Optimistic Futurist: Scientists’ voices often lost amid politics

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 23, 2014

When we think about our responsibility to our kids and grandkids to try to protect them from the many potentially harmful changes in our physical world, the people we look to for accurate information are highly trained scientists. They are the experts in topics like cancer or heart disease or chemicals in our drinking water or the rising rate of autism.
In America, there is one issue where what scientists think does not count much with the general public — climate change and its cousin, global warming. The United States has a significantly smaller percent of its population convinced that climate change is real than virtually all of the other advanced and well-educated nations of the world. Why do our citizens hold such a different mix of opinions compared to the rest of the wealthy nations of the world?
Turns out that America’s public opinion is shaped by two sets of information. One set is things that people can sense or feel themselves, like the state of the economy or the weather. When the economy is bad, that is all most people can think about. Weather turns out to have little impact on people’s beliefs about climate change.

The other set that shapes public opinion is a kind of “who do you know and trust” group. There are three major members. First are what the pollsters call “elites and people of influence.” This group is made up of political and religious leaders that other people trust. In second place were media reporters.
Scientist ranked dead last in their influence on public opinion about climate change!
If the scientific information is relayed by political and religious leadership, their followers tend to form beliefs like the leaders — regardless of what the scientists say.
This cuts both ways. If your personal political and religious leadership believes in something, you will be more likely to believe it also. And if they don’t believe in it, you are less likely to believe in it. This applies to non-science public policy issues — like “Should jails be operated by for-profit corporations?” or “Should teachers have tenure?” — as well as scientific questions like “Is the earth flat” (no), or “Is it safe for pregnant women to eat fish from North Carolina inland waters?” (no).
About 15 years ago, when scientists were still sorting out confusion in the data about climate change, an equal percentage of Republicans and Democrats believed that manmade climate change and global warming had already begun.
Today, there has been quite a shift. About 97 percent of the scientists now agree that climate change is real and manmade. (You can see this at CLIMATE.NASA.GOV, among many other sources). But if you look at the public opinion polling on these issues, those most likely to believe in it are Democrats (84 percent), followed by non-Tea Party Republicans (61 percent). The least likely to believe in climate change are Tea Party members (25 percent).

The science has gotten lost in the politics.
How did that happen? My own belief, based on a study of the polls done over the last 15 years, is that political polarization around this issue sped up when Al Gore announced he was a strong believer in climate change. Gore, a Democrat, was vice president for eight years and then ran for president against Republican George Bush in the 2000 election. Later, Gore hosted the movie that set out to educate the public about climate change. It is called “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Those people who admired Gore’s politics became stronger believers in climate change. Those who detest him for his political beliefs became strong climate change “deniers.”
People stopped listening to the scientists and sided with their political heroes.
Where do you think our nation’s public policy on this issue would be if, instead of Al Gore, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gov. Jon Huntsman had made the movie?
Isn’t it time we start to listen to the scientists for scientific information, and not the politicians? We can take better care of our offspring if we do.
I was a very lucky child — my parents made sure we got subscriptions to magazines like National Geographic, Scientific American and Popular Science. I value my parents’ actions now even more than I did then and have “paid it forward” by giving subscriptions to younger generations. I hope you do too.

Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis. To see the sources of facts used in this article, and learn of other successful money and life saving programs that can be implemented locally to create a better future for our country, go to http://www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org.