How do we know anything anyway?

How can you expect people to embrace the need to tackle climate change, if they don’t know the science behind it?

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This afternoon I read a satirical piece by Philip Bump on Grist that, in a witty stream of consciousness, criticised a climate change survey undertaken by Duke University for asking questions the respondents had little means of answering accurately, such as if the world’s climate was changing. It’s not long and it’s hilarious, so have a read.

Bump’s main criticism is that there is little point polling on points of scientific fact, because it merely churns up percentages of public perception. Ultimately, he argues, these figures will be used by public relations folk or politicians to create essentially vapid ‘news’ that has no bearing on scientific truths.

The section below sparked my interest particularly:

The next question: “Is climate change primarily because of human activity or natural causes?” Gahhhhh. We are two questions in and we’re already in a cart that’s missing a wheel flying down a rocky hillside toward disaster. 64 percent of people say it’s our fault. Everyone else says it’s natural. So I would assume that all of the respondents here have at least 10 years of experience studying the climate; each must have published at least two works on the subject of climate change. Because why else would you ask people how they feel about demonstrable fact? If you asked people what made a car go, 60 percent would say “an internal combustion engine,” 22 percent would say “steam,” and the rest would be a combination of “Jesus” and “magic.”

The argument is that there is no point asking people about the causes of climate change because they haven’t got enough scientific knowledge. Of course, the writer is exaggerating when he talks about publishing two works on the subject and ten years of climate experience, but there’s a really strong point there. Bump appears to believe that the public perception isn’t as important as the facts of the matter. However, one way to effect real momentum in climate activism is to get the public onside. How can you expect people to be ‘converted’ to the climate change cause if they don’t know themselves what is going on and why?

The vast range of environmental and sustainability initiatives we are encouraged to undertake requires a leap of faith. Choosing to live a more sustainable lifestyle means accepting, based on government information, corporate communications or media reports rather than scientific knowledge, that change is needed on a global scale. There is a difference between being told and knowing. Only by learning about the science, either via formal education or through digging up the research online, can you remove the element of faith and stand proud in the concrete metropolis that is the world of fact.

Millions don’t need to be convinced of the need to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It just makes sense to them. However, to ensure people are engaged fully in taking fewer carbon-intensive flights, recycling their household waste and taking shorter showers, phrases like ‘watching your carbon footprint’ or ‘living a greener lifestyle’ need to be pulled back from the tumble into empty cliché and receive reinforcement from scientific fact.

We’re very lucky to have some fantastic tools at our disposal, not least the internet. Anyone with a decent broadband connection can pull up the latest report from the IPCC and have a look for themselves what the scientific collective has to say about climate change.

If governments and environmental activists are asking people to change their lifestyles in difficult economic times, then those people should know why those changes are necessary. Full engagement requires more than passive acceptance, it requires knowledge and understanding. I wager that if people knew that the global average temperature is projected to rise anything between 1.6 – 6.4 degrees Celsius over the next century, with potentially catastrophic consequences for human life as we know it, they might be more inclined to cycle to work than take the car.

Photograph: geograph.org

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2 responses to “How do we know anything anyway?

  1. “Bump appears to believe that the public perception isn’t as important as the facts of the matter.”

    That’s really the problem these days isn’t it? Perception of belief is allowed to trump the facts. Credibility isn’t born just because a majority believe something, it comes from proven fact tested over time is it not?

    Thanks for sharing this!

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