Guest essay by Charles Battig, M.D. VA-Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment
American popular culture has scattered nuggets of perceived wisdom. In order to understand and perhaps explain our continuing frustration with getting more of the American public and politicians to accept the reality of climate issues, I invoke “Cool Hand Luke.” In that 1967 film the prison warden tells Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach…”
Both short statements encapsulate the problem of getting out and accepted the scientifically validated climate information labored over by so many at this site and at other similar sites. Both the mainstream press and government officials are particular challenges. The public-at-large seems to be getting the message that our weather events are not deserving of prime-time concern.
The media loves an attention grabbing headline too much to concede the climate panic button re-set for any event, real or imagined. Our political ruling class and its corporate sycophants are entwined in a mad love and financial embrace that validates “love is blind.” They are blind to any facts of climate research that might threaten their profitable symbiotic relationship.
This conundrum of effective communication of validated scientific fact became of great concern and dismay to Julian Simon. “Hoodwinking the Nation” (1999) was Julian’s last published book, and is just 140 pages.
He was the eternal optimist which made him a rare bird amongst those of the “dismal profession.” Perhaps he is best remembered to the general public for his 1980 wager with Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich had insisted that a basket of commodities would become more expensive over the next ten years because they would become scarcer as increased global population depleted natural reserves. Simon bet the opposite. His inherent optimism reasoned that more people meant more opportunities for new discoveries which would result in cheaper costs of exploration and extraction. For him, people and their potential discoveries were the “Ultimate Resource.” Fortuitously, Simon won the bet.
In “Hoodwinking the Nation,” Julian describes his successful 1980’s effort to debunk the prevalent claim of the day that urbanization of U.S. farmland was creating a potential shortage of food for the U.S. and its food exports. By 1984, Julian’s analysis of the government’s own data showed that there was no such thing as a vanishing farmland crisis…it was all a scam. The Soil Conservation Service, the National Agricultural Lands Study, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture all reversed their earlier scarcity claims. Julian was proved correct, yet the press “did nothing to uncover the scam.” In the section, “A postmortem,” Julian describes his attempt to understand this lack of interest by the press to publicize the factual good news. His finding: “When shown the facts, these journalists usually say that even if cries of an environmental danger are somewhat overblown, they contain the germ of truth.” I think that this reality is still valid today. The media are pre-disposed to look for “false bad news” or to fabricate it to catch a headline.
The remainder of the book attempts to define and explain this whole phenomenon of good news being crowded out by false bad news. Why is the public pre-disposed to believe things are getting worse, even if facts prove otherwise? Some chapter headings identify the dilemma: “Chapter 1: What Do Americans Wrongly Believe about Environment, Resources, and Population,” “Chapter 4: Why Does the Public Not Hear Sound Environmental Thinkers?” “Chapter 9: How Psychology Affects the Evaluation of Trends,” and “Chapter 10: Why Do We Hear Prophecies of Doom from Every Side?”
These same questions and his answers are just as timely today as writers here and elsewhere lament the fact that they have won the scientific climate debates fairly at numerous climate conferences and conventions, yet the press and politicians, as well as competing academics, refuse to acknowledge their findings. In the contests of political propaganda, emotional appeals have an unfair, but proven advantage over scientific facts. Parents and politicians succumb to images of cute children waving “clean air’ banners. Do not think that arguments centered on climate sensitivity, relative risk, and negative feedback loops will prevail in that arena.
It is encouraging that the public-at-large has continued to rank “climate change issues” at the bottom of possible concerns, and so there is hope that persistent repetition of verifiable facts is finding receptive ears. The Internet was not yet prime-time in Julian’s day, but now it provides an end-run about a mainstream media intent on scares and not science.
So “Cool Hand Luke,” we have come a long way with the ability to communicate. However, we have yet to conquer the: “some men you just can’t reach…” Significant progress there rests upon voting out of office those we cannot reach by reason alone.