By Nathan Watson, Opinions Editor
Among certain groups along the ideological spectrum — I’m thinking particularly of the “alt-right” and ultra-conservative Christians — science is considered a field of mostly empty speculation; scientists, for their part, are posturing pseudo-intellectuals whose self-perceived authority is merely a form of all-too-human hubris.
Such views can hardly be described as anything other than foolish. The scientific method has served humanity relatively well — much better than voodoo, mythology, and other forms of superstitious inquiry have. Unfortunately, however, the views towards science held by many more moderate- to left-leaning people also tend towards an unsupported extreme.
In many other communities, the role of the scientist has morphed. Those whose profession once involved the testing of scientific hypotheses have now taken on the simultaneous roles of public intellectual, philosopher, and political leader. Those who have misunderstood the methods and purpose of science have helped create a public arena in which any statement is “scientific” so long as it is uttered by a scientist. Bill Nye has become an expert on the ethics of abortion because he is “The Science Guy”; clickbait news headlines feed readers questionable political or philosophical claims, bolstering their perceived legitimacy with the words “scientists say”; and, in the latest attention-grabbing headline of spectacular scientific discovery, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds forward, signaling that the world is ever closer to global, existential catastrophe.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the Bulletin, for short) was founded in 1945 by a group of Manhattan Project scientists concerned about the moral and pragmatic implications of their work in the atomic sciences. Those scientists were rightly and admirably concerned for the safety and health of the global community and did what they could to make their voices heard. When they did this, they did so not as scientists but as global citizens and as human beings. Where the scientist starts talking about what should be done — about what is right and wrong — she has stepped outside of her role as scientist and entered into that of an individual exercising her freedom of civic duty. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with this. Yet, scientists occupy a peculiar position in today’s world — especially in the media. Today, more so than in 1945, it is easier for the lines between science and nonscience to blur.
Part of the Bulletin’s fame is due to the Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical clock used to depict the likelihood of imminent, global catastrophic risk. Whenever the Bulletin observes societal or natural changes that threaten human existence, the group presents a new “time,” with the closeness to midnight symbolizing the closeness of the world to global catastrophe. Although it once tracked only the fluctuations of the world’s nuclear threats, the Bulletin has since introduced the risk of catastrophic climate change to its calculations. When, at the end of last week, the group moved the clock 30 seconds closer to midnight (moving the metaphorical time to just two and a half minutes to midnight) and released its official statement, one of its messages was made loud and clear: Donald Trump’s projected policies on climate change and nuclear war pose a substantial and unwanted risk to the global community. When the media got ahold of these claims, the response was predictably problematic.
On Saturday morning, one of Facebook’s trending stories linked to a large photograph that included famed physicist, cosmologist, and popular-science author Lawrence Krauss standing next to a graphic poster. “It is two and a half minutes to midnight,” the looming poster reads, referring to the newly updated time. The choice of Krauss, among the dozen and a half or so board members, as one of the two presenters of the new time was no doubt deliberate. Of all the others, he is undoubtedly the closest to a household name among scientists, having made it on the New York Times bestseller list with his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing. “These findings are the findings of our most brilliant scientists,” the PR-savvy Bulletin wished to convey to the public.
The problem, however, is that the “findings” of the Bulletin are not actually science. This is not, in itself, a bad thing — plenty of the timeliest and most insightful messages come from intellectual disciplines outside of science. Indeed, the Bulletin’s publication fits neatly into the already well-established academic field of Future studies. What is a bad thing, however, is that such an organization continues to use its credentials as scientists to pad its opinions and political aims with an air of authority.
Actually, this may be partially unfair. I do not know whether the Bulletin’s rhetorical strategies or the media’s irresponsibility are more to blame for this misappropriation — perhaps it is both. Regardless, the effects can only be negative.
Regardless of the truth value of any of these scientists’ claims, interpretations of scientific evidence — in other words, beliefs about how we should act in response to this evidence — must be verified on grounds other than perceived authority. To be clear: There is nothing wrong with Professor Krauss or any of the other committee members publishing their opinions and predictions for public readership. What is wrong, however, is doing so — even if implicitly — under the banner of science. As astute as any of the observations made may be, it does a grave disservice to both the scientific community and the ideal of intellectual integrity to make such underhanded appeals to authority.
Most importantly, the Bulletin’s statement reeks of politicization, and it is hardly a mystery what kind of response it will evoke in anybody skeptical of the concern granted towards global climate change. After all, those who were, for instance, won over by Trump’s bold assertion that climate change is a Chinese-manufactured hoax likely believe that the scientific evidence to the contrary has been doctored for political gain. If anybody is to win over conservatives and convince them to take climate change seriously, showing them a statement by a group of scientists with obvious political agendas will not be the way to do it. The best science is science that is unbiased — and obviously so. Those who deny the facts of climate change do so more out of partisan distrust of agenda than blatant disregard for empirical evidence.
Further, although scientists are almost univocal in their claim that global climate change is a reality — a reality whose main causes have been of human origin — there has never been and never will be scientific consensus on the consequences of unchecked climate change. Even if the personal convictions of every working scientist were identical, this would not amount to “scientific consensus” — not because it is not a consensus, but because, in itself, the prediction of future global-scale social and political events is not science. Any scientist can tell you that.
In fact, most scientists do not consider global climate change an existential risk. We know that its consequences would be drastic, but whether those consequences are to be welcomed is a matter for philosophical discussions. Perhaps we’ve reached the point of no return, and our time would be best spent answering the question “what now?”