I'm No Scientist, So Lemme Tell You A Thing Or Two About Science

If you are in elementary school, “stupid” is not a monicker you want to throw around. It will inevitably lead to fisticuffs, tears, possibly a trip to the principal’s office. If you happen to be Forrest Gump’s mother, you may react even more violently. To any sane person, this might seem to be the logical, if unpleasant consequence of being labeled as someone who doesn’t get it. And then there are politicians. Amongst whom, in case you haven’t noticed, stupidity is is a winning strategy. We choose our leaders not based on their competence in economic policy or their understanding of global affairs but on their likeability, hair quality, religious beliefs and other weighty stuff. That might be excusable, especially given what we know about the dominance of the intuitive “System 1” part of our brain, but we cannot allow it when the environment is at stake. Stupidity turns into a deadly catalyst for disaster. 

Case in point: Republicans have been at pains to use the “I’m not a scientist” argument to refute the decisive conclusions of virtually every scientist in the world about global warming. If you look at it logically, it makes no sense. Imagine someone saying “I’m not a neurosurgeon, but you’re sawing that guy’s skull all wrong.” Or “I don’t know football, but that ball seems to be inflated just right.” Or … I could go on and on but hopefully the absurdity is patently obvious. So why does it work? Because, once again, when in doubt on matters of great complexity, we go with what we feel rather than what we (should) think. 

A friend pointed me to an article that provided a powerful counter to the quasi-reasonable stance taken by the climate change deniers. They use the most familiar aspect of legal trials – the need to prove culpability “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That sounds fair and right and just and it appeals to our moral sense of living in a civilized society – which is exactly the intent here. But it’s not quite right. The reality is that the standard if establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt applies only to criminal trials.

Much more relevant to this issue would be the standard applied to civil trials, which is altogether different – it is based on the principle of “preponderance of evidence.” In other words, if the evidence overwhelmingly shows that you were embezzling money from the company, it’s up to you to disprove it, not the prosecution to demolish reasonable doubt. So in this case it might actually be interesting to counter the climate change doubters by asking them to adopt their own standard: prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that human beings have nothing to do with the increase in global temperatures in the last century. 

But all of this, while intellectually engaging, will still not be as viscerally effective as the “aw shucks” approach of the deniers and their expensive but diabolically effective lobbyists. Instead, the answer, as it so often is in marketing, is to tackle one human bias not by attempting to counter it, but by appealing to another.

For example, years ago, Haagen-Dazs decided not to go the taste route, which would pit it against all other ice-creams, but rather to tap into a whole other emotion/bias – sex. By comparing the act of consuming their product to the art of lovemaking, they elevated themselves above the category, and justified their premium pricing even as they scandalized families across the UK. 

Let’s face it. Scientists are not the best pitchmen for their own message. As one of the lobbyists for the Dark Side put it: “Put me in a debate against a scientist and they will lose. They don’t know how to argue. ” They are abstruse, deliberate and cautious about making declarative statements, all of which puts them at a disadvantage. But they have close cousins who do not suffer from that problem and come with an aspirational halo around them. I refer to the innovators. The Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world come bathed in the glow of supernatural achievement, hallowed and worshipped for their Promethean ability to give us god-like powers through technology. We would accept almost anything that they say. For example, Bill Gates is now an expert on disease management and education. So why not use them to come out against global warming? 

Here’s an idea. Get Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg to endorse the idea of human action against climate change. Who? They are the intrepid pilots of the first solar-powered flight around the world. Pilots, solar, around the world: that’s an irresistible draw right there. Imagine Charles Lindbergh speaking up for climate change. The world would be a cooler place today if he had. Think about it.

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