Environmentalism and science

| March 9, 2015

Science needs to be able to speak the language of its intended audience. Max Thomas says the challenge is to get the science of communication and the communication of science right.

Dr Barry Jones, Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne, says ‘we must defend science if we want a prosperous future’. Australian scientists, like our sporting heroes, have ‘punched well above their weight’ but they receive nothing like the support they deserve. How can this be so when, as Dr Jones contends, our future prosperity might well depend on science? It may be that complacency about science is a product of being ‘too much blessed’ or perhaps not.

“People don’t want science, they want certainty.” The implicit contradiction in Bertrand Russell’s witticism, I suspect, would not be apparent to the very people who would benefit most from grasping it. The ‘relativist’ notion that all opinions have equal merit perhaps emerged from a misunderstanding of equality. There can be no justice without equality. That we are all equal before the law is indisputable but, as with liberty, there comes responsibility, otherwise some will be ‘more equal’ than others. Had opinion been allowed to dominate facts established by way of rigorous inquiry, the www would have been unimaginable and Dr Jones’s post might well have come to us by way of a newspaper or not at all, with little chance of discussion.

We should allow common sense to be the moderator of opinion. Few feel a need to challenge the wonders of modern medicine or aviation. Millions fly and consent to complex surgery without hesitation. The scientific method that produced these revolutionary advances is the same as that warning of dangerous climate change or pandemic. Of course, the scientific method I mean does not deal in certainty; its currency is probability. Ideas are challenged and modified or abandoned if shown to be deficient.

I want to suggest another, more contentious, explanation for the tendency to readily adopt opinion as fact or even truth. The desire to conform is a natural human instinct. It’s hard to resist an idea ‘liked’ by large groups on social media. Popular environmentalism, for instance, as distinct from evidence-based environmental science, relies to a degree on faith. Australian environmental campaigner and former politician, Mr Bob Brown, has said: “The Greens are much closer to mainstream Christian thinking than Cardinal Pell.” I think Mr Brown was reasonably isolating the ideals from the behaviour of the institutionalized church. However, his implied link between Christian ethics and environmentalism establishes a basis for thinking that many people, seeking meaning in something greater than the self and having abandoned the church, found what they sought in environmentalism. Whether or not they were ever fully committed to a scientific view of the world is a moot point.

Religion apparently answers a human need to believe in something beyond the self. Voltaire assures us that: ‘if God does not exist, then we should have to invent him.’ A ‘Green God’ has been created to satisfy this need. ‘Environmental fundamentalism’ appears to be a form of religion, complete with articles of faith, high priests and sometimes even a trace of infallibility. One of the articles of faith is that nature is good and people are wicked, but may be redeemed by regulation. Another is that our planet is in imminent danger of destruction by humans. There are scientists whose environmental ideology is clearly misanthropic. Ironically, this reinforces our alienation from the natural world and inhibits recognition of the real causes of environmental degradation. Dissent is discouraged, sometimes to a degree that nonconformists are vilified almost as latter day heretics. The division of opinion on climate change into ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’ results from the conflation of science and religion.

Science needs to maintain its distance from ‘fashionable’ opinion and politics. Any suspicion of scare tactics or ‘gilding of lilies’ can transform the friends of science into its adversaries. As far as possible, scientific disagreements should be settled in ways that don’t fuel divisions in public opinion. There is no surer way to undermine confidence in science and encourage the purveyors of pseudoscience than scientists presenting apparently conflicting information to the public.

A similar and perhaps related phenomenon has occurred in health. Opinions on health are as tightly held as those on the environment. This is not surprising given that a healthy environment, e.g. clean air and water, are essential to life itself. Expenditure on scientifically unproved ‘natural’ and ‘alternative’ remedies and therapies runs into billions and is growing rapidly with government rebates now costing more than $30M annually. A review is presently identifying therapies which lack a scientific basis sufficient to qualify for the rebate. ‘To spend much and gain little is the sure road to ruin.’ Dr Jones will surely know the origin of this good advice.

A ‘prosperous future’ probably means different things to different people. The myth of infinite economic growth is gradually giving way to the notion of a ‘progress indicator’ measuring a range of environmental, social and economic parameters. In this model, citizens are not mere economic units; their wellbeing is the primary function of economic activity.

However, people are unlikely and may indeed be unable to defend something they do not understand. The challenge for science is to speak the language of its intended audience. Instead of ‘adding’ fluoride to the water and iodine to salt, science could have explained that many Australian soils, and therefore water supplies, are deficient in these minerals and the health impacts of this. If people know that tea leaves contain more fluoride than the water used to make their morning brew, opposition dissolves. Whatever name is given to the incredibly improbable event that sparked the first life on Earth, it can surely co-exist with evolution.

The challenge for science is to influence popular opinion in ways that appeal to commonsense and dare I say it, self-interest. Get the science of communication and the communication of science right and prosperity will take care of itself.

 Statue at the Cours Mirabeau in Aix en Provence, France

 Statue at the Cours Mirabeau in Aix en Provence, France, that depicts the tension between art and science.