Thursday, March 21, 2013

Still Banging My Head Against the Wall

No, I don't have a third gaping head wound to report. Instead, I'm referring to ongoing pleasant but frustrating conversations I've been having with various human-induced-climate-change skeptics. 

One of the things I love most about being an academic is having friends who study a variety of fascinating subjects -- for example (relevant here) the economics of human migration, water quality in streams, emotion and perception, environmental and agricultural history, state conflict, and so on. So I'd love to hear people's thoughts on how to tackle climate change denialism. Then maybe we can tackle climate change itself. 

I realize we can only do so much when half of Americans reject science. (I'm not saying here, btw, that most climate change skeptics reject science, but surely a lot do). And as the brain scientist with whom I live often reminds me, most of us believe what we want to most of the time. Who among really turns on System 2 thinking more than the average person, especially when it concerns a reality with potentially grim consequences for us all?

But, as the Dowager on Downton Abby says, "Don't be defeatist dear. It's so middle class." If I can concede that the Democrats' line about the rich paying their highest taxes in 50 years is spurious, then surely anti-environmentalists can admit the biases (and funding) behind climate change skepticism.

The way I see it, there are two main arguments against the overwhelming consensus shared by 97% of scientists. Hockey anyone?

Argument 1): Both sides make good points. Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle.

I attribute this one to the unintended consequences of the Fairness Doctrine. Until the Reagan administration wisely abandoned it, the FCC required broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial issue. Today, it's quite common to see one mainstream scientist and one outlier interviewed on the same talk show, which obviously obscures the actual ratio between the two camps (as does learning science from a handful of newspapers as opposed to the thousands of scholarly articles published on a topic, but I can't be the one to throw stones about not reading the primary research ...). And if Americans are nothing else, surely we are fair! Sure you may sleep in an alley, the logic goes, but darn it you had a fair shot in a competitive society, and regardless of your SES, we take seriously your First Amendment right to be heard! (Exception: on Fox News, this rule does not apply to atheists and center-Left individuals as opposed to caricatures of the Left put on simply to look stupid.) In addition, our society is so polarized politically right now that I think some people treat scientific debates as if they were another budget scrape in Washington, thinking, "well surely both sides are posturing and exaggerating, so as a reasonable and logical person immune to all that noise, I'll just split the difference." Too bad science doesn't work that way.

In response to this argument, I usually ask, "Ok, so what are the other prevailing scientific consensuses with a 97-3 ratio that you reject? And if this is the only one, then why this one?" 

Argument 2) Scientists are sometimes wrong. Look at how Galileo was treated. You need to stop following the herd.

This is a fair -- and yet ultimately disingenuous -- point. As a student of population debates, I know all about eugenics and the sometimes dark side of scientific consensus. (We'll ignore for the moment the rise of peer review, which the Inquisition did not use.) And boy, I hope the tiny minority of non-Koch-brothers-funded legitimate scientists is right. Then we could move on to things like improving women's rights across the world and realignment in Major League Baseball. But gee, it sure is amazing that so many conservatives with a vested interest in the maintenance of the fossil fuel status quo, many of whom attack science elsewhere, are all of a sudden such fans of beleaguered scientists in the minority. My response here is usually along the lines of: "As you are such a friend of the persecuted Galilean free-thinker, what are the other prevailing scientific consensuses with a 97-3 ratio that you reject? And if this is the only one, then why this one?"

Honestly, all the times I've asked this question, I've only ever gotten one satisfactory response. One day in class an earnest student responded un-ironically: "yeah I can name one. Evolution."

Speaking of which, I read a piece today on a cool new book blog I discovered called The Page 99 Test suggesting that if "Darwin had fallen overboard on the voyage of the Beagle, there were other versions of evolutionism that could have carried the theory forward. Natural selection would have come much later, and would have seemed less revolutionary. In this counterfactual world, religious believers would have been less traumatized by evolutionism, because it would have been easier to imagine life progressing toward moral perfection."

In any event, you can always make change at home. So last night, the activist spirit burning in my heart, I walked to meet Søren at the local, vowing to drink only regional beer.

First up was a Berg Ulrichsbier from a little brewery across the forest east of us in Ehingen called Berg Brauerei Ulrich Zimmerman

Not bad, and a very-cool-in-the-1980s bottle, but not much to blog home about either. Falling somewhere between a brown ale and a Viennese lager, it left me craving Epic's hoppy Copper Cone pale ale.

Then we had a Zwiefalter Kloster-Schwarzes. Also perfectly well made, but it reminded me that I don't like black lagers very much. They always leave me craving either a serious stout or something hoppy like a Copper Cone. And these negative comments don't contradict my last entry: the Pils(es?) are great in these parts.

By now, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. After all, I could have ordered a Carlsberg trucked in (trained in?) from Denmark. But someone has to take a stand for the planet. Think of all the hops I'm not consuming over here.

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