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Natural Science, Psychology, and Climate Change

Natural Science, Psychology, and Climate Change

(Clicking any of the underlined text in blue will take you to a reference on it.)

Very few Americans have problems with natural science’s explanations of why electric lights go on just after you hit a switch. That’s because science’s light bulb explanations do not conflict with religious or political beliefs; it’s very different when science challenges core assumptions about the world. Charles Darwin’s tablet-breaking book on evolution, about all Earth’s species evolving from life forms that existed long ago, is more than 150 years old, but his evolution “theory” is still controversial among some Americans. In 2009 the Texas Board of Education, whose members are popularly elected, voted 13-2 that school textbooks in Texas must teach intelligent design alongside evolution and must question the validity of what natural science says is the fossil record of life on Earth. A dentist, Don McLeroy, who chaired the board, opined after the vote, “I think the new standards are wonderful…dogmatism about evolution [has sapped] America’s scientific soul.”

If evolution is controversial, public doubt and rejection of science that Earth’s climate is warming, and that humans are important causes of climate change, is quite understandable. Climate change science is fairly new and some of its publicists, such as Al Gore, are identified as political liberals who favor more government controls. For everyone, the consequences science predicts of our burning four cubic miles of fossil hydrocarbons a year are unsettling, so we may choose to ignore them.

We’re All Climate-Change Idiots” was a New York Times’ opinion piece headline recently. The story’s theme was that our mental furniture is built to handle moment-to-moment challenges, and is unsuited for large, slow-developing, poorly-defined problems such as climate change. The Times’ article quoted the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication‘s director’s summary: “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.” We see similar avoidance in our leaders’ dancing around long term solutions to federal deficits and entitlement commitments that are too high. Kicking the cans down the road works, but perhaps only for a time.

Mike Hulme, an English professor of climate change and a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looked dispassionately at the many fights about whether dangerous climate change exists and whether human activities cause any such changes. His 2009 book, “Why We Disagree About Climate Change,” explores economics, ethics, social psychology and politics to explain our collective, sometimes angry, spinning of wheels in response to what science is telling us. Bottom line, our learned patterns of thinking dominate, not the science. I wish that nature would listen to those debates and give weight to passionate arguments that climate change is simply an environmentalists’ fantasy, but I’m not holding my breath.


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