Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Simon's climatic battle over higher powers

Because I just now stumbled across this, I thought I'd write about a good article from 2011 by Simon Donner on how thousands of years of cultural beliefs that weather and climate are controlled by supernatural forces, not people, constitute a major barrier to action on climate. Key sentence:

It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience, not armed with the same analytical tools as scientists, to develop lasting acceptance during a 1-h public seminar of a scientific conclusion that runs counter to thousands of years of human belief.

Simon concedes the obvious that people have thought they could ask supernatural forces for help, but argues that still reserves the power to make changes to those forces themselves.

One thing I'd add to his points is the last two centuries of adding science to our understanding of weather have argued that we can't control the weather, even indirectly via prayer to the supernatural. So thousands of years of religious cultural beliefs saying the supernatural controls the weather is reinforced by two centuries of scientific cultural beliefs saying we humans have not even indirect influence via supplication. People have to overcome both biases to accept climate change. And there are plenty of people who can hold both biases - the randomness of weather lets them accept basic meteorological predictions and still find their prayers "rewarded" on an occasional basis.

So it's good, but I'm not quite ready yet to say I'm convinced. People don't seem to be that resistant to dropping supernatural explanations of weather (e.g. lightning) for scientific ones. Why does that willingness to end supernatural control stop when it involves human control? OTOH, the religious resistance is undeniable. The Creation Care movement seems to have been stymied so far, when it could have been a groundbreaker. My conspiracy theory I've floated before is that climate denialists sought out the marriage with evolution denialists more than the other way around, despite the fact that creationism has even more scientific disrepute, because that was the way to bleed the Creation Care momentum. I think influential people should consider what they can do to get Creation Care moving again, especially among Hispanics.

I'm sure Simon's right that we have to handle religious sensibilities with respect, although I'm not sure it's any more of a problem for climate than in any other area involving religious issues.

More generally, we had a huge blowup over "framing" several years ago. Ironically, the pro-framing bloggers did a bad job of communicating, and their antipathy to New Atheism was a mistake, but the framing concept of using language that appeals to the relevant audience is a no-brainer. They've won on that issue.