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The Dishonest Use of Doubt By Both Sides in The Enviro Wars

You know that supposed ‘debate’ about climate change? It sure isn’t about the science. A review by Dr. James Powell , a former member of the National Science Board (under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush) of all the scientific papers on climate change published in peer-reviewed journals since 1991, roughly 14,000 of them, found that just 24 rejected the idea that human activity is causing climate change.

Will this put to rest the “debate”? Of course not. But it does make even more convincing the case that’s been pretty clear for a long time, that climate change doubt and denial is mostly not an honest questioning of the scientific evidence. It is ideologically based, a cherry-picking of and distortion of the facts to come up with a view consistent with the underlying feeling most deniers have about things like the size and role of  government, and individual freedoms, and how society should operate in general.

Want more evidence of that? Look no further than another bit of climate change news breaking just now, the leak of draft documents from an upcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. Skeptics claim the report shows that the IPCC experts think that climate change is being caused by the sun. A champion of climate change skepticism, Anthony Watts, calls it ‘game-changing’. Which is a bold bit of selective perception – we see what we want to see based on what we already believe –since any open-minded read finds that the skeptics claim is a gross misinterpretation of what the draft report actually says. In simple terms, while solar activity has been oscillating up and down for a long time, overall the peaks of these oscillations have been getting weaker, even as global temperatures have risen. (Here’s more detail on this.)

What the leaked draftreport does state is that if we continue the way things have been going, “business as usual” will raise global temperatures between 4.6 and 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit within the next 90 years,  and raise sea levels between one and a half to nearly three FEET. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize how dramatic such changes will be to life as we know it. (And another bit of stark news; NASA reports that November was the 333rd month in a row that had temperatures above the average for the entire 20th century average.)

But then, as readers of this blog will understand by now, risk perception isn’t just about such facts. And there is another instance of that, regarding another huge environmental risk, making news too. Tens of thousands of Americans each year get sick, or die, because of fine particulate air pollution, tiny little solid particles left over in the incomplete combustion of fossil fuel that can get deep into the lungs and interfere with cardiovascular function.  The EPA has just issued tighter standards for such pollutants…good news for anybody who breaths, but apparently bad news for companies that have to follow the rules and reduce the dangerous pollution they emit. These industries tried to block or delay EPA promulgation of the new pollution standard using the same sort of selective risk perception about science that climate deniers do, claiming “…that the standard is based on incomplete science…” Which is horse poop. The epidemiological study of the sickness and death morbidity and mortality caused by fine particle pollution is decades old and incredibly robust. The stuff sickens and kills, and we know it, and we know it with great certainty.

But ‘the science isn’t in yet’, or ‘ the science is open to debate’, is standard language for anyone who doesn’t like what the science says. We all do this. Environmentalists make this same claim about the science regarding genetically modified food, or fluoride. Worried parents say the science isn’t resolved about safety of vaccines. This is just how the psychology of risk perception works. It relies on more, and much STRONGER, factors than just the facts.

Meanwhile, the global climate changes and local weather becomes increasingly violent and dangerous. Tens of thousands of people get sick or die from particulate pollution, while industry obfuscates the science to avoid regulations they don’t like. Vaccinable diseases that were all but gone are resurfacing. Genetically modified food could help nourish millions of hungry people, save arable land and soil, and reduce pesticide use, except some folks suffer some form of Argumentum ad Monsantium, rejection of a world controlled by big corporations (and therefore opposition to the products they sell).

What a frighteningly counter productive way to respond to risk, relying less on the evidence alone and more on how the evidence feels. Except…that’s how we do it, because the brain did not evolve to get good grades and high SAT scores. It’s a survival machine, and feelings and instincts are a built-in part of how it operates…often the dominant part. There are many ways to counterbalance this affective risk perception system, and reduce the risks it poses. The first step must be to honestly recognize, as all the above cases demonstrate, that we sometimes get risk wrong, in risky ways, because of the inherent way the system operates. Once we acknowledge that, we can move toward wiser, safer decision making, for ourselves, and for society.


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