Published in the Washington Post, 30 January 2015
America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.
As issues from evolution to climate change become more contentious and politically polarized, scientists and broader public opinion are drifting farther apart. This worrying trend is evident in new public opinion data released Thursday by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Pew Research Center. The data reveals a huge and growing gulf between what scientists and the public think about vaccines, animal research, genetically modified food, climate change and more.
There is a 18 percentage point gap, for example, over whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children: 86 percent of scientists favor this, as compared to just 68 percent of the general public. There is a much larger gap on climate change: 87 percent of AAAS scientists say it is caused by human activity, compared to 50 percent of the public. Almost all scientists – 98 percent — say humans have evolved over time, while just 65 percent of the public thinks they have.
But for the general public, the strongest anti-science attitudes relate to genetically modified foods. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to just 37 percent of U.S. adults. Such discrepancies do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.
Is the glass half full or half empty? Today the European Parliament passed proposals to allow EU member states to permanently ban the cultivation of GMO crops on their territories, even if scientific assessments show that the crop is safe and environmentally beneficial. This law – which was passed by 480 votes to 159 – formally sidelines the European Food Standards Agency by allowing member states to ban not just specific crops or traits, but the entire class of ‘GMOs’, without the need to provide any meaningful scientific evidence to support this ban.
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Most of the kerfuffle about climate change focuses on global average temperature change – despite this being a metric that no-one can personally experience by definition. It seems that 2014, if not the hottest-ever, will likely be a statistical tie for the hottest year on record worldwide. But what about other long-term data that might give a clue as to the direction of climate change, in ways that matter more to us all on a daily basis?
One area is weather records. It seems like hardly a month passes with some record-breaking weather event or other making the news. Now, if climate change were being felt, you would naturally expect more hot records than cold records, and you would expect a clustering of hot records in recent years in a way that would be unlikely through mere statistical chance. Also, given that a hotter atmosphere holds more water vapour, and climate change means an intensification of the hydrological cycle, you might expect more wet or dry records to be being set, depending on the location. But is this actually the case? Or are we simply bamboozled by news reports so that we remember recent records and forget about heatwaves a century ago?
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With the US and China now having agreed to limit their emissions – and China committing to peak CO2 releases by 2030 – the biggest unanswered question now in climate change is this: what will India do? India’s leadership responded warily to the China-US deal, and the reason is not hard to fathom. India has immense quantities of coal, and intends to burn much of it over coming decades to accelerate its development.
A quick look at the stats highlights this dilemma. India is immensely energy-poor – it has 300 million of its citizens without access to modern energy supplies, dependent on fuelwood they can gather, often burning dung and charcoal in their houses at a cost of many thousands of premature deaths per year due to indoor air pollution. India also has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves, and the Modi government is making plans to liberalise the state-dominated and highly inefficient (and corrupt) coal mining sector.
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Spiegel Online is reporting (translation here) that Germany is planning to back away from its 2020 climate target of 40% emissions reduction, because of a continued reliance on coal to run the German economy as a result of the nuclear phase-out known as the ‘Energiewende’.
In fairness, Spiegel has long been pretty sceptical on the Energiewende – but for good reason. It really is pretty much impossible for Germany to exit the two main sources of baseload electricity generation, coal and nuclear, at the same time. Faced with a choice, so-called ‘green’ Germany appears to be prepared to sacrifice its climate targets on the altar of its anti-nuclear ideology. I had expected a couple more years to pass before this became glaringly obvious to everyone except the most blinkered anti-nuke campaigners, but it seems to be happening earlier than I’d thought.
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