When the American people have the awareness of what this [climate change] means for their children, and for their grandchildren, that all of civilization is at risk here, then they will demand that whoever is running for office, whoever is elected to serve, will have to respond to this.
— Al Gore, said during a CNN interview in 2007
Since Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, efforts to minimize the harmful effects of climate change have been stunted (Tollefson, 2018). Former Secretary of the the Department of Interior (DOI) Ryan Zinke during his two years in office made action towards denying climate change in favor of oil and coal companies, cancelled scientific studies looking at the health impact of mountaintop-removal, stopped research on improving safety at offshore drilling site, and instilled new laws that mandate scientific grants to be approved by a political appointee’s with no science background (Carter 2018). This administration proves that evidence-based science is inconvenient and expertise unnecessary to make policy decisions that will impact the world for years.
Last year, California was hit with the most devastating forest fire in history: the Camp Fire. Zinke denied that the California Camp Fire was caused or accelerated by human-caused climate change (Tollefson 2018). Zinke even went as far as to blame environmentalist groups and poor land management (Hensel 2018). In an interview on Fox Business News, Zinke cast doubts that humans are the cause of global warming and, in reference to Camp Fire, he said, “It’s not time for finger pointing. We know the problem, it’s been years of neglect, and in many cases it’s been these radical environmentalists that want nature to take its course” (Breitbart 2018). In response, Athan Manuel, the Lands Protection Director of the Sierra Club, said in an official statement, “Zinke’s inability to understand basic fire science is leading him to turn to dangerous and inflammatory quips… name calling and finger-pointing won’t change the truth that climate change is exacerbating wildfires. The long-term safety of our communities relies on reducing carbon pollution. The only danger here is from Zinke’s failure to act” (Manuel 2018).
So how did we get here? What is the substance of the debate between Manuel and Zinke? What is behind Zinke’s decision to ignore the science? How can someone ignore science and also claim to have scientific merit? The answer is that science is not a neutral force taking us towards objective truth; Science is first and foremost a product of our culture and our society even without strong empirical evidence.
The Social Construction of Science theory (SCOST) sheds light on how Zinke can tailor scientific claims for his political agenda despite lack of scientific validity. SCOST asserts that successful science is determined by who uses it and how it is used (Sismondo 2007). When someone’s political agenda conflicts with scientific evidence, this Constructionist view allows a person to ignore empiricism because it is not useful to their agenda. The wide support for Zinke and his anti-climate change claims prove that science is a product of culture more than a product of objectivity. Climate scientists overwhelmingly favor the view that the rapid increases in forest fires like the Camp Fire are caused or at least exacerbated by human-caused global warming. At the same time, this ‘truth’ conflicts with Zinke’s public and personal interests. Because the evidence-based truth is unproductive for Zinke to consider while making policy decisions, he dismisses it. Zinke is “willfully ignorant” to truth (McIntyre 2015). Apathy to truth is concerning for many reasons especially when exhibited by people in positions of power.
Zinke’s “willful ignorance” obstructs intelligible conversation when devising solutions. The ‘battle’ between Zinke and Manuel emerges not a scientific debate – that is theory fighting with theory – but rather a political debate. Politicians defer conversation on current conditions of forest restoration and preventative actions in favor polarizing. Zinke does not base his response on cause and effect. He knows he can not solve the climate-related problems that caused the Camp Fire and would rather evade blame by pointing fingers at his political enemies such as Manuel. This demonstrates a disconnect between the state of affairs and the action taken by the Federal government.
Further, Zinke validates and spreads dangerously ignorant perceptions. Climate change scientist use apocalyptic language that is overwhelming for an individual to process. In contrast, Zinke offers a comforting and simplistic view. As of know, we can not definitively prove that Climate-change caused the Campfire; therefore this gives people the means to dismiss it no matter how certain. To make matters more complicated, the individual response can be difficult to wrap one’s brain around. A global problem involves a global solution, it’s easy for an individual to feel helpless to the tsunami of impending ecological doom; alternatively Zinke offers a simple escape from these daughtning problems. He appeals to the masses because he provides tangible solutions even though this view is baseless and harmful. The “Cold Bath theory” would be a more productive response if we were interested in taking steps towards minimizing climate change (Gould 1997). The only thing that prevents the Cold Bath theory from pervading in our political sphere is a fear of blame for the seemingly unsolvable problems we face today. Therefore, Zinke deflects responsibility and continues non-action policies.
In a multicultural, politically stratified world, trustable authority is hotly debated (Franklin). Zinke as an elected official influences the general public’s understanding of the climate-change debate. . Zinke’s appeal is effective because today loyalty matters more than evidence. Shapin states the basis of science lies in the trust-relations between perceived authorities of knowledge. He says, “the alternative to trust is ignorance” (Shapin 1997). In order to learn anything we need to trust some authority, and trust is not necessarily based in logical reason. Because trust is a feeling, it can not be displaced by a fact, or empirical truth (Ed Yong 2019).
Zinke has manipulated his authority and used his position to speak to a group of Americans who conflate the American Identity with high consumerism and cheap energy.
People trust their political leaders like Zinke to reflect and uphold their values; the same way scientists trust researchers at elite universities to publish new knowledge. This problem emerges because the product of science depends on the social conditions in which it is created implying that science can never be “purely objective” (Bourdieu). While true, there is a dangerous implication that because it’s not objective, we can not accept its authority. This does not mean that science is false, but not all truths are equivalent.
Tollefson, Jeff. “Fire, drought, flood: climate challenges laid bare in US government report.” Nature, November 23, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07483-x
Hensel, Phil. “Interior Secretary Zinke blames ‘radical’ environmentalists for contributing to wildfires” NBC News, November 17, 2018. www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/interior-secretary-zinke-blames-radical-environmentalists-contributing-wildfires-n938671
Carter, Jacob. Science under Siege at the Department of the Interior America’s Health, Parks, and Wildlife at Risk. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018. https://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/center-science-and-democracy/science-under-siege-department-interior-2018#.XBp5WWhKjnE
Zinke, Ryan. “Ryan Zinke” Breitbart News Sunday. November 18, 2018. https://soundcloud.com/breitbart/breitbart-news-sunday-ryan-zinke-november-18-2018
Sierra Club Lands Protection Director, Athan Manual. Embattled Ryan Zinke Still Doesn’t Understand Wildfires or Who Oversees Forest Service, 2018. https://www.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2018/11/embattled-ryan-zinke-still-doesn-t-understand-wildfires-or-who-oversees
McIntyre, Lee. “The Attack on Truth.” The Chronicle Review (2015). https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Attack-on-Truth/230631
Sismondo, Sergio. “Science and technology studies and an engaged program.” The handbook of science and technology studies 3 (2007).
National Research Council. 2012. Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13460.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997): 16-22.
Franklin, Sarah. “Science as culture, cultures of science.” Annual review of anthropology 24, no. 1 (1995): 163-184.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the progress of reason.” Information (International Social Science Council) 14, no. 6 (1975): 19-47.
Shapin, Steven. “Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology.” Social Studies of Science 14, no. 4 (1984): 481-520. http://www.jstor.org/stable/284940.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press, 2012.
Shapin, Steven. “Trust, honesty, and the authority of science.” (1995).