Ignoring Science: The irrationality of the climate sceptic

Tim Yeo’s recently comments on the ‘uncertain’ nature of man-made, or anthropogenic, climate change are easy to dismiss. Viewed in light of the coalition government’s inability to adapt any policy to changes in both opinions and circumstance brushing aside the environment minister’s words as another example of a misinformed government would be simple. Worryingly there is an alternate reason why Yeo, who is not alone among legislators in doubting the anthropogenic nature of climate change, can seemingly ignore science. Rather than being an example of simple political ill appointment, when ministers with no experience and little interests are shuffled from department to department – Yeo was also environment minister under John Major – it reflects a wider issue of perception.  One that pervades the entire climate change debate. It is all the more galling considering that Mr Yeo has been one of the government’s most strident campaigners for cutting carbon emissions and seeking clean energy alternatives.

Environmental activism isn’t all about saving the whale. (USA today)

When any public figure casts doubt on man’s influence on the climate system in such a way they are committing a peculiar piece of double think. To use the unfortunate minister again as an example, when Tim Yeo takes penicillin he does so knowing that it will work as a drug.  He knows this because the performance of penicillin as an antibiotic has been proven numerous times in trials, conducted in controlled conditions in order to satisfy a scientific burden of proof. However in casting aspersions over the nature of climate change he is choosing to completely ignore the same standards of proof that he accepts when fighting a chest infection. While the evidence for a link between human activity and climatic change, driven mainly through CO₂ emissions (incidentally atmospheric CO₂ levels recently reached 400ppm, a milestone long dreaded by environmental groups and which received almost no mainstream media coverage), has been established mainly through evidence from the field the same principle of scientific proof for a theory applies. To use another example, if Mr Yeo is happy to accept evolution by natural selection to explain his existence it is grossly hypocritical of him to ignore evidence for anthropogenic climate change. The proof for both theories comes largely from the field of Earth Science, so the comparison between climate change and evolution is a better one than with penicillin.

Whatever example is used it is hard to deny that such double thinking is highly irrational (this same irrationality is displayed by theist who, despite accepting the teachings of science when it comes to the genesis of earthquakes, the prediction of the weather or the wonder of the moon landings, react with bile to even the mildest attempt to teach evolution by natural selection over design). However there is an argument that this irrational thinking is only obvious to those with a degree of scientific training. It is not a matter of intelligence but rather how one has learnt to think. In even the ‘softest’ of sciences taught at university any statement suggested as being the truth must be backed up with strong evidence and often requires support from repeatable experiments. To anyone who has undergone even a few weeks of such an education selectively ignoring the findings of scientific inquiry becomes very hard indeed. Conversely a mind not exposed to such an environment might well find it easier to ignore or subconsciously supress uncomfortable scientific truths. This is, of course, not always the case. It is not just within the scientific community that anthropogenic climate change is accepted.

Why do people think about Climate change in such an irrational way? Perhaps because it is an issue about which people are both highly guilty and highly selfish. Knowing that one’s behaviour, the driving of a fuel inefficient car for example, has in a small way contributed to the slow mutation of the Earth’s climate is not likely to induce happiness. While for some this knowledge will inspire action for many there is a guilt that insists that it is all someone else’s fault or, in more extreme cases, tries to hide impacts of ones actions by suggesting alternative explanations for climate change.

The selfish response to climate change is, anecdotally at least, less common but far more malicious. For some the idea that they may be forced to give up a few of the privileges of the developed world or at least to pay more for them evokes a sense of indignation. ‘Why should I change the car I drive or pay more to fly abroad?’ A sense of entitlement to such luxuries can drive the rejection of the facts surrounding climate change. Of course citizens of the developing world, perhaps more justly, find it hard to accept that they must be denied the privileges of Western society in order to help preserve the planet while those in the West still cling to them.

The rabid search for alternative causes of changing climate mirrors, in a way, the uneducated fumbling of pre-enlightenment society. For thousands of years the shifting and changing of the planets was blamed upon the actions of the gods. Before science explained the inner workings of the Earth what better cause was there for the spewing forth of lava from the Earth than the rage of an angry fire god? The sun, rising every day to track across the sky, truly seemed like a great celestial chariot. Now, despite centuries of enlightenment and scientific progress, we are once again looking to the sun god when confronted with a problem we cannot bare to face, despite knowing its causes. The vague and misleading way that sunspots and solar cycles (on of Mr Yeo’s ‘natural phases’ no doubt) are cited as the ‘real’ cause for climate change are just one example of how collective guilt has caused us to regress. Until those who accept what is happening to the planet is our own fault form the majority (a large amount of research suggests that in many places they are not) there will be no decisive action against climate change and no brightening of the future into which we are all marching.

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