March 22, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Science and Denial
IT IS AN OBJECT of periodic amazement on the part of environmentally concerned individuals, the percentage of Americans who deny the reality of climate change. How is it possible—these individuals ask themselves—that anyone could be so ignorant?
But a trouble becomes immediately evident in this very line of questioning. The majority of those who ask this question are in reality almost as ignorant of the actual science behind climate change, as are the deniers of climate change. They accept the conclusions of science without understanding them, just as the denier rejects those propositions without understanding them.
This means, practically speaking, that the vast majority of human beings have to take the reality of climate change on authority—on the authority of the scientists who claim its reality. Not “facts” but humble acknowledgment of superior knowledge is the ultimate basis of this question in most human minds.
This leads to certain distinct difficulties. Authority is not a given; there are many authorities in this world, and some conflict with others. For the average American, the question becomes, what authority shall I accept on the issue of climate change? The authority of my political leaders, the authority of my intellectual leaders, the authority of my religious leaders—or the authority of the scientists? And on what basis shall I make my decision? To acknowledge the authority of the scientists means to accept, without being able to verify, the following propositions:
1.) Science as a method is able to adequately identify the probable causes and results of present climate trends.
2.) The individual practitioners of that method, the scientists themselves, are able to parse the enormous body of data available and to arrive through their investigations at reasonable and well-founded conclusions.
3.) The generality of these scientists are moved primarily by a disinterested devotion to facts, and cannot be swayed from this devotion by the influence of material interests or the pressures of “scientific dogma.” That is to say, they can neither be bribed nor browbeaten into proclaiming as “factual” theories which are false, but which are upheld for any number of venial and non-factual reasons.
To anyone who is familiar with the scientific method, the role of peer-review and the function of the scientific community, and the stringent standards governing scientific method, it might appear that the rejection of any one of these points is absurd. But even such a person as that must acknowledge that now and then science fails to meet its own high standards; it sometimes issues in poorly-reasoned theories; it sometimes is swayed by lesser motives than the nice regard for factual accuracy. Then the real argument behind climate change is this: when an overwhelming majority of scientists propose a given theory as factual, it is advisable to bow to their consensus.
But of course, even to arrive at a conclusion like this, one must be in a position to understand a good deal about science and about the workings of science. A great many are far indeed from this possibility. To these many, the claims of science are simply voices among others, and they see no inherent reason to defer to science as science. They select their authority, not on the basis of which is more factual—they themselves are so far from being able to even begin to arbitrate “factuality”!—but rather on the basis of which appeals more to their emotions and their worldview, which seems better to promote their material well-being, and which accords better with their present and more easily comprehensible beliefs.
Then is it really any wonder that science and the results of science should be accepted or rejected arbitrarily and piecemeal by countless individuals? Is it any wonder that the claims even of science are finally yoked to political considerations? How could we expect anything different?
I claim that anyone who is honestly troubled by the specter of climate change, but who refuses to look the root causes of the problem full in the face—anyone who unequivocally laments climate change but unequivocally celebrates science itself—is as much, and as dangerously, in denial, as the person who claims that “global warming” is a hoax.
Science is the first attempt in human history to liberate knowledge from all moral, political, and social control. We take the rightness of this liberation for granted; but I say that we must reconsider precisely this position. Proof of my claim is to be found in the absurdity of the present situation: science is attempting urgently to warn us, largely futilely, of grave problems that it and its technology have caused. Science proves incapable of addressing even a tenth of the trouble it brings, and this is true not only in the specific issue of climate change. Science has established a body of arcane and recondite knowledge which is inaccessible to analysis by most human beings, but which nonetheless has enormous impact on society and on the physical world around us. Science is as unchecked as a tyrant, as inscrutable as a deity, and as unpredictable as the weather.
If that does not trouble us, then we deserve whatever shall befall us.