When I reviewed An
Inconvenient Truth last month, I complained that "it will be far too
easy for Republicans to dismiss this film as liberal propaganda." Little
did I know. MoveOn has now got
into the act, at a webpage whose address is http://political.moveon.org/seethetruth/
– that "political" in the URL more or less gives the game away.
Climate change is a political issue, but the key task for those who would push
it as such is to prevent it from becoming a party political issue.
Science does not have a left-wing bias, and even though it’s relatively rare
for a politician like Al Gore to have a scientific background, it’s far from
unheard-of and it’s not at all confined to lefties. (Margaret Thatcher, remember,
read Chemistry at Oxford.)
Yet in the US, it would seem, things are very different, largely as a result
of the influence and importance of the religious right in politics. Since these
people know the Truth, and know where to find it, it follows that anything which
contradicts that Truth is wrong. Most glaringly, of course, this applies to
evolution: since the Bible is right, Science must be wrong. And since scientists
are unanimous that evolution is right, it therefore follows that it is entirely
possible for the entire scientific community to be wrong about something. And
once people have doubt about the ability of scientists to get something like
evolution right, then pretty much anything can be questioned: that HIV causes
Aids, that people can be born homosexual, that emissions of greenhouse gases
cause climate change.
Note that you don’t even need to be a creationist in order for the creationists’
propaganda to do its work in this respect. All you need to do is be sympathetic
enough to the creationists as to believe that there’s actually a meaningful
debate: that even if the scientists are right, they might have been
wrong. Once the possibility that basic science is wrong has been raised,
it becomes vastly more difficult to persuade anybody that science can be trusted
Last night, I had a mildly exasperating conversation with a guy called Sam,
who had read Michael Crichton’s anti-environmentlist novel State
of Fear. "I’m a lefty, I took a course on the environment in journalism
school, and even I found the book compelling," he said. Crichton, of course,
is the novelist and Bush
buddy who has carved something of a second career out of asserting that
global warming, insofar as it exists, is not much of a problem and is not anthropogenic.
One of the arguments that Sam found most compelling was when he said that since
carbon dioxide accounts for much less than 1% of the atmosphere, it really can’t
have much of an effect.
Sam even had a novel explanation for how it is that the entire scientific community
could be wrong, while a few brave voices (like, er, Bush and Crichton) could
be right. I don’t think that he was particularly religious; in any case, it
was clear that a call to Biblical authority would hardly convince me. So instead
he pulled out his trump card: "You should really read The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions," he said. "It proves
that all scientists can be wrong."
I could almost hear Thomas Kuhn rolling in his grave.
But on a much more basic level, there was a general theme running through my
conversation with Sam: the idea that there are things that science can’t explain.
He brought up the origin of the universe, the origin of the planet, the origin
of life. He said that science couldn’t explain how light can be both a wave
and a particle at the same time; and he was most insistent on the teleological
questions: why have we evolved? For Sam, life had to have some kind
of meaning, beyond the personal or interpersonal. Science couldn’t provide that
meaning, ergo there were shortcomings to science, and non-scientists such as
he could feel pretty confident dismissing an entire scientific discipline on
the basis of reading a science-fiction thriller.
One of the problems with any attempt to explain science to a non-scientific
audience is that the audience has to trust its interlocutor to be fair in its
marshalling of the facts and the scientific literature. Andy Revkin can say,
for example, "that humans are clearly warming the earth and this will have
profound consequences later in the century" – but if you don’t trust
Revkin to accurately summarise what we know and what we don’t know, then his
years of reporting on the subject will never convince you.
There have been hundreds of attempts to summarise the climate change facts;
Al Gore’s film is only the latest. More documentaries will be made; more books
will be written; more magazine articles will appear – although they will
have to be very good indeed to be better than The Climate of Man, the
series for which Elizabeth Kolbert and the New Yorker won a well-deserved
award this year. And all of them will sit on top of the scientific literature.
If there’s a deep-seated mistrust of the whole praxis of science, then none
of these things is likely to grab the popular imagination, and politicians will
continue to be able to ignore global climate change with impunity.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. On an individual level, it can be done,
through pointing people to just some tiny bit of the primary literature. Anybody
who sees for themselves the rigour of pretty much any scientific paper will
take much less convincing that when the whole body of scientific literature
comes to exactly the same conclusion, then that conclusion must actually be
But there will always be skeptics with unfalsifiable skeptical positions. The
great thing about the "intelligent design" arguments against evolution,
or the Crichtonist arguments against anthropogenic climate change, is that they
feel no need to posit scientific (ie, falsifiable) theories of their own. If
one part of one scientific model turns out to be wrong, they use
that not as evidence that scientists are doing their job, but rather as
evidence that "every single global climate model you ever heard of is completely
useless and inaccurate". The scientists are placed in an impossible position,
where any corroborating evidence is ignored and any real or imagined problems
with the models are magnified to enormous proportions.
I feel that the only way that scientists are going to be able to sway public
opinion is going to be when the religious right stops waging its current war
on science. If religious leaders treated science with respect, then Americans
might stop looking for reasons to mistrust scientists at every available opportunity.
Unfortunately, the attacks on scientific consensus seem to be getting bolder
and stronger – which means that Americans have more reason than ever to
doubt the likes of Al Gore and his science-based arguments.