Scientists need to take the climate gloves off

Thu, Nov 17, 2011, 00:00

THE BRITISH Nobel Laureate physiologist Sir Peter Medawar (1915-1987), justifiably described science as “incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon”. And yet, public and political understanding and appreciation of science remains relatively low and, paradoxically, in the developed world, probably lowest of all in the US, the world’s most technologically advanced country. A number of books have recently analysed this problem, including Unscientific Americaby Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (Basic Books, 2009) and Fool Me Twiceby Shawn Lawrence Otto (Rodale Books, 2011).

Here are two such examples of current difficulties faced by science. Firstly, biological evolution is explained by the central theory in biology – the theory of evolution through natural selection. Some 46 per cent of Americans do not accept this theory. Secondly, the great majority of professional climatologists predict that human forcing of global warming will lead to disastrous consequences unless we urgently reverse the forcing. However, a small but effective lobby of dissenting scientific opinion and self-interested corporations has shaken public confidence in the majority expert position, and has weakened political resolve to take the necessary steps to counter global warming.

The poor public acceptance of evolution in the US is generally attributed to the influence of fundamentalist religion, specifically creationism. Creationists literally accept the Bible account that God created all living species several thousand years ago in more or less the same form as we see them today. Science tells us, based on massive evidence, that life arose on earth about four billion years ago as a simple single form and that the myriad species of life on earth today are directly descended from that original form.

Creationism undoubtedly contributes to the high fraction of the population that does not believe in evolution. However, the situation is also exacerbated by the extremely aggressive campaign against religion being waged by the New Atheists, led by Richard Dawkins. This movement is the flip-side of the fundamentalist coin to creationism. It aims to get rid of all forms of religion, no matter how moderate or diffident they are, and, in the words of Mooney and Kirshenbaum, “publicly eviscerates believers, calling them delusional and irrational”. The paradox is that New Atheism must prevent many people, who sincerely believe in God as a core value, from also believing in evolution because one of the world’s keenest scientific minds (Dawkins) persistently preaches that the theory of evolution makes God redundant.

Scientists are somewhat to blame, together with the media, for the poor showing of global warming on the public radar of concern. The public battle over man-made global warming is fought out in the media where, as Otto points out, many journalists have been trained in journalism schools deeply influenced by postmodernism. Postmodernist philosophy promotes relativism and frowns on the notion of objective truth, believing that we each can construct our own reality and that different and even contradictory constructed realities can be equally valid. In this view, science is just another constructed reality.

But science is not a constructed reality. The entire history of science is a testament to the fact that there is an objective natural world out there and science is competent to reveal it to us. The reliability of science-based technology, which is universally accepted, is based on scientific understanding of this objective reality.

Public debates influenced by postmodernism greatly value “balance” because of the notion that many different points of view are equally “valid”. However, this attitude towards scientific debates can sacrifice good judgment in the interest of “balancing” people who present argument based on the most extensive and rigorous scientific evidence with those who argue based on much flimsier evidence. The weighting of time given to the protagonists in the climate debate should reflect the strength of the evidence presented and the scientific credentials of the presenters, but very often it does not.

The majority side scientists could also make a much better job of arguing their case in public. Often they are outgunned by the climate-change-sceptic scientists in passion and perceived confidence. Scientists are obliged to move out from the quiet and refined professional lecture circuit and to joust in public when the situation demands it.

William Reville is a professor in the Biochemistry department and public awareness of science officer at UCC