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Home > Focus > A Conversation with Pallavi Phartiyal - part 2

A Conversation with Pallavi Phartiyal - part 2

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 12 April 2012

The Union of Concerned Scientists is about to open its new 'Center for Science and Democracy', and I was fortunate enough to meet and record a conversation with the centre's Program Manager Pallavi Phartiyal.

(...continues from the previous entry [2]).

J H:
Global warming or climate change is a political problem here. If you come from outside the US global warming is a political debate but here it fundamentally seems to be a political debate, why is that?

P P:
Well in some ways it goes back to the influence of money. Science used to serve the interests of industry and corporations a long time back, and that relationship has evolved over the years. The kinds of changes that addressing climate change needs today requires action from the business community which is not that easy for them to undertake. It comes with some real costs but it comes with a long term benefit, but both the political community (our leaders in Washington DC) and the corporate leaders are looking at short term gains. The culture today is to look for  immediate gains as opposed to long term gains for society.
Also over the years there has also been this evolving philosophy and ideology that sees all government regulation as a bad thing. The minute you say 'regulation', there is instant opposition, and that has a lot to do with the problems that we are facing in climate change. The instant repulsion to anything that government does in terms of regulation quickly ignores the fact that so many science-based regulations in the past have improved our standard of living today.
LA used to be a city in which people could not breathe, there was a time when there was smog all over the city, and the fact that today people can go on morning and evening walks without thinking about it is due to the environmental regulations that were put in place there. I think that it will need a kind of ideological change for us to get back to our roots and say that we have to have a longer term vision. We have to give up on short term gains, be they monetary or political. The rift between people who believe in climate change and those who actively reject it is really one of ideology and financial interest.

J H:
It doesn't seem to me that rejection is a realistic argument.

P P:
Neither to us (laughter), but it is actively out there. Over 95% of the scientific community agrees that there is climate change. I think the media has to play a greater role in this. Part of the problem also lies in the fragmentation of the media. There are so many voices out there that it is easy to drown the signal in the noise. If I am a lay person trying to find out what is happening with global warming or climate change and I am not an informed citizen, it is very easy to say that there are 5 people saying one thing and 5 people denying it so it must not be true. That plays into the work of our Center. Not specifically regarding climate change, which is one of the issues that we will be concerned with, but how to have a more informed citizen community that can determine that not all voices are equal. Every voice does not carry the same weight, and experts who have been working on this topic for a very long time, maybe over decades, and who have to go through a very rigorous peer review process, carry a bit more weight that a commentator on the radio for example who has just picked up a sensational news piece and has a personal agenda to promote.
A lot of people both in media and in politics are funded by corporations that want to advance their agenda and I think that we need the public to be aware of these intricacies and interferences and to ask why a certain community is saying something. What is the evidence behind it? And I think that the work of the centre will be a success if we can get people to question the origins of arguments a little bit more.

J H:
Do you know anything about the Mapping Controversies project?

P P:
Yes I do, and one of the challenges of any project such as Mapping Controversies is how to get information into the hands of people who do not want to look at information very analytically and in an unbiased way? The Internet is a great thing but it has also empowered us to seek information that we want to seek, so how do you reach communities who won't necessarily come to the MIT or the Union of Concerned Scientists website and have their own sources of seeking information. That is the really a big challenge for any sort of project of this type, how do we push information to people who won't necessarily go seeking that type of information? It is a very logical project that says here are the different arguments surrounding an issue so let me synthesize these arguments for myself but how do you reach the very far flung sectors of society?

J H:
They are not even far flung, they are the 99% that read newspapers and use other sources of news.

P P:
Yes and a question that I constantly pose is that beyond the people who support us, beyond the people who already believe in this, champions of science etc, how do we reach out to those people who don't think about this on a daily basis? That is a problem to solve, because people have a lot of power, and if exercised properly we could actually bring about changes that benefit society for years to come, but just the donside of the possibilities that media and internet have given us for seeking out our own information is a challenge to solving a lot of the big problems that we face today.

J H:
Do you think that educating the population into the ways of science, an idea behind various project today, would be efficient?

P P:
It can be efficient to a certain extent but I think we need something more and different. There are all kinds of polls that people have done to assess who is a true believer in (for example) climate change, and it is not that certain that a population with more degrees will certainly believe in climate change and those who do not go to college will not. So it is not completely a given that the more educated you are the more open minded you are to different view points or that you seek information in a logical or balanced way.
It might solve some of our problems but I don't think it will resolve everything. Also when we talk about educating in science and technology we have to be mindful about when we are reaching out to people, at what point in their lives, at what age. If they have already formed all of their opinions at home, probably before they even reach school then any amount of science and technology education teaching is not necessarily going to change their cultural or ideological beliefs, particularly if they have someone who is completely denying it at home. So I think we have to diversify when we reach people, not only say educate everyone to a PhD, that is not going to work, it requires a cultural mind shift. I don't think that just getting more scientists or engineers out there will solve everything, it would be great but people have values and cultures that they hold on to no matter what they study.

J H:
There seems to be a lot to do with power, political power, media power, monetary power, probably more so than scientific argument.

P P:
Yes, and media does have a very large role to play here. I think that there is another thing that we should be mindful of. This philosophy in journalism schools for example, of covering both sides of the story. This is the way that we have trained this wave of journalists to cover a story, to say well here are both sides. So this is not necessarily a power of the media argument rather a media coverage argument. I think that is a practice that has really hurt the climate debate. Journalists traditionally try to cover both sides of a story but how do you cover a story that has such lopsided ends? So you say well I am covering both sides but 5% of scientific disagreement does not equate 95% of scientific consensus. Say, if I am watching local news at 6 in the evening I might not know what the difference is if expert A says well this is happening and expert B says no this is not happening and I don't know the difference between expert A and expert B.
The Wall St Journal recently carried an editorial piece that was signed by "16 scientists" who were talking against climate change and the kinds of actions that we have to take. They are all scientists and but if you looked at the credentials of the people who had signed that opinion piece they came from all kinds of unrelated scientific disciplines. Then look at the credibility of people at the National Academies and IPCC and what they have been saying for so many years,the numbers of scientists and kind of peer review they go through and compare it to somebody from computer science making an argument about climate change. It is not the same. So you can always find dissenting voices but as an informed citizen the weight that you assign to them is  extremely important. We published a response to the WSJ piece on our blog 'The Equation' which was picked up in a lot of media outlets.

J H:
Is there anything else you would like to add in conclusion?

P P:
I would like to say that through the Center we are also trying to reach people we traditionally have not been able to reach, the youth communities, science educators, people in the media who have a very large following and are actually in a position to influence how people think about certain issues. We are limited as a relatively small organization in how much undertake ourselves so we have to be careful about the expectations that we set up for ourselves and for others with this initiative. Therefore, we are actively looking for partnerships in trying to engage the public, engage the media, engage scientists and policy makers to really bring back science and science based decision making into the American democracy. This means we are seeking partnerships with all kinds of people that are either already working in this field or a component of it or have already done it in a successful way, so that we can catalyze, we can build upon it and propagate their work. These can be museums, science cafés, federal agencies, anyone who believes in the notion that science is integral to solving the problems of the future. We are open and keen to talk to people about these issues and talk about partnerships that we can forge.

J H:
Thank you very much.

On behalf of the Bassetti Foundation I would like to thank Pallavi for her time and wish her and the Union of Concerned Scientists the greatest success with their new center.

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