In a process usually measured in millennia, a Yukon river reversed its flow in a few months last spring.
Views on climate change — the culprit up in Canada, according to scientists who explained the development this week — aren’t moving as quickly. But as with the Kaskawulsh Glacier, site of the suddenly southern-flowing river, skepticism is melting.
A March Gallup poll reports a “record number of Americans sounding the alarm on global warming.” Gallup’s designation of “Concerned Believers” hit a new high of 50 percent, up from 37 percent just two years ago. The “Mixed Middle” group fell to 31 percent, down sharply from recent years, while “Cool Skeptics” fell to 19 percent from 26 percent in 2015.
There is a particularly partisan pull on perceptions of climate change, according to an October Pew Research Center poll. In just one stark statistic, while 68 percent of liberal Democrats believe that “climate scientists understand very well whether the change is occurring,” only 18 percent of conservative Republicans do.
“Political fissures,” Pew reports, go beyond questions of if climate change is happening and what role humans may play, but “reach across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people’s basic trust in the motivations that drive scientists to conduct their research.”
This questioning of motivation and even methodology is one of the reasons behind Saturday’s March for Science, a global event with rallies in St. Paul and a dozen other Minnesota cities.
Yet skepticism of scientists is but a component of a more comprehensive questioning of experts, suggests Thomas Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, in a provocative Foreign Affairs essay excerpted from his book “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” Nichols writes: “I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers — in other words, those between those with an achievement in an area and those with none.”
In an interview, Nichols said that other factors include “an increasing epidemic of narcissism in American society, where people feel empowered to reject expert advice,” and that using social media for affirmation can “make people really incapable for critical thinking.”
The rejection of experts’ conclusions can perniciously impact democracy itself, Nichols said.
The science-society link is apparent to Prof. Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. “Our ability to ask questions about the world, and gather information about it, and make decisions on it, is what science aspires to be, and is at the core of our democracy,” Hellmann said.
Saturday’s march is not the first time science has taken center stage of the nation’s narrative. But previous episodes were driven by early environmentalism, like 1970’s first Earth Day (the march is timed to this year’s celebration), and in particular the “Sputnik moment” 60 years ago after the Soviet satellite lit a fire under U.S. leaders to catch and soon surpass the U.S.S.R.
But back then the action was to rally around scientists, not for scientists to rally themselves.
Sputnik created “a common objective and shared values among a wide swath of the American public that made it easier to move in a certain direction and draw upon a body of knowledge, and we’ve not had that,” said Hellmann.
But building a sustainable future could itself be a rallying point.
“There’s no reason why it couldn’t be like the space race, but we have to reach that kind of shared understanding,” Hellmann said. “If we see it as a step backwards, then that doesn’t hearken or build some shared values. The trust comes from those shared identities, and then science is a means to an end.”
Trust requires shared values, so both scholars hope that the march isn’t purely politically perceived.
“Science is science and policy is policy,” said Nichols. “Science can only describe what is; it can’t tell you what ought to be. When you get into the normative process of values, that’s where the political process can mediate those varying claims.”
“When we say that science and knowledge are a force for democracy, many educators like myself believe that we really need basic understanding among the public, and we need the public to have some ability to judge,” Hellmann said.
Saturday’s march is for science. But it’s also about society, and whether America continues to be a beacon of enlightenment.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.