Fighting Back Against Climate Disinformation and Intimidation, with John Cook and Lauren Kurtz

This episode of Warm Regards, part of our season-long exploration of the often unexpected stories behind climate data, builds on our last episode’s conversation with Amy Westervelt and Emily Atkin on climate disinformation. We speak with John Cook, from Skeptical Science and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, and Lauren Kurtz, the Executive Director for the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, about the different ways that those who care about climate science and climate action can fight back against myths, disinformation, and intimidation.

Show Notes

You can find out more about John Cook’s work at Skeptical Science, Cranky Uncle, and the Center for Climate Change Communication.

You can also visit Skeptical Science for more on the FLICC method and to download your own copy of the Climate Debunking Handbook.

To learn more about the work of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, visit their website.

For more on Dr. Maria Caffrey and her censorship fight with the National Park Service, see this Guardian article. And to learn more about “ClimateGate,” see this article from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Finally, how do we know it’s not the sun causing global warming? This NASA article details the specific evidence that shows the sun alone can’t be responsible.

Remember: It’s Happening, It’s Us, It’s Serious, Experts Agree, and There’s Hope.

Please consider becoming a patron to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.

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The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Ramesh Laungani
In September of last year I was asked to give a Science Cafe talk about climate change at a local bar here in Lincoln. I like doing science communication in these types of informal settings, I can bring a different part of myself as a scientist to the talk and I can try things that I can’t necessarily do in the classroom. It’s also nice to sip on a beer while talking science. The organizers asked me to give a broad overview of what we know about climate change. Immediately my scientist brain went to work thinking about the types of data I would show in the talk. But then I stopped, took a breath, and asked myself, how am I going to make this information meaningful to the audience who is going to come to the bar, most of whom are likely not scientists. I decided to use a simple framework, climate change in 10 words. It’s Happening, It’s Us, It’s Serious, Experts Agree, and There’s Hope. Now, I wish I could take credit for this brilliantly simple messaging, but I must give credit to Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Once I had this in mind it was easier to organize what data and science I would share with the audience.

There were about 50 people scattered throughout the bar, some were there for the talk, and some were there just grabbing a drink. The talk went great, there were a lot of deep affirmative nods, the type that I see in my classroom when my students are really understanding a topic. It always feels good to see that whether its in the classroom or in a bar. After unpacking the science inside each of those 10 words, at the end of the talk I opened it up for some questions. One of the audience members raised their hand, and I chuckled to say, “We’re not in class, we’re at a bar”. The audience member chuckled back and said “I heard the models don’t take the sun into account, isn’t that a problem?” I had come prepared for this type of question, because this is one of the most persistent climate change myths out there, it’s one that has been debunked over and over again, but somehow remains lodged in the public consciousness.

When I find myself frustrated about why these ideas persist, I try to remember that these ideas are part of a much larger campaign of disinformation and even outright intimidation by the fossil fuel industry. As we learned in our last episode, one of the reasons there hasn’t been substantial action on climate change is not because we don’t have enough data, it’s because of well-funded PR campaigns to make sure that nothing is done about it. And if we don’t push back against these concerted efforts, then our silence allows the fossil fuel industry to continue dominating the conversation.

I’m Ramesh Laungani and on this episode of Warm Regards, we’re sharing two conversations about how we can fight back.

First, I talk to Dr. John Cook about how to effectively debunk persistent myths about climate change. In the second part of this episode, Jacquelyn and I have a conversation with Lauren Kurtz, Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, about how climate scientists can better understand their rights as well as defend against frivolous lawsuits that are brought against them.

Our first guest, Dr. John Cook is a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, researching cognitive science. I use resources from John’s work in my classes all the time. John has been working on debunking the myths around climate change for a long time and I knew he’d be the perfect person for discussing this aspect of climate disinformation and how to combat it.

John Cook
I think that the most effective way to debunk myths is explaining the techniques used to mislead, taking an almost logic- or rhetoric-based way of exposing the different denalist techniques or different fallacies used to mislead people.

Ramesh
Has there been one particular way or rhetorical framework that has been really effective at myth debunking?

John
What I’ve been working from is some work that was originally done by Mark Hoofnagle. He works in the field of medicine, but he writes a blog about science denial and he summarized a number of years ago, I think back in 2009, the five most common techniques found in science denial. Whether it’s misinformation about climate change or tobacco or vaccination. Since he originally published that, I’ve been working with that and I summarize it with the acronym “FLICC,” F-L-I-C-C, and those techniques are Fake Experts, Logical Fallacies, Impossible Expectations, Cherry Picking, and Conspiracy Theories. That framework has been really helpful and practical and easy to remember, which is important to you when you’re trying to communicate best practices.

Ramesh
In your experience is pointing out a logical fallacy, for example, more impactful on debunking myths, than, let’s say, highlighting that somebody might be a fake expert? So do you think explaining the techniques of denial are more effective than debunking one myth at a time?

John
Okay, well you could explain the science and all the facts to do with each myth, but that only works with that one particular myth. But if you explain the techniques of denial, that can work across a whole range of different myths because it’s the same technique you’ve seen over and over and over again. In the misinformation research community, they call this the “umbrella of protection.” By explaining the techniques of denial, you can convey protection against misinformation across multiple myths.

Ramesh
So you mentioned protection against misinformation and I know that you work on something called “inoculation theory.” What is inoculation theory and how does it work?

John
Inoculation theory basically takes the idea of vaccination and applies it to knowledge. You can help people build up resistance against misinformation by exposing them to a weak form of misinformation. And what I mean by a weak form of misinformation is by saying, well, here is this myth and here is the technique that it uses. So you’re delivering it in a weakened form. And once they understand that technique, then they are less vulnerable to being misled by that technique.

Ramesh
You’ve written about how debunking might actually reinforce the myth if not done properly. Could you give examples of how you’ve used the FLICC method to effectively debunk a myth so that our audience can visualize it?

John
Well, I mean, when you debunk myths, you kind of have to mention the myth anyway. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you do it right, because you need to activate the myth in people’s minds in order for them to flag it as false. The only problem is when you put too much emphasis on the myth, when you lead with the myth, when your headline is the myth, which fact-checkers do a lot, that can often be the only thing that people remember afterwards. And so that’s where you run into the danger of reinforcing the myth. But to answer your question, the example I used in my PhD was debunking the technique of fake experts. And the specific myth that I used was the Global Warming Petition Project. This is a petition, a website that lists 31,000 science graduates who have signed a statement saying that humans aren’t disrupting climate. And the basic argument of this website is there’s no scientific consensus on climate change because look, we’ve got 31,000 science graduates who are dissenting against human caused global warming. But when you look at those 31,000 signatories, 99.9% of them don’t have expertise in climate science. Because it’s any science graduate, you have graduates in computer science or veterinary science or medical science or engineering, but less than 0.1% of them have expertise in climate research. The funny thing is this Global Warming Petition Project, this 31,000 science graduates has actually been found to be one of the most potent forms of climate misinformation. Some colleagues of mine have tested different types of climate myths and they found that , the 31,000 petition project, was the most effective in reducing, acceptance of climate change. So the fake expert strategy is quite potent and effective. But if you explain to people, Hey, here is this technique fake experts, which is used to cast doubt on a scientific consensus, then it no longer has an influence. And what I found in my research is that it no longer has an influence across the political spectrum, whether people are politically conservative or liberal. Nobody wants to be deceived and misled. And so explaining the techniques used to deceive them, neutralizes those techniques.

Ramesh
So what’s been the most interesting piece of data that you’ve collected about debunking myths? Has there been a technique that you’ve experimented with that has worked in unexpected ways to debunk misinformation?

John
When we finished training our machine to categorize different types of climate misinformation, the first thing we did was we fed 20 years of climate misinformation into the machine, hundreds of millions of words and had it build a history of climate denial. And, the first thing that jumped out was, it took us all quite by surprise, was that the most common form of climate misinformation over the last 20 years has been attacks on climate scientists. So I had this perception as someone who debunks myths about climate science, myths about the greenhouse effect, myths about the carbon cycle, about causation, about trends, about the data. I thought that those would be the most common myths, but what they’re actually doing is attacking scientists, trying to discredit them, trying to reduce their credibility in the public’s eyes. And it’s not only surprising, it’s kind of disturbing because a lot of our efforts in countering misinformation are focused on the science arguments and the data arguments. When actually what’s really happening in the world is they’re attacking the scientists themselves and trying to reduce the credibility of scientists and climate science itself.

Ramesh
What are some tools that scientists, who might be new to myth debunking, can use to start debunking myths that they hear in their community or in their classroom?

John
So it might be asking a bit too much to do what I did and do a PhD in psychology. So if you want something a little easier than that, I would suggest, starting with the Debunking Handbook. I think it’s a ten-page little handbook that I wrote with Stephan Lewandowsky who’s a cognitive scientist and he’s a world leading expert on the psychology of misinformation. I actually began as it’s someone with a physical science background, debunking myths, not knowing that the science of science communication even existed. I didn’t know that there was psychological research into debunking. And Stephan Lewandowsky originally approached me and said, here is some research showing the wrong ways of debunking myths and diplomatically, communicating to me that I was doing it all in the wrong way on my own website, Skeptical Science. And so that, to me, that ended up being a life changing moment, realizing that there was this research into how to communicate science. And once I started diving into the research myself, I asked Steve, is there a concise guide? Has anyone encapsulated all this research into something digestible, short, and accessible and there wasn’t. So we wrote the debunking handbook. We just boiled down the research to the bare minimum, what someone would need to know if they wanted to debunk misinformation.

[music]

Ramesh
You’ve given us some great information about how to identify and debunk myths, so what research are you currently working on?

John
So I’m working at the Center for Climate Change Communication, so my research is focused on communication and, and more specifically if inoculation is the answer, what are the most practical, effective ways to inoculate? I’ve been testing lots of different approaches, and, and just measuring in experiments what happens when you do these different approaches and why are they effective. Like we have one study and we tested two different approaches. One of them was basically explaining the technique of denial, a very logic based approach where we deconstructed the myth and identified the exact fallacy in the myth. So it was quite a critical thinking, infographic type of approach. The other approach we took was, quite out of left field, working with some philosophers, they explained to me, some critical thinking philosophers, that one really powerful way to explain logical flaws is parallel arguments. Take the flawed logic of a myth and transplant it into a parallel situation, usually an absurd extreme situation and that demonstrates just how silly that logic is.

So for example, arguing it’s cold, therefore, global warming isn’t happening is like arguing I just had a big meal and I’m full, therefore, global hunger doesn’t exist. It’s the same logic, but by transplanting that logic into an absurd situation, it makes it obvious just how silly that logic is. And, the, the thing is, before I went into the field of science, for a decade, I was a cartoonist as a living. And I realized that cartoons were actually a perfect delivery mechanism for parallel arguments and inoculating messages. And so what we did in this experiment was we tested this critical thinking, logic, deconstruction approach. And we tried a cartoon parallel argument approach that used an absurd parallel situation in cartoon form. And what we found was both approaches worked in debunking the misinformation. But we were eye tracking the participants as they were looking at the debunkings in the misinformation. And what we found through the eye tracking was that both of these approaches worked in different ways. We found that the cartoon worked through grabbing people’s attention more and they were looking at the cartoon more, and by doing that, it reduced the credibility of the misinformation. But the logic approach was perceived to have higher credibility than the cartoon. And this reduced the credibility of the misinformation as well. So attention or credibility are two different pathways to reducing the credibility of misinformation or debunking misinformation.

Ramesh
That’s really cool that cartoons can be such powerful tools for debunking myths. So are you extending these ideas beyond the academic research to engage the public more broadly using cartoons?

John
So what I’ve been working on for the last two years has been taking this humorous approach, this idea of parallel arguments in cartoon form and I’ve just been building up a library and, basically a clip art library of cartoons that debunk all the most common myths about climate change and collected into a book. So on the front of it, it’s just brightly colored cartoons, hopefully it’s entertaining and funny and engaging. But underneath it, there’s this decade of psychological research and critical thinking work that’s gone into the design of the cartoons as well. So, hopefully it will work on multiple levels. And the book’s called Cranky Uncle Versus Climate Change. It uses an archetype climate dismissive character, “Cranky Uncle,” because everyone I’ve spoken to about these issues seem to have an uncle in their family who is dismissive about climate science.

Ramesh
Yeah, I have one of those in my family. No matter what I tell him about the science and the data he just doesn’t budge and he just brings up another myth

John
Well there you go.

John
So the next thing I’ve been working on after finishing the book was taking all that content, all these cartoons, all this humor, and critical thinking work, converting it into game form. I’ve been reading a lot of literature into gamification and the power of games to educate and promote positive behavior and to educate. So it turns out that gamification can help solve one of the biggest problems with misinformation and science denial. And that problem is how our brains are hardwired.

Almost all of the thinking that we do as human beings is fast thinking. It’s automatic, it’s instinctive, it’s instantaneous. But the problem is in order to identify misinformation, to assess arguments, to try to detect whether we’re being misled or not, it requires a much more effortful form of slow thinking or what psychologists call “system two” thinking. And it’s just really hard to do. And so in an ideal world, we could get the whole population training themselves, doing critical thinking courses, engaging in “system two” thinking and, and that is what I’m developing curriculum to do that very thing. But realistically, how do we inoculate people against all the fake news and misinformation that they’re being bombarded with constantly? How do we get them to detect efforts to mislead them? And it turns out that there’s actually three ways of thinking. There’s the fast thinking, the “system one” thinking there’s the slow, effortful “system two” thinking, but there’s also expert thinking. think about a firefighter or a doctor who can look at a situation, instantly assess it and come to an expert conclusion, that’s more often than not accurate because of their expertise. The way they got that expertise is through practice. So by practicing a task over and over and over again, you basically turn a slow thinking system two task into a fast thinking, instantaneous system one task. And that’s what gamification allows you to do: practice tasks over and over again, until it becomes automatic and instantaneous.

So the way we’ve designed this game, which is a smartphone game, is you’re shown different examples of misinformation and you have to identify what is the fallacy in that misinformation. One way that I’ve tried to make this game more engaging and entertaining is using cartoon examples of misinformation. So taking all those parallel arguments, draw them, and put them in the game as funny cartoons. So that encourages and incentivizes players to keep going through practicing, identifying the myths and the fallacies. And over time they learn the patterns of different fallacies so that they can detect them instantly when they encounter them in the real world. And we’ve tested this in classrooms. We’ve had students play the game for just 30 minutes. And after playing this game about climate misinformation for 30 minutes, we then tested their ability to detect those fallacies in other forms of misinformation, whether it’s vaccination or creationism or just general false arguments. And 30 minutes of game players enough to inoculate them against fallacies in all types of misinformation.

Ramesh
I think this is a great place to wrap up, John. Do you have any last things you’d want people to know about your work or advice that you have for scientists trying to address climate myths and debunking?

John
I guess, if I could, I’d like to point people to some places where they could get more information if they’re interested in this topic. If they want to find out more about this game and this book that uses humor to debunk misinformation, they can go to CrankyUncle.com. And you can sign up to get more updates about this research as it comes out. And if they’re interested in the principles of debunking and the psychological research, just Google the Debunking Handbook, and that’s a great entry point to this whole field.

Ramesh
Thank you again John for being on Warm Regards.

John
Thanks so much for having me and good luck with your own cranky uncle as well.

Ramesh
All of the resources I discussed with John are available in the show notes, including links to the debunking guide, Cranky Uncle, and other great tools to debunk myths.

Justin Schell
Hey everyone, this is Justin Schell, the producer for Warm Regards. As we explore the often unexpected stories behind climate data this season, we’re also sharing data stories from you, our listeners. This episode, we’re featuring a story from Dr. Jane Willenbring, about an experience she had that not only highlights the effects of disfinformation but also why it’s so important that we fight back against it.

Jane Willenbring
I’m Jane Willenbring, I’m an associate professor of geological sciences at Stanford University.

Part of my job is to teach, uh, introductory geology classes. And as part of those, I always make sure that I include some aspects of climate change and how humans are the primary cause of that climate change. And I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and I got a lot of students from all over campus and I had just finished discussing the anthropogenic drivers of climate change. And I remember the discussion session opened up. And one of the students who has a business major from the Wharton School asked, well, you know, I can see how climate change would be bad for poor people, but I’m not really sure why I, I should care about it. And my heart just sank. I think I muttered something about how, you know, in the moment I couldn’t really come up with something, but how much she would probably rely on poor people, but it just made me think about how far we have to come and how we, um, don’t really have the social science tools to, you know, convey how important everybody is on earth, even if they’re in a different socioeconomic group.

Schell
Inspired by Dr. Willenbring’s data story and want to share yours with us? We’d love to hear it. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com.

Jacquelyn Gill
Jacquelyn Gill here. We’re going to shift gears now, and talk about the legal system. As we learned in a previous episode, the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to spread disinformation about climate science goes way back, and they’ve been really effective at delaying climate action, especially when it comes to environmental regulations. A lot of those tactics have focused on singing the praises of petroleum products, convincing us that we just can’t survive without plastics. Or they’ll greenwash fossil fuels like “natural gas” and “clean” coal, to convince us that we can carry on, business as usual. But sometimes, these efforts involve actual attacks on climate scientists themselves. These efforts have two main goals: first, by undermining climate scientists, you can introduce a false sense of uncertainty about the realities of climate change, and maybe even make people think climate change is a partisan issue, not a scientific one. Secondly, by harassing the most out-spoken climate advocates, you can create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation. Maybe, scientists will think twice about speaking out, for fear of being targeted by spurious lawsuits or other attacks. Because think about it: as much fun as a good courtroom procedural can be to watch on TV, most of us would prefer not to be the one on the stand being cross-examined. Lawsuits are costly, they’re time-consuming, and they’re scary. They’re intended to be.

Thankfully, there are resources out there to support scientists who find themselves targeted by this kind of harassment over their research. We sat down with Lauren Kurtz, Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Yes, that is something that actually exists. The Fund was started back in 2011, in part to help defray the costs of an ideologically motivated lawsuit against the University of Virginia and climate scientist Michael Mann, You may have heard of him — he’s the lead author of the famous hockey stick curve paper. The Fund has since grown into a permanent organization. And they offer a range of free legal and educational services to the climate science community, including legal aid clinics at scientific conferences and continuing education courses for attorneys. And, of course, they still provide pro bono legal assistance to scientists who are threatened, harassed, or attacked due to their findings.

Lauren, thank you so much for joining us on Warm Regards. To start us off, how did you end up doing this kind of work?

Lauren Kurtz
I knew I always wanted to get into environmental law, particularly after I spent a summer as a conservation biology researcher. And it was really an amazing experience, but it actually did drive home that you have to be a particular kind of person to enjoy science. And I realized that I was not quite that person, but I very much wanted to be a part of bringing science into the forefront and living in a more science and evidence based world. So I went to law school out of college to study environmental law. But It’s a bit of a tricky field to break into it. So I actually spent a number of years doing securities litigation, especially, in the post-Madoff, post financial crisis world dealing with that, which was fascinating and definitely learned a lot, but it really drove home that I extremely did not want to be doing that for a career. So, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was formed a few years before I started and it came to my attention because the two volunteers who had been running it, we’re looking for someone to helm it full time. And that was a big shift from what I was doing. I was working at a thousand attorney law firm. And so running something by myself that had been started by two volunteers was definitely a big shift. But I thought it was such an amazing mission and such an important issue that I jumped into it. And we’re still a relatively small group. There’s about five of us depending on how you count part time roles. But you know, we work on a pretty niche, but I would say important issue and it’s unfortunately one that continues to grow.

Ramesh
So why would a climate scientist need to call the climate science legal defense fund?

Lauren
Well, there’s two reasons. One, we do help people who just want to understand their rights and are looking to get more proactive, especially these days as scientists become more politically engaged, which I personally think is a great thing. So if a scientist wants to understand better about what are their rights or what they could be doing if they wanted to get more involved in say activism or advocacy, we are very, very, very happy to talk about that. You know, we do like to help people on the proactive side of things and I’m not sure that everyone knows that they are free to reach out to us even if they don’t have an active burning issue. But we would very much love to be involved in preventative work or helping scientists feel more empowered to take action.

And then secondly, I think is the more typical way that people think to call us, which is that you have been on the receiving end of a subpoena or an open records request or an email from someone who said that you defamed them and they’re thinking about pressing a lawsuit. And then we obviously are very happy to help navigate that and help scientists respond or find external lawyers or perhaps, you know, look into it and say this, this person doesn’t have a case, it would be very surprising if they actually did file a defamation lawsuit. It’s a whole range. But we are definitely there on the more traditional defense side as well. There are a whole range of other things that we don’t do in quite the same level of frequency, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen. Like helping people respond to death, death threats. Helping people respond to contract disputes, helping people deal with political issues at their university. They may be researching something that their university finds unpalatable, especially people who are in states for which something like climate research is a little bit more contentious than it might be in another state. The overarching theme is, you know, is this person doing legitimate research and are they being targeted because of it?

Jacquelyn
So you’re talking about things that could be pretty scary for someone like me. I’m imagining checking my mailbox at work and finding some envelope full of official legal-sounding documents. And even though I’ve watched multiple seasons of Suits or The Good Wife I am somehow not trained for this. So thinking about how I would feel, you must deal with people who are feeling really panicked.

Lauren
Yeah. Sometimes. And I think that’s unfortunately one of the ways in which, you know, people who wish to intimidate scientists had been successful. Because your average scientist is not in the ins and outs of the legal field,for good reason. And when they get some sort of official signing paperwork, threatening a potential lawsuit that can really stop you cold. And there’s a good chance that that has been done just to intimidate. Sometimes lawsuits are still filed with the intent of continuing the intimidation. Sometimes it’s just a ploy, but we obviously want to look at it seriously and help the scientist to strategize in how to respond.

Ramesh
So let’s say a climate scientist gets threatened with one of these lawsuits. Hw do they know when it’s a serious enough threat to call the legal defense fund?

Lauren
I think it is helpful for scientists in general to have a basic understanding of the landscape in which they operate. So, for example, if you are at a public university, one of the most common things that scientists face, and this is in all disciplines, not just climate, are open records requests, which is a way in which people can use state transparency laws to get more information about what you’re researching and what you’re doing, possibly get into your emails. The laws themselves unfortunately have not always been very well written. And so they have been used at times to target researchers and asked for, I mean truly every single email they’ve ever written and received with the very express purpose of trying to cherry pick information. That’s obviously a somewhat extreme case. but if you are someone who is, say at a public university, it is very helpful to at least understand what the possibilities are. Then you’ll be less blindsided and perhaps you can take certain precautions like using your email in a different way or, or being a little bit more sensitive to the possibility that at one point you may have to turn over copious amounts of records to anyone who asks.

Jacquelyn
I’m a faculty member at a public university, and I teach about and research climate change. I’m also pretty outspoken on the internet, and I’m sure there are people who would love to dig through my emails for some kind of gotcha moment. I mean, that’s exactly what happened with ClimateGate, which is this famous incident where emails were taken out of context and misrepresented. And to this day, when I’m engaging with people online or elsewhere, I still see that come up in conversations with non-scientists. I just find this whole idea so frustrating because so much of what climate scientists do is incredibly transparent — we’re often at public institutions or federal agencies, where there’s mandates about making what we do open and transparent as much as possible, most of us are publicly funded, a lot of our salaries are public, etc. And I feel like people are taking advantage of that transparency in order to spread disinformation and doubt. So I’d love to hear more about how your work at the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund fits in with this sort of broader disinformation landscape.

Lauren
A lot of what scientists are on the receiving end of is because of disinformation. So I think it happens in two ways. One is exactly what you’re talking about, attempts to hold scientists to this quote unquote transparency standard, which is not really about true transparency. It’s about putting them in a fish bowl and trying to glean something tiny, you know, years ago that can be used to blow completely out of proportion. You know, some phrase in an email that came off as a little clunky and may not have the same meaning to a lay person than it does to a researcher that can be used to take out of context. That sort of ClimateGate-esque thing that you mentioned. The second is I’ve noticed an increasing trend and in the last couple of years, especially of scientists who do get more involved in speaking out, there’s an attempt to, I guess I would call it to stay in their lanes. So researchers who do things like get involved in speaking about the importance of tackling climate change, get targeted because there are groups and individuals who would much rather that they did not say that. And it’s an attempt by them to silence researchers into not speaking out. And I think that also contributes to disinformation.

Ramesh
As a lawyer defending climate scientists, how deep do you typically have to dive into the data on climate change? I mean, how ‘ data literate do you need to be to take on a case? And Is the climate data ever central to the case?

Lauren
There’s been some commentary about defending data at court and that absolutely does happen and I think that is an important part of, for example, attribution litigation or mitigation litigation, the sorts of actions that people are taking against fossil fuel companies or taking against municipalities for not properly preparing for climate change. Data is definitely an important aspect of those sorts of cases. But where scientists find themselves under fire, it’s not usually because someone quibbles with how they’ve done their data. That is a dispute that obviously happens, but it’s not the sort of thing that people are dragging scientists to court over. These sorts of lawsuits, they’re not asking about data actually. They’re not asking about the source of information that a person would need to replicate or evaluate results. They’re looking for things like emails and they’re looking for terminology that they can use to take out of context or they’re claiming that there was defamation, made by, you know, a certain critique. We helped a researcher a few years ago who was threatened with a defamation lawsuit because he criticized someone who denied that sea level rise was happening. And that’s not, that’s not defamation, but you certainly can threaten a defamation lawsuit. And that was what was attempted.

Jacquelyn
Ok, wow. That’s, really surprising because in my mind, as a scientist, I always imagined it would be something along the lines of “we want to see your spreadsheets.” Like, we want to look for any little error or mistake or we’re going to quibble with the way that you collected these data. So oftentimes in the social media disinformation landscape, you see people focusing on the data, like “but they don’t take urban heat islands into account,” or or they’ll throw these little graphs up without axis labels and try to argue that climate change is really sunspots or something like that. So in other words, there are these attacks on the basic science of climate change itself. So it’s really interesting to hear that in the legal landscape they’re playing a very kind of a different game.

Lauren
By and large, the groups that are trying to hold scientists to this, you know, quote unquote transparency standard, which like I said, is not actual transparency. They’re not looking for things that would yield actual meaningful transparency. They’re looking for emails and, and, other things to intimidate, you know, personal, a personal correspondence that might involve, you know, jokes or are they things that could be taken out of context to discredit or make a scientist look bad. Those sorts of things. That’s more of what we see unfortunately.

Ramesh
So as scientists we are rigorous in our data collection and we’re ready to defend our data to other scientists, right? I mean that’s the process of peer review. So if the data itself is not necessarily being questioned in a court of law, how do you and we as scientists prepare to defend ourselves against these sorts of attacks?

Lauren
It really wildly depends on the particular scenario. But I think overall it’s, it’s not about the data as I said, and it’s not about truth unfortunately. It’s about focusing on the particular situation the scientist is in and trying to come up with a straightforward narrative as to why the legal system is being misused in this situation. Because that’s really where we come in are these areas in which people are misusing things like congressional investigations or the open record laws that I mentioned, defamation lawsuits, etc. And our position is by and large, that this is not appropriate for the legal system to be putting scientists under fire like this. So we focus on that. And the truth is usually, I mean, it’s a very important element I think overall, and it’s obviously something that I wish we focused on more of in society, but unfortunately, the way the laws are written, it doesn’t tend to rise to the top the way it probably should.

[music]

Jacquelyn
So, Lauren, I know you probably can’t go into many details, but what are the kinds of attacks you see on researchers? Are there any trends here in terms of how these attacks are taking shape?

Lauren
By and large we’re there to defend individual researchers or a group of researchers who find themselves targeted because someone disputes with their research, and instead of challenging it in appropriate ways, they’ve gone through the legal system in a way that usually evidences that it is not a good faith dispute. This is just to cause the researcher to stop researching or stop promoting their research or to send a message to other researchers that this is too of a contentious area to wade into. I mean the basic fact pattern is usually that it’s a scientist who in some way or another has been targeted because of their research, but the way that plays out can be very different. One thing that’s happened the last few years is we’ve realized that a lot of what we used to think were laws are actually norms. And the cracks and the ways in which, you know, individuals or administrations with anti-science agendas can be effective is really quite disheartening. So what we’ve been doing actually last couple of years for perhaps obvious reasons, is helping federal scientists who have found themselves censored or threatened because they are or want to be researching climate change and they’re getting the message that that’s not acceptable and they want to be able to fight back against that. So we’ve helped scientists file scientific integrity complaints, which is a mechanism that the federal government allows for agency scientists. It is not a perfect system, but it’s what we have. We’ve also helped scientists file whistleblower complaints. We unfortunately have scientists out there who have been terminated from working with the federal government because they spoke out against climate censorship and we’ve worked with them to fight back against that. And again, that’s a situation where the legal system is not as robust as I would like it to be. But we do what we can with what we’ve got. One of the scientists that we worked with who you may have heard of is Dr. Maria Caffrey who was a sea level rise researcher who worked for many years at NPS and then spoke out against their attempts to censor her report on sea level rise and found herself without a job. And, all signs point to it being directly related to her attempts, her successful attempts to fight back against the censorship.

Jacquelyn
Have things changed much since the 2016 election? Are you seeing less of a need for your services since then, or are these kinds of attacks ramping up?

Lauren
Well I don’t think it’s getting better unfortunately. I am also not sure that it’s getting worse. I think it has shape shifted a little bit. I think there used to be more targets on researchers to claim that they were untrustworthy or were not credible, you know, the ClimateGate for example, taking these phrases out of context to suggest, falsely, that researchers were misrepresenting their findings. I think that has died down some, although is unfortunately still at play more often than I might’ve expected even. But I think that there is becoming this additional trend of trying to get scientists to not talk about their research. Or to threaten people who have in some way. I do like to use the phrase, you know, gone outside their lane. So there was a case that did actually settle, against some UCLA professors who had been involved in climate research. And the suggestion to me seemed to be that they did not like the idea that these academics were being involved in conversations about climate policy. And that this was somehow a misuse of taxpayer funds seemed to be the, seemed to be the thread running through this lawsuit.

Jacquelyn
Ok, that seems like a really BIG stretch, how is it breaking the law if scientists are talking about the policy implications of our science?

Lauren
Well it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And that is something it’s important for scientists to remember. There are certain entities that would like to suggest that there are misdeeds happening. You know, Oh, you, you were hired with public funds for this particular role and here you are running amok in advocacy, but that’s not actually illegal. And I think many institutions are even supportive of researchers taking actions like that.

Ramesh
So who is actually driving these lawsuits against climate scientists? Are there particular individuals or particular groups that bring the majority of the lawsuits?

Lauren
I mean, it is a little hazy at times and I hesitate to name some of the blogs that are on these, but I’m sure we could figure out what they are. But the groups that go after them, I mean, they do work in conjunction with a number of these disinformation on, I know this is a loaded term, but I’ll just say, denier blogs. And you know, the groups themselves are groups that couch themselves in some sort of transparency language or free market language. They get money from the fossil fuel industry, coal companies, you know, the Koch brother industries, etc. And they bring these lawsuits and then they will put the results of what they found online and then, you know, if it’s fruitful for them, that’s great. And if it’s not, they can still go to their funders presumably and talk about how they, you know, they won this lawsuit and they got everything that they sought.

Ramesh
So what does a victory feel like? What does it look like? Is it a win to have the case dismissed?

Lauren
I mean it’s a giant relief obviously for the researcher involved to have their case dismissed, the case against them dismissed I should say. Or it can be a situation where, you know, as I mentioned, helping scientists file complaints. So yeah, if we’re able to get the scientists some satisfaction in terms of like there was a scientific integrity violation at their federal agency or you know, there’s some sort of acknowledgement that what happened needs to be fixed or more plausibly, but still I think it’s a positive outcome overall is to have, you know, the research they were working on see the light a day. And the agency may not fully admit why it changed course, but if what your goal is is to fight back against the censorship and the censorship is taken away. I mean there could be better ways it comes about, but I think it’s still rewarding to be able to have your research be published.

Jacquelyn
I’m kind of curious now if this landscape is shifting. We’re seeing more lawsuits against polluters and even state and federal governments that have failed to take action on climate change. So what about scientists? Are we going from defendants to plaintiffs now? Should we be filing defamation lawsuits or taking other proactive steps, from a legal perspective?

Lauren
Yeah, so that’s a good question. I definitely would like scientists to feel empowered to fight back. Absolutely. I mean, there are obviously exceptions to this, but I don’t see it being a widespread use of the legal system. I think there are certainly situations in which we would like to help scientists serve as plaintiffs and we have started to do that in situations like I mentioned like whistleblower complaints. But I think even perhaps more widespread is I would love scientists to feel empowered to do things like speak out about climate change. Or to get involved in, for example, helping a candidate campaign or even running for office, things like that. So we are hoping there will be more conversations about the role of science in, in the political process, not making science itself political, but the importance of science being a part of the conversation and having scientifically educated politicians and scientifically educated policymakers and to the extent that we can help scientists participate in that while being aware of that there are certain pitfalls that we are always happy to talk about for, for people who, for example, get federal funding. I do think that’s a really valuable role for scientists in terms of quote unquote fighting back against this disinformation.

Jacquelyn
So, Lauren, what is it like working with people like me? I mean we are trained to defend our work academically and then to suddenly be challenged in a legal sense is just a completely different landscape We’re also emotionally invested — we often see our work as part of our identities. And most of us study climate change because we care deeply about it as an issue. Plus, despite my love of legal procedurals on TV, the courtroom is not a natural environment for most scientists. I guess what I’m asking is, what’s it like to have us for clients?

Lauren
So I like having scientists for clients. You know, my, my earlier legal career was working with hedge funds. I think there is sometimes this notion on the part of researchers that because something is true, that’ll be what prevails. And I desperately wish that was the case more often than it seems to be in the legal space. I wouldn’t say it’s not that it’s hard for scientists to understand that conceptually, but I do think that there are a number of assumptions that get made throughout the way that we have to talk through and make sure that they are acting in a way that is legally strategic. Even if, you know, it’s based on a series of assumptions that I think are genuinely understandable. You know, just, just making sure scientists are aware of the various traps that could befall them if they assume that truth in and of itself will save the day. Because like I said, like I said, like I really wish that wasn’t the case, but it often that’s the truth is not enough. Necessary but not sufficient.

Jacquelyn
Lauren, thank you so much for joining us. This was a really fun conversation. If A little frightening.

Lauren
Yeah, I hope I don’t unnecessarily strike fear into people’s hearts because it is, it can definitely be a difficult place to be if you were a scientist who deals with this. But we also want to make it clear that, you know, the work that scientists are doing is very important and that we are not in any way trying to suggest that they should stop doing that. But I do think there’s a value in knowing your rights, so to speak, and understanding that we do have your back if something were to happen. Anyone can reach out to us. We are at CSLDF.org. all of our contact info is in there and everything is free and confidential, so please feel free to reach out.

Jacquelyn
I have to say, it does make me feel a lot better knowing you’re there as a resource, and that as scientists, we don’t have to fight these attacks alone. And for our listeners, you can find links to more information about the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and how to get in touch with them, should you need them, in our show notes.

Ramesh
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Joe Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find a transcript of this episode, listen to previous episodes, and find links to subscribe via the podcast platform of your choice on our website, WarmRegardsPodcast.com. Also, something that really helps more people learn about our show is if you could leave a quick review or rating, especially on Apple Podcasts.

You can reach us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com our find us on Twitter at @ourwarmregards.

This season of Warm Regards is made possible by our patrons on Patreon, including Rich Bunnell. Their donations help pay our great team members Justin, Joe, and Katherine for all their hard work. If you’re interested in supporting the show, you can go to patreon.com/warmregards. There’s also a link to the page in our show notes and website. From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

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