I was again reminded (from several unrelated sources) in recent weeks that many environmental issues are complex. In a world where the "dumbed-down" version of everything seems to be the standard, public awareness and understanding of complicated issues is hard to come by. It's difficult to separate fact from fiction when we get information from short sound bites, instant updates from electronic devices, and misinformation from interests poised to make money from their deceptions.
Local professional forester Andrew Blazewicz recently responded to a November Earth Matters column, noting that well planned and careful timbering did not have to result in severe soil erosion. Andy reminded me that forest management is like many other resource extraction and management activities; they don't have to produce serious environmental damage. They usually don't when we understand and pay attention to the complexities of dealing with them. This means that the science behind these issues must be understood. Harvard Science Historian Naomi Oreskes emphasized the importance of this concept during a recent speech and television interview at Penn State University. Co-author of the book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes believes one of our problems is that we don't always appreciate or understand that scientific research is a process.
Individual scientists can make mistakes or incorrect assumptions but the collective thoughts, research and reviews of a body of scientists are generally very dependable. "We shouldn't be trusting scientists as individuals because individuals are fallible. But science as a process is designed to ferret out errors, to give people the opportunity to study things in detail and then sort out competing claims." Oreskes believes that we must "trust science as a process that, most of the time, is pretty reliable."
Work on the book was prompted by criticism directed at Oreskes at a conference discussing global warming and its impacts. Soundly criticized by one attendee, she found out that he was part of a group of detractors that had earlier tried to discredit the research on CFCs depleting ozone, raised doubts about the health impacts of second-hand cigarette smoke, and discounted acid rain and its effects on plants and aquatic life.
The book gave rise to a documentary and Oreskes was subsequently asked to be part of a conference with Pope Francis that focused on climate change. She ended up writing the introduction to the encyclical that was generated by the discussions. Forty natural and social scientists from around the world were part of the event organized by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences. "The conference was intended to recognize climate change is not just a scientific problem. It's a problem that involves science and relies upon scientific knowledge for our understanding. But the consequences of climate change are economic, they're social, they're political, and they're moral," the Harvard professor explained in an interview on WPSU television.
"There are large profound questions about justice that develop when one thinks about the repercussions and implications of climate change." Oreskes points out that science is not always perfect but is constantly evolving to better understand the complex world we live in. It continues to be in our collective best interests to address the problems we come to understand, even if we have more to learn.