What MIT Students are Learning about Communicating Science to the Public

One of the truly remarkable things about teaching at MIT are how many of our best students are crossing over from the sciences or engineering programs to take classes in media studies. They hope to use what they learn in our courses to improve their capacity to communicate scientific ideas with the general public.

Here are two examples:

For the past few years, the Comparative Media Studies Program has been partnering with Terrascope, a freshman year program run by faculty from Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Terrascope students spend the year focusing on one of the world’s leading environmental problems, pooling together research, talking to experts, and taking a trip to the site to see for themselves the nature of the problem. Historically, they have learned to translate their findings not only into research papers but also into museum exhibits designed to communicate with the general public. A few years ago, Ari Epstein, a faculty member in the program, approached me to see if our students might be able to help them teach the Terrascope participants how to use radio as a medium to convey their ideas to an even larger public. This year, CMS Masters student Steve Schultze served as a teaching assistant in the class. This year’s focus was on how New Orleans should deal with the consequences of Katrina. The result: “Nerds in New Orleans.”

The other was a paper I received from one of the undergraduate students in my Media Systems and Texts class which manages to combine his passion for climate issues with some of the things we’ve been learning this term about YouTube and participatory culture. The issues are ones which I have addressed here before — the controversy which emerged as Al Gore’s Penguin Army was revealed to be astroturf, but the student connects this debate to the larger context of media coverage of global warming issues in a way only a MIT science geek could.

Analyzing the Role of Media in the Climate Change Debate Through the YouTube Video, “Al Gore’s Penguin Army”

by Garrett Marino

Climate change, or long-term changes in average weather conditions, signifies an important issue impacting the contemporary media landscape. The two-minute YouTube video criticizing Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Penguin Army, now viewed over 500,000 times, offers a compelling example to analyze the role of media in the climate change debate. A framework of questions can be asked around this video, with the intent of progressively working outward to link media with broader cultural trends on climate change: What can be learned from this video? How does it critique An Inconvenient Truth? What were the motives and goals of the video’s producer(s)? Why use YouTube to respond to the movie? How do the contents of the YouTube video fall within broader efforts to discredit climate change science? The information presented in An Inconvenient Truth and Al Gore’s Penguin Army that individuals digest and the opinions developed through related media will arguably impact policy during the coming decades.

Released on May 24, 2006, the same release date for An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Penguin Army serves largely to discredit Al Gore and his movie. In the video, Al Gore is dressed in an outfit reminiscent of Batman’s enemy Penguin, who could be described as a gentleman of crime. The crime being committed by Al Gore, according to the video, is his promotion of climate change science and dictating what people should do to combat this problem. The video opens with penguins assembling into an ice cave to listen to Gore’s global warming slide show. On the wall of the ice cave, a sign depicts a part human, bear, and pig figure with a slash through it titled “Manbearpig.” The poster references a South Park episode where Gore speaks at South Park Elementary about the Manbearpig, a monster who roams the Earth. Gore begins his talk and quickly the penguins lose interest at the illegible charts and fall asleep. Gore continues his discussion, apparently oblivious to his audience’s indifference, and shows outrageous material, such as blaming the skinniness of Lindsey Lohan on global warming. At the end of the video, Gore says that “you must take action to stop global warming!,” and immediately a list of “things you can do to stop global warming” appears, including “stop exhaling,” “become vegetarian,” “walk everywhere (no matter the distance),” and “take cold showers.”

In addition to barraging the viewer with material despicable for a critique of a serious climate change movie, Al Gore’s Penguin Army has no roots in reality throughout. The opening quote in the video supposedly quoting Newsweek editor Eleanor Clift as saying, “If you liked March of the Penguins, you’ll love An Inconvenient Truth,” was fabricated, although she did interview Gore a month before the film’s release on April 28, 2006, the same date given in the video’s quote (Clift).

Another misrepresentation in the video was the penguins themselves. They were all created to resemble Tux, a Linux mascot that does not accurately portray any known species of penguin. Even seemingly credible weather facts in Al Gore’s slide show were also grossly exaggerated or untrue, such as “Coldest Day in NYC (January 2005)” and “Record rain in New England (May 2006).” In no day during January 2005 did the temperature at New York City’s Central Park (the official site for National Weather Service observations since the 1800′s) fall below 5 degrees Fahrenheit, while the all-time record low for NYC was minus 20 degrees set in February 1934. In May 2006, some areas such as Newburyport, Massachusetts did receive all-time May monthly rainfall records, but this record is far-surpassed by rains that occurred in 1936, 1938, and 1955.

Now that the video has been discredited, there needs to be an analysis of the motives and goals of the producer(s) of Al Gore’s Penguin Army. The video’s YouTube page shows the poster as a member by the name of “Toutsmith,” who identifies himself as a 29-year-old from Beverly Hills. An email exchange between Toutsmith and the Wall Street Journal enabled the paper to originate the email to a computer registered to DCI Group, a Washington public relations and lobbying firm whose clientele include Exxon Mobile Corp. When contacted by the Journal, DCI Group refused to say whether or not they had a role in the release of the anti-Gore video: “DCI Group does not disclose the names of its clients, nor do we discuss the work that we do on our clients’ behalf,” said Matt Triaca, DCI head of media relations. Despite their denial, DCI has a history of raising doubts about the science of global warming, placing skeptical scientists on talk-radio shows and paying them to write editorials. DCI client Exxon Mobile announced that they did not participate in the creation of the video and did not help release it, according to the Journal article.


Despite the denial of both DCI and Exxon Mobile, the motives behind the producer(s) of the video are clear: cast suspicion on climate change science and confuse the public, prevent people from seeing the movie, and make those who dislike Gore hate him even more. Digging back to the original response to the video, most people who replied believed climate change is real and people are largely responsible for it. There were a few, however, that took the opposite stance, as YouTube member Bear182 writes: “People get real…global warming has been around for millions of years…do your own research . . . Real scientific research is out there for anyone to find. This is all part of a natural cycle. Al Bore is a dummy duh.” To quote Bear182 exactly, all typos remain, notably Gore’s last name spelled as Bore. Bear182′s remark represents the fundamental leap not yet taken by most climate change skeptics: they believe that global warming is occurring, and has occurred in the past, but are not yet willing to accept that humans cause it.

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gores presents a trend known as the Keeling curve, a fact that should dispel the lingering myth that the climate change occurring now is part of some natural cycle. The Keeling curve, named after Dr. Charles David Keeling, depicts the nearly constant rise in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past fifty years. Incorporating these direct atmospheric measurements with various proxy records available from ice cores, scientists can recreate carbon dioxide concentrations over the previous tens of millions of years. The record indicates that in no point during the foreseeable past have carbon dioxide concentrations risen at such a fast rate, and if current trends were to continue, by the year 2100 carbon dioxide will exist in the atmosphere at levels unseen over the past 30 million years.

In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore makes this point vividly, by projecting the Keeling curve along with about the past million years of carbon dioxide concentration data on a large screen. He proceeds to raise himself on an automated escalator to near the top of the screen. He then projects the future century of predicted rises in carbon dioxide, and the million-year trend is startling: it appears as a nearly constant flat line with an upward spike at the end twenty feet tall.

Despite this overwhelming trend with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, videos like “Al Gore’s Penguin Army” still surface and represent a critic that will not go away easily. An interesting difference between Al Gore’s Penguin Army and previous anti-climate change propaganda was its release through YouTube. According to the YouTube web site, its founding mission was to become the place to watch and share videos on the web, enabling its users to become the broadcasters of the future. YouTube is less than two years old, but the site has already become a place to promote songs and upcoming movies to its nearly twenty million unique daily visitors. The Gore penguin movie also shows that YouTube and online video in general have become a large political experiment designed to change and confuse public opinion and alter the public’s perception of the world.

Politics has migrated onto YouTube for several reasons. YouTube does not fully contextualize the circulated material on its site; the creator indicates the content of his or her video(s) through keywords and generic categories such as ‘entertainment’ and ‘sports’. Also, the open-ended aspect of YouTube enables anyone to post content and remain anonymous. With amateur-looking animation able to capture people’s interest without producers resorting to professional methods, astroturfing becomes even more widespread, as apparently the case with Al Gore’s Penguin Army. Astroturfing is a term used to describe a disguise of a client’s agenda as independent public reaction by one or a group of individuals. In this case, a large company can mask its power and use a technology associated with less powerful groups.

With the wide selection of material now uploaded and available through YouTube, it would be hard to come across a video like Al Gore’s Penguin Army.

To further support the notion that the anti-Gore video was a product of astroturfing, from May to early August of 2006, when Google searchers typed “Al Gore” or “Global Warming,” the first sponsored link on the side directed users to the video. The ads were removed only a few days after the Wall Street Journal contacted DCI Group in August 2006. Diana Adair, a Google spokeswoman, said to the Journal that they do not allow advertising text that “advocates against any individual, group or organization”, and will not release the identity of any advertisers (Regalado). However, the Google policy does not apply to sites associated with ad links, the loophole that enabled the link to exist.

On the other side of the climate change debate, Al Gore’s team has also employed the Internet. Paramount Classics, the distributor of An Inconvenient Truth, along with Gore’s consent, created its own YouTube video titled, Al Gore’s Terrifying Message, which depicts Al Gore talking to the robot from the cartoon show Futurama about global warming. This video has been even more popular than Al Gore’s Penguin Army, registering 1.6 million views as of April 24, 2007 compared with Penguin‘s half million, an indicator that the pro-climate change camp is winning the media “war” surrounding this issue.

How do the contents of Al Gore’s Penguin Army fall within the broader efforts throughout media to discredit global warming? Climate change skeptics typically cite and exaggerate unanswered questions in the science, and produce long lists of scientists who dispute global warming, without stating that the list only contains a few percent of the scientific community. Given, scientific consensus has not always proved to be accurate, e.g. with the Biblical version of Earth’s history taken as fact before Darwin, or continental drift theory laughed at before the 1960′s. However, climate change science is based on harder evidence than the supposed evidence in the past for a six thousand-year-old Earth or stationary plates on Earth. Science has progressed immensely since those periods, although given it is not perfect. Agreed, there are open issues in climate science, but with the climate changing, ignoring the threat until every question is settled is like refusing to run from an incoming tsunami along the east coast of the United States simply because no tsunami has hit that region in the past.

Television is another medium that at times also appears to be siding with the anti-climate change camp, discrediting global warming. For example, in December 2004, delegates gathered in Argentina to discuss ongoing problems with the Kyoto Treaty. The media, and particularly television, during this period only briefly mentioned this meeting, but jumped on covering Michael Crichton’s then-new novel that dismissed global warming as a scheme cooked up by scientists looking for funding. A Crichton interview by John Stossel on the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 began with, “He’s concluded [that global warming] is just another media-hyped foolish scare. And many scientists agree with him” (Linden 228).

Stossel’s irresponsible reporting was exacerbated by an article that appeared the same week in Science, which reported that not one scientific paper published on climate change since 1993 challenged the issue that people are changing the climate. So where are these scientists that agree with Crichton? They exist in small numbers, but keep their ideas out of publication.

Entire corporations can also employ various media outlets to discredit global warming science. They thrive on public fear of the government playing a larger role in their lives during a future era of climate consciousness. Al Gore makes a compelling statement in

Comments

  1. Dear Professor Jenkins,

    I’m an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne studying Media & Communication. I was largely inspired by your work in fan culture during the last few weeks as I worked on my final essay for the subject Net Communication. In my essay I used machinima as a case study to analyse the impact of fan culture in economical and technological aspects of cultural convergence.

    May I please invite you to my completed essay in this blog: http://tiansproject.blogspot.com/

    and I will be very honoured to receive your comments.

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Best regards,

    Tian

    ps: I enjoyed reading your books and this blog!

  2. Hey – since you’re a YouTuber, you might want to check this out… There’s a video company that’s recruiting YouTubers and if they like your stuff, (and they should) they will actually pay you when your video gets a hit. Here’s their link http://www.flownetworkproductions.com/videorevenue.htm. It’s about time the people who make the videos get some of the money instead of it all going to YouTube!