Their Own Worst Enemies

Why scientists are losing the PR wars.

It's a safe bet that the millions of Americans who have recently changed their minds about global warming—deciding it isn't happening, or isn't due to human activities such as burning coal and oil, or isn't a serious threat—didn't just spend an intense few days poring over climate-change studies and decide, holy cow, the discretization of continuous equations in general circulation models is completely wrong! Instead, the backlash (an 18-point rise since 2006 in the percentage who say the risk of climate change is exaggerated, Gallup found this month) has been stoked by scientists' abysmal communication skills, plus some peculiarly American attitudes, both brought into play now by how critics have spun the "Climategate" e-mails to make it seem as if scientists have pulled a fast one.

Scientists are lousy communicators. They appeal to people's heads, not their hearts or guts, argues Randy Olson, who left a professorship in marine biology to make science films. "Scientists think of themselves as guardians of truth," he says. "Once they have spewed it out, they feel the burden is on the audience to understand it" and agree.

That may work if the topic is something with no emotional content, such as how black holes form, but since climate change and how to address it make people feel threatened, that arrogance is a disaster. Yet just as smarter-than-thou condescension happens time after time in debates between evolutionary biologists and proponents of intelligent design (the latter almost always win), now it's happening with climate change. In his 2009 book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Olson recounts a 2007 debate where a scientist contending that global warming is a crisis said his opponents failed to argue in a way "that the people here will understand." His sophisticated, educated Manhattan audience groaned and, thoroughly insulted, voted that the "not a crisis" side won.

Like evolutionary biologists before them, climate scientists also have failed to master "truthiness" (thank you, Stephen Colbert), which their opponents—climate deniers and creationists—wield like a shiv. They say the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political, not a scientific, organization; a climate mafia (like evolutionary biologists) keeps contrarian papers out of the top journals; Washington got two feet of snow, and you say the world is warming?

There is less backlash against climate science in Europe and Japan, and the U.S. is 33rd out of 34 developed countries in the percentage of adults who agree that species, including humans, evolved. That suggests there is something peculiarly American about the rejection of science. Charles Harper, a devout Christian who for years ran the program bridging science and faith at the Templeton Foundation and who has had more than his share of arguments with people who view science as the Devil's spawn, has some hypotheses about why that is. "In America, people do not bow to authority the way they do in England," he says. "When the lumpenproletariat are told they have to think in a certain way, there is a backlash," as with climate science now and, never-endingly, with evolution. (Harper, who studied planetary atmospheres before leaving science, calls climate scientists "a smug community of true believers.")

Another factor is that the ideas of the Reformation—no intermediaries between people and God; anyone can read the Bible and know the truth as well as a theologian—inform the American character more strongly than they do that of many other nations. "It's the idea that everyone has equal access to the divine," says Harper. That has been extended to the belief that anyone with an Internet connection can know as much about climate or evolution as an expert. Finally, Americans carry in their bones the country's history of being populated by emigrants fed up with hierarchy. It is the American way to distrust those who set themselves up—even justifiably—as authorities. Presto: climate backlash.

One new factor is also at work: the growing belief in the wisdom of crowds (Wikis, polling the audience on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). If tweeting for advice on the best route somewhere yields the right answer, Americans seem to have decided, it doesn't take any special expertise to pick apart evolutionary biology or climate science. My final hypothesis: the Great Recession was caused by the smartest guys in the room saying, trust us, we understand how credit default swaps work, and they're great. No wonder so many Americans have decided that experts are idiots.