‘Same contrarian nonsense’ on Covid and climate change

People will always ‘come up with the same bullshit’ to support anti-science agendas, says Nasa scientist

September 6, 2021
Sticking one's head in the sand
Source: iStock

The backlash against scientific advice during the coronavirus pandemic follows the same dynamics as the debate over climate change and shows that “scientifically formed political decisions will always be fraught”, according to a Nasa scientist.

Gavin Schmidt, senior climate adviser to the US space agency, said that he previously believed that the debate around climate change was unique, but that Covid-19 “has shown that people come up with the same nonsense and bullshit” to support their own agendas.

“That we should reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and our methane emissions as fast as we can, that doesn’t really depend on any strong uncertainty in the data,” Dr Schmidt told Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit.

Covid had shown that people “ride the same contrarian train to gain influence and get social media attention…the same kind of nonsense preprints get elevated because they’re newsworthy, [and we see] the exact same failures of the media to properly contextualise scientific information”.

“It is not because Covid and climate change are the same; it is because people are the same,” he said.

Dr Schmidt, former director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that the denial of evidence and the anti-science movements that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic should be “a wake-up call to folks who are trying to get evidence-based policies in place” that “scientifically formed political decisions will always be fraught”.

The idea that “the politician sees the science on the shelf, takes it down, brushes it off, and then applies it, it’s never going to be like that”, he said.

He added that the similarities between the two global crises demonstrated that making scientists better communicators or creating “flashy websites” would not offer a solution.

“The reason why climate change is still a problem, and one in which we don’t seem to be making a lot of progress with, is because there are enormous amounts of vested interests in the status quo,” he said, not just fossil fuel and oil companies, but all of society. “Nobody wants to change anything that they don’t have to, particularly behaviours that have developed over decades,” he said.

The idea that that “a climate scientist pairing up with an expert in communications to slightly change the framing in an op-ed in a newspaper or on TV, for example” will not solve the problem, he said.

Dr Schmidt added that if “climate scientists spend a little bit more time with social scientists, that’s not a bad thing” but that the “scale of the problem and clash of the values” were too huge to be solved by better communication.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Dr Schmidt seems to be someone who thinks the truth is found in the consensus view. In my field at least 2 Nobel laureates spent the greater part of their careers struggling against the tide of pseudoscientific and persinal abuse from the consensus group.

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