Monday, February 6, 2023

Scientists against denialist politicians?

More recently, some political leaders such as Trump or Bolsonaro have denied climate change. It does not seem that these public officials are short of advisors on such pertinent issues about which science offers very consistent evidence, little discussion, and almost everyone has heard about. Many scientists are outraged by this situation and feel a legitimate urge to react angrily to denial statements. However, this may not have helped much. It is unlikely that these politicians will accept that such a public statement, perhaps well-intentioned, is a mistake. Furthermore, it is not so clear that scientists will succeed in convincing the deniers to listen. I propose to try to understand the reasons that explain what politicians do to deny science, understand the dangers of denialism and find out if and how we can neutralize it.

Why do some politicians insist on denying the evidence about climate? One possible reason is that recognizing the existence of such a huge problem compels them to take action. And these are not technically or politically simple solutions. Those that don’t seem to generate public disapproval are usually insufficient to drive rapid progress toward climate objectives. In contrast, effective policies almost always impose costs on various social sectors. The closure of mines, energy restrictions, increase in prices of products or measures that try to sensitize people about unsustainable practices so that they take responsibility for the situation are difficult for citizens to accept, even if they meet their needs. know about. The immediate negative effects they can generate, such as unemployment, population decline, decreased sales (for example of meat or gasoline), lack of rest, or complaints due to changes in transportation or consumption habits, also affect governments. are not easy. ,

Faced with these situations, in which current measures are not popular to solve a problem they still see as futuristic, politicians have two main options to avoid losing civic support. A responsible politician would implement measures against climate change that would seek to reduce its negative effects and distribute social costs. These initiatives have resulted in so-called “transition only” policies. It is about providing employment options in communities that have lost their main way of life, sometimes thanks to industry generated around the new energy, or setting up compensation mechanisms for those affected. Yet, these are policies that he rarely finds adequate or fair. Politicians can console themselves with the thought that they have done what they ought to have done. Better yet, they should know that when crises finally do occur, evidence shows that citizens punish politicians who did nothing to prevent them (even in events such as natural disasters, Which is hard to stop). However, these consolations of duty fulfilled or future revenue may not be sufficient incentives for all politicians to act responsibly against climate change.

problem of denial

Another option is to deny the problem. It avoids implementing technically complex and politically painful measures that challenge civil tolerance. But the denialist attitude of some politicians towards climate change is a danger and not just because they delay decisions on an event that admits of no further elaboration. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that party leaders’ positions on public policy issues (like abortion, immigration, or climate change) contribute to shaping citizens’ opinion. Thanks to denialist politicians, some citizens will have at their disposal arguments that accommodate them into beliefs such as, perhaps at last, science will find a solution, or prefer to think that, after all, climate change will be mitigated. Their individual contribution to change is insignificant and therefore dispensable. Similarly, according to some works, when a person follows the opinion of his party, the information of experts/scientists has little effect in limiting the influence of partisanship (or religion): the citizenry will not be able to resist any challenge to these positions. Will also ignore the information and it happens. more clearly in polarizing conditions.

However, all is not lost. Some recent empirical findings using data obtained during various crises suggest that citizens are sometimes able to question what their political leaders say. While a part of this decision-making capacity depends on each individual’s personality and self-perception of their effectiveness in influencing policies, the other part can be induced by creating certain environmental conditions. Some of these conditions will appear naturally with the development of climate. There is evidence that repeatedly experiencing episodes of unusual weather over the eleven seasons increases curiosity about the weather.

explain how science works

The question is how to persuade at least this group to update their climate assumptions about the veracity of climate change. The social sciences have shown that not all people find the same sources trustworthy or are sensitive to the same messages. An experiment on vaccines has shown that, regardless of bias, how science works (i.e., how evidence is obtained, what it means to have strong evidence about something, about certain topics have a great understanding of what is known and what is not). , makes scientific messages easy to accept.

It has also been shown that on top of personal political commitments there are two other factors capable of predicting acceptance of science. The first is the assumption that the sender of the message has more experience than the recipient. The second is that the sender and the receiver have similar interests. Sometimes, citizens judge that scientists may be insensitive to their daily and immediate needs or suspect that they may have interests that are not entirely legitimate.

Therefore, the evidence suggests that it is clearly promising to bet on improving the scientific culture of citizens. Institutions such as the Ministry of Science and Innovation or the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) allocate increasing resources to this. However, it will take us longer to make improvements in this area than to tackle climate change. In the short term, scientific institutions should make more efforts to identify the groups to whom they want to send climate information, understand their needs and think about how to disseminate it in each case. Dissemination and scientific communication need to be empathetic. Scientists, especially if they belong to a recognized institute like CSIC, fulfill the first condition (having more experience than the recipient). Many scientists are becoming sensitive to the need to disseminate first-rate science and devote their time to it. Achieving empathetic communication requires more training so that scientists can not only communicate in an understandable way, but also see all sides to problems or recognize which actors sometimes act as intermediaries between science and the public. (for example, politicians, farmers, teachers or influencers), thus meeting the second condition that citizens perceive that the issuer is sensitive to their concerns.

eloisa del pino so political scientist and President of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC).

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