By Brent Fewell
A little tongue-in-cheek there in case you missed it. But everything these days seems to get blamed on climate change, rain, storms, snow, droughts, flooding, migration, violence, insecurity, depression, and bad hair. At some point it all becomes unbelievable and facile, and it’s regrettable when an otherwise serious scientific discussion morphs into a political charade. Chris Mooney, a politically left and perspicacious political journalist, has penned a thoughtful piece over at Mother Jones regarding the skeptical mind of conservatives and the modern role of science. Polls consistently reveal that conservatives and the political right are a skeptical bunch and far less inclined to believe in manmade climate change than are their liberal neighbors. Some have sought to blame this phenomena on conservative media, such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, who indeed are prone to sowing seeds of doubt. But is that the root cause of conservative skepticism? Mooney isn’t buying it,
It seems unlikely, however, that conservative media alone can account for the distrust of science on the right. In a major 2012 study, the sociologist Gordon Gauchat showed that conservatives have lost trust in scientists across the board over a period of many decades, dating all the way back to 1974. Fox News only launched in 1996, however; Rush Limbaugh started national broadcasts in 1988.
Clearly, then, other factors must be involved in sowing distrust as well—including a long history of left-right policy fights in which scientists seemed to be on the “liberal” side, with a canonical example being the battle over Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program in the 1980s.
As a result of these conflicts, politically attuned conservatives today are well aware that scientists and academics rarely seem to come out on their side. Perhaps Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show are, in the end, simply the media reflection of that long-standing conservative perception.
Mooney is correct – it boils down to trust. So why are conservatives so mistrustful of scientists? What are the factors Mooney hints at? Is it possible that the seeds of mistrust have been sown as more and more scientists blur the line between objective, evidence-based science and advocacy? Working within the ivory towers of academia, it’s no secret that most scientists are politically left leaning. Regrettably, however, too many scientists, including climate scientists, believe their Ph.D. provides license to opine on policies and policy outcomes.
And, while scientists are certainly free to advocate for and make policy pronouncements, they do so at their own professional peril. This is not to say that scientists cannot and should not weigh in on policy discussions, but what it does mean is that they should do so sparingly and when they do, do it in a transparent, open and credible fashion. Scientists are terrible comunicators and must learn how to better communicate to the public their research, theories, and findings within the ambit of scientific uncertainty. They must also be open and honest about the limitations of scientific methodology and tools, such as modeling. 97% of climate scientists could be right – and probably are right – but a large segment of society is skeptical of their rightness. This is a shame and a real BIG problem for society. Given the enormous and complex scientific challenges that still confront us all, we need science and we need the public to believe in science. Society would be better served if the stewards of scientific endeavor strive for greater objectivity – or at least the appearance thereof – and begin to repair the fabric of trust upon which society’s future depends. Solutions begin by identifying and understanding the problem – I think we’ve identified the problem, now let’s work on the solution.