Young researchers today are in a pickle. Most of them have assumed that peer-reviewed science is fundamentally accepted until new, equally legitimate research proves those findings wrong. However, that was before politicians became self-declared experts on everything under the sun, from science to religion.
Take the policy debate regarding climate change in the United States. Granted, you can always find people who reject the scientific consensus on any issue, but recent comments by Republican politicians in the U.S. are leading young scientists to question the sanity of their leaders, and humanity as a whole.
Given, politicians have never been averse to denying even the most obvious truths in the interests of political ambition. Nevertheless, the recent comments have come in the wake of several major studies that are united in their conclusion that human activities are driving global climate change.
First, earlier this spring, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s most comprehensive body to consider the latest climate science, reported that “human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems.”
Soon after, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama released its National Climate Assessment, which lays out an overview of climate change impacts on the U.S., present and future, from rising sea levels and warming temperatures to deadly droughts. An Obama policy paper, true, but backed by sound science.
Then, just two weeks ago, researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine, reported that “a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into a state of irreversible retreat,” breaking apart and melting due to planetary warming.
Nevertheless, when asked about the scientific community’s consensus on climate change, U.S. presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told ABC News television audiences on May 11, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”
John Boehner, one of Rubio’s Republican colleagues and the speaker of the House of Representatives, sidestepped the science altogether, saying, “I’m not going to get into the debate over the science.”
Denial and refusal to comment: quite an indictment of America’s politicians at a time when the science on climate change has never been more certain.
No wonder young researchers are worried. If policymakers can be so cavalier in their ignorance about a substantial threat to our environment, our economy, and our health and security, what’s the point of trying to get the science right?
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, since politicians often live in a world of their own conjuring. But the hubris of these men in flaunting their rejection of science, and their constituents’ blind acceptance of such ignorance, is breathtaking.
Had these politicians less leverage to derail important policy decisions, they could be dismissed as laughable characters in America’s theater of the political absurd. Unfortunately, they wield inordinate power to shape debate among U.S. voters.
The even greater concern is that, as Albert Einstein pointed out, problems can’t be solved within the mindset that created them.
That is why it is so important that young researchers — and all young people — learn to listen, think and question critically the policies and pontificating of their politicians. From science deniers to racists and nationalists, today’s leaders are sculpting the world in their own image.
This reality — that young people must challenge the status quo and seek new solutions to problems created by previous generations — struck me again this month when I took part in a class on science and journalism at the United Nations University in Tokyo.
Dr. Brendan Barrett of the U.N. University invited me to talk with his graduate students about the professional dynamics that shape the way scientists and journalists interact, and by the end of class I had probably learned as much or more than the class members.
The students are enrolled in a Master of Science in sustainability and are taking Barrett’s course on science communication.
They came from seven nations and represented a broad spectrum of disciplines, including law, political science, education, business, film, engineering, peace and security, and gender.
Despite the diversity of their professions and research, the students felt strongly that journalists and scientists have a key role to play in getting information to the public as objectively as possible. They were also well aware that cooperation between the two could prove difficult.
There was agreement that journalists ought to act as watchdogs of the public interest, but the students also recognized that journalists are driven by deadlines and readership, which can spawn sensationalistic reporting, as well as stories that kowtow to vested interests.
Scientists, they noted, generally need a much longer time frame to develop their research and are often more focused on the process and details of scientific inquiry than on getting coverage of their results in the press.
One of the concerns they raised regarding contemporary media and journalism was the public’s acceptance, and even expectation, that news and information be packaged as entertainment.
They also voiced worry about eroding trust in the media and increasing corporate control of news outlets, with Murdoch’s media empire and Fox News as particularly egregious examples of poor journalism.
These U.N. University students were certainly not average in their awareness, having far more experience than most of their peers, but their thoughtful questions and informed comments were reassuring. We were decades apart in age and distant in background and experience, but we all agreed on the importance of critical scientific inquiry and responsible journalism for the sake of human security and society.
I was also reminded that we all share much the same hopes and dreams.
“Away from the shrill divisiveness of media and politics, people are remarkably consistent in what kind of future they envision for their children and grandchildren,” observed Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins in their 1999 classic, “Natural Capitalism.”
The challenge is to create media and political environments in which open debate and decision-making are demanded, honored and protected, rather than, as in the case of climate change, allowing corporate lobbyists and media interests to shape our future in their own image.
A high order no doubt, but the future of human security depends on it.
Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and associate director of Chuo International Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.