Science is Not Enough
Join us as Professor and former White House correspondent Frank Sesno explores the deepening skepticism around climate science and the new roles that universities, media, and the concerned public must play if we are to move from stalemate to solutions.Related Events: Science is Not Enough: How to Make Climate and Sustainability Cool Again
Frank Senso: Thank you very much, Rick, and thanks to you, Dean Van Der Leeuw, for coming here and for hosting me and for the many of you students, faculty and others who I’ve had an opportunity to chat with, chow down a little bit, to sustain with today. It’s really great to see you.
How many students, just out of curiosity–whoa. School of Sustainability students? They’re all sustaining 4.0, I hope. That’s good.
Senso: Faculty, how many faculty? Okay, great. Community members? Awesome, that’s great. Well, welcome. Who did I leave out? What categories did I leave out? Staff, oh my God. Staff? There we go. All right, good, well, it’s a great pleasure to be here, although these days, it’s a great pleasure to be anyplace but Washington D.C.
Senso: I was recently vacationing out in Colorado, climbing mountains and generally trying to get away, and people are very friendly in Colorado. Anybody here from Colorado? Okay. Very, very friendly, and they always ask, “Where are you from?” and I had to say Washington D.C. and I would get these sort of icy glares.
Senso: I was like, “It’s not my fault,” I’d say. It’s very nice to get outside of Washington. I want to talk to you about a number of things here today. I also want this to be interactive, so if you’re really not able to contain yourself, because we’ll do questions at the end and I mentioned to the students earlier, make them tough, make them snarky, because that’s what I do so I expect it back. But, if you can’t contain yourselves, I live in an interactive world. We all have smartphones. I have three children who were born with remotes, so just belt it out and ask a question and I’ll stop and take it.
I want to start by establishing the stakes here. Off the students–raise your hands, students, raise your hand. Okay, gentleman with the green t-shirt. What year were you born?
Senso: 1986. What do you think, based on the actuarial tables in your own family history, and I hope it’s a good one, that you’ll live until when? How old do you think you’ll be? Do you want to hit 90 and 100?
Senso: 90, okay. You were born in ’86, so what year would you live until? 2076. That’s pretty remarkable to think about. If you had kids, if you decide to do that maybe 10 years from now and the kid was to live until 85, what year would the kid live until? That’s a quick math thing. I want to see how well you do.
Senso: 2162, I don’t think quite that long, but you’ve got good genes so I wish you luck on that, but let’s put it this way. Your kid will see 2100, your kid will see 2100, quite likely your kid will see 2100. You will be in the prime of your work life in the year 2050.
What we’re talking about, when we talk sustainability when we talk about climate change, when we talk about modeling, it’s not a model. It’s the real world. It’s your life. It’s your life. You will directly, through your children, see the year, most likely, I hope, see the year 2100. When we read about what the sea level rise is going to be in 2050, I think, and I have done this all my life–I mean, do I write about 100 years or a century. When I write a story, I actually make a choice there, because it’s a question of, do I want to–if I want to emphasize more time, I might say a century, because a century somehow sounds like a long time.
I remember when I was in school and I read 1984, it’s a big George Orwell book, we’ve all read it, it seemed like, oh, ’84, that’s like forever from now, only it was not. It was 10 years away, maybe. Ten years, as you find out, goes really fast.
I want to establish that that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the future, but it is your future and it’s not some trite, silly cliché. It’s the real deal.
I mentioned I was so thrilled to get out of Washington, and it’s true, but Washington is a fascinating place, and I had an amazing day yesterday. I’m going to start by telling you a little story about my day yesterday, because it was fun, but it’s also a metaphor, I think, for the challenge that we face and what I want to talk a little bit about with you here today.
We have this Planet Forward thing, and it’s fun and I do a bunch of stuff with that, and I teach a class that’s related to that, and one of my student’s assignments, which they’re now working on, is the Solar Decathlon. Anybody here know what the Solar Decathlon is? What’s the Solar Decathlon, lady with the hand up.
Audience: [Inaudible 05:01]
Senso: Nope, next?
Audience: [Inaudible 05:07]
Senso: Who’s they?
Audience: Every university all over the world, build houses that are portable [inaudible 05:16]–
Senso: Yup, well it’s just off them all. They put them up yesterday, yesterday was press day. I went down. It is the coolest thing. 19 teams from New Zealand, from Germany, from Vermont, from Southern California, from all over the country with tremendously interesting designs, technologies, sustainability baked into every corner of every building. The one from Maryland was especially interesting, because they’re using waterfalls as humidity absorbers inside to reduce the stress on the air conditioning. Of course, if you asked them how much that costs or how much it would cost to go to market, they don’t have an answer for that, but we’re in the early stages.
But, it was so exciting. All these teams, 19 of them, there was a 20th team from Hawaii that didn’t show up. I’m not quite sure how to figure that out. They spent two years building their house and they took a wrong turn or they thought it was Washington state, not D.C., so somewhere out in Tacoma, they’ve got something really interesting going on.
Senso: But, it’s just starting now, it will go through October 3rd, the most optimistic, creative, innovative, fabulous display of creativity and research and building. I wandered around with a guy who is with the National Association of Home Builders who was my truth teller. I was doing this for a piece I’m preparing for public television, and we would visit these different homes.
There was one that’s wrapped. It looks like a big egg, because the insulation is on the outside. Instead of between the walls, there’s 18 inches of insulation on the outside, and it’s held in place with this cabling thing. It’s this really funky looking design, but the idea here is you have 18 inches of insulation on the outside, so you don’t have all the holes you poke in a wall when you build a house traditionally for your plugs and your light switches and other things that poke through the insulation which all become losses, among other interesting things.
I said to him, would you build with this? He said, “I’m not sure I would. I need to know a lot more about this. How long would this last? Would the building inspector allow it?” Practicality isn’t necessarily baked into every one of these, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s about the process of discovery, and that’s what was so exciting. Big thoughts, the sky is the limit, explore the future.
Well, in the evening, just because sleep is vastly underrated, as I mentioned earlier today, I moderated a session over at the Newseum, sponsored by a new group called the United States Energy Security Counsel. Jim Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, Bud McFarlane, Robert McFarlane, former National Security advisor to President Reagan, Alan Greenspan was there. He needed translation, but we finally got through it.
Senso: He is neither irrational, nor exuberant these days, less so today than he was yesterday. [Laughter] A couple senators, Gary Hart, former Senator Gary Hart were there, and these people have joined formed assistance secretary of the Air Force, former commandant of the Marine Corps, were there to make the case for the need for change and reform from the perspective of America National Security.
Their proposal is depressingly simple, and it is that they were up on The Hill, lobbying The Hill, to pass a bill that was submitted in a bipartisan fashion yesterday, simply to require, over a great deal of time, that any car sold in this country contain a flex fuel sensor, which costs around $100 so that a car could run on a variety of fuels, gasoline, ethanol, methanol, what have you.
What was depressing about it was that’s all they were asking for, because they can’t get any more off The Hill. They know the auto industry will oppose it, and the pitch they’re making is we have to break the monopoly of oil, because 97 percent of what drives our transportation fleet is oil/petroleum based.
The way they’re going to do it is by putting this flex fuel sensor in every car, and that will create the marketplace for these other fuels, because many of these other fuels will be cheaper. Methanol would be cheaper.
What came up repeatedly, was the comparison to Brazil. Anybody here been to Brazil? Okay, and you’ve seen what they’re doing in Brazil, right? 40 percent, roughly, of their fuels, transportation fuel, is grown in the sugarcane fields, sugarcane ethanol.
But here’s the difference. In Brazil–oh, here’s the other comparison. Roughly ever car, new car sold in Brazil, is a flex fuel vehicle. When I was down there working on a story I was doing, I was driving a rented Chevrolet through the sugarcane fields on 100 percent straight alcohol, alcohol they say at the pumps, and I looked to the camera and I say, “Why can I drive a Chevrolet flex fuel vehicle like this in Brazil, and I can’t do it in the United States of America?”
Essentially, that’s what these gentlemen are saying. It’s absolutely unconscionable that Brazil is eating our lunch on something that we should pioneer for about $100 a vehicle.
Here’s the difference, though. When they pioneered this technology, if you can call it pioneering, in Brazil, they required that every service station in the country sell the alternative fuel. When you pull into any service station in Brazil, you can buy gasoline, you can buy alcohol, you can buy ethanol, and you can put any mix, so depending on the price fluctuations of any one of those things, you can decide what to put in your car and your car will read it and be fine.
These guys don’t want to require that in this country, and they say, “We want to let the marketplace work.” If you create the market in the vehicle, then the market will take over and the cheaper fuels will grow from there. Maybe they’re right. I think, clearly, it’s going to take a lot longer. It’s a lot less onerous, because we’re in an anti-regulatory mood these days. If you require businesses to put in tanks, it costs a lot of money to do that or to clean out the old ones, but here’s what was depressing about it. They had been up on the hill and they were basically told, “Nothing is going to happen on this or anything else by Republicans and Democrats alike.” These are veterans. One of the senators who was there was Bennett Johnston of Louisiana. Essentially, they’re saying they’ve not quite seen it like this before.
Now, in this environment, I felt yesterday like I’d started the day on this incredible high hanging around these young people who were building for the future, ending the day with, I think, the term we use is veterans, [laughter] who had had the political reality of paralysis on the most modest of proposals shoved in their faces. It was like a pie in your face at the end of the day.
This is where I start from, that engaging this challenge, talking about climate which is such a complicated emotional issue for so many people, has been made much more difficult by our political environment, and science is not enough. The scientific knowledge that we’ve got, simply isn’t adequate to win the day politically, and even with the public.
That’s why I entitled my talk, Science is Not Enough: How to Make Climate and Sustainability Cool Again. I thought it was kind of a clever title, I sort of liked it.
Senso: Kind of cool. I get it. Let me start with the notion of science for a minute. We were talking about this earlier. What is science? Science is a process, a discipline. The more data, the more science, the more information, the more we know, we build on what we’ve learned, the more we understand.
I looked it up in the dictionary just to be sure, and one definition is, knowledge as of facts or principles. Knowledge gained by systematic study. I don’t think we could think for a moment that anything that happens in Washington, or really anywhere else these days, is really systematic, unless it’s just sort of a systematic waste of time. We collect data in science. We construct models. Information leads to understanding. We build on all of that to create knowledge, which is why we work in universities and why universities are so exciting to be in.
Here’s the problem, though. That’s not how people work, most people. It’s certainly not how politics work, and it’s not how the media work. I want to talk a today a little bit about what that means, what the challenges are that that presents, what we can do about it, what the opportunities are, maybe some of the obligations that universities have, maybe new obligations that universities have, to enter the fray, and how we can make it all compelling, engaging, meaningful, smart, maybe a little clever, maybe, God forbid, cool.
Now as was mentioned, I started this project, Planet Forward which has been a lot of fun and I’m going to talk more about that in a minute and I’ll show you a clip. You can overt your eyes, because there’s this really ugly guy doing the thing, and I’ve really enjoyed that. Fundamentally, because I believe in the power of storytelling, but I also believe, and it’s why I based it at George Washington University, and the power of the university and all that it represents to pull people together, like in this room.
Young people who are students, accomplished people who are scientists, people who are staff who are working every day, people in the community who come because you’re interested. This place has a special credibility, it has a special draw. It can reach beyond the classroom. It can have an impact that goes beyond however brilliant your professor is, what she tells you at the front of the class.
Your bring those things together, and it’s incredible what we can do, and boy do we need it, because as I say, Washington is broke, the media are a mess and the public is confused and angry and frustrated and scared. This issue, this climate issue, this thing is so important, and from a public policy point of view, virtually stagnant that we’re sort of in condition red here a little bit, I think.
Here’s the question, though. In the end, will the public rally to it? What’s going on? Well, not too long ago, a new poll reported on NPR caught my ear, caught my ear, not my eye, NPR.
Senso: Suggesting that we’re going backwards in this whole thing. 18 percent, almost one in five say they don’t think global warming is happening at all. Fewer than half believe that if it is happening, that it’s caused primarily by human activity. This is the one I like, doctor scientist. Only 39 percent of people in this poll believe, and I’m quoting the poll, most scientists think global warming is happening. That number, by the way, is down from 47 percent in November of 2008. 40 percent of people think, I’m quoting again from the poll, 40 percent think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.
Not only do people not know the science, they don’t know the scientists who know the science. Maybe that’s encouraging. That was a Washington Post poll.
Now, the good news is, especially for those of you who have been watching closely, the presidential electing is certain to shed more light on this topic.
Senso: We can expect deep and thoughtful consideration to the issue.
Senso: We can assure that the media covering it will peel back the onion and look at who’s telling the truth and where that information is coming from, that sound bites won’t prevail. I’m not sure about that, because sound bites will prevail, from Barrack Obama saying that all it will take is green energy to deliver jobs and prosperity, which is way oversimplified and is–when I was doing one of my documentaries, I visited the National Renewable Energy Labs in Boulder, and I was walking around with this really cool guy who was the lead engineer on the wind turbines and wind power.
We were walking past this ginormous turbine, and the camera’s rolling and I think I have got just a dead shot swish from center court question. I said, “By the way, where was this made?” thinking he was going to say Madison, Wisconsin or something. He said, “Brazil.”
Senso: I said, “Brazil? Why is it made in Brazil?” He said, “Because they make it cheaper down there,” but he says, “I’m sure that once we get to scale, we’ll make them in this country. We all know what China is doing with solar power and what’s happening there. He’s not alone in the sound bite department. Anybody see Governor Rick Perry recently who accused scientists of manipulating data, and Michele Bachmann who says that climate change is a hoax.
The idea that our politicians are going to enlighten us in a meaningful and ongoing way is sort of just this side of fiction. It remains a partisan issue. A new IPSO survey found that 72 percent of Republicans, as opposed to 92 percent of Democrats, believe that global warming is happening. While that still represents three-quarters of Republicans and a critical mass, that should be a clear signal to politicians on both sides, there is a very substantial gap and that gap broadens as you drill down into the internals of the polling.
One element of which, is that the skeptics are becoming more entrenched, it would seem. This IPSO poll found that in 2010, a year ago, 35 percent of those who identified themselves as climate skeptics said they were certain of their beliefs. Today, that number is 53 percent.
Why so much controversy with this stuff when the science seems so compelling? As I said, because most people are not scientific in the way they absorb their information. They are not scientific in the way they go about their lives. They are not scientific in the way they process information to craft their opinions and beliefs.
I have watched this all my career, and it’s a fascinating thing. I taught a class on media bias, which is also a class on personal bias, because very much, what you see depends upon where you stand. Peoples’ beliefs come, yes, from school and the science courses they took there, but also from friends, community, experience, their trust or lack of it in the institutions that are feeding them the various bits of knowledge or information, from the media, from the belief systems that they bring to life to the table, from their inherent biases and from their own observations.
That last one, observation, may actually be one reason why that last poll shows some small movement, because people have been observing rougher weather. What have we had? 10 billion dollar or greater weather events and national disasters just in the last year, and we know what the temperatures have been doing when measured against historical records.
It’s maybe nice that people are moving a little bit, but it’s a little slow if we’re going to expect any meaningful change, and that was certainly reinforced by that experience I mentioned to you yesterday in Washington.
There is so little consensus across the aisle in D.C., and there’s foot dragging in the high-growth developing countries, so just plain, little compelling leadership on this issue.
Now, I’m not doing this to brown nose because I’m at ASU or because Michael Crowe isn’t here, but I know he’s watching the webcast, but Michael Crowe, the president of ASU said the following, “What is it that makes it so difficult to move from what is to what ought to be, I term our president predicament the collapse of the interface. We know more and more and our knowledge means less and less.” He sees a direct challenge to science, and he observes we’ve not developed an adequate interface between science and society, and that is true.
We talked about this earlier. It is a profound challenge to science and scientists all over the world are running around scratching their heads saying, “How do we do this better?” How many of you guys have visited TED.com, TED Talks? Anybody seen Hans Rosling’s washing machine presentation? Above and below the washing line, there he is on stage with a washing machine. A brilliant illustration that everybody can understand. It’s probably not what you’d see in the front of the class, and it’s probably not what very many media organizations I know would go out of their way to illustrate in order to convey a complex point. Yes, president Crowe, true enough.
Media are often the interface. I mean, the beauty of TED, is that the interface is a mere click. It’s mere conveyance. There isn’t actually an interface beyond the technology it takes you to watch the talk itself. Media, I think, have not developed an adequate interface, because we haven’t made science real, compelling, approachable. Most journalists don’t understand it themselves, because very few are scientists. In the journalistic organizations, media organizations that had science reporters, many of them have been cut, and so this gets caught up instead, like so much in the journalistic world and in the world of politics and policy, as a war of sound bites, as sort of a crossfire moment, as little one-dimensional bits and pieces.
Now, a couple minutes on the media, by the way, because I’ll savage them, but I come from them. There’s that old Saturday Night Live skit, baseball’s been very good to me, well, media has been okay [laughter] and I enjoy it, I love it. It’s got such incredible power, which is why I feel so strongly about this and I want to do this with students and with others.
I’ve had an unbelievable opportunity to travel the world and to see history from a front row. If you’ll forgive me for just a moment, I’ll tell you that I was on the tarmac when America’s hostages came out of Iran. I was in [inaudible 24:52] when the hostages filed off that plane. I was in St. Peter’s Square after a pope was shot. People around, I had been in London, I had just come back to London, I was based in London at the time. They said, “Get to Rome, the Pope’s been shot,” and I didn’t believe them, but it unfortunately was true and I got there within a few hours.
I was attached to the White House, assigned to the White House when President Reagan stood before–and I was with him, when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and nobody thought it would ever happen. In fact, we all thought he was–and in fact, is National Security staff thought he was doing something terribly dangerous and provocative by going to the wall and saying such a thing.
I was at the White House during the days with Oliver North, for those of you who can do Trivial Pursuit. Oliver North, which scandal?
Senso: Iran-Contra, oh, good, I like this. On the air when the Supreme Court decided the dispute of presidential election, all of a sudden we had that in our laps, I was bureau chief at CNN when 9-11 took place, and I was on the West front of the capital standing on our scaffolding when Barrack Obama took the oath of office, first African American in history in this remarkable history of this country.
Now, Jim’s heard me say this. I say this, not to name drop, maybe a little, [laughter] but really to make a larger point. Forrest Gump I’ve been hanging around a lot, life is not like a box of chocolates, but it is an amazing thing. I have seen the power, because I was at CNN when CNN was brand new, to connect people with ideas, to show them pictures, to inform them, to illuminate them, to motivate them.
I had an incredible opportunity to interview Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, and I asked him, what was the secret of the Velvet Revolution? How did that happen? How did you throw off communism? You know what his answer was? Remember when this was. I interviewed him in ’94, so it’s a while ago. He said, the secret was the fax machine, because for the first time, we had a piece of technology and we could blast pieces of paper around and instructions for people and in run the authorities.
But I’ve also seen, and I’m sorry to say this, the media lose its way, and it’s one of the reasons, to be honest, I went to the university and established this project at the university. Cutbacks, ratings, the bottom line, these kinds of pressures have led to terrible cuts and hacks in the craft, I think. By one estimate, over the past 12 years, more than $1 billion per year, sort of on an annualized basis, has been removed from mainstream news gathering, with less than $200 million being put back in, in new online journalism.
The media have fragmented, audiences have diminished across the board, Washington Post has about a third less of the circulation that it did. Newsweek was sold for a dollar. Its record, recently, it hit six pages of advertising in one of its additions. The bedrock of all journalism, really, is newspapers, because that’s where the digging is taking place. In Denver, in Seattle, in Detroit, in Philadelphia, papers have been closed or have been so downsized that they’re barely recognizable.
Then there’s the attitude. Now, I like attitude just fine, but there is a bias in the media. That will probably surprise you that I would say such a thing, but it’s, in my view, not principally left and right, although it’s more so now in some places, proudly, than it was before.
It’s principally a negative bias. It’s the scoundrels, it’s the scandal, it’s the conflict, it’s the screaming. Some of that is as it should be, by the way, because media, the journalism, we were setup to be the watchdogs, to hold people in places of power to account. It’s a very important part of our republic, but we’ve gotten carried away with this, because guess what sells. It’s the attack that sells, and some of this is natural.
To the students in the room, if you sign the little decree that lets your parents actually see your grades and your grades went home and you got three A’s and one D, what do you think would be asked about first, right? Some of this negativity bias is what we’re all about. The story, as we like to say, is the plane–we don’t like to say, but the story is the plane that crashes, not the plane that lands, but we’ve gotten carried away with this.
What do we do about it? How do we connect these dots, back to the university? What this university is doing is a remarkable series of things, a start, a very dramatic one is science, engineering, technology, through Lightworks, the Decision Center and Decision Theater and the 100 Cities Project and, what is it, Campus Metabolism, this web tool where you can actually see in real time where and how energy is being used. It’s a very cool thing, you showed that to me when I was here before. Through the Okala Sustainability Initiative, the doctorate you’ve got in environmental design and planning.
These are remarkable, and in many cases as we were discussing, at least in intent, if not in complete execution yet, interdisciplinary approaches, whereas too often, we’re not interdisciplinary enough.
Other schools are doing, or trying to do, somewhat similar things. They’ve established institutes and centers and labs and major research initiatives from Yale to Bard, from Stanford to Oregon State. I especially like what Oregon State University has done. Anybody know what Oregon State University has done?
Audience: [Inaudible 30:58]
Senso: Yeah, but the one that I think is really cool, is they’ve hooked up all their elliptical machines so when you go in and you workout, you generate power.
Senso: I like that. I mean, it’s probably enough to recharge one iPod, but it makes you feel good and it’s good for your heart at the same time. GW is climbing onto this initiative and I think will be developing more things over time. They’ve just launched a major solar installation in the middle of town. We’re warring with American University to say, mirror, mirror on the wall, whose solar is better than the other ones, and Planet Forward, which I started.
As you pointed out, and I think this is kind of neat, I like to say this is not a television show with a website, it’s a website with a television show. Sort of think YouTube for sustainability. We focus on innovation, we invite people in, and then if you’ve got a good idea, it sort of climbs up the media food chain and ultimately can make it into the TV show.
The idea here, and what I want to do, is how do we use media? Can we use media to encourage the innovators, to reward and highlight the inventors, to take people who are actually seeking solutions and make them famous? Take their idea and put it on TV in the middle of Washington D.C. and have a policymaker staring right at that screen. Is it going to inspire them to pass a silly little piece of legislation in Washington by itself? Probably not, but we need to and can now because of the media tools that we all now have, take some of this in our own hands, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.
We now have about 1,000 videos that have been posted. The latest round, we have from 30 different universities but also from entrepreneurs and scientists and advocates and businesses across the country and even around the world. We had a group, one of our other finalists from Columbia, Engineers Without Borders went to Ghana and put up this really out there video about these, sort of solar-powered toilets for lack of a better term, to turn waste into energy. Sort of a delicious concept, not around dinnertime conversation, but it works.
But what we’re looking for, too, is to help people be storytellers, tell their own story. We tell businesses or entrepreneurs if they want to put something up, be informational, not promotional.
I started this as an experiment with a room full of students. They joined me when I said, somewhere in this room is the next Gates or Zuckerberg, so let’s go do something together. They helped us name the project, which I think is also very cool, Planet Forward. It’s about the planet and it’s about moving forward. It’s fundamentally optimistic in its nature. It says we can solve this if we can find the right ideas and apply them in the right ideas. If we can take the right research, knowledge, and put it to work in the right way.
Now, I had to change it a little bit, because when I first started this, this is my learning process, our motto to get people launched was, Planet Forward, make your case. The idea was, you like coal, okay, go ahead, make your case. You like solar, you think solar can be brought to scale, make your case.
We had a number of videos this way. It was really interesting. We got this young man standing on a mountaintop where coal had been removed, saying this should be a wind farm and a wind farm would be more sustainable and he explained why. We had a state senator from West Virginia say why she thought coal was a good thing and all the jobs it provided.
But, I kind of felt that it wasn’t really moving the needle much, that the sort of make your case, everybody’s got an attitude, an axe to grind. You can find that in a lot of places, so we switched it over to this notion of innovation and invention, because that takes us to a different place. It takes us out of the debate and into the discovery, which I think is fundamentally exciting. That’s part of the cool part of it.
What I’d like to do, if I can figure out–do you want to help me with this? You told me, stand to the left–no? What I want to do, is I want to roll in a few minutes for you, which I will do. That’s my older brother.
Senso: I want to roll in a few minutes from the special. The way the media chain, the media ladder works, what we’re trying to do here, is take the good ideas and they start online, and then we do a weekly webisode where we highlight one of the good ideas, and then we do a monthly piece on public television, Nightly Business Report, where we highlight an innovation. Then we go through Huffington Post and [inaudible 35:37] and all these other things.
Then we finally come out here. This is the show we shot in April to air around Earth Day. It ultimately aired on most every public television station in the country. We ended up with an audience in excess of about 1.2 million, which in this day and age ain’t bad. We were in nine of the ten largest markets. I haven’t figured out what happened in that 10th one yet, but I’ll get even.
But, what I want to show you here is one particular clip. Here’s what I thought, and, guys, have at it. If you think this is just the dumbest thing, please tell me when we’re done, but it’s about five minutes here.
What we did, is we took the pieces and we had some students report some stuff out, we had other people who had just submitted their own pieces. What we found over time, is that people are not yet quite there as storytellers, and they don’t have the sort of journalistic chops to say, well this sounds good, but what’s the fact check on this. What’s the reality check? What’s the pushback that we might need to do that ourselves?
We also found, anybody here watch the Olympics? Okay, so the Olympics is more about the people than it is about the sport, at the end. Actually, it starts to get a little annoying after a while, right? But, what Rune Arlidge, who started this thing when he was president of ABC Sports found, is that you relate to the story of the people. You want someone to root for, and the more you know them, the more you root for them. I think that happens on campus here in a few cases. You have a team.
One of the things we want to do that people aren’t quite there, is how to tell a story. How to wrap it around a character. How to make somebody seem funny, weird, sad, whatever it is that makes them stand out and makes them be memorable.
This is a piece one of the seven finalists we had on the show, one of the others was from ASU, was on ASU’s Lightworks project. This is not that one. This is a piece that was authored by my students that I then went and ran with. It’s then followed by a panel. Three people on the panel, Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan governor, a guy by the name of Tom Connelly who’s the senior vice president of chief innovation officer at DuPont, so industry, and Andy Revkin who’s been here and been one of your speakers, who’s the Dot Earth New York Times blogger.
Jennifer Granholm, at the end, referred to this as Innovation Idol, and I kind of like that. Here is a few minutes from Innovation Idol.
[Video Clip Played 38:22 – 44:53]
Senso: This was actually a little controversial, the cartoon, because some people thought it was wonderful and loved it, and others thought we were sort of dumbing it down and being silly and being a little childish. I decided I’d ere on the side of being silly and childish, because I don’t think most people know what argon is. I don’t think most people–in fact, I’ve said to my students, I said, “Do you realize, a window is not just a piece of glass and there’s gas in between?” and they have no idea, and I actually learned from this. You can weigh in on this, if you’d like.
A couple of final points, and then I’ll open it up to your comments and questions. We had seven finalists at this thing, as I mentioned, including Arizona State. Our winner, the person who was voted in the audience was a small business in California called Sungevity, which was doing solar leasing. He was selling solar panels, but you don’t actually buy them, you lease them. You have a $50 a month charge for them, a 10-year lease, but you expend no money upfront. He was voted most innovative, because it was an innovative take on the financial model, on the business model.
Our other winning team came from the University of Arkansas. It was a research team out of a lab where they were working with algae to biofuels, to butanol specifically, and developing a small pump to be sold for about $25,000 to farms and water treatment plans and various things like that.
What did we learn in this process? I think we learned, and I hope we conveyed here, information about the science, information about the need, information about the bottom line, a little sense of things. There’s no politics in here, [laughter] because this is about businesses and ideas that work, so we leapfrog that entirely. I hope we conveyed some of the science, some of the information behind it. Our intent was to reach a general public and a slightly more educated and older demographic because it’s through public television, through the web, it’s a much younger demographic.
What we’re going to do next, is we’ll do another one of these. We’re collecting additional videos now. Our next monthly pop will be on the Decathlon. Our next special will be shot in the spring, only now I’m going to attach a conference to it, so when all these students and others come to Washington, we’ll create an opportunity for them interact with other scientists and involve people.
We at GW are really lucky because we’re just down the street from the White House, and I attended the speech that President Obama made back in April there on the deficit. It wasn’t a great speech, I have to tell you. I was sort of disappointed in a few parts of it, but he did say something that I think really resonates with me and should resonate with all of us. He said the following, “America is a land of opportunity and optimism. We’re a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We’ve led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives. That’s who we are.”
He’s right, and that is the story. The story of American competitiveness and human ingenuity and the opportunity to compete and to win, not just in traditional ways, but in the technological ways that truly move the planet forward, and that’s what I hope we can capture here. I think there is an opportunity for those of us in universities to use this platform.
I think there is a need for it, because whether this was a great idea and well executed or not, I promise you that this sort of thing is not happening much in mainstream media, which is what most Americans are exposed to. Unless they are going out of their way to consume this information, it’s not being presented to them in an easy and accessible way.
I think we need to think differently. I think we need to bring different people around the table and try stories in different and unconventional ways to make climate and sustainability cool again. When I say science isn’t enough, I mean that in no way disrespectfully [laughter]to the scientists in the room, but I mean it as a prod to all of us.
Thank you very much, and I’d be delighted to take your questions or comments now. You hated it, didn’t you?
Audience: I wanted–
Audience: –your cartoons to get the physics right in the cartoon.
Senso: Uh-oh, did it get it wrong?
Audience: Yes, it got it wrong.
Senso: Tell me.
Audience: Argon, the properties of Argon is not that much different than a lot of other gases as far as conduction is concerned. What it does is suppress convection, because it works like molasses. That’s the insulated effect, so it’s not conduction, it’s convection. It was a little skewed. Again, the real phenomena of that glass is the low emissivity of the surfaces, because radiation loss is much bigger than convective losses. I think that would have been a better way of looking at that, because that’s almost magical in a way, the low emissivity and how you deal with radiation. Again, I think that would have been a much more significant–
Senso: We need you on our advisory board. We need you on our editorial board.
Audience: [Laughter] Just need better science.
Senso: Yeah. What’s that?
Audience: What’s emissivity?
Senso: What’s emissivity?
Audience: The ability to reflect in the infrared, basically.
Audience: [Inaudible 50:42]
Senso: [Laughter] Yes, ma’am?
Audience: Thank you very much for your talk. Scientists are notoriously not very effective communicators with the community at large, and so I was wondering if you think that it’s the academic community’s obligation to improve, and if so, how should we go about doing that?
Senso: A loaded question.
Senso: Well, I think we just had an example of this, because I had no idea what you were talking about.
Senso: [Laughter] He dumbed it down too much for you, so for me, from my perspective, we provided some information that people didn’t have before. From your perspective, we provided inadequate or incomplete or even incorrect information. Splitting that difference is really, really hard.
Does the academic community–was your question, have an obligation to be better communicators? You can go to a lecture from your professor on Appomattox [laughter] and it can be riveting, and there can be another professor down the hall giving a talk on the exact same topic and it’s deadly dull.
Anybody who’s a teacher who hopes to connect with people, has to be a great communicator. Apologies to any suggestions that may raise about parallels. At least that’s what I think. If I am brilliant but I put you to sleep, I’m a great researcher maybe, I hope I’m a terrific author, but I’m not going to be connecting well as a teacher.
Then the question becomes, who are we trying to teach. Are you just trying to teach the audience in the classroom, or are you trying to teach and reach a larger audience? I like to think that we have obligations to be powerful, effective, memorable communicators. Good teachers do, and good teachers will take that out of the classroom, whether it’s to the dining room over dinner with their families or a party with a bunch of people saying, “You discovered a dinosaur bone from where, from when, how?”
We were talking a little bit about this earlier. When I speak to a group or I do a documentary or I do a piece, I actually, the first thing I think about is, who’s my audience, because I speak differently to different audiences. If this program had been, maybe on the science channel, if this program had been at a convention–I’m doing something with the AAAS, the American Association for The Advancement of Science, I don’t think I would have done it like this. [Laughter]
Senso: Right? Because you’re speaking at a different level. I first ask, who’s my audience, and a good communicator will do that and will tailor their message, background their information, to suit the audience. Yes, ma’am?
Audience: Hi, I work for a regulator, and energy efficiency is really popular, really fast payback, but it seems that the problem is financing, that people don’t have access to financing. If you look at solar, well here we are, we’re really sunny, so you get a lot of kilowatt hours, but it takes longer to get the payback. Then, there’s other issues because you’ve got the incumbent players that you’re displacing. But, it seems that one of the keys is financing, and can you comment on that?
Senso: [Laughter] We need it, but I don’t know how many of you have been following the Solyndra disaster very closely, and this, too, has gotten very political. What’s so interesting about this, is this is fundamentally about financing. One of the other people we’ve worked with in this program, in fact he was on the panel on the little pilot program we did, a guy by the name of Jim Conant, and Jim Conant was George W. Bush’s chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and he’s not a senior executive with Constellation Energy. Constellation Energy very nearly built a nuclear power plant, but it fell apart because they couldn’t get the government-backed loan guarantees they were looking for because nuclear is so expensive.
Solyndra was the same thing. I mean, clearly there have been other mistakes, but fundamentally, they were seeking government-backed or government-guaranteed loans to get a business off the ground in an area where the competition with the Chinese is fierce because the Chinese are underwriting everything.
Getting the financing in place, getting the loan guarantees in place is absolutely critical, and that’s one of the policy questions that we’ve got to deal with in this country, and that is, how serious are we really and what are we really prepared to invest and risk, because not all businesses will be successful. It’s a really hard time to do that, too, in this sort of budget-crunched, debt-squeezed era. Sir?
Audience: I come from the science community, and we–
Senso: Do you have a mic for–here we go.
Audience: Frank, I come from the science community and we beat ourselves up about our inability to communicate. In fact, I play an important role on the national scene where we’re telling ourselves, as a science community, we need to be better communicators. We’re graduating scientists and we graduate journalists. In your mind, you run a journalism school, what is the role of the university when it comes to graduating journalists who maybe have some science literacy?
Senso: It should be greater. I’ve been talking to our folks at GW because we’re thinking about our own sustainability initiatives, and if I had my way, no scientist would graduate without having exposure to the media and communication programs, and no journalist or communicator would graduate without having some grounding in science.
Now, whether they’re going to be able to stand up and talk about–what was it?
Audience: [Inaudible 56:51]
Senso: That, [laughter] is another matter, but we better have the basics, the basics there. The guy who did that animation, by the way, he’s very talented. He does it for CBS Sunday Morning. I don’t know how many of you have seen him there, but he, like most people in journalism, are generalists, and that’s the price you pay, and that’s a problem across journalism.
But, I think if we’re going to be serious about sustainability, you would not come out with a degree or a certificate or whatever we’re going to call it at GW in sustainability, without exposure to what does sustainable business mean and look like. What does science mean and look like? What do we know? How do you convey it and communicate it, because if you can’t communicate it, probably in many ventures in life, you’re not going to succeed. People who can communicate it well are just going to do better.
I think there needs to be a very deliberate and very thoughtful interdisciplinary, mega-disciplinary approach to this, which makes it a lot harder because it’s very hard to do all these things and do them all well. Yes, ma’am, in the back? Oh, sorry, you’ve got the mic. Go ahead.
Audience: I was wondering if you are suggesting that cartoons are an effective way of communicating science, and if, like you mentioned in the title of your talk, would that make it cool?
Senso: [Laughter] It depends on the cartoon. I’m just a little out there. For years, I did the standard, I’m standing in front of the White House, I’m Frank Sesno and the President said today, and very, very kind of traditional television. We don’t work like that. Our brains aren’t wired like that anymore. How many people have a smartphone? Okay. How many people have iPads here? How many people have Twitter accounts here? Okay, so your world lives in 140 characters. I mean, imagine if John and Abigail Adams had had Twitter. They never would have written all those brilliant letters.
Senso: And the world would be sorrier for it. When John McCain was running for President, when he talked about energy, he talked about the all of the above strategy. We need an all of the above strategy. I think we need to do all of these things. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have books that people read and articles that people read and very serious stories that people read, but I think there are cases where getting a little out there is okay.
Everybody here has been on YouTube, right? Everybody knows YouTube? All right, I’m going to ask a question. How many people here have seen the video, one of the most famous videos on YouTube and elsewhere, Charlie Bit My Finger?
Senso: Raise your hands. Okay. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s the dumbest little thing. It’s a little kid with his little brother on his lap, he puts his finger in his little brother’s mouth. What does his brother do? He bites his finger. He’s a little English kid, so he’s got this adorable English accent, “Charlie bit my finger.”
Senso: 350 million views last time I saw. Imagine if we had 350 million views of something that conveyed information.
Senso: All right? Do I think that cartoons might have a role? Charlie, bite my finger, yeah, whatever it takes, I’ll do it.
Senso: Yeah. Oh, sorry, in the back, you have the mike, you were next.
Audience: Well, I just wanted to also support that. I give talks around the valley on how to go green, how to save money doing energy efficiency and stuff in your house, and I always interject in my talks a small discussion on what climate change is. I have a science background, so I felt that was really important, but I also felt the majority of the public, I’m afraid do need cartoons.
They need it really simplistically, and so when I first was setting up my first PowerPoint, I got all my charts from websites that were teaching climate change to children. They’re very simplistic, it was very easy to explain and I get the best feedback from people coming up and say, “I never understood what they talked about.”
Senso: Really, they come up to you and they say that?
Audience: They do. They are happy. Well, these small groups of people. [Laughter]
Senso: I don’t know whether you’re to be congratulated or we should all cry, but–
Audience: Well, like you said, we have to find every opportunity to teach people, to educate people, so if you have an opportunity in a talk you’re giving to change a dynamic, get rid of the doubt, reinforce science some way, I say go for it.
Senso: I agree and I applaud you for what you’re doing, and one of the challenges that we face when we have to tell ourselves this all the time, and I do a number of things in Washington, but one of the conversations I’ve been part of is the whole question of the country’s diplomacy and development budget and what we’re doing in terms of international development.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the polling, but a large cluster, it’s not a majority, it’s not even a plurality, I think, but it’s a very, very large, the largest cluster if you ask people 1 to 2 percent, 2 to 10 percent, whatever, clusters around 15 to 20-odd percent of the budget, which is what they think our development budget is. The country’s development budget is about one percent, less than one percent.
This is what we’re up against. If people are operating with fundamentally incorrect information in as supercharged an environment as we are now where opinion flies, they will form their opinion, obviously, based around incorrect information and then we’re screwed. [Laughter] It just becomes a circular kind of thing. Getting in and breaking that is a big challenge for the media, because can you really write the same story over and over and over again?
The variation on the cartoon question is, we just have to find 100 different ways to report the information if we know people don’t have it right. That should be our obligation as journalists. Anybody else? Sir, yes. I guess the microphone is making its own way across the crowd. Go ahead.
Audience: In the vein of the last question, you talk about reaching the masses. Obviously in this community, we’re kind of preaching to the quality because we’re all in education or educated or getting educated, and so we’re aware of these issues and the necessity of these changes. Obviously, the challenge is reaching the masses.
But, at the beginning of your speech, I want to ask you about something. You talked about how you’ve been meeting with our top political figures and how we brought this to The Hill, so to speak, and they laughed, and then we laughed at you. At what point, and what’s it going to take–your comment, not you, but your comment that they made. At what point are we as a people going to stop laughing at the fact that our government is ineffective and not doing what we’re doing and do something about it?
Senso: Well, lack of a better term, Thomas Jefferson would be proud of you.
Senso: I think that’s a really, really great question. I mean, what we see in public opinion polling around issues of, for example, the hot story right now is what’s the way out of this debt mess we’re in. The public is pretty well coalesced around certain things. I mean, the key elements of this have broad public support, but nothing is moving in Washington.
We were talking about this earlier over lunch. I believe that we are confronting the very real possibility that our political system is fundamentally broken, that it has been so riven by money and gerrymandering and congressional districts that aren’t competitive anymore, that the middle has been chased out of the process. The competitive element, which is really all about accountability, right, you do a bad job, I vote you out, has largely evaporated. We end up with a much more polarized congress.
If you talk to old timers up there, or people who’ve retired who will be really honest about it, and there actually are some, they will tell you that even in through the 80s, people came to Washington, if they were elected to Congress, to legislate. That was their job. Legislate means compromise.
I did a great documentary–well, it wasn’t a great documentary. It was great fun to do the documentary [laughter] on Ronald Reagan. I interviewed Dan Rostenkowski some years ago after he was let out of prison.
Senso: That’s a separate documentary, I guess.
Senso: But [laughter] to your question, but he talked about how he and Reagan met in the Oval Office and did a handshake deal before they started on tax reform in 1986. They laid certain things on the table, and Roste got from Reagan, the promise that he said, “Mr. President, I’m going to have to posture up on The Hill. You’re going to hear me say things. I ask you not to criticize me publicly, because we’re going to do this together.” They stood, this is the way Rostenkowski told the story, shook on it, Rostenkowski did what he said he was going to do, Reagan never criticized and they got tax reform through. But, they went into the process together, aiming to get something out.
If you talk to people now, what they’ll tell you is, there are so many members of Congress, especially on the Republic side driven by the Tea Party right now. There’s a very, very strong movement and a very legitimate place in history for them, but it’s very powerful. It’s their form of revolution, and it’s much more about ideology than it is about compromise.
If the public feels very out of step, there’s an election next year and we’ll see what happens. The problem is if the districts aren’t competitive, what happens? What has happened is we’ve ended up with people more at the extremes in these positions, and it’s fed by the media, by the way. The media is both following it and leading it and feeding it. On that cheery note, next question. [Laughter]
Audience: Yes. Regarding the cartoon thing, are you sure that’s really the right media we should be going through to try and educate people about science? I heard back in high school, and I’m not sure about how accurate this information is, but my math teacher told us about this study that showed that kids who watched a lot of TV actually did worse than kids who didn’t watch a lot of TV. The kids that watched TV, the show they were watching was supposed to be educational. It was Sesame Street. Should we trust in cartoons or should we explore more active or more interactive media?
Senso: I wasn’t trying to suggest that this whole thing is a cartoon, and you saw the piece that preceded it, where we tried to actually look at something that had been done and why it had been done and how people had done it. From a programming point of view, from someone who’s looking at this as media, I wanted to change what you were seeing. I wanted to surprise you a little bit. Nobody would expect that in a program like this, so there’s a little shock value there. There’s just a little something unexpected.
What we find now in behaviors, and this may be somewhat driven by the Sesame Street, I’m fond of saying, “Hi, I’m here from the media, I’m here to help,” and people laugh. Then I say, “If you’re not born with attention deficit disorder, we will teach it to you.”
Senso: It’s true, and it’s getting worse. It’s getting worse. What we now face when we do a program like this or any kind of project like this is people sit with their clickers and they are gone. As a programmer, as someone who’s trying to put something together, how fast do you move to keep people’s attention? How much on the surface do you stay? How deep down can you go? What do you do to kind of mix things up a little bit to just keep it visually interesting, and that’s why I like TV so much.
There’s no prescriptive answer to this. This was just our attempt to do something a little bit–there were three of these little shorts built in throughout the hour. One was on this, one was on electric cars because we had something on the Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrids, and how electric cars actually start faster from a stop than internal combustion engines do and so they must be fun to drive.
Senso: Right? Because people don’t understand, you know, and we had one other, which I’m now forgetting, but we had three of them over the hour. Yes, where’s the mic, or yes, ma’am, in the back. Oh, I’m sorry.
Audience: It’s over here.
Audience: I would like to go back to your discussion about universities and the role about universities and their responsibility in these areas. You mentioned interdisciplinary as being very important, but missing from your list were any of the humanities, philosophy or the arts, literature, anything about values.
Senso: All needs to be there.
Audience: Any of those areas. As you think about this in your own world, do you think about ways–
Audience: –that the importance of the humanities–
Senso: Absolutely, yeah, absolutely 100 percent, yes. Then the challenge that confronts us as educators is, how much do you require, is it going to be one course, one course, one course, and do we really put a meaningful experience–I mean, that’s a challenge, right? I mean, if you get very interdisciplinary about it, can you still specialize in something, how deeply you go? But, yes, ethics and philosophy and history and all of that, has to be built in.