Climate change deniers, science always wins in the end

Climate change deniers, science always wins in the end
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Attacks on science are nothing new.

In the fifth century, an angry mob murdered Hypatia, one of the most gifted female astronomers of antiquity, allegedly because her calculation of the vernal equinox raised questions about the accuracy of the Alexandrian calendar. A millennium later, the Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake over his claim that the universe is infinite and contains other worlds. A few years later, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition over his support of heliocentric theory. Benjamin Franklin, influenced by his older brother James, initially opposed vaccination against smallpox. In 1925 John Scopes was convicted of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution.

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Despite these attacks, the results are always the same.

 

The mob may have silenced Hypatia, but few rely on the Alexandrian calendar anymore. Searching for other worlds is now a full-time occupation for many astronomers. Although Galileo was forced to recant that the earth revolves around the sun, popular legend has it that he muttered "Eppur si muove" (and yet it moves) under his breath. Franklin came to regret his earlier views and became a staunch smallpox vaccine advocate after his young son died of the disease in 1736. And the subject for which Scopes was convicted became the foundation of modern biology.

Today there are many active fronts in the war on science. Climatologists are attacked for their virtually unanimous consensus that earth is facing a period of anthropogenic climate change. A vocal movement claims that vaccines are responsible for autism despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The theory of evolution remains under attack by creationists. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including pest-resistant crops that promise greater bounties, are banned in many countries despite overwhelming evidence that they are safe for people and the environment. In keeping with this mood, the Trump administration has repeatedly belittled the value of scientific expertise and eliminated scientists from panels that advise the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice.

Those who deny specific scientific findings and theories are neither idiots or Luddites. Such individuals have no problem using the fruits of science and technology such as cell phones, medicines and computers. Science deniers are selective in their rejection of science when it focuses on a specific finding that they do not like.

Despite the widespread evidence of science denialism, there is no organized opposition to broad swaths of scientific theory. For instance, no one is denying major theories such as the standard model of particle physics, the germ theory of disease, general relativity, lunar origins, continental drift or Mendelian genetics. Those who make war on science are opposed to some particular scientific finding rather than the scientific method or the entirety of science.

Why do certain aspects of science trigger opposition? Current and historical controversies suggest that opponents of science typically fall into two broad camps: philosophical and economic.

Hypatia, Bruno, Galileo and Darwin proposed ideas that ran afoul of religious teachings. Resistance to vaccines and GMOs is also centered on belief systems that fear the consequences of modern technology.

On the other hand, the denial of climate science is centered on resistance to economic and lifestyle changes that would bring about major disruption to certain ways of life, as we switch away from carbon-based fuels. Similarly, resistance to forensic science reform is based on a reluctance to change prosecutorial practice.

A common denominator of science denial is the rejection of information that is obtained experimentally and rationally in favor of alternative facts.

Unfortunately, science denialism has consequences. Today we are seeing the reemergence of preventable and life-threatening infections like pertussis and measles because parents fear the vaccines more than the diseases. Denial of climate change is delaying the development of alternative energy sources to reduce carbon emissions and preserve the planet for future generations. The failure to reform forensic science can allow innocent individuals to be punished for crimes they did not commit while actual perpetrators remain free to commit other crimes.

Science is different than most other human endeavors in that it always considers its knowledge to be provisional. As Einstein remarked, "I sometimes feel that I am right — I do not know that I am." This can seemingly place scientists at a disadvantage, as scientists are reluctant to respond with the same level of certainty as denialists.

However, it would behoove denialists to consider the maxim of all scientists — "I might be wrong."

History has repeatedly taught us that nature is indifferent to whether humans choose to believe in right or wrong ideas. Denial of the truth has always ultimately proven to be futile. The earth still revolves around the sun, life evolves and infectious epidemics continue to threaten humankind.

Devastating hurricanes, floods and droughts do not care whether or not we believe in anthropogenic climate change. They will come anyway.

But denialism can place society at greater risk by failing to prepare for worst-case scenarios and to adopt strategies to mitigate our effects on the environment. It is time for those in denial to ask themselves, "But what if I'm wrong?"

Arturo Casadevall, MD, Ph.D., is chairman of the Molecular Microbiology & Immunology department at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Ferric C. Fang, MD, is a professor of Laboratory Medicine and Microbiology at the University of Washington.