Friday, December 26, 2008

What lies behind skepticism of global climate change?

This blog is in part about the ways in which scientific methods of inquiry and the processes of rational analysis come into contact with the affairs of the larger society outside science itself. In a future blog I want to comment on the concept of science as a distinct social domain with a myriad of interfaces with the larger society. Many of these interfaces involve matters of wide social significance: climate change, medical advances, evolutionary theory and so on. In these cases it is often the case that the viewpoint from science is in conflict with other widely held views that are grounded in other cultural outlooks. In trying to understand the positions taken by many outside science when they conflict with widely held scientific views we need to look into the deeply held values and imbued cultural outlooks that motivate those positions. For scientists it can be very frustrating to encounter arguments based on incorrect understandings that are stubbornly held in the face of a storehouse of reliable information to the contrary. If one wants to be cynical, it is easy to see arrogance, greed, hubris and a litany of other unflattering attributes at work in many cases. The issue of climate change affords plenty of examples; for example, CNN's Lou Dobbs.

We have to ask just why Dobbs has decided to be a skeptic about climate change. The simplest and most likely explanation is that he sees it as generating a positive audience response. Some years ago in a turn from reporting the financial news, he adopted the persona of the 'outsider', the one willing to call into question a mainstream view. For example, he has pushed a chauvanistic approach to immigration that bypasses all the difficult nuances of this complicated issue, appealing instead to people's fears and feelings of being victimized. Characteristically, the solutions he proposes to deal with immigration are pretty much bereft of a serious analysis of the origins of the problems, the longer term consequences, or the effects of his proposals on "those others". Of late he seems to think that the audience he wants to attract will be drawn to the idea that man-made climate change is a fraudulent concept cooked up by some indistinct establishment interest.

As reported by Fair, we have plenty of other examples of this sort of climate change skeptic, including ABC's John Stossel a free market advocate who apparently thinks that the world can run quite well by allowing anyone and everyone to what they damn well please; CNN meteorologist Chad Myers and the conservative columnist George Will. It is hard to know what motivates these people to be publicly skeptical of the mainstream scientific view, in light of their own weak scientific credentials, the vast amount of data, modeling and other forms of analysis that inform the relatively conservative IPCC forecasts, and the acceptance of the mainstream scientific view by nearly all scientists who are bona fide climate scientists of one sort or another. However, if we for the moment put aside our suspicions that these people are looking for attention or market share, or are in the clutches of Exxon Mobil or others of that ilk, we are left with two thoughts: First, there is something in their cultural formations that makes them resistive to an authority that based on the results of a process of observation, hypothesis formation, modeling, testing - in short, of dispassionate rational thought regarding matters dealing with the physical world. Somehow, perhaps because of the conflicts that have arisen with other domains of their lives, science is not seen as a coherent body of practice and knowledge that deserves to be accepted willingly. Secondly, they may have no real idea of what has gone into the conclusions of the IPCC, or of how to distinguish the longer term secular changes that define climate from the shorter term variations in the planet's atmospheric and oceanic systems that we think of as weather. Thus they don't see themselves as denying established scientific opinion.

It takes a lot of time and attention to process and come to a reasonable familiarity with the IPCC reports. I've been interested in this subject for a long time, and I can readily see that it would require more time and effort than most nonscientists would be willing to give. We can't expect, then, that the average person will do that sort of due diligence. But nonscientists can have an understanding of how the scientific enterprise is structured. They should be able to appreciate how what Michael Polanyi referred to in his classic The Republic of Science paper as 'scientific opinion' comes to be formed. Whether or not they are knowledgeable about the particular issue before them, they should be in a position to judge the difference between, say, the uninformed ramblings of a weatherman or news hustler and the consolidated, integrated conclusions of an entire community of researchers. Science needs to find ways to impart this sort of understanding of how it actually works. It is not clear, though, how this is to be accomplished.

1 comment:

  1. I was in the process of sending a longish comment of a brainstorming idea that could counteract global warming and it was lost in espace as I was scrolling back and forth.

    As a consequence I am going to write this again in a Word document and send an attachment to Ted to load onto his blog site.

    If this partially completed blog can be retreived by Ted please send back to me via email.

    Larry Murrell