I think perhaps my early contributions have taken this column astray. At first I approached the climate debate with fresh eyes, albeit with the eyes of a trained scientist. When I saw the anti-intellectual and fallacious arguments from those acting under massive conflicts of interest, I thought I knew a good way to proceed: education.
I think education can change the world. I do believe this strongly. So I started along the following line of inquiry: how does one approach a flat Earther? How do we make intuitive the concepts that carbon dioxide has different thermal properties than nitrogen or oxygen?
But it’s probably a naive thing to attempt. I’m thinking a lot of my efforts were misguided. It would be nice if one could hope to educate a flat Earther out of their convictions, but I don’t know how to do it. As soon as a flat Earther has chosen to educate themselves, they’ve practically transmografied into a whole other animal. So yes, in a few short months my optimism has been greatly dampened: maybe we do need to give up on some people. Maybe some people have no appetite for truth at all.
The good news is, some highly engaged people have been openly discussing a more productive avenue for some time. They have a new take on this problem of recalcitrance to knowledge. The problem is perception: people filter information so strongly when they encounter it, they overwhelmingly gravitate to data that fit their preconceived beliefs.
Science itself is still subject to these frailties, it just manages to progress more quickly because there is a high standard for objective truth. But just like astrology remains somewhat popular, so does a general disdain for the scientific knowledge.
An easily anticipated counter-argument runs as follows: whose education? Scientific education is just one type of education – perhaps I’m being closed-minded in equating a recalcitrance to science with a recalcitrance to knowledge itself? Maybe there are truths about reality beyond the purview of science?Y
The irony in such a counter-argument is that the main alternative to an empirically derived, naturalistic worldview is a absolutist, supernatural woldview. The charge of science-centricism is a relativistic argument as one’s sense of truth is presumed to be contingent on one’s worldview. But an absolutist worldview cannot actually accommodate a relativistic one; the two perspectives are exclusive. So as with most relativistic arguments, this one does not hold water. You can’t argue that there are two narratives that should both be given fair consideration while subscribing to the belief that one of the narratives is absolutely correct.
The (substantial) scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, and that people are probably causing it. Everyone that has a position on this topic is capable of shoe-horning new information into consistency with their position. But the scientists are capable of the most drastic acts of self-scrutiny and even self-contradiction: even the notions of time and space have been radically altered over the course of history. The ability of scientists to revise their beliefs is a tremendous source of confidence in their determinations, but this will never amount to a justification for resolute certitude. At least that’s my perspective: if you want resolute certitude, you don’t want the truth, you want propaganda.
Ryan MB Hoffman has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He is mostly interested in how protein molecules fluctuate throughout their functional processes. During his doctoral work he studied troponin, which is a switch that regulates striated muscle contraction. His thesis is called Process and Troponin, and can be obtained here. He works at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. He is active with the Intrinsically Disordered Proteins subgroup of the Biophysical Society. Ryan likes to remind people that his contributions to TRN are performed entirely using his personal resources.