COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 9 Mar 2010
In fighting for science, we subscribe to a comforting illusion: that people can be swayed by the facts.
There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us. The new study by the Met Office, which paints an even grimmer picture than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(1), will do nothing to change this view.
The attack on climate scientists is now widening to an all-out war on science. Writing recently for the Telegraph, the columnist Gerald Warner dismissed scientists as “white-coated prima donnas and narcissists … pointy-heads in lab coats [who] have reassumed the role of mad cranks … The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the 19th century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening to them any more.”(2)
Views like this can be explained partly as the revenge of the humanities students. There is scarcely an editor or executive in any major media company – and precious few journalists – with a science degree, yet everyone knows that the anoraks are taking over the world. But the problem is compounded by complexity. Arthur C Clarke remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”(3). He might have added that any sufficiently advanced expertise is indistinguishable from gobbledegook. Scientific specialisation is now so extreme that even people studying neighbouring subjects within the same discipline can no longer understand each other. The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing; to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence.
Distrust has been multiplied by the publishers of scientific journals, whose monopolistic practices make the supermarkets look like angels, and which are long overdue for a referral to the Competition Commission. They pay nothing for most of the material they publish, yet, unless you are attached to an academic institute, they’ll charge you £20 or more for access to a single article. In some cases they charge libraries tens of thousands for an annual subscription. If scientists want people at least to try to understand their work, they should raise a full-scale revolt against the journals which publish them. It is no longer acceptable for the guardians of knowledge to behave like 19th-Century gamekeepers, chasing the proles out of the grand estates.
But there’s a deeper suspicion here as well. Popular mythology – from Faust through Frankenstein to Dr No – casts scientists as sinister schemers, harnessing the dark arts to further their diabolical powers. Sometimes this isn’t far from the truth. Some use their genius to weaponise anthrax for the US and Russian governments. Some isolate terminator genes for biotech companies, to prevent farmers from saving their own seed. Some lend their names to articles ghostwritten by pharmaceutical companies, which mislead doctors about the drugs they sell(4). Until there is a global code of practice or a Hippocratic oath binding scientists to do no harm, the reputation of science will be dragged through the dirt by researchers who devise new means of hurting us.
Yesterday in the Guardian Peter Preston called for a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness. “We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince … We need to be taught to believe by a true believer”(5). Would it work? No. Look at the hatred and derision the passionate and persuasive Al Gore attracts. The problem is not only that most climate scientists can speak no recognisable human language, but also the expectation that people are amenable to persuasion.
In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation(6). This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government’s claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had WMD.
There’s a possible explanation in an article published by Nature in January(7). It shows that people tend to “take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd.” Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, for example, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire.” Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted.”
These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to information than any other factor: race, gender, class, income, education or personality type. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.”(8) The conservatives in the Iraq experiment might have reacted against something they associated with the Duelfer report, rather than the information it contained.
While this analysis rings true, the description of where the dividing line lies isn’t quite right. It doesn’t describe the odd position in which I find myself. Despite my iconoclastic, anti-corporate instincts, I now spend much of my time defending the scientific establishment from attacks by the kind of rabble-rousers with whom I usually associate. My heart rebels against this project: I would rather be pelting scientists with eggs than trying to understand their datasets. But my beliefs oblige me to try to make sense of the science and to explain its implications. This turns out to be the most divisive project I’ve ever engaged in. The more I stick to the facts, the more virulent the abuse becomes.
This doesn’t bother me – I have a hide like a glyptodon – but it reinforces the disturbing possibility that nothing works. The research discussed in the Nature paper shows that when scientists dress soberly, shave off their beards and give their papers conservative titles, they can reach across to the other side. But in doing so they will surely alienate people who would otherwise be inclined to trust them. As the MMR saga shows, people who mistrust authority are just as likely to kick against science as those who respect it.
Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.
1. Peter A. Stott et al, 2010. Detection and attribution of climate change: a regional
perspective. WIREs Climate Change. DOI: 10.1002/wcc.34.
3. Arthur C Clarke. This is attributed to “Profiles of The Future”, 1961, which I have not read.
Published in the Guardian 9th March 2010
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