Tuesday, October 21, 2008

NPR Steals My Line on Climate, Well Almost

A while ago I wrote a post on coffee shop conversations about global warming and how to convince friends that it is better to have more faith in peer reviewed science than random self appointed experts who pop up on the Internet and pronounce that an entire field of study with a history of thousands of publications is wrong because that one paper in that hard to find journal says so.

NPR no doubt taking my cue has a similar "How To Be Conversant About Climate" conversation with Michael Oppenheimer, faculty in geosciences Princeton University, about how to convince Uncle Sal at the dinner table that global warming is not only real but is primarily caused by human activity. Oppenheimer is of the view that while the debate about whether warming is taking place is over and settled, there are differences which are quite genuine and not as easily dismissed on how to deal with this problem. That problem has economic, political and cultural roots and needs to be confronted without taking a "I am right and you are wrong" stance.

There is a second good talk on the show. This explores the broader question of why people find it hard to believe in science and scientists. Uncertainty in interpreting data and the results of an experiment, dissent and debate is built into the scientific process. It is the nature of the beast. But it is often bewildering to people that even after say 2-3 decades of work, there is no certain answer from scientists on a problem. People take that as a weakness of the system, a signal that science may not give them ready answers. Maybe we want that certainty, maybe we need closure on a problem, maybe we need to be reassured that yes this is the one correct answer, that we all too readily succumb into believing a confidently told but scientifically unsupported story.

And again how easily available information on the Internet can be at once a boon but also a hindrance and sometimes has dangerous consequences when people in responsible positions choose to believe wild assertions. Harry Collins of Cardiff University gives the example of parents refusing to vaccinate children with the MMR vaccine because they fear that it may cause autism in their child, something that has been refuted by solid scientific work.

Then there is the case of Thabo Mbeki, ex-President of South Africa, who after reading articles on the Internet announced publicly that retro-viral drugs to combat AIDS don't have any helpful effect. The media too bears some responsibility of spreading disinformation through their insistence on giving both sides on the story equal weight even though one side is just illogical and is not supported by any body of evidence and simply does not warrant such attention.

Both a good listen.

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