By Susan Letcher
In my 40-year lifetime, I’ve witnessed two profound shifts that are shaping our collective future. The first is climate change. As a kid, I can remember some years when we skated on Echo Lake before Thanksgiving.
Imagine that today. My personal experience is one tiny and insignificant data point.
But now, as a scientist with a Ph.D. in ecology and a career spent studying plant responses to environmental change, I can see how that data point fits into the larger pattern. I’ve read the thousands of studies; I’ve contributed to some of them.
Climate change is as real as gravity, and like gravity, it affects us whether we believe in its existence or not.
The other profound shift I’ve seen in my lifetime is a calamitous erosion in the public understanding of science. Many people don’t understand basic scientific explanations for phenomena like the seasons or the tides. And many, perhaps most, people don’t understand how science itself works.
It’s a situation that the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan warned about in his 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World.” The book also offers a good explanation of how science operates, for anyone wanting a deeper look.
With the decline in public understanding of science, there has been a rise in public distrust of science and a concomitant rise in pseudoscientific and anti-scientific thinking.
Some of it is mostly harmless and ridiculous, like the resurgent Flat Earth Society. Some of it poses serious threats to our health and safety, like the anti-vaccine movement. But the most pernicious variety of anti-scientific thinking at large today, by far, is climate change denial.
Why is it anti-scientific? Climate change denial relies on cherry-picked data, facts taken out of context, unreliable sources and other dubious sources and modes of argument. It simply doesn’t stand up when confronted with reality. I refer interested readers to the website skepticalscience.com, where scientifically-trained experts explain the reality of climate change and debunk the many myths that climate deniers perpetrate. For instance, you can search for “sea level rise” or “CO2 through time” or “CO2 is plant food” to get a clear explanation of what is actually happening and how the science has been distorted or misrepresented by the climate denial community.
Why is it pernicious? In part, because it’s such an attractive myth. Lots of people want to believe.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our business-as-usual scenarios didn’t spell catastrophe for ourselves, our children and the rest of the planet’s living things?
In part, because it’s such a pervasive myth: we see it being perpetuated even at the highest levels of our government today. But it’s pernicious mostly because it prevents us, as a society, from taking the necessary lifesaving actions that we should have taken decades ago.
Where did this myth come from in the first place? The science behind climate change is as settled as science ever gets. We’ve known about the influence of CO2 on the Earth’s climate since the 1890s (and no, that’s not a typo). Scientists developed a clearer understanding of the extent and implications of recent climate change by the 1970s and 80s. At that point, fossil fuel companies saw the writing on the wall and poured massive amounts of money into a misinformation campaign that aimed to discredit the science of climate change.
The 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt” by Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway is a well-researched introduction to this ignominious piece of history. Many of the architects of climate change denial were previously involved in the campaign, funded by the tobacco industry, to discredit the science linking lung cancer to smoking. We know how that one turned out.
But climate change denial is going strong, thanks in large part to the most cynical, brilliant stroke of the campaign: getting people to link climate change denial to their political beliefs.
In particular, conservatives were coached to see climate change denial as a core part of their political identity. Psychological research has identified a common human tendency called confirmation bias: once people accept a belief as identity-forming, they will tend to reject evidence — even overwhelming evidence — that contradicts the belief.
However, the fact that millions of people share a belief does not make it correct. These days, the internet serves as the ultimate incubator of confirmation bias. A few charlatans with an agenda can raise an army of dupes who may not realize where their beliefs originated, who funded the diffusion of those beliefs, and how seriously they depart from objective reality.
The negative ramifications for our collective future can be huge. In defense, we need to return to the best process we have for understanding our world. We need to trust science again.
Every so often, there’s another letter to the editor making ridiculous claims about climate science. The latest example, from Tom Rolfes on Aug. 23, is par for the course: in support of his arguments, he cites a discredited petition from 1997 (Google “OISM petition”) and a book underwritten by the fossil fuel industry (Google “Gregory Wrightstone funding”) that has been thoroughly debunked (Google “Willard McDonald Medium”).
He cherry-picks the data and presents the usual myths that are thoroughly debunked by experts at skepticalscience.com.
He argues first that climate change isn’t happening, and then that even if it is, alternative energy sources are impractical because they require huge amounts of resources. Well, so does the status quo.
As the mother of a toddler, I would rather be investing our limited resources in technologies that don’t actively poison the planet. We have a moral obligation to maintain our life support systems for future generations. (And I must note that the solar panels on my roof are made primarily from silicon, the second-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and their installation didn’t require much — actually any — cement.)
In 2013, the LA Times began refusing to publish letters embracing climate change denial, on the grounds that they are not fact-based. Letter page editor Paul Thornton wrote, “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying ‘there’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.” Does the Islander have a similar policy regarding errors of fact? Is it, perhaps, time to get one? How much longer do we need to waste ink and pixels spreading this ruinous misinformation to the public?
Susan Letcher is a professor of plant biology at College of the Atlantic.