The Attitudes, Rhetoric, and Politics of Scientific Debate

The 2016 Presidential debates were fraught with insults, drama, and disparaging comments. To the dismay of many, though, they were completely devoid of any discussion of climate change. The issue of climate change continued to be tossed aside as Donald Trump derided its existence, importance, and impact. Once elected, Trump appointed Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate change denier, to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. And finally, in February, Scott Pruitt — another climate change denier — was confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The fight against and denial of climate change is not a new issue. Since the 1990s, climate change has been debated as a political issue, with the first contrarian scientists such as Frederick Seitz coming out against the established scientific consensus. While it is common in the history of science for scientific theories to initially be rejected by public authorities or public opinion, it is still noteworthy that as of 2016, 36 percent of American adults do not worry about climate change, and 57 percent of American adults do not perceive climate change as a serious threat. And climate change is not alone in the uphill battle for recognition. The theories, effects, and validity of scientific thought on evolution, vaccines, cigarettes, and gender are all rejected and denied by portions of the American public. Why do debates of scientific matters rage on? Why is it, that even when well over 90 percent of climate change scientists are in agreement about man-made climate change, the American public is still reluctant to acknowledge its existence?

On one level, it is because like all matters, science is inherently political. Matters of politics must be fought for, negotiated, and debated. Just because scientists come to a consensus does not mean that all political groups will immediately accept it. Similarly, the science of climate change has political implications at odds with interest groups such as the oil industry, economic implications at odds with interest groups such as free-market libertarians, and “legitimacy” implications at odds with groups that endorse the word of religious institutions.

Most importantly, the scientific community’s attempt to characterize scientific knowledge as objective, as a pillar of truth not to be questioned by the public, creates a conflictual relationship between the “authority” and the “subject,” the scientists and the public. Just as there has been a rise in the “reclamation” of American government from the “establishment-swamp” by populists, so, too, has there been a reclamatory movement against scientists as bearers of truth. If scientists wish to maintain their authority and influence as conveyors of scientific and objective knowledge, they must meet the public on the battlegrounds and respond with rhetoric that the public understands. Scientists must be both scientific and political — both authority figures and members of our communities.

In presenting the issue of climate change to the public, scientists face fierce opposition. Oil companies, conservative scientists, and free market libertarians fight together and rally against a scientific consensus on climate change. Like all other groups, it is in their interest to preserve and maximize their political and economic interests. And this is exactly what they’ve done. An in-depth piece by Philip Kitcher in “Science” reports on an important study carried out by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, which argues that a small number of scientists have opposed well-supported claims, including those about the dangers of cigarette smoking and climate change, to protect corporate, political, and commercial interests. There are a relatively small number of these obfuscators who play a disproportionate role in such discussions, even though many are trained in fields not pertinent to the issues up for debate. Kitcher writes, “[T]hey have been able to cast enough doubt on the consensus views arrived at by scientists within the relevant disciplines to delay, often for a substantial period, widespread public acceptance of consequential hypotheses.”

Climate change deniers work under the veneer of scientific rhetoric by providing an “alternate view.” By co-opting scientific rhetoric, they can work under the appearance of scientific legitimacy that fails only under close scrutiny. The problem is that, for those who lean politically or economically conservative, there is no incentive to look at the climate change debate with close scrutiny. Several studies have shown that the greatest indicator of someone’s belief on climate change is their political affiliation. It is well known that confirmation bias is ubiquitous, penetrating what we choose to believe and what evidence will refute without second consideration. Unfortunately, psychologists have repeatedly discovered that those who are misinformed and later corrected often lapse into versions of their original error; this leads some to say it may be less important to change people’s minds in the first place, than it is to mobilize environmentalist voters and representatives to action.

Coupled with the media’s tendency to portray the climate change discussion as “still up for debate” by presenting two sides, or to ensure that they have “balanced coverage,” it is not surprising that the fight for the acceptance of man-made climate change has been so difficult. That being said, climate change scientists haven’t always responded to these issues well. James Hansen of Columbia University and the late Stephen Schneider of Stanford University spent 30 years alerting policymakers, politicians, and the public to the dangers of climate change — and were met with frustrating obstacles and unfulfilling success. Kitcher says, “Their experiences incline them to emphasize the importance of expert judgment, effectively renewing the ancient worries about the dangers of democracy. Both believe that genuine democratic participation in the issues can only begin when citizens are in a position to understand what kinds of policies promote their interests.” Other climate scientists, though, such as Mike Hulme of the UK, “chide” Hansen and Schneider for what he believes are overly “apocalyptic pronouncements” about climate change. To Hansen and Schneider’s credit, they certainly have good intention and have been rebutting the same “alternative views” for decades.

If the scientific community does not want to be swept up with the rest of the “swamp,” it is best for them to realize that expert judgment doesn’t mean public derision.

At the heart of the matter is how scientists should respond to the pushback from political and corporate groups that would be harmed by environmental regulation.  The success of climate change deniers lends credence to a rhetorical approach that meshes politics with science — and recognizes the political interests behind the whole debate. Lynda Walsh, in the “Wiley Journal for Climate Change,” effectively frames this argument, claiming that scientists’ attempts to make climate change about “science not rhetoric” ignore the irrational aspects of how humans process information, are ignorant of the power of rhetoric to persuade an audience, and pretend that science can be divorced from politics, thereby stalling effective political action. A study published by two professors from Australia and Hong Kong demonstrated that rhetoric could bridge the gap between an environmentalist and a group of climate change deniers to bring the deniers into accepting “particular greenhouse gas mitigation measures” as acceptable policy choices. Scientists, then, might be able to avoid the elitist derision of democracy, if they change their rhetoric to be about more than rational discourse. Ultimately, it is not that the public is “stupid,” but rather that most arguments are won on more than reason, whether we like that or not.

It should become apparent then that while scientists are, and should be, the ultimate authority on scientific knowledge, there is a danger in expressing scientific consensus to the public with that kind of hubris. There is a difference, for example, between recognizing that a healthy democracy requires a “division of labor” on political and public matters so that experts can share consensus views, and in diminishing public opinion as unimportant, stupid, or unresponsive to logic. The lesson the scientific community should take from the 2016 election is not that the American public is not concerned about climate change (mostly because that was already obvious), but more so that the American public is expressing a latent resentment to authority and establishment politics, won over by simple rhetoric.

If the scientific community does not want to be swept up with the rest of the “swamp,” it is best for them to realize that expert judgment doesn’t mean public derision. Rational discourse can be accompanied by political rhetoric. The public sphere is inherently political, so the debate that scientists must take on is political. Recognizing this could give scientists the tools to strengthen the scientific-political coalition that rallies behind the scientific enterprise. It is unfortunate and unfair that well-intentioned scientists face such a skeptical (though the denialist term, “politically polarized” is more fitting) American public. Science, the scientific consensus, and the authority of scientists merit respect, but it is more productive that scientists be better equipped against corporate groups obfuscating the climate change debate than it is to remain true to the ideals of “experts-only, rationality-only” discourse.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article indicated that James Hansen was currently employed at NASA. He has since taken a professorship at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he directs the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions. Additionally, the article was written in a manner that suggested Stephen Schneider was a current professor at Stanford University. He passed away in 2010. The Brown Political Review regrets these errors.