Main Content

Climate Change and the Scientific Delusional Disorder


Bronson Griscom

The Nature Conservancy's Forest Carbon Science Director

January 2015

Mad scientist. Image © Glen Edelson/Flickr
Mad scientist. Image © Glen Edelson/Flickr

One of the things I’ll never forget from grad school, back when I was a budding scientist, was my professor’s favorite motto: “I would rather be methodologically correct than right.”

It sort of pissed me off. I mean, come on: what normal person wouldn’t rather be right? And yet, my professor had put his finger on the essence of what it means to be a scientist.

This philosophy was pounded into our heads, in statistics classes, in the peer-review publications process and over beers as we joked about the shoddy arguments of shabby scientists. Scientists go through this rite of passage in graduate school—during which we swallow a sort of group delusional disorder pill.

That pill imprints us with an unnatural frame of mind: care less about finding truth (which is unattainable), and care more about the way to seek truth.

Science does not deliver the simple truth. It only delivers a cumbersome process for attempting to gather unbiased information about the elements of truth that can be measured. Capiche?

But while that frame of mind in many ways defines science and its relationship to truth, it’s alien and frustrating to those outside our weird club. Scientists, however, often persist in the delusion that what works for each other should work for everyone else, too.

This culture clash—which I’m calling the scientific delusion disorder—is a big part of the communications problem between scientists and normal people.

It’s why normal people are driven crazy when scientists can’t seem to just get to the point—stop your drivel of qualifiers and give us your bottom line! And it’s why scientists get so frustrated when normal people don’t understand that for a scientist, there rarely is a bottom line!

In a New York Times op-ed piece this past Saturday, Naomi Oreskes articulates very well the implications of this communications problem for action on climate change.

She points out what the public—especially certain “conservative” elements of the public—does not seem to fully appreciate: the scientific community is by definition very conservative when it comes to communicating information. This conservatism is a corollary of my earlier point about scientists being methods obsessed: we tend to be more averse to being wrong than desirous of being right. The implications of this tendency are that scientists routinely ignore findings until they are rather obvious—at least to those who are “in the weeds.”

Along these lines, Oreskes emphasizes that science is prone to “being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.” She states that scientists “often refuse to use the language of danger even when danger is precisely what they are talking about.” In making these points, it seems that Naomi is asking scientists to be more like normal people.

This sort of scientific common sense might seem very appealing. But as a scientist, I can’t agree with it. Science should not be confused with common sense. If it is, it risks losing the specific value it offers to society—a particularly credible and unbiased source of information.

Scientists should be circumspect about jumping too deeply into an advocacy role—because too much advocacy by scientists can undermine the objective credibility of the scientific community. Likewise, I think scientists should continue to be conservative in how we interpret data. If scientists do shift into a common-sense advocacy role (as well-informed humans with even a vestige of common sense may be prone to do), we should point out that we are speaking as normal citizens, rather than as our alter-ego: delusionally conservative data rats.

That said, here’s where I totally agree with Oreskes—and here’s my bottom line: scientists need to do a better job explaining to the rest of society that scientists are not normal, and we are definitely not liberal in our methods.

It is critical that the public understands just how conservative the scientific community is about communicating data. If we can do a better job explaining this to the rest of society, then the rest of society can do a better job advocating for sensible climate policy.

In other words, as a common-sense citizen, I think you should be FREAKED OUT by the drivel—i.e., the wonderfully dry, painstakingly measured and conservative scientific conclusions—of the IPCC.

Wait, one more qualifier. As a scientist, I must remind you that we cannot say with absolute certainty if humans are causing a global climate change catastrophe. It is virtually impossible to predict anything with absolute certainty about the future of our planet. What this does mean is that humans are more likely to be causing a global climate change catastrophe than you realized. Which leaves use each with a common sense question: should I do something about it?

Originally Posted on Conservancy Talk

January 08, 2015