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It’s time for those who support science to reach out and speak out

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william schlesinger
President Emeritus, Biogeochemist


I just don’t get it. We have the best science available in the world for studies of climate. It tells us that humans are changing the climate and warming the Earth. We have a large set of economists who say that this will be costly to society. We’ve got engineers who say we have alternatives to fossil fuels. Yet a substantial fraction of the public believes all this is a hoax, that the climate has always changed. We have elected some of these folks to high office.

So it is with the theory of evolution, tested rigorously for the past 150 years by those who stood to gain great fame if they could disprove Darwin in favor of something better. Evolution has stood the test of time, but 30% of Americans believe in the alternative theory of creationism, for which there is essentially no scientific evidence.

So too is the belief that fluorine in drinking water is bad for your teeth, that milk pasteurized with x-rays is harmful, and that brassieres cause breast cancer. In each case, a small vocal minority gains traction with an opinion that has no scientific basis.  We have a problem in this country: not with the science but with the public’s perception of it. In the face of “alternative facts,” nothing I have written in this blog in the past 2.5 years and nothing I am likely to write in the future will have much significance. It will be labeled as “fake news.”

Americans are not alone in this behavior. Nearly a century ago, a European rose to power with the supposition that the Aryan race was superior to all others, without scientific evidence to support it. About 25 million people died in the effort to erase this disbelief, and perhaps an equal number perished indirectly. That was about 3% of the world’s population at the time—a level of purposeful carnage that questions the sapient nature of our species.

We can blame the aloof nature of scientists, the failings of the educational system, and the fundamental role of ego in human nature. If we do not want to be a bug on the windshield of life, we must do more.

Those who enjoy understanding about science need to do more than bask in that pleasure. They must speak out. But the outreach must be deliberative discourse.  One cannot dismiss disbelievers as deplorable. We need to start by listening to their thoughts and the basis for them. Then, present arguments, based on science, that do not simply counter the disbelief, but which carry the argument to a new level. 


Gases in the atmosphere act as a blanket for the Earth. A clear night is colder than a cloudy night. We have raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 30% in the past 150 years. High school science can show that carbon dioxide gas absorbs heat radiation. Carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels. Are there alternatives? Yes: why not pursue them? This is not like fighting communism. In many cases the alternatives are cheaper and less dirty to breathe.

The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we simply thought of something better.


william schlesinger
President Emeritus, Biogeochemist

William Schlesinger is active in communicating science to policy makers and media. He has testified about environmental issues in Congress and in state houses, and has been featured in media including NOVA, the Weather Channel, Discover, National Geographic, and the New York Times.

He discusses a range of environmental issues in his weekly blog, Translational Ecology.

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