• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Why Americans question climate science


Most of the planet looks at the US and wonders how it is that Americans don't "get it" when it comes to climate change. The science is unambiguous. As such, if you broaden the question to the causes of science denial, many of the non-Americans asking the question are exposed as hypocrites: different science is denied broadly in their countries.

But as I am an American, I'll focus on this country. And as I am an educator, my thoughts turn first to the state of our education system in the No Child Left Behind era. Although I have taught numerous levels, I will focus on my experience with teaching average to below average high school students. They don't read. Most can't read. They aren't asking the question, "Can I trust this particular source?" because they often can't even answer the question, "What did this source just say?" They don't read novels; they don't read newspapers; they can't read the textbooks they are given (and usually don't read them).

As such, news of any sort comes from the Internet. I recently read an article from an Iranian dissident, commenting on the Internet. He said that the part of the Internet that is like reading--blogs, hyperlinked articles, etc.--is a good thing and encourages informed questioning. The part of the Internet that is like TV is a bad thing. YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter--all stress the ephemeral, the "bumper sticker" level of understanding.

When I read this man's op-ed, I thought of the kids I'd taught. Their text messages were rarely more than a sentence fragment. They would never read a blog or investigative reporting. But they would enjoy and circulate Internet memes. More bumper stickers. These memes would be their talking points, when their talk ever addressed an issue of the day. Because memes don't require thinking. Four foot good; two foot bad.

The problem with most science-based issues is that they can not be "meme-ified." To comprehend, they require deep contextual information rarely provided in a single source, synthesis of diverse types of information, and technical reading not taught to middle and lower level high school students. These issues can be explained by teachers, but only by those who have the security and confidence to resist standardized text-based content, which in science tends to reduce learning to vocabulary and factoids.

But this isn't the entire story. Climate science has been linked to a particular political outlook in the US. The politics that worships what passes under the name of "capitalism" is offended by any restrictions on the economic behavior of anyone. Or any corporation. How dare one restrict the oil companies; they "create jobs." They also create pollution and have historically dragged the US into wars in the Middle East, but then again, these issues require more than a bumper sticker mentality to comprehend. Government, with its regulation, is the enemy; corporations, with their "job creating" are the heroes. Anything that challenges this worldview is suspect.

Another major culprit is fundamentalist religion. Approximately one-third of Americans consider themselves to be evangelical. One of the core beliefs of this set is that the world is approximately 6000 years old. Now, if the world is 6000 years old, what of the ice cores and sediment cores that were the key evidence correlating global carbon dioxide levels with global temperature? They went back hundreds of millions of years, right? Wrong. Either they are fakes planted by evil scientists and their government henchmen who just want to tax "real Americans" and demean their religion (whether that religion is Christianity or capitalism is up for debate), or they are God's way of testing us. Sciences with a historical component like geology (second only to evolutionary biology in its service to the forces of Satan) clearly must be gobbledygook.

So, when I speak of climate science, I am challenging the religion and the political worldview of a rather large number of Americans. Many of them (and many of the rest) are incapable of critical thought, expecting of memes and bumper stickers, and uninformed/uninterested in science-based issues. When you add in the right-wing media (FOX News, Breitbart, etc.) and their savvy use of telecommunication to pound these memes into American's consciousness and keep them in what passes for "the commons" these days, it is no wonder that Americans are confused and biased toward a questioning of science, especially climate science.

So, what should any of us who realize the future of our children depends upon action on environmental issues be doing? Depends on who you are and what resources you can marshal. I spend my energy on this issue teaching kids to think critically. As educational theorist and futurist Neil Postman put it, "all good teaching is subversive."

So why am I blogging when those whose minds need to change won't read it? Those who will read this often need contextualization to be effective in their social change efforts. That I can provide.

Climate change also enters my fiction. I am under no illusion a work of fiction is the best way to introduce these ideas to people. However, embedding ideas in strong characters is a way to make ideas persist in others' minds. The same neurons that are activated during real-life emotional struggles are activated when we read fiction.

Read. And encourage others to read. Even if the vast unwashed currently are not reading and cannot read.

Two feet good.


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© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

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