Guest post by David Middleton
This item on Real Clear Science caught my eye today…
Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.
To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.
They found that climate change denial was predicted mainly by political ideology, but not by low scientific literacy. Vaccine rejection was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science, and also by religiosity and moral purity. Distrust of GM food was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science. Neither vaccine or GM food rejection were predicted by political ideology.
“Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.”
― Carl Sagan,
Amazingly, Carl Sagan wrote The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark nine years after Al Gore and James Hansen invented Gorebal Warming.
In at least two recent papers, endorsement of the so-called scientific consensus that humans have been the primary drivers of recent climate change (AGW) wasn’t well-correlated with scientific literacy. Hence a special pleading: Climate science isn’t embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is understood because conservatives are stupid.
In Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection, Rutjens et al., found the following:
Many topics that scientists investigate speak to people’s ideological worldviews. We report three studies—including an analysis of large-scale survey data—in which we systematically investigate the ideological antecedents of general faith in science and willingness to support science, as well as of science skepticism of climate change, vaccination, and genetic modification (GM). The main predictors are religiosity and political orientation, morality, and science understanding. Overall, science understanding is associated with vaccine and GM food acceptance, but not climate change acceptance. Importantly, different ideological predictors are related to the acceptance of different scientific findings. Political conservatism best predicts climate change skepticism. Religiosity, alongside moral purity concerns, best predicts vaccination skepticism. GM food skepticism is not fueled by religious or political ideology. Finally, religious conservatives consistently display a low faith in science and an unwillingness to support science. Thus, science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, depending on the topic of investigation.
Speaking as a small-r republican scientist, who believes in God, but rarely goes to church, I can categorically state that I have no more “faith” in science than I have “faith” in my engineers scale of box of Verithin colored pencils. Nor do I “support science”. I’m not even sure that it’s grammatically possible to “support science”. Science is a process, it is a tool. When it is properly employed, it works. It requires neither faith nor support.
Both Rutjens et al., 2017 (R17) and Drummond and Fishchoff, 2017 (DF17) found no correlation between acceptance of GMO foods with either politics or religion. DF17 found no correlation between acceptance of nanotechnology with either politics or religion. R17 found that increased scientific literacy was correlated with acceptance of vaccinations and GMO foods. However, neither study found a strong correlation between acceptance of AGW and scientific literacy.
This is from DF17:
Firstly, this does not demonstrate “a big gap between what scientists understand and what the public thinks it knows.” The two panels in the graph comprise a non sequitur to that “big gap.” The first panel has nothing to do with the supposed scientific consensus on climate change (humans are responsible for more than half of the warming since 1950). This is as bad as Doran & Kendall Zimmerman in its flawed logical reasoning. Accepting the assertion that humans are primarily responsible for climate change does not follow from knowing that carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas.
As a professional geologist, I know the answer to the first multiple choice question is “carbon dioxide” and the answer to the second question is “mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth’s environment.” There is no logical requirement for the first answer to lead to “mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.” Carbon dioxide can cause temperatures to rise without being the primary driver, or even a significant driver, of climate change.
Oddly enough, Doran & Kendall Zimmerman found that a majority of academic & government economic geologists (53%) agree with me (they only surveyed academic & government scientists. They excluded all Earth Scientists working in private sector businesses. The two key questions were:
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
I would answer risen to #1 and my answer to #2 would depend on the meaning of “significant contributing factor.” If I realized it was a “push poll,” I would answer “no.”
Interestingly, economic geologists and meteorologists were the most likely to answer “no” to question #2…
The two areas of expertise in the survey with the smallest percentage of participants answering yes to question 2 were economic geology with 47% (48 of 103) and meteorology with 64% (23 of 36).
The authors derisively dismissed the opinions of geologists and meteorologists…
It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.
No discipline has a better understanding the “nuances” than meteorologists and no discipline has a better understanding of the “scientific basis of long-term climate processes” than geologists do.
Unless geologists are inherently more conservative than other scientists, this kind of blows a hole in their special pleading fallacy on behalf of climate science. Lefsrud & Meyer 2012 (LM12) analyzed a 2008 survey of APEGA, the organization responsible for certifying and licensing professional geoscientists and engineers in Alberta. They found that 64% of geoscientists rejected the so-called consensus for various reasons, with climate change being overwhelmingly natural leading the pack.
LM12 indicates that the polarization is more along the lines of private sector vs. government, with geoscientists being even more skeptical than the overall oil & gas industry.
What drives the skepticism among geoscientists? LM12 categorized the responses as:
64% of APEGA geoscientists reject the so-called consensus for many different reasons. 70% either rejected or were skeptical of climate models and the assertion that it is settled science. When 70% of a group of scientists reject the primary evidence for AGW, climate models, you have a scientific problem, not a political problem.
The polarization with scientific literacy is more likely to be driven by the nature of the scientific literacy rather than politics. As Kuhn wrote,
“Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction. Again, that is not to say that they can see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they see them in different relations one to the other. That is why a law that cannot even be demonstrated to one group of scientists may occasionally seem intuitively obvious to another.”
–Thomas Kuhn, 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Vol. II, No. 2 p. 150
Petroleum geologists tend to be sedimentary geologists and sedimentary geology is essentially a combination of paleogeography and paleoclimatology. Depositional environments are defined by physical geography and climate. We literally do practice in a different world, the past. Geologists intuitively see Earth processes as cyclical and also tend to look at things from the perspective of “deep time.” For those of us working the Gulf of Mexico, we “go to work” in a world defined by glacioeustatic and halokinetic processes and, quite frankly, most of us don’t see anything anomalous in recent climate changes.