The Guardian’s George Monbiot is a former environmental scientist turned journalist-activist. Many moons ago I studied physics, before joining the development and human rights dark/light side (depending on your point of view). So his recent meditation on the nature of science and ‘public reason’ as Amartya Sen would call it, struck a chord, (and not just with me, if the 1200 comments on the article are anything to go by). It also echoes the discussions I regularly have with NGO colleagues.
The prompt for his musings is the extraordinarily successful counterattack by climate sceptics on the scientific evidence for climate change. What Monbiot realizes is that, as with so many contentious issues of public policy, this discussion is only partly a rational argument, the outcome of which is determined by the evidence available. As I am finding with the debates on the Financial Transactions Tax, discussions may go through the motions of examining the evidence, but beliefs are fixed, emotional and largely impervious to new information or analysis.
Why is that? Monbiot thinks that partly, it’s the employment structures behind public debate: ‘Views like this can be explained partly as the revenge of the humanities students. There is scarcely an editor or executive in any major media company – and precious few journalists – with a science degree, yet everyone knows that the anoraks are taking over the world.’
But he is too intelligent just to blame the media, and points to the way science itself has evolved. ‘The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing, to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence.’
I would go further on this point – as Karl Popper argued, good scientists inhabit a world in which no law can ever be definitively proven to be true – it can only be proven to be false. Until that time, they can use the law as a working hypothesis. That is hardly guaranteed to reassure a general public desperate for certainty.
Monbiot goes on to echo recent discussions on behavioural psychology from George Lakoff and others: ‘Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire”. Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted”.
These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to
information than any other factor. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.”’
All this leads him to a deeply pessimistic conclusion: ‘Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.’
I think the people who work for NGOs come from both sides of the divide. There are plenty of enlightenment-rationalists, looking for evidence, believing in progress, both human and technological. But there is also a deep strain of those whose ‘ideological filters’ make it simply impossible for them to accept that technology X could be positive, whatever the evidence.
This hostility is often based (with some justification) on the ways control over new technologies exclude poor people and exacerbate inequality, but I also think it reflects deeper belief systems. On some technologies there is a broad consensus (IT and renewables good; weapons bad). But on many others, partly to maintain internal peace, the rationalists in NGOs have to settle for (at best) agnosticism and fence-sitting on issues such as GM, nanotech, nuclear power or geo-engineering. I am doubtful evidence will ever allow us to reach consensus on those – the Georges (Monbiot and Lakoff) are right.
That worries me, not least because of the missed opportunities to channel science for the benefits of poor people, and because we risk surrendering the issue to the bad guys. Got a feeling I might get a few comments on this one…..