Disbelief Amid Certainty

by Hannah Petrone | 1/29/15 10:06pm

by Annika Park / The Dartmouth

If you find the United States’ international rankings in health care, education and social mobility dismally low, don’t despair — you still have the top rank in climate change denial to keep you warm at night! According to a 2014 survey by Pew Research, 35 percent of Americans disagreed that the Earth’s average temperature has been rising within recent decades. This statistic is only a few percentage points lower than the rate of Americans who believe in ghosts, according to a November 2013 Harris Poll. Further, a survey from Ipsos Mori, a market research firm located in the United Kingdom, suggests that the United States lags behind other developed nations in the percent who believe climate change is caused by humans. It’s a striking thought, especially when compared with the 97 percent of scientists who agree that climate change is not only real but also very likely caused by human activities, according to NASA.

Our initial goal at The Mirror was to explore climate change denial at the College. Reflecting the consensus in the scientific community, however, several professors said that climate change skeptics are in short supply on campus.

Even so, as an institution of higher learning, the College’s mission remains intertwined with the questions of evidence and education that the prevalence of climate skeptics in the United States raises.

And while educating students and society alike, Dartmouth must be wary of alienating 35 percent of the country’s population.

We can start to understand why it is important to combat denial by exploring the dynamics that underlie the disconnect between fact and fiction.

American politics is a major driver in climate change denial. For example, as a presidential candidate, Senator John McCain was openly critical of President George W. Bush’s lack of effort toward combating a changing climate.

“Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring,” he said at a manufacturing plant in Oregon in May of 2008.

Yet, as McCain became more involved in the race, his dedication to introducing climate change legislation wavered. Bipartisan messages aimed at addressing climate change gradually became muddled, both by the economic crisis and by the increased partisanship seeping into the climate change debate. Ultimately, there have been few — if any — legislative items directed at climate change passed by Congress, with most major changes coming from the White House or Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have gotten more polarized over climate change, even as the evidence has gotten stronger,” said government professor Brendan Nyhan, who studies misinformation and misperception in politics.

Nyhan spoke about a sort of insidious tipping point in which an issue goes from scientific consensus to a polarized political issue. The messy and cumbersome mechanisms of democracy foil efforts to keep science and politics separate, he said.

“Once [these problems] are mapped onto the political spectrum, it’s really hard,” Nyhan said. “But it’s also the case that when something is important, it is going to be addressed through the political system.”

Scientists who stand behind the credibility of climate science are often perceived as left-leaning. During an appearance on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in 2011, Rick Santorum said that the idea that human beings are largely responsible for recent changes in climate is “absurd,” and called it a “beautifully concocted scheme” by the left. More recently, Senate Republicans agreed that the earth was experiencing a change in its climate, but denied that it is the cause of human activity in a floor vote last week.

This refusal to acknowledge the impact human development has had on the planet’s climate illustrates the erroneous belief that studies on climate change are motivated by scientists’ political beliefs and therefore biased. According to earth science professor Erich Osterberg, combining scientific evidence with political advocacy can have unfortunate effects on the credibility of that information.

“I think it is important to stay away from advocacy because then your results of the science can be easily questioned by people on the other side,” he said.

This cautionary point is profoundly relevant to our education here. Students must be careful not to filter information through political bias. Sometimes a fact is just a fact.

While advocacy may backfire on the scientific community, it seems to work well for those leading the denial campaigns.

“There is a lot of deception out there, and it is purposeful deception,” Osterberg said.

Mary Albert, an engineering professor at Dartmouth and Executive Director of the United States Ice Drilling Program Office, sees campaigns devoted to misleading the public on climate change evidence as a tremendous obstacle to educating the public.

“Some people are easily led astray,” Albert said. “If a publication looks real, it has a great cover, it has graphs — it appears to have it all. But if it is not from a peer-reviewed, reputable journal, then one should not count on it.”

For example, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change is designed to attract people searching for scientifically accurate information, like the data that be found through the International Panel on Climate Change, the NIPCC website is chock full of graphs, numbers and all the trappings of a legitimate science forum — only it lacks context. The NIPCC’s legitimacy and credibility has been called into question by several scientists and organizations in the field of climate research, citing a lack of rigourous standards and an association with The Heartland Institute, a policy think tank whose own credibility has been criticized by several news publications and scientific experts.

The College takes pride in the rigorous intellectual pursuits of its students and faculty, so flimsy academic standards elsewhere should trouble us. Fortunately, we have the resources to cull truths from the misinformation.

Osterberg notes that while we invest much of our efforts into a heated political debate about widely-accepted scientific facts, developing nations are already seeing the effects of climate change.

“Right now we aren’t even dealing with [climate change], we are still debating if it even exists,” Osterberg said. “We have to get past that point so that we can actually have an intelligent discussion about our limited resources, and how we are going to allocate money to deal with this.”

The consensus among the experts with whom I spoke is that mass education is crucial to combating the forces of climate-change denial. Which educational tack we should pursue, however, is not entirely clear. Nyhan’s research revealed that presenting individuals with facts that negate their views often has the paradoxical effect of strengthening their misconceptions.

“Move away from the assumption that it is your job to shovel facts at people, and think more carefully about what is the more effective way of communicating with people,” Nyhan said.

Nyhan notes that people respond more to visual information, like graphs and images, than to text. He also stressed the importance of depoliticizing the issue of climate change, noting the pressure that politicians feel to toe party lines.

Albert directs climate change skeptics to the IPCC, which presents its information on three levels, the third of which is written at a 5th-grade level to ease comprehension, she said.

Still, she believes it is possible to motivate people who may have the information on climate change but show no particular concern for the environment.

It all comes down to economics, she said. Over the next 10 years or so, for example, the cost of electricity in the Upper Valley will rise. As opposed to more traditional methods of generating electricity, Albert said that a person investing in solar panels for their home today will, in roughly eight years, have low or no annual electricity costs and recoup the price of the initial installation. That the economic benefit of using renewable energy often motivates more powerfully than the environmental benefit of doing so is not important.

“Even if people are only using renewable energy for economics, from a scientist’s point of view, it is still the right outcome,” she said.

It’s easy to chalk up the views of climate change deniers to a frustrating, but ultimately innocuous, disregard for the facts. We should not, however, be passive about climate-change denial. It prevents us from addressing issues crucial to the survival of our planet, and willful ignorance of the facts threatens higher education’s most sacred values. Our investment in Dartmouth uniquely positions us to take a leadership role in helping truth triumph.

In “The Ethics of Belief”, W.K Clifford wrote about the implications of a belief formed without the basis of evidence.

“No belief held by one man [...] is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind. [...] Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.”