A comparison between public perception (and I use the term loosely) of climate science and other sciences has been made in various ways from time to time, but is worth making again.
You are sitting in on a case management conference in the oncology area of a hospital, with all the specialists, nurses, medical technicians present. They are discussing your case, going through the various cycles of chemotherapy and the results of tests. Just then a janitor wanders in, listens for a moment, then says to you “you don’t want to listen to all that crap, these people don’t know what they are talking about, my granny swore by deadly nightshade, rubbed on the legs. Did it all her life and never developed lymphoma.” Do you say (a) “that sounds really interesting, do you have some, I will give it a try”, or (b) “go away you idiot, what the hell would you, or your granny, know about it”?
Or say you have wandered in to a lecture by Australia’s latest Nobel Prize winner. You listen to him talk about galaxies, and the size and age of the universe, and dark matter, and red shift, and expansion and when he asks if there are any questions you put up your hand. “This is rubbish Professor Schmidt” you say “I was listening to Ray Jones on the radio the other day and he said the universe is much smaller than you say, and is contracting not expanding. Said it was common sense because it looked just the same as it did when he was a boy. Said you scientists got paid more money, got prizes and stuff, if you made the universe seem bigger than it is. That true Professor?”
Or perhaps you visit a farmer friend. She explains how she has been developing her pasture. Careful analyses of soil and grasses for trace elements; analysis of soil structure, organic content, invertebrate species; study of which plant varieties will do best; reintroduction of native plant species; provision of structures to encourage birds; computer models developed for efficient grazing regimes. When she has finished you say (a) that sounds great I assume you are working with the CSIRO and the local pasture people or (b) you shouldn’t bother with any of that rubbish, I read somewhere all you have to do is fill an old cow horn with manure and bury it on a full moon and your pastures will be fine?
Well, I don’t need to go on do I. Anyone who has read any blog or newspaper article related to climate change will recognise the analogies in some of the responses above. Indeed just the other night leading Australian denialist Alan Jones used number 2. I make the analogy here not just to point out the idiocy of climate change denier – that is like shooting fish in a barrel – but to make a more general point.
The examples given are not chosen to be crazy things that people would never say in contexts other than climate science, although there is certainly some truth in that. People seem happy to live in a modern world created by science, accept that scientific experts know far more than they do. Except in the areas of climate science and evolution (this is not a coincidence – areas where those implacable things called facts come up against ideologies held in an iron grip).
Rather I have chosen examples where people can and do make such remarks in other areas of science. The nutters with “cancer cures” are well known (and have caused many deaths when they fool people). The nutters who believe the world is 6 thousand years old because the bible says so (it doesn’t of course, but even if it did …). The people who bury cow’s horns or dowse for water. All well known.
But unlike the nutters in the climate change blogs and letters and demonstrating outside parliament or the bureau of meteorology, the nutters in other fields of scientific endeavour are recognised to be nutters and are treated as such by the media. They are generally scorned, laughed at, treated as little humorous fillers in between cute babies and piano-playing cats, although every so often a tv network will pick up on a “miracle cancer cure” story when ratings are flagging.
But the media, and the public in general distinguish between the body of scientific knowledge which has propelled us out of the Dark Ages and into the Knowledge Ages of the 21st century, and the occasional wing nut with delusions of grandeur, and, well, delusions in general. No one, least of all the media, thinks that any of this rubbish, as entertaining as it might be, actually overturns any of the individual scientific disciplines, let alone the whole glorious superstructure of science that these disciplines combine to form (strengthening each other in the process).
Except when it comes to climate science. Then every shock jock, retired engineer, Joe the truckdriver, old surfer, who “thinks it a scam” or says “it’s the Sun” or observes that “plants use CO2″, or says the sea looks the same to him, is given the status of a second coming of Galileo. Any piece of mindless opinion based on the self-interested meme of the day from oil company fronts is treated as overturning the results of the measurement and analysis by tens of thousands of scientists in virtually every scientific discipline (climate science is a multi-disciplinary effort). Not just overturning some particular piece of analysis, but overturning physics, chemistry, palaeontology, astronomy, ecology, oceanography, and the rest. Overturning in fact, Science itself.
Day after day Frank the shock jock and Joe the truckdriver manage to negate 500 years of scientific research with unfounded opinions. According to the media.
Now why would that be, do you think?