Guest post by E. Calvin Beisner
Alan Leshner is worried. It seems scientists are having a hard time getting the public to understand science, and since “Public understanding of science … contributes to the extent of support for scientific research,” something must be done.
Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Executive Publisher of its flagship publication, Science, wrote in a recent editorial, “There is no shortage of topics where policy-makers or other members of the public seem to persistently misunderstand, misrepresent, or disregard the underlying science: climate change, genetically modified foods, vaccines, or evolution, among others.”
Well, I guess two out of four isn’t too bad. I imagine his and my understandings of GMO and vaccines are reasonably alike. But on climate change and (naturalistic macro-) evolution (not to oversimplify and distort), I suspect his conclusions and mine differ dramatically—and I have a feeling that, in question-begging style, he assumes that my conclusions are wrong and his are right, and what’s needed is for him and other scientists to help me understand the science better.
Trouble is (focusing here just on climate change), the better I’ve understood the science on climate change (having read over 40 books on the science and over 30 on the economics, and scores of major papers and thousands and thousands of articles on each), the more convinced I’ve become that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is false.
In fact, a careful scientific survey found that the more people know about the science, the less likely they are to believe in CAGW.
It seems likely, therefore, that Leshner will be disappointed in the results if scientists do become any better at communicating the science of climate change.
But a careful reading of his editorial suggests that that’s not what he’s really after anyway. After decrying scientists’ ineffectiveness at enlightening the public about the science of climate change, he writes,
Valuable studies have been carried out to discover what determines public attitudes toward science and technology, and some … point to an individual’s ideological views or cultural identity as having greater influence … than an understanding of the facts. Often, simply increasing public knowledge about an issue will not move the debate …. Instead, the way an issue is framed can have a larger effect on people’s views. As a case in point, many people will give more credit to the scientific claims about climate change when the issue is cast as a technological challenge than as a regulatory problem.
(I.e., with regard to that last sentence, if we beg the question of the reality of CAGW and just present people with the technological challenge of how to deal with it, we can avoid the problem of convincing them of its reality in the first place.)
It appears that what Leshner is really after is not better public understanding of science but particular public opinions about climate change and that he would be content to see scientists turn from facts to ideology, cultural identity, and framing to move public opinion on global warming—a dangerous but not uncommon view in our postmodern times, even in the science community, as I discussed in “Wanted for Premeditated Murder: How Post-Normal Science Stabbed Real Science in the Back on the Way to the Illusion of “Scientific Consensus” on Global Warming.”
That this would indeed satisfy Leshner his very next sentences confirm:
Science is complicated and often jargon-laden, so scientists may need help from a ‘translator’ to help tell a story simply and cogently. In doing so, the gist of the message is what matters. Here there is a lesson to be learned from antiscience [sic—note the question begging] forces, who regularly oversimplify science in very effective ways, even when distorting it.
Noting that “people care primarily about things that affect them personally or locally,” he adds, “thus, a useful approach is to determine what matters to a specific audience and seek a way to make the message relevant to them.”
Yes. Like telling kids who like furry polar bears that global warming is driving them extinct; or people on low-lying islands and seacoasts that global warming is driving sea levels upward faster than ever; or biodiversity champions that global warming threatens to drive half the world’s species extinct; or allergy-prone people that global warming’s cause, rising CO2, will cause the pollen that irritates them to multiply (to mention just four such tactics)—when the first three are false and the last is offset by the fact that pretty much all plants will grow better, meaning food will be cheaper.
The fact is, in my constant reading and conversations, I’ve found it far more common for CAGW true believers than critics to oversimplify and even distort the science. It’s the true believers who so readily resort to the claim, “Look, it’s basic physics. Greenhouse gases warm the planet, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, so more CO2 means more warmth.” They’re the ones who don’t like to get into the weeds of quantifying “climate sensitivity,” CO2’s logarithmic warming curve, the sign and magnitude of climate feedbacks, the multiple natural drivers of climate, whether and how much local land use change (especially urbanization) distorts “global” temperature readings, or any number of pesky details that falsify their intuitively sensible but false conclusion. They’ll discuss them, reluctantly, if pressed, but only then.
“Public understanding and support of science and technology have never been more important, but also never more tenuous,” Leshner says. Perhaps he’s right about the support, but I have a hunch public support for “science” (in this context, code for global warming alarmism) is tenuous precisely because public understanding of science is growing—thanks to “climate skeptics.”
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, author of three books on environmental science, economics, ethics, and policy, and a member of the AAAS.