Why We Doubt Science: Maybe We Know Enough Without It!

As anyone knows, climate change – or global warming – has become an amazingly controversial topic in America. This is especially true, it turns out, among communities that identify with Evangelical Christianity. It seems to matter little that almost all climate researchers agree that it’s happening, as a result of human activities; or that only an infinitesimal fraction of science journal papers question manmade climate change (one out of 2,258 in 2013); or that virtually all of the science academies of the Developed World have warned of the need for urgent climate action; or that a solid majority of Americans also accept these conclusions.

Despite all of this, only 49% of white American Evangelicals accept the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming due to human activities, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted in 2014. Indeed, of all religious categories surveyed, white Evangelicals were the least concerned about climate change. Not surprisingly, we Evangelicals help vote into office politicians who also ignore all warnings about climate change, effectively blocking global action to address the problem.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, why do we continue to doubt? And with the cacophony of cries from the global victims of drought, flooding and sea-level rise, why do we resist compassionate action? For years, this question has been repeated as a matter of rhetoric, or anguished outbursts from activists. But recently, behavioral scientists have turned the tools of science toward the phenomenon of climate denial. Yes, old science v. faith narratives may play a role; and yes, corporate-funded “think tanks” and politicians may sow doubt as they did during the Tobacco Wars.

But it’s beginning to look like there is much, much more going on in human minds, which makes climate inaction – from Evangelicals or anyone else – much more likely. Today, we address a surprisingly overlooked truism: We all feel like experts about weather.

We Feel Like We know

You’d think that dire warnings from experts would catch our attention, wouldn’t you? If more than 97 percent of structural engineers warned that a bridge was unsafe to cross, we’d find another way around, wouldn’t we? If a similar majority of oncologists told us we had cancer, we’d almost all seek treatment.

So, why do we doubt the warnings of climate science? There may be parallels between structural engineering and cancer diagnosis, on the one hand, and climate science on the other; but there are also differences. And one key difference is this: In a field normally dominated by technical specialists, weather events appear to be well within the range of laypeople’s personal expertise. We might be in no position to judge the levels of trace greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or sea levels, or the extent of glaciers, but we all think we know about the weather.[i]

In February, the East was frozen, while the West sweltered

In February, the East was frozen, while the West sweltered

And what we know about the weather is informed by what we’re experiencing, right here, and right now. In June 2013, President Obama took to an outdoor stage at Georgetown University in a brutal summer heat wave to announce his climate change plans. Virtually everyone who sweltered with him seemed to agree with his perspective. On the other side, early this year, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) tossed a snowball onto the Senate floor in an unseasonably cold winter, ostensibly as justification for his unrelenting opposition to climate action. Again, to some, the severe weather seemed to justify the senator’s conclusion.

Of course, when we stand back to examine these episodes, we can agree that the local weather on any particular day has little or no bearing on global climate trends. But research shows that we seldom actually think that way. In 2013, researchers at the University of New Hampshire proved it. In a survey of 5,000 voters, they found that on especially warm days, 70% of Independents in New Hampshire affirmed belief in human-caused climate change. On unseasonably cold days, the number dropped to 40%.[ii]

So whatever we think about Sen. Inhofe’s snowball antics, the research shows that his reaction may be closer to home than we might like to admit. For many of us, whether we take climate change as a serious concern may depend on whether it’s hot or cold outside, right here, right now.

If this is true – and it seems to be – the planet’s weather systems have played a cruel joke on humanity in the past year. Global politics are dominated by the one remaining superpower – the U.S. – and the U.S. is heavily influenced by its densely populated Eastern states, with major cities like New York, Washington, Boston and Atlanta. And the East has spent all winter and spring in the grip of unrelenting cold – a consequence of the chaotic “polar vortex” that has attracted so much attention in recent years. Virtually the whole world is seeing abnormal heat, but we’re still very chilly.Picture2

And the data suggests that if we’re feeling chilly, then we’re likely to ignore the heat that’s becoming the norm everywhere else. Because, after all, we all feel like we understand the weather pretty well. It’s not rocket science, or cancer research or anything. Or maybe it is. Or at least, maybe we should consciously remind ourselves that there are better ways to learn about what we’re doing to our Father’s world than looking out the window.

Of course, it’s vital that we do so. Because by the time our local weather leaves no more doubt in our complex minds, it may be too late to save many people and other creatures from the ravages that science is warning us about.

J. Elwood

[i] From Marshall, George; Don’t Even Think About It; p. 13; Bloomsbury Press

[ii] Hamilton, L.C., Stampone, M.D. Blowin’ in the wind: Short-term weather and belief in anthropogenic climate change. (2013) Weather, Climate, and Society, 5 (2), pp. 112-119.

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