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New Initiative Launches In San Diego To Reclaim Science's Role In Policy Decisions

Peter Frumhoff, Union of Concerned Scientists
Scientists hope to find a way to get their message out about issues like climate change at the new Center For Science and Democracy.
GuestPeter Frumhoff is the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's been said that you're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. However, in recent years, the whole notion of what constitutes facts has been turned on its head. Many Americans it seems can no longer be persuaded by science or rational argument or even by a birth certificate. So how did we get into this situation? And more importantly, how can we get back to a shared acceptance of the reality based world? The union of concerned scientists is opening a brand-new center in San Diego, devoted to science and democracy. My guest, Peter Frumhoff is the director of science and policy at the union of concerned scientists. Welcome to the show. FRUMHOFF: Thank you, Maureen, I'm delighted to be here. CAVANAUGH: What is the mission of this new center for science and democracy? FRUMHOFF: The center, which is a national center, although we're doing a formal lunch of it here at Scripps institute of oceanography this afternoon, is devoted to building and sparking a public dialogue about the role of science in our democracy, and really restore that kind of pragmatic evidence-based approach to decision making that often seems so lost in our American public discourse and public policy today. CAVANAUGH: Now, does this have a political agenda? FRUMHOFF: No, not at all. It's nonpartisan, bipartisan, to go back to your opening quote, which was attributed to Patrick moneya han, that we can agree about what to do, but we should start with a shared understanding of what the facts are. And too often, today, in our American discourse, we can't agree on the facts. And that's dangerous. I can give you one example from yesterday. Yesterday, the state legislator, the state Senator in the good state of North Carolina passed a bill in which they instructed all of the 20 coastal counties of the state of North Carolina to ignore the scientist projections of sea level rise, which are projected to be about 3†feet over the course of this next decade, in planning for coastal development in the next 100 year, and only rely on historic rates. Basically to say ignore the science of climate change. Climate change has become a very partisan debate in this country, in California and elsewhere. But you can -- the laws a man can't repeal are the laws of physics. And for a state to ban what its scientist advisor, what the national academy of sciences and others are saying are the facts is a dangerous place for us to be going in this country. CAVANAUGH: What is a center like this going to do about a problem like that? Is this -- in other words, how can a center like this change minds, change attitudes, and bring about a change in the way that our policy makers go about making some of these decisions? FRUMHOFF: Well, we're going to start by reminding people that our nation was founded by people who cared deeply about rational governance, what cared deeply about science and the enlightenment, Ben Franklin who we think abouts on our nation's first scientist, but Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington and others founded this country on a basis of principles of rational democratic governance. Abraham Lincoln founded the national academy of sciences in the middle of the civil war to provide independent scientist advice to our government. We want to remind people of the role of rational decision-making in our history. The fact that we've overcome misinformation before. It used to be not long ago that people were debating whether smoking cigarettes caused lung cancer. No one seriously denies the health risks of tobacco today, and that's because science ultimately prevailed. We want to make sure that we don't have the time lags that we had with that debate and others so we can really reawaken in the American spirit through dialogue, through public debate, through the sort of conversation we're having today the Scripps, bringing leaders across diversities together. They may disagree about what to do about a problem, but they share a basic value in respecting the facts and starting with science as I key input. The CAVANAUGH: So with the center for science and democracy, the aim is clear. I'm wondering who is going to be involved with coming up with the agenda for the center? Will there be a whole bunch of scientists running around trying to figure out how you're going to get out the information to the public? Or will there be policy-makers? Will there be scientists who are policy-makers also involved to present some ideas to the people who make the decisions and the public? FRUMHOFF: Well, we'll be creating a national steering committee of colleagues acrosside logical spectrum, people from the leadership and business and government and science who share a common belief in the science. Today at Scripps we're privileged to have an example of that kind of leadership. We'll have people -- Baltimore, the former president of Cal-Tech, a Nobel Laureate speaking today on the benefit of science and democracy. Mary Nichols who served admirably both in a Republican administration, the Schwarzenegger administration, and currently the Brown administration, to take account of science in informing energy policies in this state. We'll have a formerly Republican Congressman, John porter from Illinois, who carries deeply about the facts. Those are the kinds of people we'll be bringing into dialogue, it won't be just run by this one organization the CAVANAUGH: I see. FRUMHOFF: It will be a collaboration with leaders across disciplines and ideologies who all share a basically starting point that we need to restore that pragmatic middle to American politics. CAVANAUGH: Peter, why do you think the public is so skeptical of scientific findings? FRUMHOFF: Well, I think we've entered a time in which people can get their information from a very diverse set of sources. We no longer have the three network news sources. People with social media, the digital world, can and tend to I think go back to the places that are consistent with their own values. And sometimes that information is good, and sometimes that information is misinformation. It's hard for folks to know what an authoritative news source is when they're hearing from a variety of talk shore hosts. What qualifies as good information? We want to help break through some of the noise, help figure out how we can create some standards of accountability and transparency, and remind people that they need to be effective filters of misinformation as well, that they can question sources of information, think twice about what they're getting, try to understand the difference between a radio talk show host, if I may say that phrase, and the national academy of sciences as a source of information. And it's true not just on climate change, which is of course exhibit A in some of this, but on issues as diverse as the relation from vaccines and autism to the safety of nuclear power, to all manner of issues that affect our public health and prosperity. CAVANAUGH: I often think what is the responsibility of scientists themselves to be able to talk about what it is that they do so that the larger public can understand and to relate to it in some way? Is our level of scientist understanding, the general public's understanding, so limited that scientists are no longer being able to do that, to bridge that gap? FRUMHOFF: Well, my personal view, and this is certainly the view of the organization I work with, is that scientists have a responsibility, an obligation to engage in public dialogue, to not hide in their labs and be only focused on the day to day of the research which is often federally funded, funded by our tax dollars, that we all have an obligation as scientists, to -- whether it be with the local schools or local community centers or on the national stage to be engaged in a variety of ways in not only speaking to what we know, but also listening to the public and better understanding where people's concerns are about science, where people are legitimately confused, and to really try to have a 2-way dialogue. So we have about 20,000 scientists across the country with whom we work who will be engaging through the center for science and democracy, and trying to build more of that 2-way dialogue so that people across the country here in California and San Diego and elsewhere have access to scientist expertise in a way that can connect to their understanding and their lives. CAVANAUGH: You're going to have a series of forums about different issues in which the public will be invited. FRUMHOFF: Absolutely. CAVANAUGH: And one of them is about communicating science in a distracted age. One of them is about science and regulation. And one of them is about science and corporate accountability. Now, it seems to me that corporations whose very profit margin is at stake sometimes work to divert or to undermine the findings of pure science about one issue or another, whether it's tobacco's carcinogenic effects, or who fossil fuels might be doing to increase climate change. Where are we with that? Is that part of your agenda also? To get organizations and businesses more on board with science? FRUMHOFF: Absolutely. There's been ape mixed history on this. You used the tobacco example. Many of your listeners may remember a day some 20 years ago when the seven CEOs of the major to wackos companies testified under oath saying that nicotine is not dictative. And at that time, it was about 20 years after the surgeon general had come out with the report that people knew that wasn't true. There is no single corporate stance on science. Many corporations rely on good science for their work, and there are many responsible corporate leaders who care deeply about making sure we have a rational, evidence-based approach to decision-making. Our job is to reach out to them to bring them into a conversation. So it's not just scientists saying, hey, pay attention to the facts 67 it's corporate leaders at the Wall Street journal standing up and saying we care about the facts. CAVANAUGH: You just brought with you that example of what happened in North Carolina. What indication have you gotten on the other side that policy-makers may actually be willing to come to the table and be part of these discussions with scientists about what the findings really are and what those implications could be to the public and to the public policy? FRUMHOFF: Well, I think the extent to which public officials, elected officials engage in those conversations depend on the percentage to which the public insists they do. And that's really the job of ours, to have the public conversation and engage policy-makers. There are some who are there already. I'm a native Californian, I went to school here at UC San Diego, on the issue of climate and energy which I know very well, not with standing all the budget problems we're having in the state, we have had from other states a bipartisan acceptance of what the evidence from California scientists has been about climate change, and a robust dialogue about what to do. And really with very little of the partisan rancor that we see as a national level and in the case I showed in North Carolina. There are bright light, some of them here in California, business leaders and politicians who do want to sit down and know what the facts are. Our job is to create the space where there's a demand for that, and to show by example from here in California and other places what good evidence-based decision making looks like. CAVANAUGH: Wouldn't it make more sense to have some of these discussions then in North Carolina? FRUMHOFF: Well, indeed. We happen to be launching the center here because we have had the privilege of collaborating with a professor at Scripps, Lewis Bransom who we're naming the center for, the science and democracy forums after. And a former chief scientist at IBM, a leading scientist who's worked in every administration since the Eisenhower administration providing advice to governments at a very high level. That's the kind of person who models the nonpartisan approach to pragmatic decision making. CAVANAUGH: What do you see as the biggest challenge there the center? FRUMHOFF: It's the biggest challenge faced by our nation's eroding middle, that people are distracted, that people have a limited capacity to attend to where the facts are in any of these complicated issues that so deeply affect our lives. And our job is to break through some of that confusion, right? And some of the confusion may be deliberate, if it's someone by private sector interests. And some of it may simply be that we're all busy and have complicate, busy lives. Our job is to create that space for that conversation to take place. The dialogue we're having right now is an example of that, and our success will depend on our opportunities to build this out, not just on public radio or public television but across the spectrum where we can reach all Americans. CAVANAUGH: Issues have become as you mentioned so politicized now. For instance, when you put the complexities of climate science against the photo stat of the president's birth certificate and recognize the fact that there are some people who still do not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America because their political beliefs will not allow them to accept that evidence. How therefore can you get people to accept evidence that's a lot more complicated than that, if their political ideology won't get them there? FRUMHOFF: Well, I guess I would say that we don't need to reach everybody. I think what we want to try to do is reawaken the dormant middle in this country, that kind of pragmatic spirit that often what we're hearing is the polarized rancorous debate on the ends of the spectrum, those who are loudest, most divisive, those who may still not accept, in the case you showed, that the president is a natural-born U.S. citizen. And we're not going to convince everybody. But politics don't change when everybody is convinced. They change when enough people are willing to have the respectful, pragmatic evidence-based dialogue that we truly need. CAVANAUGH: You talked about people going on the Internet from time to time and perhaps finding the kinds of science that meets their ideas, their values, their ideology instead of looking for the true unbiassed science behind certain things. But on the other hand, the Internet, and various modes of digital conveyance are helping us now see things, I'm thinking of the Ted Talks that are available in a lot of different mediums. And the renowned universities who have opened up their lectures, like Harvard and MIT, bringing that kind of education to the people am are you thinking of doing something along those lines? FRUMHOFF: Well, we're going to make maximum use of the Internet. But we want to create tools to help people separate good information from bad, and create accountability in the digital media. That's going to be one of the focuses of our upcoming forums. So it's an embarrassment of riches that we have on the Internet, and an embarrassment of challenges to help us distinguish truth from misinformation. And that's a challenge all of us face. CAVANAUGH: I guess I took a long way of asking are you going to make these forums available for people who can't attend them? FRUMHOFF: Absolutely. The launch event we're doing this afternoon will be available online, in fact, for those who can't attend, shortly afterwards. So if anybody wants to come to the union of concerns scientists and learn more about the Center for Science and Democracy, there will be a link where people can find a webcast of the event we're going to hold at Scripps. CAVANAUGH: Terrific. It's been great fun speaking with you.

A new initiative from the Union of Concerned Scientists launched today in San Diego. It aims to build a Center for Science and Democracy to counter what it calls a "troubling trend": "understanding of science and respect for its role in decision making have declined."

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the organization, which was founded to make sure science is heard in policy debates, told KPBS the center wants to "restore that pragmatic, evidence-based dialogue where facts really matter."

The initiative launched on the West Coast at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


Frumhoff said in the debate over climate change, facts can be lost. But in other times in U.S. history, he said there was more respect for science.

"We have a long history in this country of rational debate," he said. "That's really been lost today."

"People in government certainly in many places feel like they're entitled to their own facts," he added. "The goal of the center is to really reawaken the public dialogue about the value of science and the values of our democracy."