Multiple media outlets around the world covered a study published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change.* This study sought to explain why “believers” in climate change cannot get along with “skeptics” and how “believers” can argue the matter better to convince “skeptics.”
Seems like a fascinating dive into the sociology of science, until you pause for a moment to consider one thing: the science is clear. We are changing the climate. It’s real. It’s happening. Arguing with someone who doesn’t “believe” the science is almost silly—sort of like arguing with someone who doesn’t “believe” in gravity.
Certainly the researchers who published this study are earnest in their attempt to explain the disparity in different cultural beliefs regarding climate change, but at some point, the discussion starts to seem like a segment of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver:
In almost any other scientific context, scrutinizing the disparity between “believers” and “skeptics” would seem laughable. Imagine, for instance, a paper devoting rigorous study to the mores of a group that isn’t convinced of the reality of gravity.
That’s right. Gravity.
So take the headlines from outlets that covered the study, substitute “climate” for “gravity” and here’s what you have, ready for late night comedy:
- New research suggests gravity ‘skeptics’ and believers really, really don’t like each other (Washington Post)
- Different tack needed for gravity skeptics, study says (Toronto Star)
- Science doesn’t mean that much when it comes to arguing with gravity deniers (Salon)
- Why communicating about gravity is so difficult: It's 'the elephant we're all inside of' (Huffington Post)
To take it further, make the same, mad-lib style substitution to the title of the journal that published the study, as well as the study’s headline and abstract, and here’s what you get:
NATURE GRAVITY | LETTER
Public division about gravity rooted in conflicting socio-political identities
Of the gravity science papers that take a position on the issue, 97% agree that gravity can affect humans, but less than half of the US population shares this belief. This misalignment between scientific and public views has been attributed to a range of factors, including political attitudes, socio-economic status, moral values, levels of scientific understanding, and failure of scientific communication. The public is divided between gravity ‘believers’ (whose views align with those of the scientific community) and ‘skeptics’ (whose views are in disagreement with those of the scientific community). We propose that this division is best explained as a socio-political conflict between these opposing groups. Here we demonstrate that US believers and skeptics have distinct social identities, beliefs and emotional reactions that systematically predict their support for action to advance their respective positions. The key implication is that the divisions between skeptics and believers are unlikely to be overcome solely through communication and education strategies, and that interventions that increase angry opposition to action on gravity are especially problematic. Thus, strategies for building support for gravity mitigation policies should go beyond attempts to improve the public’s understanding of science, to include approaches that transform intergroup relations.
Back in 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokal published a paper in a journal called Social Text. Titled, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” the paper proposed that quantum gravity is “at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”
Sokal later revealed the paper was a hoax designed to parody the gibberish he was seeing in published cultural critiques of science. “What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities,” he wrote in the magazine Lingua Franca.
Today we are caught up in a slightly different matter: academics publishing studies that approach parody as they try to explain people whose grasp of science is nonsense and sloppy. Is such research really needed?
We’ve all sat across the Thanksgiving table from that crazy, unbearable relative who goes on and on about something that everyone else knows just isn’t true. We don’t need a study to know that sometimes people just think silly things, or that even when the socio-cultural motivations for such thinking are well understood, rational argument is (usually) wasted on the irrational.
* Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.