Hand over your cell phones

Adam Frank @NPR says, “Science Deniers: Hand Over Your Cellphones!”

I’m sympathetic to the notion that attitudes toward science are often a matter of ideological convenience rather than skeptical reasoning. However, we don’t have a cell phone denial problem. Why? I think it helps to identify the contributing factors in circumstances in which denial occurs:

  • Non-experimental science (reliance on observations of natural experiments; no controls or randomized assignment)
  • Infrequent replication (few examples within the experience of an individual or community)
  • High noise (more specifically, low signal-to-noise ratio)
  • Complexity (nonlinearity, integrations or long delays between cause and effect, multiple agents, emergent phenomena)
  • “Unsalience” (you can’t touch, taste, see, hear, or smell the variables in question)
  • Cost (there’s some social or economic penalty¬† imposed by the policy implications of the theory)
  • Commons (the risk of being wrong accrues to society more than the individual)

It’s easy to believe in radio waves used by cell phones, or general relativity corrected for by GPS, because their only problematic feature is invisibility. Calling grandma is a pretty compelling experiment, which one can repeat as often as needed to dispel any doubts about those mysterious electromagnetic waves.

At one time, the debate over the structure of the solar system was subject to these problems. There was a big social cost to believing the heliocentric model (the Inquisition), and little practical benefit to being right. Theory relied on observations that were imprecise and not salient to the casual observer. Now that we have low-noise observations, replicated experiments (space probe launches), and so on, there aren’t too many geocentrists around.

Climate, on the other hand, has all of these problems. Of particular importance, the commons and long-time-scale aspects of the problem shelter individuals from selection pressure against wrong beliefs.

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