Sci­en­tific scep­ti­cism and its’ risks

From flat earth the­o­ries to cli­mate change de­nial

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Cé­dric Parages Sci+tech Colum­nist

Many sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs which al­tered our per­cep­tion of the world have had to go through ob­sta­cles and time to be com­monly ac­cepted. Ni­co­las Coper­ni­cus pub­lished his he­lio­cen­tric model of the Earth or­bit­ing the Sun in 1543 and this the­ory was sup­ported by Galileo, the in­ven­tor of the te­le­scope, and later Isaac New­ton amongst many oth­ers, yet it wasn’t un­til 1758 that the Catholic Church re­moved their pub­lish­ing ban on the idea. Greek math­e­ma­ti­cians such as Pythago­ras in 600 B.C. dis­cov­ered ev­i­dence that the Earth was round, and it be­came widely ac­cepted for much of hu­man his­tory in­clud­ing through the mid­dle-ages, yet from the late 19th cen­tury to the late 20th cen­tury or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Flat Earth Re­search So­ci­ety and publi­ca­tions such as the Earth Not A Globe Re­view sprang up to deny sci­en­tific con­sen­sus with re­li­gious rhetoric.

Ap­par­ently not ev­ery­one evolved

The the­ory of hu­man evo­lu­tion though widely ac­cepted to­day, il­lus­trated the mod­ern con­flict be­tween sci­ence and re­li­gion, or the­ory ver­sus be­lief. While On the Ori­gin of Species by Charles Dar­win was pub­lished in 1859, south­ern states of the U.S. such as Ten­nessee and Arkansas passed state leg­is­la­ture to for­bid teach­ing the the­ory of evo­lu­tion un­til a Supreme Court de­ci­sion in 1968 which held that states could not re­quire cur­ric­ula to align with a spe­cific re­li­gion. Re­li­gious lead­ers tried to com­bat this supreme court rul­ing by chang­ing their tac­tic and ad­vanc­ing cre­ation­ism as a vi­able sci­en­tific the­ory of ori­gin, and states such as Louisiana passed leg­is­la­ture that any text­book which in­cludes the the­ory of evo­lu­tion must also teach the al­ter­na­tive the­ory of cre­ation­ism along with it. An­other court case in 1987 at­tempted to pre­vent states from re­quir­ing the teach­ing of cre­ation­ism, with lawyers be­ing suc­cess­ful in prov­ing that cre­ation­ism was in fact, not a sci­en­tific the­ory, and had no place in a text­book. Even in 2005, school dis­tricts, such as the Dover Area district of Penn­syl­va­nia are sued be­cause they re­quired teach­ing “In­tel­li­gent De­sign” in their schools, which is an­other pseu­do­nym of cre­ation­ism. In 2006 pub­lic school bi­ol­ogy text­books in Cobb County, Ge­or­gia, were be­ing dis­trib­uted with a sticker in­cluded which read “Evo­lu­tion is a the­ory, not a fact, con­cern­ing the ori­gin of liv­ing things.” Ac­cord­ing to a poll from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter in 2013 with 2,000 par­tic­i­pants, sixty per cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve in evo­lu­tion while thirty per cent re­ject the idea. The study also in­cluded po­lit­i­cal party in their re­sponses, and Repub­li­cans only had 43 per cent who ac­cepted the the­ory com­pared to 67 per cent from Democrats.

The cli­mate is in fact chang­ing

In re­cent years, the pub­lic skep­ti­cism and de­nial of sci­ence has ad­vanced be­yond re­li­gion and into iden­tity pol­i­tics. While the U.S. fed­eral space agency NASA has been record­ing satel­lite data to sup­port the va­lid­ity of cli­mate change and it­self agrees it is an­thro­po­log­i­cal, which means af­fected by hu­man ac­tiv­ity and be­hav­iour, the coun­try is split in their ac­cep­tance of the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus. A 2016 study from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter finds that only 48 per cent of Amer­i­can adults be­lieve that cli­mate change is caused by hu­man re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties, 31 per cent be­lieve it is due to nat­u­ral causes and twenty per cent think there is no ev­i­dence for cli­mate change. The skep­ti­cism seems to stem from a lack of faith in the sci­en­tists and sci­ence them­selves, as only 33 per cent of all par­tic­i­pants agreed with the state­ment ‘Cli­mate change sci­en­tists un­der­stand very well whether cli­mate change is oc­cur­ring.’

The Amer­i­can pub­lic also seems to think there is no con­sen­sus among sci­en­tists on the topic, as only 27 per cent agreed that there is a com­plete sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that cli­mate change is hu­man caused. These be­liefs are quite con­cern­ing, be­cause if we are to have a lack of trust in sci­ence or think our sci­en­tists are in­com­pe­tent, then who ex­actly is com­pe­tent on the sub­ject and where should we re­ceive our in­for­ma­tion from? There is a sort of con­tra­dic­tion go­ing on here as from the same study, 39 per cent of par­tic­i­pants of the sur­vey say they trust cli­mate sci­en­tists ‘a lot’ to give full and ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about the causes of cli­mate change yet the news me­dia, en­ergy in­dus­try lead­ers and elected of­fi­cials are down at seven, seven and four per cent re­spec­tively for the same cat­e­gory. Sim­i­larly to the case of evo­lu­tion, there is also a po­lit­i­cal iden­tity is­sue go­ing on here, as 69 per cent of Democrats agree that cli­mate change is hu­man based while only 23 per cent of Repub­li­cans agree, per the same study. A sim­i­lar trend is also present in fac­tor­ing in sci­en­tific con­sen­sus, as more than half the Repub­li­can cor­re­spon­dents be­lieve there is no con­sen­sus what­so­ever among sci­en­tists.

In Canada, a 2016 study from Univer­sité de Mon­treal polled over 5,000 Cana­di­ans from across the coun­try on cli­mate change, and 61 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants be­lieve the Earth is get­ting warmer partly or mostly due to hu­man causes. A 2016 study from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter com­pared car­bon emis­sions to con­cern over cli­mate change, and con­cluded that the high­est coun­tries as mea­sured by emis­sions per capita such as the U.S., Canada and Aus­tralia were the least con­cerned with ef­fects from cli­mate change. Latin Amer­ica, Europe and Africa were the re­gions most con­cerned with the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

The most as­ton­ish­ing part of all this data is the sug­ges­tion that there is no sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on cli­mate change from cli­mate sci­en­tists. All polls con­ducted on cli­mate sci­en­tists show the com­plete op­po­site. A 2014 study from Ver­heggen et al. sur­veyed 1,850 cli­mate sci­en­tists, of which ninety per cent of them with at least ten peer re­viewed stud­ies pub­lished agreed that green­house gas emis­sions are the main cause of global warm­ing. A 2013 study from Power et al. con­ducted a meta-anal­y­sis of 13,950 ar­ti­cles pub­lished on global warm­ing from 1991 to 2012 and found that only 24 of these re­jected that cli­mate change is caused by hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. All other stud­ies and polls among cli­mate re­search- ers demon­strate the same gen­eral re­sult, which makes you won­der where peo­ple are get­ting their in­for­ma­tion from that there is no sci­en­tific con­sen­sus.

Pol­i­tics and be­lief are in­ter­twined

The main rea­son one would think that there is such a wide gap be­tween per­cep­tion and re­al­ity, es­pe­cially among Amer­i­cans, would be a lack of sci­en­tific lit­er­acy or knowl­edge. How­ever, a 2012 Yale study by Dan Ka­han at­tempted to find such a cor­re­la­tion be­tween lack of sci­en­tific lit­er­acy and per­cep­tion on cli­mate change risks, and could not find one. The more sci­en­tif­i­cally lit­er­ate their par­tic­i­pants of the sur­vey were, the more po­lar­ized they were in their con­cern over cli­mate change, demon­strat­ing that lack of sci­en­tific lit­er­acy did not re­sult in less con­cern. In­stead, the re­searchers at­trib­uted the po­lar­iza­tion in pub­lic opin­ion to a much deeper dis­tinc­tion: whether or not par­tic­i­pants fol­lowed a more egal­i­tar­ian set of ethics, ask­ing ques­tions about con­cern over in­come, sex­ual and racial in­equal­ity, or a more in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic and hi­er­ar­chi­cal ap­proach, such as de­sir­ing less gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion. The re­sults were clear – those align­ing as an egal­i­tar­ian had more con­cern for cli­mate change, while those that care more for their per­sonal in­ter­est had less con­cern. The same re­search group con­ducted a sim­i­lar study in 2010 in an at­tempt

Many sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs which al­tered our per­cep­tion of the world have had to go through ob­sta­cles and time to be com­monly ac­cepted. In re­cent years, the pub­lic skep­ti­cism and de­nial of sci­ence has ad­vanced be­yond re­li­gion and into iden­tity pol­i­tics.

to an­swer the fol­low­ing ques­tion: why do peo­ple say they be­lieve in sci­ence but si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­fute sci­en­tific con­sen­sus and facts? In or­der to un­der­stand why, the study showed par­tic­i­pants images of var­i­ous ex­perts and re­searchers on gun con­trol, nu­clear waste and cli­mate change and polled peo­ple on their re­sponses based on their po­lit­i­cal party. For the gun con­trol ex­am­ple, Repub­li­cans were more likely to be­lieve re­search which in­di­cated a state with a con­cealed carry li­cense for guns would have less vi­o­lence, while Democrats were more likely to be­lieve the op­po­site. When re­search is pre­sented that points the op­po­site of their views, par­tic­i­pants from both par­ties viewed the re­search as ‘ un­trust­wor­thy,’ show­ing the real rea­son why peo­ple si­mul­ta­ne­ously claim they be­lieve in sci­ence but deny the re­al­ity of cli­mate change cause. The re­searchers at­trib­uted this to a cul­tural cog­ni­tion and iden­tity pro­tec­tion risk, where peo­ple process new in­for­ma­tion based on its con­sis­tency with their prior knowl­edge.

Cli­mate change, and whether its cause is an­thro­po­log­i­cal or not, has be­come a po­lit­i­cal iden­tity is­sue to most peo­ple, not a sci­en­tific one. When a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date tweets state­ments such as ‘ The con­cept of global warm­ing was cre­ated by and for the Chi­nese to make the U. S. man­u­fac­tur­ing non- com­pet­i­tive,’ as per Don­ald Trump, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell your­self he may be right, or he may be wrong, depend­ing on whichever po­si­tion you agree with.

The prob­lem here is this is not a so­cial is­sue, what­ever you be­lieve has no rel­e­vance on the mat­ter, it is not an “I be­lieve” is­sue, there is only one po­si­tion which is cor­rect and which mat­ters: the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus. It can be dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand this, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that newly ap­pointed En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency chief Scott Pruitt de­nies that car­bon diox­ide is a pri­mary con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change. Yet a se­ries of pub­licly re­leased emails show that in­deed he had a lengthy re­la­tion­ship with fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies and lob­by­ing groups such as Devon En­ergy as Ok­la­homa’s At­tor­ney Gen­eral, ob­ject­ing to reg­u­la­tions on frack­ing and meth­ane gas emis­sions. There is a form of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance at play here where many peo­ple are un­able to sep­a­rate their po­lit­i­cal party from who they are, and hold­ing their party to a stan­dard of ab­so­lute truth.

The be­lief of an in­di­vid­ual should not carry more weight than the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus of the en­tire world, yet with po­lit­i­cal agen­das we have ended up with half of par­ti­san Western coun­tries dis­cred­it­ing sci­ence. The tran­si­tion from re­li­gious iden­tity to po­lit­i­cal iden­tity as a source of re­jec­tion to sci­ence is deeply trou­bling for the fu­ture. We must each even­tu­ally hold our­selves ac­count­able to place sci­ence on a higher pedestal than be­lief, es­pe­cially when the room for er­ror could very well mean dire con­se­quences on the lives and well­be­ing of mil­lions of peo­ple around the globe.

Marc Cataford | The Mcgill Daily

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