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Artificial Controversies

I listen to quite a lot of scientific podcasts and other material in the average week. I subscribe to podcasts from Nature, Guardian Science, and other fairly respectable sources. I often hear about trends and new research before they are well known to the general public and I have a fairly good idea of where the trends and consensuses are on various topics.

So it never ceases to amaze me when I hear what the average person with no interest in science actually thinks, especially on topics of a controversial nature. It’s like a totally different world when I compare what I have heard from the world’s leading researchers with what other people think is happening and who rely on totally different sources.

For example, I often see climate change deniers quoting phrases like “global warming theory is in serious doubt after new research” or “climate change alarmists were wrong” or “there has been no warming in last 10 years”. In many interviews with the world’s leading experts I never hear anything which could be remotely construed this way. As time goes by climate change becomes more certain, the evidence more incontrovertible, and the models more accurate. Where does this opposing view come from? Apparently they just make it up!

A similar thing happens in other fields where there is an opposing view such as evolution (of course I mean an opposing view from people who are ignorant of the subject or with a political or religious bias, not real researchers). I recently engaged in a debate with a creationist over whether new data from the ENCODE project (a public research consortium, the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements) disproves evolution. This person was not a nut, but he just totally cherry picked the evidence and warped it into his own world-view. He also refused to discuss the real issues and simply repeated his own warped opinions over and over.

When I hear biologists discuss evolution (even those involved with ENCODE) there isn’t the slightest hint that they think evolution theory is wrong, if anything their findings support evolution even more, but the subject isn’t even usually discussed because to the experts it just isn’t an issue any more: evolution is a fact.

But the public view is often quite different. Polls in the US indicate that only about half of the population there believe evolution, and a recent poll here in New Zealand showed less than half think that global warming is real and caused by humans. The global warming poll was a casual one run in the Herald newspaper, so it wasn’t scientifically accurate, but I think it gave a fair indication of the public view.

Here’s the result. The question was: “What’s your take on climate change?” (not a very precise question to be begin with, but let’s move on). “It’s a real problem and humans are the cause” got 49% support, “It’s a real problem but humans aren’t the cause” got 19% and “It’s a load of old cobblers” got 32%. So less than half gave the answer which is well supported by the science and a third disputed the reality of the phenomenon completely!

There is definitely controversy around climate change but it only takes two forms: first, there are people who for reasons of their religion, politics or ignorance reject it; and second there is a valid debate on the correct response to the problem. Actually, I should concede here that there is a third group: those who genuinely dispute the science and have some degree of expertise in the area, however this group is extremely small and often a hidden agenda is involved.

So there is no real scientific controversy here, just like there is none relating to evolution. The controversy is an artificial political one: it is scientific fact against political opinion. Note that I am talking about the basic idea of whether anthropogenic global warming is real, not what our response should be – I think there is still real debate around that and that is a real question with a significant political component (unlike the reality of the phenomenon which is – or should be – entirely scientific).

But this is a common problem in today’s world: subjects which belong in one domain are debated in another and this leads to total irrationality. For example, the scientific issue of evolution is real so instead of debating that fact religious people should get on to discussing how that affects their beliefs. Another example: global warming is a scientific reality so the next step is to discuss the political response to that reality. It is not for religion to dispute the science of evolution or for politics to do the same to global warming. At least it isn’t if we want a rational outcome.

But that does bring out a factor which I haven’t mentioned yet: many people don’t trust science. It’s odd because those same individuals use the products of science, like the internet, as a medium for saying why they distrust it. Or they make use of the advantages we have gained from science, such as modern medicine, to extend their lives while debating evolution which is the most important theory underlying biology: the science medicine is based on.

It’s bizarre. It would be like me creating a brilliant argument against the existence of God and then distributing it on church noticeboards (and that would be after I survived a nasty disease by praying for a cure). Still, people are often very poor at recognising the irony inherent in their positions. That’s one of the most amusing things about engaging them in debate!

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