It’s not just a political problem, it’s a problem fundamental to human life in the 21st century: we’re living in a post-truth era. People often don’t respond positively to science or to empirical truth. Instead, they want to confirm their existing biases, and they’ll go along with whatever information they can find online to fit them. This is a big part of why we’re all so susceptible to “fake news” and resistant to the real stuff these days. This raises a crucial question—how can we convince people about the importance of climate science when they’re not already inclined to be convinced?
Axios recently released a damning report on the difficulties that climate scientists face trying to sway the general public. Research conducted by George Mason and Yale universities showed that 90 percent of scientists have concluded that manmade climate change is an issue, yet just 15 percent of the general public understands that they’ve reached that conclusion. In general, people dramatically underestimate how much the scientific community knows, and there isn’t enough good news content out there to explain to them otherwise.
“It takes a lot of effort to dive in and learn the details about something, and we will do that when we are highly motivated to learn something,” Yale professor Anthony Leiserowitz said. “Most people aren’t willing to devote an enormous amount of brain energy to thinking about climate change.”
A significant part of the problem is that the media is constantly forced to cover politicians who trot out bad-faith talking points to cloud the debate. Republican lawmakers in May, Axios pointed out, claimed that rocks tumbling into the ocean were causing rising sea levels; this was patently false. Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt used his position to cast doubts on the fact that humans have an impact on climate change. The Wall Street Journal editorial page frequently does the same.
Manmade climate change is almost certainly a real issue, but the case is not an easy one to argue publicly. Some debates can be easily settled, using evidence anyone can understand; scientific ones are a little more complex than that.
“There isn’t necessarily a good intuitive comparison like ‘the crowd in this photo looks a lot bigger than the crowd in this one,’“ said Joseph Majkut, a climate expert at the Niskanen Center. “Even if you are looking at lines on a chart, you are comparing abstractions of real phenomena like temperature change.”
Photo: A poster from the March for Science in Santa Rosa, California. Credit: Kim Wilson / Shutterstock.com