Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Climate Change And Skepticism Of Scientists

George Marshall is the founder and director of projects at the Climate Outreach and Information Network and founder in England of what he refers to as a climate change charity. His "blog explores the topic of the psychology of climate change denial." Back in July, he analyzed the inability of scientists to convince the British public that changes in climate are due primarily to greenhouse emissions, commenting 'polls over the past five years have shown that 40% of people in Britain resolutely refuse to accept that our emissions are changing the climate. In the US it is over 50%. He observed

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done a particularly poor job of promoting itself as an authoritative and trustworthy institution. It should be telling the story of how it achieves consensus on an unprecedented scale, and enabling its most presentable participants to speak directly to the world.. At present, under sustained skeptic attack, it can’t even provide a list of the people involved in the process. It has no human face at all – the only images on its website are the covers of reports or the beach resort where it will hold its next meeting.

The single greatest quality of the people we trust and believe is that they appear to be like us and understand our needs and values. We badly need to widen the range of voices speaking on climate change and, inevitably, this means that climate experts relinquish some of their dominance and become more concerned with enabling others to speak.

That was more than three months before the servers at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia were hacked. Discovered were millions of e-mail messages, which climate change skeptics claimed (largely unjustifiably) showed a conspiracy among scientists to suppress evidence contradicting the evidence of the human origin of global warming. In November, Marshall recognized it as "an organized smear campaign" but lamented

climate scientists have always misunderstood the dynamic of public belief and trust. They assume that belief will be built on their data and that public trust is merited by their authority. With the exception of a few outstanding communicators, they often make no attempt to speak to deeper values or make an emotional connection with the public – indeed they see that as contrary to their professional independence.

Climate change deniers have always understood this. They use language that is designed to appeal to deeper values (such as freedom, independence, progress). The narrative they tell of being determined (and even persecuted) free-thinkers, standing against the tide of oppressive and self-interested conformity is designed to create an aura of integrity and trustworthiness.

It may, however, not be only climate scientists who (unfortunately) lack legitimacy with, at least, the American public. It may seem odd- and probably is- to cite the writings of George F. Will as a voice bolstering the credibility of scientists, given his ham-handed attack on climate science early last year. But back in 1982, when there existed a more sensible Will, the long-time syndicated columnist set out to do just that in a column "Well, I Don't Love You, E.T." Identifying the bias of the popular movie about the lovable extra-terrestial, Will noted

Throughout the movie they have been hunting the little critter, electronically eavesdropping on the house and generally acting like Watergate understudies. They pounce upon E.T. with all the whirring, pulsing, blinking parapernalia of modern medicine. He dies anyway, then is inexplicably resurrected. He is rescued from the fell clutches of the scientists by a posse of kid bicyclists and board a spaceship for home. This variant of the boy-sundered-from-dog theme leaves few eyes dry. But what is bothersome is the animus against science, which is seen as a morbid calling for callous vivisectionists and other unfeeling technocrats.

A childish (and Rousseau-ist) view of children as noble savages often is part of a belief that nature is a sweet garden and science and technology are spoilsome intrusions. But nature is, among other , things, plagues and pestilences, cholera and locusts, floods and droughts. Earlier ages thought of nature in terms of such afflictions. As Robert Nisbet says, this age can take a sentimental view of nature because science has done so much to ameliorate it.

Disdain for science usually ends when the disdainer gets a toothache, or his child needs an operation. But hostility to science is the anti-intellectualism of the semi-intellectual.

There are those, such as this freelance science journalist, who would doubt that denial of global warming is encouraged by a general disdain for science. Further, much of the resistance to the extremely strong case presented by scientists is attributed to the strongly religious/Christian nature of the American populace- but how then to account for the skepticism of residents of Great Britain, a highly secular society? Hostility toward scientific inquiry and intellectualism, even among individuals who steer clear of all churches on every day but December 25, clearly does play a role in skepticism about the predominately human nature of climate change. It's something we ought to remember as progressives/liberals go about criticizing charges of the deniers while the mainstream media attribute to the latter equal credibility as of scientists.

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