Features Australia

Science friction

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

In recent weeks, we have seen yet another public statement from scientists (in the journal Bioscience) prophesying an approaching climate catastrophe and urging radical action to forestall it. As sharp-eyed critics have pointed out, many of the 11,000 signatories have questionable credentials. Mickey Mouse is a highly talented entertainer, don’t get me wrong, but he shouldn’t be passing himself off as an academic.

But there is a much bigger issue here. I suspect that even if every member of this group was a Nobel laureate, the response to its warnings would have been the same. Uncritical acceptance by some, indifference or outright hostility by others, probably the majority. And amid the flurry of reactions, very little, if any, intelligent discussion or debate.

This highlights what appears to be a paradox. Perhaps the defining one of our age. The more scientists seek to participate in public debate, the more distrustful and sceptical the audience, or at least a decent part of it, becomes. Now it is easy to blame the public for this, as many frustrated scientists and their supporters do. The fault, they say, lies with those who are too ill-educated or selfish to accept uncritically the views of experts. Go to any academic conference dealing with policy questions and you will hear this refrain.

There is an altogether more plausible explanation for this phenomenon. Shocking to suggest, I know, but perhaps the scientists are to blame for their sorry predicament. If they are unable to change hearts and minds, perhaps the fault lies with them.

To be an effective advocate in the public square, a number of basic rules should be observed. Aristotle famously detailed them, but they are known, instinctively, to every successful politician. Indeed, to anyone who must rely on persuasion to achieve their aim.

First, you should address your listeners as equals, not inferiors. Assume they are blessed with as much intelligence and decency as you, regardless of their formal education, wealth or social status. This is not only the right thing to do, it recognises that democracy is the rule of the many, not the few.

Second, when you state your view, avoid brow-beating and lectures. Think of your audience as a jury of peers that needs to be won over. Pay them the respect of building an argument, making clear what your assumptions and logical connections are. On hotly contested questions, accept that reasonable people will see things differently, so tailor arguments for sceptics as well as natural allies.

Third, avoid cheap rhetorical shortcuts, tricks and evasions. Offer views of future possibilities, but steer clear of unqualified prophesy. Resist appeals which shamelessly exploit people’s fears and fantasies. Be explicit about your political preferences, but do not allow them to compromise or colour any evidence you wish to present.

All too often, scientists fail to respect these guidelines, setting themselves above and apart from their fellow citizens. They invoke Plato’s idea of philosopher kings, an elite uniquely qualified to govern. Public policy questions may affect all of us, but if they touch on a scientist’s area of expertise, only he or she is qualified to offer an informed view, it seems. If priests, or aristocrats, or titans of industry displayed a hint of this arrogance and hauteur, they would rightly be condemned. Little wonder, given their self-regard, that scientists’ public statements fail to persuade. As we know, these tend to take the form of warnings and commandments: bald statements of revealed truths (drawn from research which is too complex and subtle to question) accompanied by rigidly-defined policy manifestos. The audience is presented with an ultimatum, in other words, leaving no scope for questioning and debate.

This rhetorical style pleases some, to be sure, but alienates many. And so when resistance emerges, as it inevitably will in a healthy democracy, scientist-advocates pull out their bag of tricks. The ad hominem card is played, with critics aspersed as deniers or sceptics. Research findings are stripped of any qualifications and caveats. Projections and forecasts are presented as inevitabilities. Risks are elevated to crises, crises to approaching and later unfolding catastrophes.

I have no doubt that some scientist-advocates will admit to these tactics. If the very future of the planet is at stake, they may reason, the ends justify the means. If this requires taking some rhetorical licence, so be it. But, as we are witnessing, a sizable part of the public are seeing through it.

The trust deficit scientists suffer from is not only a matter of rhetorical style. Substance matters too. There is a remarkable ideological consistency in their high-profile public statements.  Whether it is the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth tome, the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, the restatement of this Warning in 2017 or the most recent Bioscience statement, the message is clear. To avert inevitable environmental catastrophe, the global population must be stabilised, economic growth halted or radically lowered and existing social and commercial practices fundamentally transformed.

While many people support such a program, let’s be clear: it is a political agenda based on an a priori philosophical assumption, an abiding human anxiety rooted in ancient pagan belief systems. While it no doubt motivates scientists and guides research, it is not itself science or research. A critical distinction. It is also, of course, highly contestable. Low-growth, centrally-directed economies do not boast better environmental records.

This, perhaps, is the nub of the problem. Scientists in the public square, with few exceptions it seems, can’t help conflating their political values and their professional work. They smuggle the former into their presentation of the latter, presenting both as science. It is this, I would suggest, which devalues science, not the scepticism of the public. If you think I am being harsh, how many scientists promote research findings which conflict with their political preconceptions? How many stay scrupulously silent on policy questions, respecting the difference between what ‘is’ and ‘ought’ to be? The message for scientists is clear. To use a courtroom analogy, you cannot be an expert witness and chief prosecutor at the same time. Choose one. If you do not, do not be surprised if you are not trusted.

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