the 1965 Voting Rights Act," wrote two of the scholars in the Duke Journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy.
To be fair, the court in its past has had much worse scientific moments than any of these. The most scandalous? 1927's Buck v. Bell, in which the high court basically endorsed eugenics. In the case, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia state law "providing for the sexual sterilization of inmates of institutions supported by the State who shall be found to be afflicted with an hereditary form of insanity or imbecility." Delivering the court's opinion, the famed justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
We've come a long way since the days in which an intelligent person could actually write such a thing. But this example—showing just how much even our greatest justices have erred in the past on scientific matters—underscores how important it is for today's Supreme Court to get not just the law right, but also the facts.