Recently, Gordon Evans wrote an op-ed denouncing the unreliable nature of trans-science—“questions ‘which cannot be answered by science’ regarding phenomena that ‘are variable, imprecise, uncertain—thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate.’” Climatology, and environmental science, are relatively new members of the scientific guild, and, as of yet, do not have the quantity of data needed to draw the hard conclusions that we find in chemistry and biomedical sciences.
In the absence of a long heritage of research, however, environmental science possesses one of the most demanding voices in modern culture. In other words, we know less, yet speak more confidently, about environmental science than we do the majority of scientific disciplines. As confidence rarely arises from a lack of clear and conclusive data, this particular trans-science draws its certainty from political ideologies.
As most voters will have noticed, climate change inevitably serves as a critical talking point for candidates on either side of the political aisle. Whether global warming is denounced as a hoax or heralded as “the end of the world as we know it,” a candidate’s environmental outlook is critical to engaging with the interests and sentiments of a particular party.
The prominent political influence of this adolescent field of research has eclipsed the discipline’s opportunity to build a foundation of data and discovery from which it could potentially make meaningful forecasts for the sake of policy and economic decision-making. Such an observation has a multitude of applications across the economic and political spectrum, as seen through the work of the Cornwall Alliance and other thoughtful voices on environmentalism.
In particular, an interesting feature of climate science becoming an acquisition of competing political ideologies is the importance of social capital as opposed to merely research funding.
By social capital, I mean the approval and political support that is the reward of toeing a party line or opposing a common foe. As previously implied, social capital can be earned with one party by denouncing global warming as a fraudulent attack on capitalism or with the other party by declaring that the current state of our climate calls for an overhaul of the energy industry and our entire society.
Additionally, the debate over climate science has become particular vicious due to the social capital at stake by targeting an individual who produces or advocates research that contradicts your party’s stance on the subject.
In August, for example, Bill Nye experienced an explosion of social media attention by denouncing CNN’s Chad Myers in an interview with Chris Cuomo. This occurrence, though recent, is by no means uncommon. The targeting of ‘climate deniers’ has become a frequent feature of American culture. However there is something that sets this specific brand of targeting apart from other forms of political character assassination. As Evans simply put it, dissension on environmentalism is treated differently because we are treating a trans-science as if it were science.
Therefore, Bill Nye did not simply receive approval for attacking an opponent of his political ideology. He did so under the guise of advancing a clear and valid scientific interest. The clarity and validity of this position is dubious when one acknowledges that the global warming movement, and some of its opponents, have political consensus for a foundation, rather than sound research and replicable evidence.
How do we, as average members of the political process, engage with confusion and insecurity of this scale? Conviction and humility. As a practical first step, be wary of click-bait and read Gordon Evan’s essay (mentioned above) on questioning the underpinnings of self-professed ‘objective science.’ Second, embrace the possibility that you might be wrong and that we might all be wrong. No amount of social capital is worth the marginalization of human beings who interpret an adolescent science through a different lens.