America has a science problem, and it’s eroding any hopes we may have had of dealing effectively with climate change.
According to research released in January 2015 by the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Americans say science has made life better. However, there’s an astonishing gap between the beliefs of the scientists who do that work and those of the general public. In the same Pew study, researchers found that, while 87 percent of scientists said climate change was directly related to human activities, just 37 percent of the general public felt the same way.
The campaign wants the American public to view scientists as parents, neighbors, and friends.
This divide is hobbling progress. The more time we spend debating what the science means, the less we have for discussing and implementing solutions. It’s exhausting scientists too. In 2009—the last time Pew polled members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—76 percent said it was a good time to be a scientist in America. Just five years later, that number had dropped 24 percentage points.
A new grassroots campaign hopes to use online videos to make scientists more relatable. Instead of seeing researchers as Ph.D.s in lab coats, the campaign, called “More Than Scientists,” wants the American public to view them as parents, neighbors, and friends, all gravely concerned with climate change.
The project is the work of longtime tech industry innovator Eric Michelman, who was an early employee at both Apple and Microsoft. You may not know his name, but you’re probably familiar with the invention he’s generally credited for: the mouse scroll wheel. In the past two decades, Michelman has been highly involved in both tech investing and climate organizing.
Though Michelman has worked on climate policy initiatives and engaged in grassroots activities like canvassing and registering voters, this is his first big online campaign. With a background in tech and a true passion for the cause, his hopes are rightfully high. “Shooting the first video, I sat there and I listened and I thought, ‘Wow, we have to get this message out; this is really powerful,’” he says.
The site launched on Monday, March 16, and we sat down with Michelman to get some details on how the campaign is going.
This interview has been lightly edited.
A.C. Shilton: How did More Than Scientists come to be?
Eric Michelman: I’ve been involved in the climate change movement for a long time. Working and talking with other people who were similarly involved, we came to the realization that the voices of scientists were missing from the public conversation. Their voices are important because their work has become so politicized; other people are characterizing them and the motives behind their studies, mostly in an attempt to draw attention away from the science. So our thought was that the scientists themselves should be the ones presenting their science.
Shilton: Is this about teaching the science of climate change?
Michelman: Actually, it’s not. It’s about showing the science is settled. Studies consistently show that 97 percent of scientists agree. We want the public to both hear from them that, yeah, this is settled, but also see scientists for who they are. They’re our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and community members. They’re people with kids, and they’re worried about the future. When they say “I’m concerned about climate change and I think we need to act on it,” you can understand they’re saying it because they have kids just like you do.
Shilton: Are scientists interested in interfacing with the public?
Michelman: Some are; some aren’t. Look, everyone’s busy, not just scientists. And interfacing with the public hasn’t been done much in the past because culturally it’s not part of the scientific process.
Ultimately we want this to be a broad collection of scientists.
In the normal scientific process, you create the data, analyze it, and you let that speak for itself. But the fact is, the science has become politicized—which is really unusual. There are no other instances in our entire arena of public conversation where science has been so politicized. Even the scientists themselves have become politicized by people ascribing motives to them. So there is a lot of genuine concern on the part of the scientists. They realize this is an important issue and they do want to contribute. Having said that, yeah, a lot of scientists don’t want to, or are not trained in this, but we’ve tried to set up a forum where it really is safe and straightforward for them.
Shilton: How are you making this easy for the scientists? How are you making the videos easy for the general public to understand?
Michelman: They can upload their own video online, or if we make the video, they get to see it and decide if they are happy with it. Also we stick to accepted science; we don’t ask them to go out on any limbs. We also avoid policy and we avoid politics. As one scientist said, “I don’t say anything you can’t read in the ICCC report.”
We ask them to speak from the heart, to speak as neighbors concerned about the future. There’s some science in the videos, of course. For example, they may say that as the temperature goes up, things will get drier and that’s going to cause challenges for food production, but those are everyday terms you and I can understand.
Shilton: How are you reaching out to climate scientists? What kind of reactions is this generating from the scientific community as a whole?
Michelman: I’ve been active working on climate change in Seattle for some years now, so really it incubated here at the University of Washington. It was a long process of discussion and brainstorming and thinking. The folks here at the University of Washington made some pilot videos and we connected with some scientists at MIT and Harvard and brought some of them on board. So far it’s been bootstrapping and personal discussion and connections.
You can now upload videos to the website, so our hope is that scientists will begin to participate on their own. Ultimately we want this to be a broad collection of scientists. It’s not the idea that one scientist or video will make a difference in itself. What we want to get across is that this is scientists generally, scientists broadly. Please understand that they all believe in this, they all think it’s real, they all think it matters. And as your neighbors, fellow parents, and community members, they are worried.
Shilton: Are you actively working to recruit scientists from different fields and different career statuses?
The central goal of these videos is to get people to recognize that the scientists really do mean it.
Michelman: So far we have a pretty good range. We have grad students, postdocs, tenured faculty, senior faculty, an emeritus professor. We have people working directly in climate, in oceanography and forestry. One interesting thing is that increasingly, climate is the driver for many fields of study. You don’t have to be an official “climate scientist” to spend your time studying the climate, so these are all good voices to include.
Shilton: Where have you gotten the funding for this project? Is the University of Washington or another organization supporting this?
Michelman: So far most of it has been out of my own pocket, but it hasn’t been a terribly large expense. Going forward we will be seeking grant funding.
Shilton: A small number of scientists have already uploaded their own videos. How are they finding out about this? Is there a strong community within academia through which scientists share info?
Michelman: We had our launch on Monday, and there has been so much going on around it that it’s hard to tell what’s what exactly. The coverage has been incredible.
In our bootstrapping process, there’s certainly been some networking. Talking to one scientist and establishing a relationship has led to discussions with other scientists, so yeah, for sure it’s a community. Whether it takes off now will probably depend on that community. We’re even hoping that there will be communities of scientists that get together to upload videos.
Shilton: Scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have made very public statements via video on climate change. Why was it important to you to do this at the grassroots level instead of relying on high profile scientists to do the heavy lifting?
Michelman: I think it’s important that the high profile scientists with the followings speak out and provide leadership. But this is in addition to that, and it’s getting across to the public that this is a broad swath of scientists. You are not just seeing a few, you are seeing scientists generally who are working on this. If we can get people to see these and listen to them, I think it should be powerful.
Shilton: Are there parallels between your work in the tech industry and your work in organizing? You’re known as an innovator in tech, is that something you hope to bring to the climate movement?
Michelman: I think the overlap and synergy come from the people, not the tools. I haven’t found a lot of overlap between working in technology and working to influence public policy. It is true of course that organizations of all kinds are increasingly using technology to help their missions, but that’s not a side of it that I’ve personally been involved in.
Increasingly though, people who have been successful in business are interested in applying their skills for social good in the nonprofit world. I think people who are successful at achieving results in the technology world are increasingly interested in contributing to wider world and using their skills to achieve social goals. Progress on climate is certainly one example of that and I’m part of that.
Shilton: What’s your ultimate goal for this campaign?
Michelman: Our hope and our goal is that over time many people see some of these videos. How this is going to happen exactly, I cannot tell you. But we hope they see them and say “Wow, here are people like me, like my neighbors. They’ve got their own kids and they’re worried about the future. They study this and they are really worried about it, so I guess maybe I should be too.”
Everyone is busy. And there’s so much stuff going on around climate change that it’s so easy to go, “I can’t really tell if I’m supposed to worry about this,” or “I can’t really tell if I’m supposed to do something.” That really is the point and the goal of the denier campaign—to cast doubt on the science and to say the science isn’t settled. But it is settled.
The central goal of these videos is to get people to recognize that the scientists really do mean it and they really are concerned.
To check out the campaign, or if you’re a scientist that wants to contribute a video, visit http://morethanscientists.org/.
A.C. Shilton is an award-winning freelance writer and investigative journalist recently featured in the Netflix series The Innocent Man. She is also an Eat and Drink columnist for Outside Magazine.