During the early morning hours I often walk on lonely dirt trails that surround my property. It’s calming, provides some much-needed exercise and allows for plenty of time to think and ponder. Most of the time I carry my IPod and listen to various science podcasts. It’s my way of relaxing, using the time to learn a little and catch up on what’s being discussed around the world.
I almost mentally switch off these days when I hear discussions on the debate over climate change. It’s a little too depressing to listen to the constant erosion of the truth and the ridiculous debates that spring up from agenda-driven media outlets. It was depressing enough to dare turn the television on one Sunday afternoon only to witness Andrew Bolt sitting there expressing his ‘expert’ opinion on climate science.
‘Climate alarmist’ is the term now given to anyone who prefers evidence-based research within the expert scientific community. An alarmist is now anyone who prefers to lean towards a cautious approach. Cautious and conservative, is now translated as ‘alarmist and panic-monger’.
Climate experts across the globe have as much consensus, if not more so, on climate change, as other experts do when it comes to gravity, relativity and evolution. So wouldn’t it be rather smart if you weren’t an expert to perhaps take their advice? Wouldn’t it be cautious and wise to defer to the experts and not to opinionated journalists, a lone English aristocrat or the myriad bloggers who reign supreme on the wide and wonderful Internet?
Well, apparently not. And what hope has climate science got of penetrating the hard exteriors of many-a-sceptic when in many American states, the theory of evolution is considered ‘just an idea’ and must be taught alongside creationism.
The word ‘theory’ when used in science is unfortunately misunderstood and is often translated by the average reader as just an idea. A surprising amount of times I’ve heard, “yes, but evolution is just a theory”.
It doesn’t matter that scientific theories are much more than ideas. They are perhaps better described as Dr. Steven Novella from the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe did when he explained scientific theories are “unifying ideas that explain many different phenomena”.
It doesn’t really matter what the real meaning of the word ‘theory’ is, just as it doesn’t matter how much proof there is of real and pending climate change. What matters is people’s perception.
And when someone’s perception means they contest the theory of evolution and even offer up their own evidence-free ideas, where does that leave us when we need greater public consensus on climate change to make any real changes to our current collective behaviour?
Well firstly it may leave Charles Darwin, whose 203rd birthday passed in mid-February, turning in his grave. Or perhaps if the old man was still with us he might be not so surprised to see his theory still under attack.
In an interview on January 21 of this year with the The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, Eugenie Scott, an American physical anthropologist and executive director of the US National Center for Science Education said that her organisation has noticed “over the last couple of years, teachers are being ‘pushed back’ for teaching not just evolution, but also climate science.
She went on to say there is a clear disconnect between the scientific community and the public with both the topics of evolution and climate science.
Interestingly enough, the National Center for Science Education was about to appoint to its board of directors Dr Peter Gleick, when he leaked the now infamous documents on the inside workings of the conservative US think tank The Heartland Institute. He has since apologised for the way he went about obtaining the information (by his own admission — pretending to be someone else) and has consequently declined an offer to be on the board.
Perhaps it’s a shame; after all he obtained information which many believe should be publicly available such as how millions of dollars have been spent on funding projects that were “designed to create uncertainty about climate science in schools, newspapers, on television and the internet” according to an article published recently in the Brisbane Times.
When so much money is being allegedly thrown at anyone willing to attack climate science, is there any wonder that public opinion is slowly moving away from what the scientific experts tell us.
When there is a consensus within any field of science, firstly it’s rare and almost non-existent, but importantly it is based upon evidence, facts and a debate that is governed by a shared level of education on the topic. It’s neither helpful nor sane if you have someone from outside that field, enter the discussion with little of no understanding of the topic and then adamantly express their personal views whilst saying ‘look you have your views, I have mine and it now appears we have a 50/50 split’.
This might sound ridiculous, but it is not too far from the truth when it comes to climate change and the wider public debate. Science must now understand it has entered a world where their community is no longer isolated from the public domain. Access to information is now easier than ever before and so too is the ease in which information can be published.
We appear to have millions of dollars being spent, just as the big tobacco companies did, on spreading doubt and confusion amongst the public. When two topics (climate science and evolution) that unite the scientific community in a rare form of consensus are so widely being eroded and in some cases being removed from the classroom, we are in real trouble.
Note: This story was originally written for publication in the March/April 2012 print edition of Eco News.