Don’t shoot the scientific messenger

(October 9, 2018)

Since ancient times, shooting the messenger has been a favourite way to deal with the arrival of bad news.

Of course, it doesn’t change the news — and it makes it hard to recruit the next messenger.

While I agree with Scott Forbes’ defence of science (“Why does science get no respect?” Sept. 29), his dismissal of the “secular prophets” such as David Suzuki involves shooting the messenger, not dealing with the news they bring.

Granted, trying to figure out the difference between “real” and “fake” science is as fraught with difficulties these days as figuring out the difference between “real” and “fake” news. On any issue, there are experts on at least three sides, some of whom are funded to promote confusion.

But while the “prophets of doom” grab bold headlines, there are many smaller headlines generated by those intent on maximizing the “profits of doom” for themselves.

Plan for retirement! Freedom 55! Ads featuring laughing seniors, usually white and always wealthy, sitting by the pool or cruising the oceans in luxury. All this creates a picture of a “don’t worry, be happy” future that disrespects the findings of science much more than jokes about nerds. Their fantasy will become our nightmare.

An alarmist is someone who yells, “Fire!” before his own barn actually starts to burn. The numbers tell us we are in trouble — the fires of a warming planet are on the way. What’s in dispute is exactly when the flames will arrive.

Compare this to medicine — after all the tests and examinations are done, one of the hardest things for any doctor is delivering a terminal diagnosis. Even harder is answering the inevitable question, “How long do I have?”

If a doctor tells a patient they have six months to live and they survive for a year or two, no one dismisses doctors (and medicine in general) as a waste of time. Nor do people ridicule that doctor as a “prophet of doom” if the patient happens to live another 20 or 30 years.

You get my point. Our biosphere’s diagnosis is terminal because of how humans have chosen to live in the Anthropocene. The fact that the final act is taking longer than predicted is good news for those of us who still have hope for ourselves and for our children. It means we still have time to do something, rather than just watch the world burn and choke.

This is what science tells us — what is going on, and why. If the timeline of scientific climate prognosis is inaccurate, that’s because the systems it tries to interpret are too complex for easy answers, and the data we have to work with is inadequate and incomplete.

In the same way, a doctor can tell you how big the tumour is and how fast it is growing or spreading, but it’s much harder to know when the body’s systems will fail. That depends on the patient’s determination and a host of other things that vary from person to person; the outcome, however, will still be the same.

To be fair, if we can’t accurately predict the weather on the Prairies — even a day ahead — why would any “real” science even try to predict global conditions 20 years out?

Scientists try, for the same reason the doctor tries to give an answer — because we ask them to tell us how much longer we have.

It’s our problem, therefore, not theirs. The headlines are bold, because we are not listening to common sense any more than we are heeding “real” science. We are trying to avoid doing anything that requires changing our lifestyle, waiting for someone to tell us things will magically improve. We will listen to the fake science as readily as we believe the fake news, if it means we can keep golfing.

David Suzuki recently described his work to me as a failure; other environmentalists have expressed the same sentiment about their work. For despite all of their warnings, the laws and regulations they have inspired, as well as promoting recycling and whatever else they have done, we are increasing our speed toward a future in which no sane person wants to live.

I’m not a scientist — I am one of those “artsies” who just as often gets dismissed by scientists, as happens in reverse. I do study science and technology — their history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and whatever else is needed to understand the whole picture of what “real” science presents. It’s never only “just the facts,” but also what they mean.

After all, sustainability is not a scientific or technological issue. It is a social and cultural problem, requiring practical answers from all of us, if we want to avoid the catastrophes that otherwise certainly lie ahead.

We need to listen carefully to what the messengers of science are saying — and not shoot them.

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