Prepare for the organic surge!

How many scientists does it take to change a climate sceptic’s mind? No, not a joke, a  question posed by New Scientist last week.

The science weekly was reporting on recent research by Yale University into to how we — individually, and as groups — arrive at our views and positions on the big issues of the day.

One thing is very clear from the Yale research. If you want to get your point across on an issue as controversial as climate change, evidence alone won’t be enough.

New Scientist cites as a case in point a recent hearing in the US Congress which debated the authority of the Environment Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse emissions. Republicans are backing bills that would strip the EPA of that right, which is based on findings that rising carbon dioxide levels pose a threat to health and the environment. At the hearing, Democrats presented a whole cast of eminent climatologists to explain the weight of scientific evidence for climate change, which they hoped might change Republican minds. Instead, it seemed to harden Republican scepticism.

Dan Kahan of Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project has been studying the way that our cultural beliefs affect even the way we approach scientific evidence. His conclusion is that explaining the science behind contentious issues often drives two sides further apart.

But as well as identifying problems, Kahan’s work at Yale also hints at how opposing groups can move towards consensus.  Most people. he says, can be graded on two scales of cultural beliefs — individualists versus communitarians (based on the different importance people attach to the public good when balanced against individual rights); and hierarchists versus egalitarians (based on their views on the stratification of society). In Kahan’s experience Republicans are more likely to be hierarchical-individualist, while Democrats are more often egalitarian-communitarian.

These different world-views were a feature of the recent Congress hearing, says Kahan — the egalitarian-communitarians inclined to accept the evidence that climate change is a threat, the hierarchical-individualists rejecting it.

So how do you change a climate change, or peak oil, or organic sceptic’s mind? Well, for one thing, you ought to be thinking about whose evidence you are going to deploy. And,  just as importantly, who is going to deliver that evidence.

You might also want change the language you use. The Times recently reported on an announcement by the US Energy Secretary Steve Chu that America was engaged in an “environmental arms race” to be the first country in the world to successfully generate clean energy on a “game-changing” level. To do this, America was calling on scientists to deliver “big surges in scientific discovery”

Chu, a democrat and advocate of alternative energy and low carbon economy, seems more than happy to deploy a macho vocabulary likely appeal to hierarchical-individualists. By comparing the rush to develop clean technology with the race to produce nuclear weapons during the Second World War, he is re-presenting environmentalism as a patriotic duty.

Prepare for the organic surge!

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.