Dislike of Science – Who Is To Blame and What Is Being Done About It?

As was mentioned in previous blogs (see for example the June 18 blog), one of the main challenges to democratization of the climate change issue is the public dislike of science. As a result, public ignorance of the driving forces of climate change and the consequences of inaction constitute a serious threat. Our contributions to chemical changes in the atmosphere alter the energy balance with the sun, and hence, the climate (see July 9 blog); it is dangerous that people cannot recognize this.

To democratize complex issues such as climate change, the global voting public needs to be educated in the fundamentals of science and be comfortable dealing with data and numbers. The alternative is to hire epistemological lawyers that make decisions for us. Many scientists would like to serve in this role (see May 21 blog) – but we can do better.

This is a big job that will take a long time. It can be done through the educational system but we have to remember that climate is global so it has to include everybody. But we also have to remember that the global illiteracy rate is more than 10% (2011). This includes overly populated countries such as India (24%) and Bangladesh (44%). We saw (July 9 blog) that even in developed countries such as the US (14% lack Basic Prose Literary Skills), close to 50% of the population do not believe in evolution or climate change, but 77% do believe in the possibility that extraterrestrials have visited earth. In my (optimistic?) estimate it will take a few generations to accomplish the educational objectives that will allow informed, individualized, decision making that will formulate collective policies such as efforts for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. We cannot give up and we have to start now.

Given the sorry state of science education and the general failure of many education models, we simply have to do better, and we have to engage more people in this effort, We have to start to build bridges. Fortunately, the need for this is getting some recognition. This blog, and others like it, are a manifestation that technology is a big help.

My audience here is the World and I am getting feedback in form of comments, emails and tweets from all over the world. A few years ago, the only “audience” that I could approach was my students and my family. I am paid to enable my students to learn, but with my family I have to be careful- I cannot cross the line into preaching. I cannot even attempt to give them the skills necessary to make the judgment by themselves; I can only hope that the school system will do the job. With students, it’s a bit easier because they are paying me to provide them with the skills.

In this respect, teaching science is more difficult than teaching any other subject because it’s more vertical. One set of skills is being supported by a different set of skills that need to be mastered first. In academic lingo we call these prerequisites.

Here is how bridges can be built:

  • Professionals will have to learn how to be “bilingual” – in other words, scientists will have to learn how to talk to non-scientists without scientific jargon. An AP report by Karl Ritter quotes US climate scientist Robert Corell speaking to his fellow scientists at a meeting in Copenhagen on the melting of the Arctic ice: “Stop speaking in code. Rather than ‘anthropogenic,’ you could say ‘human caused”.

“There’s a kind of frustration on the part of many scientists about not being able to get points across to the public,” said NAS president Ralph Cicerone; as examples, he pointed to Earth’s age, biological evolution, the teaching of evolution, and climate change. Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said scientists must revise their approach to communication in order to compete for the attention of their audience. “Failure is common in attempts to communicate on science with the public. Attention is scarce, and working memory is very limited in capacity,” he said. “We don’t get a free pass because we are experts.” His advice to educators is to appeal to the core values, fears, and aspirations of the listener, “not by dumbing things down, but by smartening up how we convey what we know.” Doing that requires using concrete examples that the audience cares about, not abstractions.

  • Colleges, universities, and even high schools, will have to learn how to be both thematic and disciplinary, covering topics like climate change, evolution, cosmology, the history of the atomic bomb, etc. in addition to traditional physics, chemistry, political science, history, etc. Many colleges and universities, including my own, include general education requirements for the entire student population. The general education includes science requirements. In the discussion about what kinds of courses to include, there is often tension between disciplinary and interdisciplinary topics. One of the arguments against interdisciplinary courses is that students need to master the disciplines before they can approach the interdisciplinary topics. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to use these general education courses as a recruiting ground for the disciplines that constitute the basic departments of all of our schools. I will expand on this issue in future blogs.
  • Public communication tools such as newspapers, TV, radio, books, internet, blogs, etc. will have to learn how to avoid sentences such as “many scientists say….” and will instead hire people that can explain issues from first principles without the use of code words.

In a recent opinion page in the New York Times, David Leonhardt writes about the difficulty of relying on either carbon tax or cap-and-trade policies to promote a switch to different energy sources. He speaks of the necessity of combining methods- raising the price of “dirty” energy, while fostering new solutions. Maybe there is an alternative way to achieve the objective:

Those others things, in the simplest terms, are policies intended to help find a breakthrough technology that can power the economy without heating the planet. “Our best hope,” says Benjamin H. Strauss, a scientist who is the chief operating officer of Climate Central, a research group, “is some kind of disruptive technology that takes off on its own, the way the Internet and the fax took off.”

It might just be that the “disruptive technology” could be educating the general public to accept higher energy prices if they are needed to prevent irreversible atmospheric chemical changes that might lead to catastrophic climate consequences. There is no law that I know about that says energy prices must remain as low as they are now in the US. They are already much higher in most of the world.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Dislike of Science – Who Is To Blame and What Is Being Done About It?

  1. Pingback: From a Competition for Doing Nothing to a Competition for Doing Our Best: From NIMBY to the Olympics. | ClimateChangeFork

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