In popular discussion, uncertainty serves as a wedge—a point of weakness with which you can destroy an idea you don’t like. So it isn’t that surprising that the selfish and self-serving use scientific uncertainty as a wedge as well; it doesn’t work in the scientific literature, but it does work in the minds of the public. We hear “uncertainty around climate change” and, for many of us, it means “we don’t know.”
The simplicity is appealing—after all, we know something or we don’t. Can you really half-know? Well… yes. Even that simple question shows us the difference between our gut feeling about knowing, and how it actually works. There is a great range of nuance in the idea of uncertainty, and when scientists say that something has uncertainty, they mean something much more specific than what most people think of as uncertain.
The language of science requires us to embrace uncertainty in order to understand it. Science is all about shrinking uncertainty, not to zero, but to the smallest reasonable range that evidence and method can support. The whole endeavor of science is to presume we don’t know, and then eliminate things we can be sure are wrong. Not to be certain about what is true, but to arrive at an approximation we can work with.
That means in order for us to have a discussion about so nuanced and evidence-heavy a topic as climate change, we need to go out of our way to understand uncertainty. The good news? We already do—we just need to think about it in different terms.
It’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.
Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.
That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.
I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”