I read another article about why not to have public debates on socially contended scientific issues. This time, it was about Global Warming: Climate Science on Trial.
It brings up an issue that gets little press. There is a qualitative difference between science (as a type of investigation) and other philosophical filters such as law, religion, and so forth. Science was developed because we cannot trust our senses, our feelings, or our memories outside of now-known ranges of perception. That is, too big, too small, too fast, too slow, or too complex.Even within normal ranges, much of what we think we perceive is colored by habit and expectations.
The democratic ideal is that everyone is equal. But methods of understanding are not equal. Without the methods of science, we still would be living on a flat, stationary, unchanging world under a moving canopy of the heavens just beyond our reach, where the smallest thing is a mustard seed, and the widest realm is a few weeks walk. Where the universe was created during the era of early Sumerian urbanization, and will end some lesser time in the future. The Bible says so. The best minds in the world agreed, until Galileo and his ilk
The problem of public debate is that it takes some training to understand why science is the best filter for making judgments on big issues. It doesn’t care about the personalities, preferences, and prejudices of scientists. The method weeds out false answers, however many people believe them or how authoritatively they are stated. If a scientist turns out to be wrong, because he (as a human) has the limitations listed above, those who disagree with his position herald his failure as proof that the method is flawed. Those who agreed with him claim conspiracy among those who proved him wrong. Pick a position; everyone is equal.
It is easy to make a convincing argument that persuades the majority who don’t actually have the grounding to really understand the issue. It is harder to make people understand that what so obviously feels right is actually wrong, and to understand the proof and its validity. It feels right to say that Man is unique and superior and is the purpose of the universe. But examination by the scientific method that shows that there really are few things that distinguish our kind in any way, and that we are a tiny part of the ecosystem, much less the universe. We have risen (thanks to technology and industrialism) to a level of might wherein we have the ability to make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. But we don’t have the ability to deflect or escape the next extinction event, whether a nearby quasar, nova, asteroid collision, or massive ice age of yet-undetermined cause.
The current hot issue is whether we need to act fast to reverse the current unprecedented rise in global temperatures. It is easier to ignore the issue. Much like the proverbial frog in a pot who entered comfortable water, and doesn’t notice it slowly warming till he dies of the heat. We’re in the pot, and the temperature is rising. But denialists (supported by the fossil fuel trade) use tried and true methods of persuasion to keep the public from acting on it.
All the climate scientists agree: It is happening, it is partially (if not entirely) our doing, and we can do something about it. By now, the warming cannot be completely stopped or reversed. But slowing it down may be the difference between the collapse of our civilization, and a unifying cause to move world civilization forward.
But most people still don’t see that science, as a practice, is actually a distinct and more reliable way of figuring out what is going on. Public debate primarily publicizes the anti-science position. How can this be fixed?
I suggest that, in this age of ubiquitous information, that primary and secondary education lean less on packing facts into kids, and spend more time teaching how to deal with information: How we know what we know, how to judge fact from fallacy, information from disinformation, and knowledge from counterknowledge.
A few months ago one of my neighbors, a proudly conservative man, saw me carrying a package of high-efficiency light bulbs into my house. He gave me a disappointed look loudly said: “Buy some real light bulbs, Erich.” This neighbor has repeatedly made it known that that liberal concerns and proposals regarding energy are unnecessary because there is plenty of oil and coal, and we should make it our national priority to keep digging and burning these resources.
I know that my Republican neighbor is not the only “conservative” in the U.S. willing to scoff at conservation. I previously argued that this anti-energy-efficiency climate–science-denial attitude like my neighbor’s outlook has become a badge of group membership among conservatives. It has become a salient display that one believes, above all, in the alleged power and wisdom of the “Free Market,” an unsubstantiated leap of faith so incredibly bold that I once termed it the Fourth Person of the Holy Trinity (and see here and here). These free-market fundamentalists are contemptuous at well-informed suggestions for using energy resources more efficiently and for reducing our reliance on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels. Many of them consider national policy aimed at energy conservation to be totally unnecessary and ridiculously expensive. Proposals that we should be smarter consumers of energy annoy and anger them and they offer no evidence-based alternatives for peak oil (and see here and here and here ). They refuse to consider the damage being done to our environment, our health and our budget (especially our military budget) as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels .
My neighbor displays a startling lack of curiosity regarding the ramifications for continuing to attempt to drill and dig our way to energy independence. This same attitude is found in many conservative politicians, the most prominent being Sarah Palin. Based on an extraordinary video of a recent debate at Washington University in Saint Louis, this same attitude is also embraced by of the executives at the largest private coal company in the United States, Peabody Coal Company.
Apparently, an “insurgent” is anyone the U.S. military deems to be hostile, this definition being illustrated by the military’s explanation for this horrific video taken from a military helicopter. It certainly makes you wonder how many other dead “insurgents” were, in any way, threatening American interests. Consider also, this recent statement by General Stanley McChrystal: “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”
Then again, a person who is outspokenly interested in joining the Taliban is not an “insurgent” as long as that person is propped up by the U.S. government in order to rule over Afghanistan. See the latest on Afghan President Hamid Karzai.