Okay friends, I’m going to take a different path than I usually take in these posts. In the past, I’ve tried to work at the intersection between science and society. Sometimes this means exploring why a particular scientific issue is relevant to society. Why for instance, should we care about how evolution is (not) taught? Other times, I’ve gone the opposite way-what can the workings of society tell us about how to help people understand why science is important? I’m not going to ignore those issues here, but I’m going to do something I generally try hard not to do. I’m going to rant.
It starts with a rigorous and comprehensive paper about the consequences of climate change. Using the business as usual scenario, the work provides a county by county analysis of the economic impact of climate change in the US. The conclusion is that the southern US will bear the brunt of these loses. Try to imagine drawing a N-S line from roughly west Texas, and an E-W line from the northern border of Kansas to the Atlantic. Everything enclosed within those lines is in big trouble, including the classically southern and the southern plains states. The greatest losses come from increased mortality, greater labor costs from working in brutal outdoor conditions, infrastructure damage and lost agricultural production. I’ve covered this issue a little bit from Georgia perspective, and looked at these same factors.
Appalling and spiteful reactions are not atypical
What’s driving me to rant is not what the study says, but the reactions to it. Given my rash leap into this whole defender-of-science stuff, I spend a good bit of (non-work!!) time on Facebook and other public venues. To be blunt, I have been appalled at the ignorance, bias, and just plain old spitefulness of many comments. They may be summarized as: it’s all their fault, so they deserve it. But what is truly astounding is these comments come from individuals who ought to know better. They are from people discussing issues in the March for Science FB page, and similar places. As a scientist, I believe in openness, curiosity and mindfulness of my own biases. I believe in community, since that is one the ways science progresses. Significantly, a lot of what I see from these supposedly enlightened people is in stark contrast to these principles.
Maybe I’m just a snowflake, but things like the following bother me a lot, and are not atypical: Why should I care if the people who do not believe in climate change get impact (Sic) the most? We asked them to care and they said f*** off didn’t they? Quite simply-this is arrogant, thoughtless, and full of careless stereotypes that seem to come from watching bad TV. Moreover, it’s exactly the wrong approach if we want to solve this challenge and preserve a habitable planet.
Unpacking the errors: bias and low emotional IQ
I count five fundamental flaws in the above post. This is a pretty damn impressive achievement for 30 words. In fact, I know of only one other source of such high density stupidity. I unpack these errors in the following paragraphs. What is particularly striking is these errors are of both logic and emotional intelligence. A double threat! As I said, impressive despite the brevity.
First-why should one care? Well, because the last time I looked, we in the US were supposed to believe that our society acts for the benefit of all, even when individuals are less than we might want them to be. Punishment is to protect society, not to take revenge or exert moral superiority. We avoid punishment unless we are absolutely certain it’s warranted. And further, the goal is to make punishment unnecessary by correcting, if we can, those factors that lead to destructive behavior. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe these things.
The second thing wrong is this: the invocation of “these people” as a justification for callousness, if not outright malice. I mean, who are “these people”? I live in a diverse state, in a diverse region. Only a bare majority of my neighbors supported a backwards looking agenda in the recent national election. Further, 4 of the 8 US cities in the 100 Resilient Cities are in the south, and all have reaffirmed the Paris Accord. So, a lot of us are doing what we can. To be unaware of this diversity is therefore inexcusable, and to make such a statement while being aware of it is appalling. Is it OK to throw half of us under the bus because of the actions of the others? Isn’t this guilt by association? I thought we were better than this, but that’s not an accurate conclusion from what I’ve been seeing recently.
The third problem is the unwillingness to understand how people make decisions, and the elitist proposition that telling people they need to care is sufficient. Reams of paper and a universe of pixels are devoted to explaining that people incorporate facts into their preexisting world view. More importantly, many elements that produce that world view are not under one’s control. Thus, blaming people for their opinions does not recognize that we never are fully in control over our own thoughts. It further ignores that we often excuse such deficits in our own thinking, while holding others responsible. Expecting people to change their minds by reciting a litany of scary facts, and shaming them is not particularly realistic.
In fact, we know pretty clearly that one cannot convince another to change a deeply held opinion simply by facts. A better tactic is engaging their values and motivations, and this strategy only recently has been applied to issues like climate change. Significantly, it seems to be working. I’m all for personable accountability, but we also need to recognize that our opinions are not entirely rational or logical. One cannot simply think one’s way out of some of these dilemmas without help. Therefore, it’s incumbent those who understand the consequences to do all we can to reach those who currently don’t.
Errors of logic and analysis
The fourth problem is the wholly simplistic political analysis that underlies these screeds. And sometimes, it’s not so implicit, as here: “The south gets what they voted for.” I hesitate to get overtly political, but the level of willful blindness here is astounding. The systematic and widespread efforts to disenfranchise many from participating in the political process should be perfectly clear to all. Thus, anybody who continues to operate under the assumption that the political process is a fair fight is either deluded, or has been hiding under a rock. This error simply compounds the second problem I unpack above. To summarize-the idea that the majority of people in the south are in favor of these policies is fiction.
Finally, suggesting it’s okay to let the south fry is not only a dicey moral stance, but impractical as well. We’re all entangled, and any destruction to one region will strongly impact the entire country. The south, broadly speaking, is the largest timber producer in the US, and grows much of the forage fed to animals. The second biggest air cargo hub in the world is in the South, as are 3 of the top five in the US. The 4th, and 7th-10th busiest ports in the US are in the south. Disruptions within a complex system such as ours therefore produce a cascade of failures that is impossible to predict, and often more severe than one would imagine. If you’ve ever tried to fly nearly anywhere when a bad storm has hit the Atlanta airport (busiest in the world), then you know what I mean.
Solving problems is not about blame
I understand both the frustration and the anger that people feel when they see others taking action against our (and their) self-interest. I suspect I feel this more keenly than many because my view is not the plurality where I live. But, those of us who live in different regions need to share our anger, not direct it against one another. We need to keep firmly in mind the hidden diversity and untapped potential for change, and not create more barriers through carelessness. Being sensitive to these issues is not forgiving selfishness or greed or willful blindness. Rather, it is a recognition that all of us suffer from the same human failings, and that our judgments about others are therefore not always accurate. We’re all in this together, people, so we’d better start acting like it. The universe won’t care, one way or the other.