Donald Trump probably leaves the water running while brushing his teeth. Heck, he probably leaves it running while he’s at work. After all, turning faucets can be mildly inconvenient and if science has taught him anything, it’s that our planet is doing just fine when it comes to conserving its natural resources and its long-term environmental prospects. Indeed, given his very high profile remarks questioning climate change and the science upon which it is based, I think we can safely assume he doesn’t lose any sleep over his consumption habits or the size of his carbon footprint.
But this is the kind of attitude we expect from individuals who have a fundamental mistrust (and misunderstanding) of science. Climate denialism seems to fit squarely with a disinterest towards cultivating environmentally friendly habits. We don’t expect people who “roll coal” to have a sophisticated appreciation for the importance of scientific progress. Those who do demonstrate environmentally friendly behavior, however, seem more like the kind of folks who understand that science has much to teach us about addressing global problems.
But a new paper from researchers at The University of Amsterdam has thrown a wrench into this folk understanding of the relationship between environmental concern and scientific appreciation. Their provocative hypothesis suggests that increasing people’s belief in the efficacy of scientific progress actually reduces environmentally friendly behavior. In other words: the more likely we are to believe in the power of science, the more likely we are to trade in our hybrids for hummers.
Why? The authors ground their hypothesis in a well-validated theory called compensatory control. This argues that all people are highly motivated to see the world as an orderly and predictable place. Indeed, any suggestions to the contrary (e.g. seemingly random catastrophes) elicit stress and anxiety. One way in which people alleviate such stress is to believe in the power of external sources to make sense of, and control, the world. For example, belief in a God that can exert control over worldly events has been found to satisfy the motivation to perceive order. The authors suggest that belief in science can serve a similar function.
But if this is the case — if greater belief in science allows us to see the world as controllable and orderly — then the personal motivation to exert such control diminishes. Simply put, if science is going to figure out this whole climate change business, then why do I have to take shorter showers?
The authors tested this hypothesis in a series of four studies. They first sought to establish a link between beliefs about scientific progress and perceptions of the world as orderly, predicting that the more people believed, the more order they would perceive. Indeed, simply reading an article that affirmed the power of scientific progress to successfully address global issues such as climate change (vs. reading an article which questioned its efficacy in doing so) was enough to significantly increase the degree to which participants saw order in the world.
Next, they tested whether such feelings of control would predict individuals’ environmentally friendly behavior. Again their hypothesis was supported. Priming participants with thoughts of order vs. disorder influenced their reported willingness to engage in environmentally friendly behavior, with order-primes decreasing this behavioral tendency.
The final study brought these preliminary findings together to test the authors’ main hypothesis: that affirming belief in scientific progress would diminish feelings of worldly disorder, and in turn reduce environmentally friendly behavior. And in a total bummer for science-lovers everywhere, the more participants believed in the power of scientific progress, the more they saw the world as orderly and controllable, and the less likely they were to act in an environmentally friendly way.
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. Is our individual motivation to help solve environmental problems undermined by our belief that such a chore can be outsourced to science? Should science be portrayed as less able to deal with such important global issues? Fortunately, the answer is simple and it does not require a diminished understanding of science, but actually an increased appreciation of its nuance. Specifically, science is not about certainty.
Our belief that science is the best tool to combat perils such as climate change should not be rooted in a vision of the process as infallible. Indeed, such a vision - that we can know, that we can provebeyond doubt -is fundamentally antithetical to scientific inquiry. Science cannot assure us of a solution. It can only provide the best possible guess. Though acknowledging this uncertainty can evoke anxiety, and turn some into conspiracy theorists, a little bit of doubt that the world is under our control might be the most effective call to action. After all, there’s a chance the future could be a lot worse than science suspects.