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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 11.18.10

Ignoring the Evidence

Discounting scientific research is dangerous

By Mary O’Brien

Democracy is inextricably linked with the scientific enterprise. Only an active, engaged civil society can protect our world and the human dignity of all of us, and we can only do this well if we’re informed about what’s really happening in the world as compared to what some want us to believe.

Imagine you are the father of Linda Brown, an African-American third-grader who has just been denied admission, in fall 1951, to her neighborhood’s nearest elementary school because all the students are white. You challenge this in court, where social science research is presented showing that 1) segregation is inevitably interpreted by both Caucasians and African-Americans as denoting African-American inferiority; 2) later achievements of adults in their occupational careers are strongly correlated with their first grade social and academic successes; and 3) by age 6, both African-American and Caucasian children overwhelmingly were identifying white dolls as nice and black dolls as bad. In other words, segregation does not provide for equality, as falsely assumed by the Supreme Court in their 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling which upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring segregation in private businesses on the undemonstrated assumption that “separation” can be accurately equated with “equal.” In 1954, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, in no small part thanks to the social science research presented in court.

Currently, we have another large social issue under scientific scrutiny: climate change. The vast majority of the world’s climate scientists observe multiple lines of evidence that the world is heating up, due in large part to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, and that the speed of climate change is so rapid that wildlife, plant, and other species, and indeed entire ecosystems, will be fundamentally challenged or endangered. There are those who claim the science is wrong. These include “trend skeptics” (e.g., the vanishing breed such as Art Robinson who deny that global warming is taking place); “attribution skeptics” (those like Chris Dudley who deny that human activities emitting greenhouse gases play a significant role in global warming that is taking place); and “impact skeptics” (who deny that the rapid global warming, regardless of cause, will be detrimental).

Let’s revisit Kansas 59 years after Linda Brown was refused entrance to her neighborhood school, to look at Wichita-based Koch Industries. (We’ll skip over the 2005 Kansas Board of Education decision to require public school teachers to treat evolution as a theory and the supernatural process of Intelligent Design as an equally valid theory. The decision was voided after the conservative religious majority on the board was tossed out in 2006 elections.)

Koch Industries’ website touts that it is one of the largest private companies in the world. According to Greenpeace, Koch Industries is a $100 billion-a-year conglomerate dominated by petroleum and chemical interests, with 70,000 employees and operations in nearly 60 countries. Koch Industries provides grants to conservative, public policy think tanks, and all 10 top beneficiaries of its grants during 2005-2008 oppose climate change science and/or public policy designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Mercatus Center, Americans for Prosperity, Institute for Humane Studies, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute, Washington Legal Foundation, Federalist Society for Law, National Center for Policy Analysis, and American Council on Science and Health. 

If climate scientists are right about warming and its threats to public health, then it’s tough to oppose public policy aimed at reducing global warming. But if the think tanks can convince the public that the science is at best “uncertain” and at worst “junk science,” then why act to reduce emissions that bring profits which (by trickle-down theory) bring economic prosperity to you?

Clearly, at least modest reductions in some greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved with bipartisan support even without acknowledging overwhelming scientific evidence on global warming, because nearly everyone agrees we need to depend less on nonrenewable fossil fuels in a post-peak oil world. But if we downplay the science showing that modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough to avoid catastrophic consequences for Earth’s systems and societies, then we are merely achieving, with our anti-science bipartisanship, a slower, but steady walk toward self-destruction. 

In a democracy, we’re the decisionmakers. We need to know a lot in order to protect the world and human dignity. When social bigots (e.g., “separate but equal”), religious fundamentalists (e.g., “don’t teach science”); certain corporations (e.g., “all our profits benefit you”), and certain politicians (e.g., Art Robinson and Chris Dudley) leave scientific information behind, they’re hoping you’ll feel safe in their dark.

Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.