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.