“What makes us human?” That’s the question Ajit Varki, an eminent physician/scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has been asking for years. The answer he arrived at with zoologist Danny Brower is: “Our capacity for denial.”
Though some animals show empathy when a group member dies, we are alone in understanding the inevitability of our own mortality. Denial is our defence. That habit of denial makes us risk takers who embrace dangers other species avoid. Denial allowed our ancestors to tackle mammoths with stone-tipped spears and sail fragile boats beyond the horizon.
Denial makes us inventive, brave and sometimes cruel. We deny the rights of others by categorising them as alien, less than human, or belonging to some lower, and amoral class. All that can be seen in parochial politics and the globalised business world of today. And, played on by creative spirits in advertising, denial drives consumer society. The planetary economy would collapse if we bought only what we need and are likely to value in the long term.
In my game (science), denial works both for and against. Denial allows us to go beyond the accepted wisdom (common sense) and ask questions that seem absurd or even dangerous. But denial can also be a problem: the rules of investigation (hypothesis, measurement, analytical rigor, and open publication of the results and conclusions after peer review) force us to stare nature in the face, to engage with “the thing itself”. When such findings are politically and socially inconvenient, removing the “mind filter” of denial can cause public anger and distress.
My new book The Knowledge Wars is a “warts and all” account for people who are indifferent to, or even hate science. You don’t have to know any of the jargon, but it’s not hard to understand the process and to develop a few simple skills for checking out both the findings and the credentials of those who claim special expertise.
Written from the aspect of an insider (in the medical sciences) and an outsider (in climate science), the text plays back and forth between those themes. One area may seem more “convenient” than the other, but both science cultures embrace the same values and work to the same rules. And, while some may be in denial about the statistical models that are basic to the predictions of climate scientists, they don’t complain when such approaches used by the same (or similar) people provide more accurate weather forecasts or identify new cancer genes.
Treading relatively lightly on the earth for all but the past few centuries, we’ve often got away with denying the underlying realities of nature. Some events could not be blocked out, like storms at sea and volcanic eruptions (Pompeii) but, until the 19th century pioneers taught us about infection and sanitation, disease kept the human head count at reasonable levels, increasing from about 300 million at the time of Christ to a billion when Napoleon met his Waterloo. War killed off more than a few of us, but disastrous conflicts and genocides did not prevent an almost seven-fold increase (1800-2015) in human numbers. At the same time, our enthusiasm for science and technology drove enormous advances in human wellbeing dependent on the massive extraction of non-renewable resources. So far we’ve compensated, but that fabric is fraying, and who asks about intergenerational equity as we deplete irreplaceable supplies?
Denial, scepticism, invented narrative, deliberate ignorance: none of this is “owned” by the right or left of the political spectrum. While we might focus on the powerful fossil fuel industries when talking about climate change denial, there’s also the power of shared belief that vehemently denies the possible value of GM approaches for making plants more nutritious, or forbids the discussion of modern nuclear technology for power generation.
When it comes to nature, there are realities that no sane person will deny. A rapidly growing lump takes us straight to a cancer specialist and, unless we’re told that it’s too late for effective treatment, few will opt to “deny and die”. My personal view is that we have to apply the same values and urgency to the linked issues of greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic climate change, but that’s not my field of science so don’t take my word.
It’s relatively easy to be a “science detective”. With minimal understanding and a few simple techniques, most of us can tell upright citizens from snake oil salesmen. As a researcher, my basic rule is to ignore the propagandists and focus on those who are actually doing the work. It’s absurd to argue that super-bright young people who, for relatively little financial return and even less security, are dedicated to probing the underlying realities of nature would ever buy into some sort of “conspiracy of the elders”. Scientists who take public money and lie (or give bad advice) can, and do, go to jail. Any good climate modeller can opt for wealth by taking a bank job, and that happens. But where is denial likely to sit when it comes to vested interests losing in a big way?
Acting on a cumulative, long-term problem like climate change requires honest and consistent public policy. Politicians will not necessarily have the guts to embrace that unless voters take the trouble to be informed, to insist and to participate in the democratic process. It’s dangerous if most of us are scientifically illiterate. There’s no reason that should be true for any intelligent human being.
Professor Doherty is a Nobel Prize winner. His The Knowledge Wars is published this week (Melbourne University Publishing).
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