In a column earlier this year I was taken to task about using the phrase “climate change denial”. The commentator opined that this had a pejorative tone but I pointed out that it seemed a suitable term for those who reject the science. I don’t like the term “climate change sceptic” because these people are not being sceptical, they are being cynical, but the whole question of appropriate language when dealing with controversies in science is a good one.
The reference to denial has now spread beyond climate change. Last week a one day meeting and workshop titled “Science Writing in the Age of Denial” was held at the University of Wisconsin. It asked why some people, often in positions of social or political influence, openly cast doubt on well-established evidence. Why have the theory of evolution, the human effects on climate change, the value of vaccines and other findings from the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community not simply been rejected by some people but actively discredited and attacked? It was noted that often the seemingly spontaneous denial of science is actually a carefully choreographed attack.
Perhaps it’s not a new phenomenon. According to reports from the conference, one presenter noted similarities between an anti-polio vaccine movement by chiropractors in the 1950s and later attempts by others to deny evolution. There were common themes between the two: deniers started by doubting the science, despite the evidence. Then they questioned the motives of researchers and cited specific “authorities” to give the impression of a disagreement among scientists. The doubters exaggerated potential harm and appealed to personal freedom. Finally science denial embraced a viewpoint that to accept the science would repudiate some key philosophy of an individual or group. In the case of the polio vaccine, this would require the acceptance of the fact that a virus causes the disease, a fact rejected by chiropractors. With evolution, the claim is that the science has to be wrong because it undermines biblical teachings.
A similar pattern was detected with investigations regarding climate change. Soon after serious evidence for anthropogenic climate change was presented in the 1980s and 1990s, opposition forces showed up to deny it. This emerged as a politically motivated campaign saying the science was “unsettled” and thus it was premature to act to limit carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
Part of the denial strategy has been to demand a “balance” in the media, even when the scientific community is already in broad agreement. When pursuing balance, science writers can run a risk of creating false balance in what are really one-sided science stories.
The observation was made at the meeting that “we have a tendency to discredit that with which we don’t believe” and that again raises the problem of language. Science is not about belief but it is all about acceptance or rejection of the evidence. “Belief” in climate change or evolution is irrelevant.
I’ll turn to an analysis released last week into public trust in science in the USA. It showed that over the last 36 years Conservatives have lost their faith in science. In 1974 around 48%of Conservatives claimed to have had confidence in science but this had dropped to just 34% in 2010. Confidence in science among Liberals and others in the USA had remained basically unchanged.
One commentator thinks that both Conservatives and Liberals in the USA are politicising science; picking the bits that agree with their political views and not simply rejecting the rest but actively attacking any science that contradicts their worldview. For Conservatives this science denial surrounds climate change whereas for Liberals it is more likely to concern GMOs or nuclear power. Whatever the issue this piecemeal approach to accepting and rejecting science does not bode well for public policy making.
I fear that the situation is little better here in Australia and last week’s broadcast on the ABC of the documentary I Can Change Your Mind, with its subsequent Q&A session, was a good example of how these same forces are alive and well here. There was very little science presented in what ought to have been a discussion based on science. Instead there was a stream of bloggers and social commentators with a meagre grasp of the science who were given an unfair amount of time to espouse their polemics. The concept of balance was bastardised with more representatives of the anti-case given air time than the defenders of the science. The wider Australian audience was left with the wrong impression that the science is still in doubt (whereas pragmatically, it is not); that there is still a reasonable debate to be had about the science (that debate was had and settled decades ago); and that there is a reasonable body of scientific evidence that demonstrates anthropogenic climate change (show me the money!). All this was underpinned by suggestions of conspiracies and anti-economic rhetoric. It was a debacle. Science went out the window and a realistic overview of climate change issues could never be presented in this colosseum of gladiatorial combat.
I have come close to despair! Can we turn the corner? Can we improve the level of discussion about science and science issues in this country? Can we build respect for science instead of standing by, watching the scientists being trashed into a political vacuum? I live in hope.
By Paul Willis, @Fossilcrox
Image: Smithsonian’s National Zoo