Reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting

I’d like to tell you about the AAAS meeting I’m attending. (Look here for the program.) It’s in Chicago, which is definitely much colder than southern California! I know it might sounds strange, but it’s nice to experience a real winter again.

There were some astrophysics sessions (such as on galaxy evolution in the early universe and dark matter particles) but that wasn’t my focus here. I took some brief notes, and this is based on them…

There were a few sessions about science communication, outreach, and media. These are very important things: for example, according to Rabiah Mayas, the best indicator of whether people participate in science or become scientists as adults is the extent to which they engaged in science-related activities outside of school as kids. One person discussed the importance of fact-checking for producing high-quality and robust science writing, but it takes time; one should note that peer-review in scientific research is supposed to perform a similar purpose, though it can be time-consuming as well. In any case, many people agreed that scientists and journalists need to interact better and more frequently. (As a side note, I heard two high-profile science journalists mispronounce “arXiv”, which is pronounced exactly like “archive”.) In addition, it’s worth noting that smaller regional newspapers often don’t have dedicated science desks, though this could provide opportunities for young writers to contribute. There was also an excellent talk by Danielle Lee about “Raising STEM Awareness Among Under-Served and Under-Represented Audiences,” who talked about ways to take advantage of social media.

There were interesting presentations about scientists’ role in policy-making, but I’ll get back to that later. Someone made an important point that scientists should be extremely clear about when they are just trying to provide information versus when they are presenting (or advocating) policy options. I should be clearer about that myself.

I also saw interesting talks by people about public opinion surveys in the U.S. and internationally of knowledge and opinions of science and technology. According to these polls, although some Americans are worried about global warming/climate change, people are more worried about toxic waste, water and air pollution. According to Lydia Saad (of Gallup), 58% of Americans worry a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, 57% think human activities are the main cause, 56% think it’s possible to take action to slow its effects, while only 34% think it will affect them or their way of life. In addition, she and Cary Funk (of Pew) found huge partisan gaps between self-identified Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. As one person pointed out, climate change is not just a science issue but has become a political one. Americans in polls had pretty high opinions of scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, but people had the best views of those in the military. There is a wide range of knowledge of science, especially when it comes to issues such as evolution. (Note that fewer Republicans believe in evolution by natural processes, due to a drop in those who are not evangelicals, who already had a low fraction.) Also note that the numbers depend on how poll questions are asked: for example, ~40% agree to, “The universe began with a huge explosion”, and when you add “according to astronomers”, then the proportion jumps up to 60%. (If you’re curious, this image basically describes astronomers’ current view of the Big Bang.)


There was an interesting session dedicated to climate change science, which included scientists that contributed to the IPCC’s recent 5th Assessment Report (which we talked about in an earlier blog). Note the language they’re required to use to quantify their un/certainty: “virtually certain” means 99% certain, and then there’s “very likely” (90%), “likely” (67%), and “more likely than not” (>50%). Michael Wehner discussed applications of “extreme value statistics” (which are sometimes used analyze extremely luminous galaxies or large structures in astronomy: see this and this) on extreme temperatures. Extremely cold days will be less cold, while extremely hot days will be more common and hotter. For particular extreme weather events, one can’t say whether they’re due to climate change, but one can ask “How has the risk of this event changed because of climate change?” or “How did climate change affect the magnitude of this event?” It seems very likely that the there will be heavier heavy rainy days, longer dry seasons, and more consecutive dry days between precipitation events. There will be more droughts in the west (west of the Rockies) and southeast, and more floods in the midwest and northeast.

The plenary speaker today was Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy until last year, who gave an excellent talk. He compared convincing people about climate change to earlier campaigns to convince people about the dangers of tobacco use and its connection to lung cancer; both issues have had industry-promoted disinformation as well. On rising temperatures with climate change, he channeled Yogi Berra when he said, “If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re heading.” He talked a little about the role of natural gas (see also these NYT and Science blogs), and he discussed carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS). Finally, he talked about how one might determine an appropriate price of carbon. He advocated a revenue-neutral tax, starting at $10/ton and over ~12 years raising it to $50/ton, and then giving the money raised from this directly back to the public. He also talked about wind turbines, which are now more reliable, efficient, and bigger, and he predicted a 20-30% decline in price in the next 10-15 years. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules is also dropping, but installation costs and licensing fees (“soft costs”) should be reduced. I definitely had the impression that, now that Chu is no longer Energy Secretary, he could be more frank than before about his views on contentious issues.

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