The Public and Science
Last year I wrote about the complicated relationship of conservatives and science. New events underscore this problem as of late.
We found that only 11 percent of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution or our Big Bang … Whereas only 11 percent belong to religions openly rejecting evolution, Gallup reports that 46 percent believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Why is this “belief gap” so large? … This suggests that the belief gaps may have less to do with intellectual disputes and more to do with an epic failure of science education.
There is, of course, an ancillary explanation which is that people understand their chosen faiths’ theology even less than science. Afterall, we all had science class at some point but how often does our pastor or priest discuss science from the pulpit? An additional question is, if 46% of people believe in Young Earth Creationism, could they all be characterized as ‘conservative’ in their social beliefs? For me this is about the role of skepticism in conservative thought.
I have long argued that we need both extremes in our system of government and also in our daily lives. The two sides serve to check each the other and maintain a sort of centrism that is necessary for most organizations to function properly over the long term. For example, we have all had that coworker who resists every change, no matter how small, in the way things are done. We have also had the manager that issues a new process memo on a daily basis and creates a sense of unstable footing for their employees. To dramatically generalize, liberals are the optimists while conservatives are the skeptics. Because conservatives often function as skeptics in our public discourse, we take that role seriously. Like any entrenched position though, this can be prone to overreach and abuse. I cannot help but wonder if the 35% gap in the poll results when matched with actual theology comes from this antagonistic relationship conservatives have developed with science. The question is though, is there any justification for this? Two stories lead me to answer yes.
The first item is a blog post from Brian Goode, one of our local meteorologists here in Louisville. Because I am a bit of a weather junkie I follow the channel’s weather blog and last week Goode was brave enough to engage in a bit of speculation about climate change. I should note here that Goode is merely asking questions, not offering his own opinion. He also makes it clear that he is not an expert in the field. With that said, I find his post fascinating.
Now, as most of you know, the increase of CO2 is a heating process for the earth. That is why the concern of Global Warming has been such a huge headline. And if you look at the decade of most significance, 1990s, you can see why. We had a huge steady increase in global tempeartures. During this period, the media did jump onto this data…as well as scientists and politicians. So the march to CUT BACK and END CO2 was a priority for many. But something happened in 2000…all the way up today in fact. The global temperatures…have stopped their dramatic warming. This despite the CO2 still climbing at an alarming rate. But WHY?!?!
That is a question that scientists are arguing over as I type this. There are many ideas being thrown around. Some include the increase of coal burning in China. Those particles can actually reduce the effects of CO2 warming in the atmosphere. Similiar, Volcanoes have been accused of the same. The clouds of ash from these events can actually block out the intense sunlight over large sections of earth…reducing temperatures. And lasting…and perhaps the most interesting conclusion I have read… we are wrong on the relationship between earth and carbon dioxide.
Some have been reporting this “leveling off” of the global temps is temporary…and that we will soon see an increase of up to 6°C across the globe by 40 years from now. Others argue that that number is exaggerated…and likely will be more of 1.8°C to 2.5°. Nevertheless, we still have two facts on the table.
1) CO2 is climbing fast. Humans accounting for about 25% of that number since the 1700s.
2) It is getting warmer. Yes it has slowed, but we are still warmer than in the past.
NASA scienstists say we would have to see this “leveling off” of temps to last 30-40 years before we can say Global Warming is …no more.
What Goode is really just saying here is that we don’t have it all figured out, by a long shot. Climate science is extremely complicated. Maybe this leveling off is just a brief period or maybe it is a sign that we don’t really understand the relationship between CO2 and our climate. While that is okay, a lot of public policy, which has costs billions to implement, has already been based on fears of excess CO2. Some people look at that and see a problem.
The second item I would cite is the recent passing of AB-711 in California. This bill bans the use of lead ammunition in the state, making California the first state in the nation to do so. This bill was not passed on good science, but evidence of politicians giving in to special interest groups like the Humane Society. SoCal Bowhunter links to a video (direct link here) which sheds some light on the way that science was misused for political purposes.
Hunters are generally a pretty conservative group and we also follow the law. In California there was a lead ban in the ‘condor zone’ before the state-wide ban and wildlife officials found 99% compliance during their enforcement work. Despite this, lead toxicity levels among condors did not change. Even when presented with that data, government leaders passed the bill. The lesson some are going to take from this is that science allows itself to be misused. Because scientists do not have a unified and loud enough voice in our country, it is easy to see why those conclusions can be made.
My goal here is not to justify ignoring science or misusing it. I also do not wish to blame scientists here. To the contrary I believe they are the primary victim in the public relationship with science. What I believe though is that the scientific community needs better PR and needs to fight for its own integrity. There should be dozens of people like Neil Degrasse Tyson out there fighting for the sciences. As for conservatives? We need to stop the war on science and at the same time, I would like to see our friends on the Left stop considering it part of their private toolkit for getting pet legislation passed.