The American Geophysical Union, commonly known as the AGU, is the world's largest organization of scientists, with over 43,000 members in more than 130 countries, and the annual meetings regularly attract thirty percent of those members.
For the past three years, I have been covering the annual AGU meeting as a freelance journalist. Although publications such as National Geographic and Science News regularly send correspondents to cover the meeting, a surprisingly low number of science articles are published in the "main stream media." Each year there will be a few stories that attract the wire services and editors of newspapers -- this year, for example, one was the first results from the Stardust spacecraft, which returned samples of cometary material to Earth. Although AP wire service articles from the AGU meeting are often published by newspapers around the country, very rarely are these stories covered by television news. Sadly, even when there is a major event linking the AGU community with the broader body politic, major media outlets most often ignore it.
On Thursday, December 14, 2006, former vice president Al Gore spoke to over 6000 earth scientists from around the world. Very few Americans heard about the speech, and those who did received only a very narrow description of it.
Over 13,000 scientists attended the 2006 conference, and about 6,000 managed to squeeze in to hear Mr. Gore, but an overflow crowd of at least one thousand was turned away . Only registered conference attendees and about 100 members of the press were permitted to enter the ballrooms at the San Francisco Marriott Hotel. There were 3500 seats in the largest ballroom, all of which were occupied. Standees were not permitted in that space, but over 2500 scientists watched the speech on giant video screens in a smaller ballroom that seated 1500 and was packed with attendees standing shoulder to shoulder. Hundreds of others stood in the hallways to listen. Thus, well over half of these scientists from all over the world either heard the speech or tried to hear it. (My attendance numbers were obtained by questioning hotel management on the number of chairs they set up and how many were turned away.)
AGU scientists are the leaders in research on climate change, climate history, oceanography, atmospheric science, geology, geophysics, and ecological sciences, as well as space sciences such as aeronomy, planetology, and solar dynamics. These annual meetings have been the principal means by which researchers on global climate change have engaged one another as well as being the predominant public forum for scientists to present their data on the developing changes in the Earth's climate.
Having attended these meetings for over 25 years, as both a scientist and a journalist, I have witnessed a profound change in the tone and language of the conference, as earth scientists have become increasingly anxious, particularly over the past ten years.
As their research has documented the evidence for large changes in the Earth's climate and the increasing likelihood of catastrophic global warming, the community of scientists has become more vocal about the looming dangers. However, the lack of a U.S. program for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and the world's reliance on fossil fuels has led to a profound sense of panic among them, and there is deep respect for the former vice president as one of the few American politicians to have taken the climate crisis seriously.
Recent annual meetings have been notable for their presentations from such scientists as Dr. Lonnie Thompson, whose studies of mountain glaciers around the world have been documenting the warming trend for several decades, and Dr. Paul Mayewski, whose studies of the Greenland ice core record have documented the comparative rapidity and danger of recent warming trends. Among AGU scientists, the lack of action on the threat of global warming has caused unprecedented alarm and civic mobilization. One would think that a speech by the former vice president to such a group would have been one of the top news stories of that week.
Sadly, it wasn't.
If you were a reader of the New York Times, or even the Los Angeles Times, you wouldn't have heard about it from your newspaper. And no national television networks covered it on their evening news programs, where most Americans get their news.
Gore's speech was a thoughtful, penetrating social critique of the way contemporary humans receive and process information, and what this signifies for the survival of civilization. However, in an online search for news items one week and again one month after the speech, this reporter found only sparse coverage, mainly from local Northern California news outlets, many of which send reporters to the AGU's San Francisco meeting each year. The San Francisco Chronicle sent a reporter, but the San Francisco Examiner, now a sad tabloid shadow of its former self, simply picked up Alicia Chang's AP story, which was a short and incomplete synopsis. Chang's story, the only source of coverage for the speech for hundreds of U.S. newspapers, ignored its core content to emphasize the obvious -- Gore's "call to scientists" at the end of his speech. Sadly, AP's reporter on the scene seems of have missed about 75% of what Gore said.
In the pressroom following the speech, as journalists talked with each other and with their editors on the telephone, I was both amazed and dismayed by the way they fastened only on the "call to action" and completely missed the meat of Gore's speech, which was an erudite, perceptive, and probing cultural critique of modern communications and their effect on the polity.
The lone exceptions were Megha Satyanarayana, writing for the Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel, which published a serious and lengthy article [link], and Julie Sevrens Lyons, writing for the San Jose Mercury News [link], now posted online at RedOrbit.com [link]. The Mercury News also published a piece by Sevrens Lyons about Gore's self-deprecating humor at the beginning of his speech [link], perhaps because his manner and words were so at odds with the way the media has portrayed him the past.
Not surprisingly, television in the U.S. also mostly ignored the speech. Canadian television (CTV) picked up the AP story [link], but only three other American television outlets, including KRON-TV (NBC affiliate in San Francisco), were found via the Google and Yahoo search engines. MSNBC.com posted an excerpt from the AP article online [link], but the failure of other national media outlets to even mention the speech on December 14th, let alone give it significant placing or space, shows in microcosm the very media world that Gore criticized and which now threatens the future of every living being on the planet.
After a giving a historical overview of the ways in which western societies have obtained and processed information, Mr. Gore called on AGU's members to assert their expertise in matters of public policy, to help reinstate the principles of reason and knowledge in the formulation of that policy, to vigorously defend the integrity of the scientific process, and to play a more active role in communicating their knowledge to the general public -- much more encompassing than a mere "call to action."
Mr. Gore received a standing ovation when he entered the main ballroom at the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco, and again as he moved to the podium after being introduced by the president of AGU, Dr. Tim Killeen.
He began by poking fun at his status of "former future president."
"I am now a recovering politician," he said, "somewhere around Step 9."
Then he praised the interdisciplinary nature of the AGU, whose members study all aspects of earth science, from the atmosphere to the ocean depths, from life on Earth to the possibility of life on other planets.
Mr. Gore referred to the conflict between science and the rest of our culture, in which the truths determined by scientific research collide with powerful ideologies. He cited both Galileo and John Scopes, who stood trial for teaching the "inconvenient truths" of science.
He decried recent moves by the Bush administration and their corporate allies to neutralize or even change the results of scientific research. "The earth sciences have been particularly singled out for criticism by those who have sought to politicize science," Mr. Gore said, citing a recent order by the U.S. Geological Survey that its scientists submit their papers to higher level management for review prior to submitting them for publication. Scientists must fight that interference and communicate the reality of the climate crisis more effectively.
"The climate crisis is the most obvious symptom of a greater problem, the collision between humankind and the planet," Mr. Gore declared. He cited three factors in this collision, the drastic population increase over the past century which has had an enormous influence on ecosystems, the scientific and technological revolution which has empowered large numbers of people to use resources at a vastly greater rate and, in particular, changes in the way that human beings think at the present time.
This changed way of thinking is the most important factor, Mr. Gore said, "because throughout our culture, we have decreased the length of time over which we are concerned about the effects of our actions. Everything is on a much shorter term." He cited such examples as expectations for returns on investments and the demands for immediate access to new products without concern for their long-term consequences.
The core assumption of the founders of American democracy, he said, was that truth would be ascertained through dialogue and the use of reason. Thus, they ensured the freedom of the printing press with the expectation that citizens would freely receive all the information they needed to make rational decisions. But that has all changed with the dominance of electronic media.
"We have developed a cultural mode that says we don't have to care very much about the long term consequences of our actions," he declared, and quoted a social commentator from the 1930's: "We are managing Earth's resources as if we are a business in liquidation."
He described "an asymmetry" in the way we as a civilization have dealt with the issues of resource limitation and the vast effects of climate change that we have brought upon ourselves. This asymmetry is based in the way that different forms of communication affect different parts of the brain. During past eras, citizens drew their information from the printed word and then from discussions with their fellow citizens. Their rational decisions were made primarily by the frontal lobes of the brain.
In today's society, Mr. Gore commented, "knowledge seems to play a less important role than it did in the past." If they wished, people today could use knowledge to influence culture and behavior, but instead the role of knowledge in the creation of public policy has been diminished by a major shift in the way that they receive information.
He referred back to the historical change almost 1000 years ago, from feudalism to a society where the printing press made knowledge accessible to everyone and changed the role of knowledge at all levels of society. With the advent of electronic media in the 20th century -- in particular, television -- the distribution and dissemination of knowledge has again changed.
"The age of print has essentially ended," said Mr. Gore. Television has been dominant for forty years, but the flow of information from television is only one way and only to the emotional center of the brain. After decades of being conditioned to respond on that "gut" emotional level to what they see on television, much of the American public has lost its ability to rationally evaluate their situation and the options available to them.
Television seems to communicate primarily to the amygdala, that part of the brain that reacts emotionally. Thus, instead of gaining useful knowledge and information from television, most Americans are passive emotional receivers, uncritically accepting what they are told and not actively participating in the process of communicating. Thus, the roles of logic, reason, and knowledge in our culture have declined. While television overtook print as the main source of information in the 1960's, the development of two-way communication has lagged and "real-time massive distribution of information via the internet is not yet possible." Our society has not yet found a way to counter the passivity inherent in watching television.
Thus, "the well-informed citizenry has become the well-entertained," Mr. Gore declared.
Because of this profound change in the way most citizens receive information, decisions are more likely to be made using the emotional core of the brain rather than the cognitive, despite the vastly greater portion of the human brain that is devoted to cognitive processing. Decisions based on emotions bypass the cognitive processes that in earlier times used knowledge to make decisions. This makes it easy to ignore "inconvenient truths" and to make decisions based on narrow, immediate wants, without concern for long-term consequences.
"This goes far beyond a criticism of the present administration," Gore declared. "How have we become so vulnerable that efforts to censor scientists do not provoke outrage in both parties?"
That vulnerability to the suppression of scientific information, the refusal to incorporate the "inconvenient truths" of science in decision-making, Mr. Gore believes, is caused by the change from print-based, interactive communication to the one-way transmission of television.
There is now a "willful blindness" among both the public and the politicians. Citing the recent dismantling of the libraries of the Environmental Protection Agency, he said, "We as a people don't want to know! We don't want to be able to influence decisions with science because our minds have been made up. Once decisions are made for ideological or emotional reasons, people don't want to be told the 'inconvenient truths.'"
"Scientists," Mr. Gore declared, "need to play a different role in society. When enough people share an understanding of a truth, then policy can be shifted." To help the public to recognize the fact of climate change, scientists must consciously assert their roles as truth tellers.
Like the climate system, the political system is non-linear, and when enough citizens comprehend the catastrophic dangers that humanity faces, the political system will reach a tipping point and then public policy can be shifted.
It takes courage to put one's values on the line when faced with suppression and censorship, said Mr. Gore. There have been hundreds of instances in the past six years of scientific censorship, but despite these experiences, scientists must press forward and learn the skills to communicate what they know, and then persist in communicating it.
It is difficult, he said, for citizens to absorb the truth that humans are now the most powerful force on the planet, and to accept the fact that we are changing the Earth so drastically that we are harming ourselves. This reflects the dissymetry between the emotional and the cognitive systems of the brain.
But, said Mr. Gore, we cannot wait for an environmental disaster such as the disappearance of the Arctic ice pack to convince the public of the necessity for change. Given the dramatic climate changes that are already underway, scientists must clearly communicate the facts of what we will face if we don't alter how we live. The old politics says that citizens will only become convinced of the necessity for change when disaster strikes, but "the climate crisis can't be dealt with that way," said Mr. Gore. By the time disaster makes the changes obvious to everyone, it will be too late. The Arctic Ice Cap, once gone, will not return on any time scale meaningful to humans currently alive. So, scientists must clearly communicate their "synthesis of the scientific facts and the dangerous reality we face."
Mr. Gore quoted a statement by Abraham Lincoln, made during the Civil War: "We must disenthrall ourselves and then we can save our country."
"Once again," Mr. Gore declared, "we must disenthrall ourselves." Once again, Americans have been enthralled by illusions, and scientists must be deeply involved in the effort to disenthrall them. By reasserting humanity's cognitive abilities, scientists can lead the way toward a more rational public policy.
"We have everything we need but the will to act," he said in closing, "but in the United States of America, the will to act is a renewable resource."
The response of the scientific audience to Mr. Gore's speech was overwhelmingly positive.
"Mr. Gore was criticizing the way we as a culture obtain and process our information," commented Dr. Jane Lubchenko, professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, a MacArthur Fellow, and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Scientists have to find new ways to break through to the general public."
Although scientists are not rewarded for efforts at public outreach and education, Dr. Lubchenko said that more and more scientists are anxious to improve their communication skills.
"This reflects the scientists' understanding of what we know [about the rapid climate change that is now occurring] relative to what we as a society are doing."
Scientists, she said, know that speaking out is the right thing to do, despite the lack of rewards and the risks of outright vilification.
Dr. Dee Breger of Drexel University wholeheartedly agreed with Mr. Gore's critique of cultural communication.
"Many people have forgotten how to think," she said. "We must do a better job of educating everyone."
Sadly, a recent exchange in during an argument before the U. S. Supreme Court illustrates just how far that refusal to even consider expanding one's base of knowledge has penetrated, even to educated members of society. The exchange took place during the debate on Massachusetts' lawsuit against the EPA, which demands that EPA regulate carbon emissions to prevent flooding of Massachusetts' coastline (see Nature Magazine, Vol 444, 7 December 2006, page 661).
Speaking to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "Your declaration is that after the pollutant leaves the air and goes up into the stratosphere it is contributing to global warming."
The attorney, James Milkey, replied, "Respectfully, Your Honour, it is not the stratosphere. It's the troposphere."
Justice Scalia then said in a sarcastic tone, "Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming."
The inescapable "inconvenient truth,"even for wilfully ignorant Supreme Court Justices, is that we will all have to deal with global warming. If we do not, humanity and civilization will not survive.
And to do that, we desperately need honest, thoughtful news coverage -- not fluff, not a recourse to the obvious, not a flinching from editorial responsibilities. Perhaps the mainstream media will pay more attention to these issues of societal communication and cognition when Mr. Gore's forthcoming book, The Assault on Reason, is published this April -- or, more probably, they will ignore his erudition and follow the tack of the Washington Post in a blog published January 8th, focusing entirely on the non-question of whether Gore is running for president [link].
Anyone for fiddling while the planet burns?
Web links for this story:
San Francisco Chronicle -- http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/12/15/MNGGAN08GO1.DTL&feed=rss.news
San Francisco Examiner --http://www.examiner.com/a-457307~Gore_Urges_Scientists_to_Be_More_Active.html AND http://www.examiner.com/a-457299~Gore_Addresses_Scientists_in_California.html [both picked up from AP]
San Jose Mercury-News -- http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/politics/16242049.htm
San Jose Mercury-News -- http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/16241552.htm
RedOrbit -- click here
LiveScience -- http://www.livescience.com/environment/061214_al_gore_agu.html -- ALSO AT click here
CNet -- http://news.com.com/1606-2_3-6143929.html
CTV-TV Canada -- click here
Santa Cruz Sentinel -- http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2006/December/15/local/stories/10local.htm
KRON-TV, San Francisco -- http://www.kron4.com/Global/story.asp?S=3830037 [Gore's speech to Sierra Club]