With an internet full of unverified clickbait and a White House full of climate change deniers, how do science writers combat the abundance of misinformation out there? What is the appropriate amount of alarmism with which to discuss climate change? What is a good way to educate the public about climate change?
In this Slate Extra podcast—an exclusive podcast for Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Slate science editor Susan Matthews about science journalism, why it’s become difficult to accurately cover urgent and important scientific issues in the fast-paced news cycle, and how the president has been damaging science so far.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: There’s always a lot of science news out there, but let’s start with one recent story, which is the New York magazine piece by David Wallace-Wells called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” It basically outlined how bad things could get on Earth because of climate change and the gist is that, it could be really bad. But, you wrote a piece about why the article isn’t alarmist enough. So, I’d like to know more about what you thought about the article and why you thought it wasn’t scary enough.
Susan Matthews: It was really interesting to see the reaction from people when a story about climate change, which is something that is often ignored and is something that never gets the real attention that I think most climate scientists think it deserves. It was really interesting to watch an experience where a huge story about climate change, which actually became New York magazine’s most viewed story on their website ever, got so much pushback from people in the science community, arguing that it was the wrong kind of attention in some way.
I think there are a couple of things about why that was the reaction that I think are important to think about, and one is that it wasn’t a guaranteed outcome. What he set out to do, and what I think he describes in the beginning of the piece but it’s really easy to ignore—he describes that the piece is just going to be an assessment of, “If we do nothing about emissions, where are we going to end up?” And the rest of the piece is just a very methodical and detailed assessment of exactly what could happen. And I think that that really gets into one of the major problems that crops up in science journalism again and again and again is that people, human beings and human brains are really, really bad at understanding the word could. We read right past it, and we take everything that comes around it as possible fact. And I think you see this in science reporting a lot with coverage of, like, new studies—“Coffee ‘could’ be really bad for you.” When we see those kinds of things, we don’t internalize what the could is trying to convey, and we just completely think about the other side. So, that was one issue where he had set out to do this really specific thing, and it was interpreted as something slightly different from what he had tried to clarify he was trying to do. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the writer’s fault or human brain’s fault; it’s just something that happens that we should be really aware of.
But, the piece that I wrote in response to it and the argument I would like to make about climate change and climate change alarmism, is one of the things that I’ve always really struggled with as a science editor, particularly on Slate. [It’s] when things happen that we think might be caused by climate change—right now it’s still really, really hard to directly connect those dots. Do you attribute the deaths that happened during Hurricane Sandy to climate change, or was it just a big hurricane of the big nature of hurricanes that we frequently have?
I think that when we think about climate change, it’s never going to be, “Tomorrow we realize climate change is happening.” It’s going to keep on unfurling in this really, slow way, where the causation and the lines between what is happening and what we think is causing it are always going to be a little bit fuzzy.
So you could argue, I think, right now that people are dying because of climate change. But, the people that are dying because of climate change tend to be poor, tend to live in different areas, the causation isn’t clear. And so we just kind of ignore it. And I think even with that dramatic assessment that David Wallace-Wells wrote about what could happen, I could still see a scenario 50 years from now, where a lot of those things are coming true and a lot of people are still saying, “Yeah, but are we sure that this is to blame?” And that really freaks me out! And I really don’t want that to happen. I think that’s part of the reason why my response to people saying, “This is too alarmist,” was to really say, “No, this is something that’s really alarming.” When something is alarming, being alarmed about it is the correct response. Even though alarmism isn’t fun, it is sometimes necessary.
Right. And I think especially on the topic of climate change, there’s a lot of discussion about how scientists should be talking about it and how they should be informing people about it. That’s very similar to science journalism as well. What do you think about that? How should we be educating people about climate change, then?
I think it’s really tricky to get people’s attention, and I think it’s even harder to get people’s attention right now, because there are so many other things that we have to be concerned about. There’s a whole area of social science research that talks about why climate change is such a difficult thing for us to understand, and every once in a while, there’s a big magazine story about this, and the answer is really easy to understand once you start thinking through it.
Climate change is this big collective action problem. It’s essentially a tragedy of the commons, where we’re all feeding into it, and the effects are going to happen—not right now, but maybe later. And so the motivation to do anything about it feels not immediate and then the realization that there’s something that you yourself personally could do to actually make a difference. It’s really small. The things that you could adjust in your life have a very small ultimate impact on the rate of warming for the entire globe. So there’s this feeling of hopelessness that comes around it. It’s like, “What am I supposed to do about this? I can’t stop, you know, Exxon Mobil.” And, “How much should I inconvenience myself to be able to make the world slightly better?”
I think that right now there are really good and understandable reasons why social scientists are warning us about maintaining this feeling of hope and making sure that people know that they can make a difference, because if they don’t, they’ll just feel too depressed, and they’ll give up. And I think it’s really important to kind of push back on that framing a little bit, and I understand why scientists want to say that and why scientists think that. I think that we should look at their research and listen to it and make sense of it. But climate change isn’t just a scientific problem. It’s a political problem, and if you want to talk about the most effective things that any one individual could do to address it, it’s not giving up meat or deciding not to fly in airplanes. It’s voting for people who care about climate change, recognize that it’s a real thing and will take action to prevent it from happening.
There is this question in the murky area where we are right now, where it hasn’t really been effective to do this kind of, "Rah-rah, everybody can get together and solve this together" thing. I don’t see any compelling evidence that that is going to get us out of the problem. What I really think is going to get us out of the problem is a major political movement that prioritizes this and demands action. And so, I think that while I understand that feeding into hopelessness would hurt the former movement quite a bit, I actually think that acknowledging the hopelessness of the situation we’re currently in, has real potential to change the political dynamics around this topic, which I think is really, really necessary.
Obviously Donald Trump and his administration have been outright denying that climate change is an issue, or that it’s something that they shouldn’t make part of their agenda. So, how has this affected our country so far that you’ve seen?
Talking about Donald Trump and his opinion on climate change is always really hard. I still can’t quite get past the fact that when he made his speech announcing that the United States was leaving the Paris Agreement, he did not mention climate change once. And I think that what’s really interesting is that what you’re starting to see with this group of political leaders, they’re all over the map in terms of how their denialism manifests. They go back and forth. You can find statements of some of them saying, “Yes, climate change is happening.” And you can find statements of them saying things—the one often referenced with Donald Trump is that it’s a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, which he tweeted in 2012, well before he was a major party political candidate or president. But that one is still always brought up.
I think that the scariest thing that I have started to see, about how Trump and his executive branch of government are talking about climate change, is that there’s this strange new messaging that it doesn’t really matter and we can’t do anything about it anyway. You see that in their really strange and bizarre glorification of coal jobs and just how they talk about, “The price of the economy is going to be so much if we do this.” And the strange and frightening thing about that is they’re trying to justify not taking any action, but they’re trying to justify not taking any action with statements and positions that are just wrong.
We are currently losing our edge and our competitiveness in the renewable energy arena, because we are just not paying attention to it in the same way that our strongest competitors in India and China are. And as much as Donald Trump wants to go back to the 1950s, that’s not the direction that the world is going in. When you look at it on this level of “this is really bad in terms of emissions,” “this is bad for our environment,” “this is bad for our pollution”—this is also bad for American competitive advantage. It just kind of feels like this massive sum of despaired exasperation resulting from just having to constantly bat down this misinformation and the mythology that he’s bought into about what is happening in our country and what would restore jobs and make us more competitive.
Is there anything outside of climate change that Donald Trump has been misconstruing in terms of science?
I mean, he’s the first president who has not named a scientific adviser. Some have taken a while to name them but he’s the first in, I guess, my lifetime, who doesn’t have one and doesn’t seem to have any plans to have one. And I think that the real problem is, is that you see this denigration of the idea of expertise and Trump doesn’t like listening to evidence. He doesn’t really like data. The things that seem to influence him seem to be individuals, stories and anecdotes and small victories. He does everything in this kind of piecemeal way. And if you think about science and how evidence-based decision-making should happen, it’s just kind of unconscionable that our federal government would be going in that direction, instead of looking at evidence. You really realize when you have somebody like Trump in charge how much we rely on the information and the data and the recommendations of the federal government to make basic decisions about our life and what might be harmful for us and what is not.
This is kind of a silly one, but last week there was a big story that came out about toxic chemicals that are found in macaroni and cheese. And a study had found that there were very high levels of this toxic chemical called phthalates that had been found in mac and cheese. A bunch of places reported on it, and they had reported on a study that had not been conducted by named scientists, had not been published in a scientific journal, had been done by an advocacy group and they didn’t compare the levels of the toxins that were found to the amount of the chemical that would actually be harmful to a human being. And that is a classic scientific mistake.
The first thing that I did when I was going in to fact-check the story, was to look to the FDA and the EPA websites to see “What is the toxic dosage of this?” There’s a saying in toxicology that it’s the dosage that makes the poison. We can eat very small amounts of, like, arsenic, without experiencing adverse effects. But if you eat a lot of it, obviously it’s going to be bad. This particular toxin actually washes through your body pretty quickly, so it’s a question of how much you’re actually getting when you’re taking it in. And the FDA and the EPA didn’t have a clear standard on their site to say what this is and it was just a really strange moment of realizing, like, “They don’t have this now; if they do have this it’s going to be by this administration who we know doesn’t acknowledge evidence in a lot of ways.” Like, how am I going to trust this? It’s a very bizarre circumstance to be in where you know there’s a lot of room for advocacy, journalism, there’s a lot of room for checking the government’s work in these areas, which I think is really important.
We recently ran a story, similarly, about toxins in food, about how government warning about pregnant women eating fish had kind of spiraled out of control. It’s common knowledge, I think at this point, that pregnant women should avoid fish, and it could be an excess level of mercury and that would be bad. And it turns out that the advice about that was created somewhat arbitrarily. Now pregnant women eat much less fish than the general population, and if you look at the actual quantity of fish that they would need to eat in order to harm themselves or their babies, it is so astronomically high. If you look at the benefits of eating a normal amount of fish, like eating fish for two meals a week or something like that, the benefits from all of the good things in fish like omega 3s and so on outweigh any of the possible risks.
And because of the bad messaging and this one government decision, this idea that fish is bad has been really pervasive and has swung the pendulum in the completely wrong direction. And so I think that just speaks to the importance of looking at the evidence, assessing it, understanding it, being able to trust it. And the fish example is something that was definitely happening before Donald Trump was even elected president. So, there are all kinds of crazy, crazy things out there that you need to be aware of and be vigilant about.
Yeah, I feel like a lot of times in science journalism and in science advocacy, there needs to be a different level of fact checking and sort of understanding what these studies mean.
That’s definitely true. One thing that I really try to make sure the science section of Slate does is that it doesn’t just follow the headlines and the “new recent research says” kind of studies that tend to grab news in other places. Doing good science reporting takes a lot of work. Every time there’s a new study that says something new, you can’t just consider that one study alone. You have to look at the entire body of literature to understand how likely this one finding is to be true, how similar it is to the other things that we know. Dan Engber has been writing incredible and extremely interesting and narrative pieces for us about the replication crisis right now that is shaking the core of science and should make everyone question looking at one individual study as saying something that is definitely true.
Science is a really slow process that takes a lot of time, and I think it’s kind of fundamentally at odds with the pace of journalism. The news business is something where every single day you’re looking for the new thing that will grab your readers’ attention. So having to report on things that are taking so much longer than the regular news business is tricky and is really hard. And all of the time, as science editor, my colleagues often send me something and say, “Is this really true? What’s the deal with this?”
There was one, several months ago about how going on a roller coaster could cure your kidney stones and everyone was, like, freaking out about it and being like, “Oh my God, this is so fun. Yay! Science!” And the actual study was, like a crazy, singular example of one guy going on a roller coaster and passing his kidney stones. So if you’re not familiar with the full body of literature, if you’re not familiar with how to read scientific studies, if you’re not familiar with understanding what the standard is for assessing if something is true or not, it becomes really easy to just take everything as fact and what I really, really try to do in Slate is to be a little bit skeptical, to make sure that the things that we’re reporting are as factual and evidence based as possible and to do it in a way that isn’t extremely boring to read as well. That’s the goal, I would say.
So what do you think are some of the underreported stories in science?
Right now, one of the things that I’m really excited about that’s becoming more and more reported, and this is sort of in the context of the fallout, particularly from the debate over health care is, there are really big questions about medicine and access to medicine and health care coverage and how that affect people’s lives. That have been definitely underreported and we’re starting to see more and more of that. I think particularly, as we recognize as a society how important health care access is to people’s livelihoods and ability to exist in the world. One particular story there is the opioid crisis, which we’ve been doing a lot of interesting reporting on. I wish we could do more.
I have a doctor who writes for me, who I guess it was maybe over a year ago now, right when the crisis was ramping up, he had traced back and talked to a lot of his colleagues and physicians about how things got this bad and wrote a really fascinating story, actually right after Prince died. About just how prescribing opioids became so common in hospitals and why that was and, like, what we do about it now. That’s definitely one where I wish that we had a clear sense on, "What do we do about this now?" You see a lot of stories about how there’s so many deaths. There’s so many really sad, scary stories about this happening all across the country and figuring out what the evidence-based methods for addressing it, I think is a really important and interesting place to explore.