A common stereotype of engineers is that they were tinkerers as children. They like to tear things apart to see how they work, build things, and fix things. Not me. I was regularly egged on by my parents as a superior mathematician. Indeed, math was natural for me through three semesters of calculus plus differential equations in college. A few other things led me to the miraculous position I have today: a how and what-if mentality, a hard-wired instinct for resource preservation, and relentless identification of flaws and potential/probable improvements. Add to these things a cold demeanor toward facts and a proud resistance of the Kool-Aid punch bowl, and we have all the ingredients for my views on climate change (objective with an open mind toward others’ beliefs).
A colleague shared a very interesting presentation from the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF. The title and topic of the presentation: Is the US Anti-Science? Just reading that probably already incites tribal proclivities.
In this context, tribes are birds of a feather that, you know, flock together. For example, the presenter, Dietram Scheufele (how’s that for German?) talks about the faculty “ghetto” on the near-west side of Madison. They all have Obama and now Bernie yard signs. They have the same types of dogs, believe the same things, and think the same way. The difference: the color of their Prius.
Speaking of birds of a feather, the image below was taken from my deck Saturday morning – a bunch of goldfinches, a pine siskin, and a grouchy looking cardinal, which would be me, as the writer of this blog. In fact, the purpose of this blog is to be the cardinal every single week. The internet is full of Kool-Aid to find whatever filtered selective news anyone wants to find. The cardinal observes the opposing views.
Tribes of course break down along political parties, and this is where climate change and other scientific subjects hit a buzzsaw. It is difficult to maintain power (stay in office) if an elected official alienates any part of the constituency. This is interesting because IMO it makes either side look foolish.
Being labeled anti-science in this country is more insulting than being compared to the likeness of Adolf Hitler. Professor Scheufele alludes to the ease with which Americans ascribe Hitlerism to the left or right. It is almost as though if one doesn’t earn the Hitler comparison, they aren’t pure enough – a qualification rather than an insult.
Prof. Scheufele lists the following scientific subjects as politically radioactive. What amuses me is that either side has very opposing views within this list. That is – positive (agreeable) views of two or three and very negative views of two or three. Very few have the cardinal resolve to buck their flock, tribe, or party.
- Stem cell research
- Climate change
- Synthetic biology
- Genetically modified organisms
These subjects incite strong beliefs, emotions, and stonewalling. They make people flee to the safety of their tribes. My view of this list is that some are scientifically factual and real while there is no credible evidence that others have a real problem or pose higher risks than life without them. Everything, including commuting to work in the morning, has risks, costs, and rewards and penalties.
Come to think of it, one could be considered anti-science by opposing all forms of laboratory testing involving animals.
Just the Facts
This is the most interesting part of the presentation, leading to the conclusion and recommendation that I already strongly agreed with before watching.
Studies have shown that presenting facts in favor of one view to someone with an opposing view causes the opposition to dig in. If you don’t mind my saying, this is where the tribe that believes climate change is a real or probable risk or threat that is worth addressing gets stuck in the muck up to the axles. The guy with the school bus below was apparently taking a short cut – no lie.
Join ‘em, then Beat ‘em
I had a Peter’s Laws poster when I was in the Navy. A couple of those stuck with me:
- The squeaky wheel gets replaced (as opposed to oil or what it wants) and
- If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, then beat them.
Professor Scheufele included the following graphic in his presentation. According to Gallup, barely a quarter of the population affiliates with either party, and both are declining. Therefore, climate change is dangerous to one quarter of the population, no problem to another quarter, and the 50% in the middle go with whichever way the wind is blowing at the time, so to speak.
The punchline of the presentation is something I believe in strongly – sell solutions by demonstrating how it helps everyone. Efficiency has universal appeal until it becomes politicized and tied to divisive ideology.
For a great many things in life, the successful journey is not easy or most direct.