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Aug 01 2006

Global warming-6: The public and the paradigm

In the previous post, I discussed how after a paradigm is adopted, scientists tend to communicate only with each other. They are now freed from the need to explain and justify the basic premises of the field to a lay public, and no longer have to make a political case to justify what they are doing. This results in them developing a more technical, insider language and jargon that is opaque to nonscientists, and the technical paper addressed to similarly trained scientists and published in specialized journals becomes the chief means of communication.

But while this rapidly speeds up the pace of scientific progress, the general public gets left behind and unable to comprehend the language of the scientists. This can result in a disconnect arising between what the public knows and understands about the topics that scientists are investigating. Communicating with the general public and explaining the science to them in laymen’s terms now becomes delegated to a new class of people, the popularizers of science, who are either journalists or scientists (like Carl Sagan) who have chosen to play that role. In scientific quarters, such people are in danger of not being considered ‘real’ scientists, the sole yardstick by which to identify the latter being the publication of technical papers in technical journals.

But these popularizers play a valuable role as translators, by taking the papers that are written in esoteric and mathematical language and published in technical journals, and making at least the results intelligible to lay people, even if the complex science and mathematics that lead to those results remain incomprehensible.

Eventually, the general public becomes used to the ideas underlying scientific paradigms and goes along with them. For example, no nonscientist today really questions the scientific paradigm that the Earth revolves around the Sun, even though their senses argue the opposite. People have just accepted that piece of scientific knowledge as a fact. Similarly, no one contests the paradigm that there exist positive and negative electric charges and that electric current consists of the flow of these charges, even though they cannot see it and really have no reason to believe it. People also do not question the fact that continents move, even though that idea is really, on the surface, quite preposterous and it is quite amazing that people nowadays accept it without question.

This just shows that eventually people will believe anything if they are told it over and over again by authority figures. In this case, they have been told something by scientists, who have based their assertions on data and evidence. But data and evidence are not necessary to achieve these ends. Religions get the same result simply by repeatedly telling people myths that have no basis.

But it does take some time for the general public to come to terms with the scientific consensus and during that transition there can be tensions, especially if the scientific paradigm goes counter to strong beliefs based on non-scientific sources. For example, the initial reaction to Darwinian ideas was negative as the mutability of species is not something readily seen in everyday life, and the idea that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor is anathema to those who see human beings as special creations of god. In the rest of the world, the scientific paradigm in biology that is called the neo-Darwinian synthesis was eventually largely accepted, but this is not the case in the US where a particular variant of Christianity-based thinking challenges the very premise of that paradigm.

The global warming paradigm is in its infancy, barely a decade old, and one should not be surprised that it encounters considerable resistance. Just a couple of decades ago, global warming was only slightly better than a conjecture. The coalescing of scientists around the consensus view has only occurred very recently so one should not be surprised that the general public is still lagging behind. This lag-time had little consequence when it came to ideas such a planetary motion or evolution or continental drift, since nothing could be done about those phenomena and there were no adverse consequences associated with whether the public accepted them or not. But getting the public on board quickly on the global warming issue is important because it is only action by them that can solve the problem. Scientists can study the problem and suggest how it can be fixed but it is only mass action that can produce changes.

The global warming paradigm is being resisted by some not because of strong pre-existing beliefs (who really knew or cared about the average temperature of the planet before this became a topic of conversation?) but because it goes counter to the economic interests of some powerful groups, notably the energy, automobile, and other greenhouse gas producing industries. They are well aware of the power of public opinion on this issue and they have attempted to try and argue that there is a scientific controversy in order to forestall any government action that might have a negative impact of their financial interests.

We have seen before these kinds of attempts to create in the public’s mind the idea that scientists have strong disagreements on an issue and that therefore no action should be taken until further studies are done to ‘resolve’ the outstanding questions. This strategy is similar to what the tobacco industry tried to do with the health hazards of smoking. There too the paradigm that smoking is responsible for a whole variety of health problems took some time to be accepted and it took repeated litigation and legal losses by the tobacco industry to show the fraudulence of their claims that there was a scientific controversy about whether smoking caused cancer and other diseases. Their attempts to deny that scientific consensus eventually failed and hardly anyone anymore questions that smoking causes cancer, emphysema, and a host of other diseases.

We have also seen such an attempt at creating a fictitious scientific controversy in the case of evolution. This attempt has been more successful, partly because the fundamentalist religious mindset in much of America makes people predisposed to wanting to believe that evolution is not a fact.

In both smoking and evolution, the courts have played a major role in the discussions, The attempts by the industries to challenge the scientific consensus on global warming may not end up in courts because the impact is not on individuals or in the short term but on the long-term health of the planet as a whole. So it is not clear who has the legal standing to sue governments and industries to do something about the problem.

Hence the debate is going to have to be fought in the public and political arena and that is why is so important that the general public understand the science behind it.

Next: The current status of scientific knowledge on global warming.

POST SCRIPT: Ohio Board of Education, district seven

Many members of the Ohio’s state Board of Education are elected. District Seven (comprising Summit, Portage, Ashtabula and Trumbull Counties) is currently represented by Deborah Owens Fink, one of the most ardent advocates of inserting intelligent design creationism into Ohio’s science standards and curriculum. She is being challenged by Dave Kovacs who opposes her on this issue.

I have been asked to help publicize Kovacs’ challenge. I don’t know anything about him other than what is on his campaign website so this is not an endorsement. All I know, from my past experience with Ohio’s science standards advisory board, is that Owens Fink has been a very negative influence on the Board.

Those who live in that region and care about this issue might want to look more closely into this contest.

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