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Understanding climate change is not a matter of faith, but science … note to #DNC / #DemsiInPhilly

July 25th, 2016 · No Comments

The Democratic Platform has significant discussions and objectives about understanding and acting to deal with climate change.   Within it, however, the wordsmiths inappropriately conflated belief structures and science — writing “Democrats believe” when a more appropriate verb might have been “understand” or “conclude” or …  Using “believe” implies an article of faith when science and religion are too different domains.

Precise language is difficult to achieve in all venues. Everyone of us mashes together, in some form or another, multiple ‘languages’ (or methods of written/oral communication) from traditional languages (English, French, Russian, you get the drift), to institutional jargon (abbreviations, phrases, etc), to informal/fleeting cultural references (“Where’s Jules?” has a special meaning within part of my social circle and, well, this film describes the Barry in all our lives) to …  One element is the confusion that occurs as words shift between domains without clarity as to the implications of the shift, of different contextual implications of using a word or phrase.

This often occurs moving between science and colloquial communication.  Perhaps the strongest example is ‘theory/Theory’. In everyday communication, theory is often used as per ‘educated guess or supposition’ that is yet unproven. (What’s your theory about why the team loses so much?) The scientific term for that, of course, is hypothesis.  When scientists say “Theory” many non-scientists hear theory … The list, of course, goes on (and on …) but the point is: precision matters.

As so often, XKCD provides path to understanding truth …

And, for political discuss, the mindset (the framing) created

by specific word choice often matters … For example, crossing the other way, people often use wording and phrases that conflate science and religion.  “Belief” provides a prime example as discussed by Dr. Vicky Pope:

When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.

Within the writing of the Democratic Party platform, climate change represented a serious arena of debate and disagreement. While the Democratic Platform — with significant and often strong discussion of climate change — stands in stark contrast to the Republican anti-science platform, it is hard to imagine anyone truly satisfied with the platform’s climate change provisions (and certainly no Climate Hawk believes it adequate). The policy provision strengths and weaknesses of the platform lie outside this discussion but instead it is framing.

The first discussion of climate change (a phrase that appears 22 times in 55 pages) occurs on the second page amid a series of fundamental statements about what “Democrats” know and believe:

Democrats believe that climate change poses a real and urgent threat to our economy, our national security, and our children’s health and futures, and that Americans deserve the jobs and security that come from becoming the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.

While a case might exist that this opening is about policy proscription and not science, this opening framing suggest this is about ‘beliefs’ rather than conclusions based on evidence and analyses.  Framing with “believe” puts the discussion naturally into a ‘he/she says’ structure rather than Real-World Facts and Knowledge vs Anti-Science Delusional Fantasies.  Perhaps an alternative might have been

Democrats know that human actions are driving climate change and, based on scientific conclusions, recognize that climate change poses …

Not perfect, by any means, but moves the discussion away from the inappropriate ‘belief system’ narrative.

While most discussion of ‘climate change’ is not ‘belief’, here is another example from later in the platform,

Democrats believe that climate change is too important to wait for climate deniers and defeatists in Congress to start listening to science, and support using every tool available to reduce emissions now …

Very simply, this is a situation where “know” would have been appropriate.

Again, there is much worthwhile material on climate change within the Democratic Party platform even as it leaves much to be desired.  While there were significant and contentious fights over a series of climate change proposed amendments, calling for “belief” statements to be removed would likely have been met with general acceptance — and would have provided an educational moment both for the platform committee and others about how to speak to (climate) science.



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Tags: 2016 Presidential Election · climate change