If you are tired of your hair and would like to pull it out of your head by the handful, then I invite you to watch the video replay of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s full committee hearing on, “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method.”
First, some warnings. Texas Republican Lamar Smith chairs the committee. Smith is a darling of the climate change denying machine, the Heartland Institute. You can probably guess that this committee’s grasp of the science, among the majority members at least, goes downhill from there. These guys are like a living Breitbart comments section on any article about climate change.
The committee invited four legitimate scientists to testify. Three of the four are among a very small handful of go-to climate science denying scientists available for such exercises in cherry picking. They are former Georgia Tech professor Judith Curry, University of Alabama professor John Christy, and University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr.
The fourth scientist, Penn State University professor Michael Mann, rounded out the panel. Dr. Mann was the only voice representing the prevailing scientific community. This stark imbalance was not lost on Oregon Representative, Democrat Suzanne Bonamici who remarked that:
“The witness panel does not really represent the vast majority of climate scientists who have concluded that there is a connection between human activity and climate change so sort of visualize 96 more climate scientists who agree that climate change is caused by human activity…for a balanced panel we’d need 96 more Dr. Mann’s.”
So in effect, it was one against three.
No doubt, Dr. Mann was invited in to the anti-intellectual equivalent of the heart of darkness for a reason. My guess is they wanted to somehow make Dr. Mann look bad. His questions from Republicans on the committee ranged from the bafflingly ignorant to the downright creepy.
My own so-called representative, Georgia Republican Barry Loudermilk suggested that Dr. Mann, because he understands the physics, must therefore somehow be a denier of natural change. He also asked him if:
“There could not be no chance that human activity, does not, is not, the major contributor.”
There was also a very strange line of accusatory questioning from Louisiana representative Clay Higgins who asked if Dr. Mann could provide evidence proving he is NOT involved with a specific organization. As if Dr. Mann carries the membership lists of every single organization on the planet around with him, just in case he is asked to prove which groups he is not a member of. Bizarre to say the least.
But if the committee’s goal was to somehow make Dr. Mann out to be the villain, which they wasted no small amount of time trying to do, they failed miserably. Despite being outnumbered and surrounded by climate change deniers, Dr. Mann had one thing on his side that will always win out. Reality.
By sticking to facts and evidence, Dr. Mann was able to routinely inform the committee members, both pro and con, regarding the prevailing science. That said, at the end I am reminded of the famous internet meme about playing chess with a pigeon. For most of these science denying committee members, despite being told what is true and what is not, they will no doubt proclaim that they carried the day.
I was once again drawn in to a “discussion” on Facebook about global warming with one of my science-denying friends (why do I have so many?!) and while I made some progress – I think – I used the exchange as an opportunity to reflect on the word “true.”
A claim in science has either been proven false, or it has yet to be proven false. This sets up a strange dynamic for the contrarian looking to exploit that space between what we claim to be true and what has yet to be proven false.
You see, science by definition and by the very nature of hypothesis testing is “probabilistically” true. Meaning that there is always a chance that a claim could be proven false. In other words, science always leaves a window open, even if the crack is infinitesimally small, for the potential that new evidence will change our understanding.
For the climate change denier (or evolution denier or vaccine denier etc.), to deny the evidence for human caused global warming, or evolution, or vaccine efficacy at this stage of the research, is simply contrarianism. Therefore, while statistically speaking there is an extraordinarily small probability that any of those hypotheses might be proven false, the practical reality is that there is no factual basis for denying any of them.
The lesson: Do not let contrarians exploit your intellectual honesty.
I was giving someone some advice who asked the following:
“I don’t really know much about cosmology. But there seems to be lots of these arguments that there was a place and time before the big bang, or a place and time beyond space time, etc., where a potential deity could exist (I sense huge false probability from believers [sic] part on this, as I cannot prove them not existing). Any good responses to this kinda stuff?”
My response has two parts.
First, learn science for the sake of science. Learn about cosmology because it’s freaking amazing to think about. In other words, read science books because you want to know how things actually work. For cosmology, I recommend the following popular science books: A Brief History of Time (Hawking), A Universe from Nothing (Krauss) and Why Does E=MC2 (Cox/Forshaw).
Second, don’t let Young Earth Creationists and other anti-science apologists suck you in to arguments about science. While these discussions are often fun, they also often result in the backfire effect. If your interlocutor valued the scientific evidence, then they wouldn’t believe as they do in the first place. The goal should be to highlight the deficiency in their epistemology. Most of these people started out being told a belief is true, believed it using “faith,” and just now are trying to back fill the belief support with some semblance of scientific evidence.
They are not weighing all of the evidence and forming a belief, rather they are selecting for the fragments of evidence, little slivers here and there, that might support the belief they already have. The only successful intervention here is to help them see the hollowness of their starting epistemology (i.e., faith) as a way of knowing.
What I do find interesting as that many of the theists (and others) who want to argue design, Big Bang, evolution, etc., are implicitly agreeing that evidence is a more convincing device by which to support a truth claim. So with these folks, my questions are usually around, “How could you know that your belief is incorrect?” and “Have you ever considered what evidence it would take for you to change your mind on the belief that your God is real?” – those kinds of questions.
If they can’t think of anything, then I ask them, “Since there is no evidence that would change your mind, is evidence really that important to you? Let’s talk about what you’re really using to support the belief: faith. Is faith a reliable method for determining what’s true?”
I grew up going to church, and not just any church, mind you, but a Southern Baptist church. Not just any Southern Baptist church, but a small church planted firmly in the then relatively rural American South.
Every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember, I’d rise from my slumber, make my way downstairs in my pajamas to my Mom’s breakfast of cream of wheat, and tune in to a syndicated episode of “Lost in Space” on our tiny, black-and-white kitchen TV. Then I would head back upstairs for a quick transformation into semi-formal Sunday clothes – which basically meant an outfit that landed somewhere between school clothes and a suit with a clip-on tie. I would then bid adieu to the Robinsons and the Robot, and, with my little King James Bible in hand, be whisked off to Sunday school.
I have fond memories of that church. Memories of me waiting for my parents to arrive for the main Sunday service, sitting alone in the pews after attending my Sunday school class. This was what one might call an old-time Southern Baptist church full of old-time religion. Old songs were sung from old hymnals by an old choir and to a fairly old congregation. We sang “How Great Thou Art,” “Old-Time Religion,” “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” and of course, “Amazing Grace.” The pulpit was book-ended by an organist and a pianist and the preacher would always start low and end high with the zeal one would expect from a preacher with some of that old-time religion! For better or worse, whether it was that this church was only a few miles from where I grew up or whether it was some “spiritual” connection my parents felt, this was our church.
I had ridden the peaks and valleys of weekly salvation and damnation for years. The whole emotional enterprise seemed to be going along just fine, but then something interesting happened. One Sunday when I was around twelve years old, I was given a Xerox copy of a list of bands and songs that I was, from that point forward, to consider as “devil” music. Yes, devil music. According to my church, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was blasphemy. Anything by Black Sabbath was a one-way ticket to hell. Even Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” meant that I was astral projecting and thus opening a door for The Enemy! As a child of the seventies, I had been jamming to this music for nearly as long as I could remember. I had a KISS t-shirt when I was in the first grade for crying out loud! I adored most of the music on this sheet. It didn’t make any sense. My young brain was set into analytical motion. I thought the whole thing was preposterous. I was not worshipping the devil. Regardless, getting this message from my quaint, bucolic church was a shock to my pious young system.
Looking back, it was around that time that I really started questioning the validity of what people in authority were telling me. I began comparing claims that did not rely on evidence with those that did. I was told that Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark were true stories, yet I watched documentaries about Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis on PBS’ Nature. I was told that my god created the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants in six literal days, yet I watched Carl Sagan explain the evidence for Big Bang cosmology on Cosmos. I began to compare each claim I was told to believe without question to what could be supported using reason and evidence. I no longer relied on the earnestness or the authority of the person doing the telling; I wanted proof!
Fast-forward to today, and it occurs to me that I have promoted critical thinking by valuing reason and evidence my entire adult life. I have argued, debated, chatted, typed, tweeted, and talked about a whole host of beliefs that people maintain based on unreliable methods. Invariably, at the conclusion of many of these discussions, just when I thought I had hit a logic home run or a made an evidence slam dunk, my interlocutor would leave the conversation with even more resolve. But why?
If you are reading this on the Street Epistemology blog then of course you already know why.
For years, I had been supporting my positions using reason and evidence, but I was missing the greater contextual picture: epistemology. I remember listening to a Dr. Peter Boghossian lecture on YouTube several years ago where he explained his idea of conducting a sort of “street epistemology.” I was gobsmacked. All these years I had been trying to convince people that their claims were untrue by using methods that would have worked perfectly well on me. I was using reason and evidence on people who had formed beliefs based on something other than reason and evidence! Hence, the outcome was often an impasse, or worse, a doubling down on the mistaken belief. I now know that I was practically cultivating the backfire effect! I am reminded of the famous Thomas Paine quote from The American Crises:
“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals.”
Thomas Paine needed some Street Epistemology! But I can appreciate Paine’s frustration. Decoupling people from beliefs not grounded in reality is not a binary exercise. It’s farming, not hunting. It takes time. It takes patience. I believe it takes practice. I have been deploying the techniques more and more frequently when speaking with people on a whole range of beliefs that do not comport with reality, and I am seeing hints of success.
From global warming deniers to people who believe demons are real, I am now trying to resist the old urge to ridicule as a means of retort and I am even trying to resist my knee-jerk reliance on evidence as the tool that might convince them they are wrong (see Paine above). I am now trying to help people recognize their own epistemic deficiencies. I want them to poke their own holes in the methods they are relying upon for determining what they believe is true. They have to change their own minds. I’m now simply helping them clear the path. I have already noticed an improvement in results.
For example, in a recent Facebook exchange about politics (among the most futile activities one can imagine), and specifically, a conversation about how Donald Trump continues to make claims that are untrue, I was able to deploy a little Socratic SE to help my interlocutor understand the double standard with which he was excusing Trump’s lies. The exchange went something like this. Trump had just tweeted something that was demonstrably untrue.
Me: “Why do you think Trump would tweet something that’s just incorrect?”
IL: “Because he is frustrated because the Dems are using childish tactics to hold up the government because they lost an election and lost seats.”
Me: “Does that mean it’s OK to lie?”
IL: “You mean like every politician?”
Me: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re actually OK with politicians lying because you expect that from them? I don’t recall you making that same excuse for Hillary Clinton.”
My interlocutor disengaged and I did not press. I was not going to change his mind at that moment, but I was hopeful that I had done enough to cause him to reevaluate his own partisan bias. A few days later, he was actually posting criticisms of Donald Trump! I am not sure if I planted the seed of doubt that took root and sprouted into a single sprig of some healthy skepticism, or if it was something else, but I was again gobsmacked given my interlocutor’s history of doubling down on his partisanship.
Interventions on Facebook, while accessible, may not be the most effective. That said, we are all learning as we go. If we can continue to plant seeds of good epistemology, no matter the medium and no matter the conversation, we can make progress. My next goal is to have a face-to-face conversation with a complete stranger. We should all set our own stretch goals that push us to extend critical thinking to those around us. It takes practice.
Fundamentally, I am looking forward to deploying Street Epistemology in conversations anywhere and everywhere, whenever I hear claims being made that are not supported by evidence.
The journey, and hopefully the gobsmacking, continues!
Ryan Bays is a writer, Dungeon Master, free-thinker, truth seeker, and unabashed promoter of critical thinking and scientific literacy.
It seems like for me, 2017 is starting to develop a trend. And that trend is rediscovery! First it was Dungeons and Dragons (although technically I started playing D&D again in 2016), then it was “nerdom” in general, and now I’ve sort of stumbled back in to Twitter.
If we're plotting presidential aptitude on the normal distribution curve, we will now have a data point in the -3 sigma area #gapol
I used to use Twitter quite a bit. It was a great platform for debate, discussion, and the occasional narcissistic ego stroke (i.e., Ricky Gervais once liked one of my tweets and Richard Dawkins retweeted me so I saved pictures of both! ohhhh weeee!).
Then I just got burned out. I’m not sure if the platform was just getting too mean, too creepy, or what, but I just backed out.
The Internet has created an environment where people can consume news as if it's a Chinese menu. Just search until you find what you like.
But over the past few weeks, with the start of my YouTube channel, I’ve been taking inventory of my “social media” and thought, why not? Why not jump back in to Twitter with both feet?! And so I have.
So if you like watching me debate uninformed or misinformed people on any number of topics, including but not limited to: science, evolution, global warming, religion, gun control, LGBT equality, and politics, join me! Good times will be had by all!