The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888. Its stated purpose is “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge” by using the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world, and ultimately inspire, illuminate and teach. It has done this largely through it’s magazine, first published in October 1888, nine months after the Society was founded. In addition to other publications, it also strives to fulfill its purpose with movies, television programs, a television channel, and a museum. It also supports research and exploration.
The November 2015 issue of National Geographic is dedicated to the topic of climate change. Not one article discusses the debate about whether global warming is real, or whether we’re playing any part in it. The science is convincing enough to anyone who is open-minded to the facts, and the publishers of the magazine recognize that. But there are excellent articles covering what can be done to tackle the problem as individuals, businesses, municipalities, nations, and even as a planet. There are articles about what we can expect in the coming decades with regard to extreme weather, melting ice and sea level rise, and health risks. One article covers how aggressively German is taking on the problem.
It’s an excellent issue and I urge you to read it. It will bring anyone who reads it up to speed on this important subject. You can link to the online version here.
Bill Nye is one of the most popular teachers of science these days. An engineer by education, he has an excellent grasp on various aspects of science and also an excellent ability to convey those concepts to the general public. That’s the reason he had a successful television show for kids, and why he’s still commonly referred to as “Bill Nye, the Science Guy.”
Here he is on a recent video posted by National Geographic Explorer, describing the five things everyone needs to know about climate change. If you are well versed on the topic then you’ll know this already, but it’s a good simple one-minute description of some very basic facts that people need to get their heads around.
“We are trying to reach people who don’t know they like science, and people who know that they don’t like science. We are doing this through the use of three pillars: science, pop culture, and comedy.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
What will you be doing tonight at 11 p.m.? I suggest you watch my hero Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new show StarTalk. For astronomy geeks like me, Tyson has been well-known for many years, but he came into more mainstream prominence last year with his amazing reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. Tonight marks the first episode of a new weekly science talk show on the National Geographic Channel. But it’s not just science: pop culture manages to make a significant presence in the show. You can expect a number of comedians to help keep things light.
Tyson is adapting his popular podcast into a talk show format but promises that by bringing pop culture into it, the science part will be easy to take for non-science viewers. For example, tonight’s episode has George Takei as his guest, and everybody loves the original helmsman of the Enterprise. Others you can look forward to later in the season include former President Jimmy Carter, director Christopher Nolan (the Batman trilogy), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (sometimes referred to as “Darwin’s Rottweiler”), and my favourite astronaut Chris Hadfield (thanks again for recommending my book, Chris!).
I strongly recommend you watch this series, whether you’re scientifically minded or not. It will promise to be both enlightening and entertaining. And if one responsibility of a scientist is to help educate the masses about the current understanding of science in a way they can appreciate, then no one today is doing a better job of this than Neil deGrasse Tyson.
And just maybe this will help achieve our goal of tackling the problems our planet faces today, because without understanding there can be no real action.
“Everybody should be questioning. That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall on those questions.”
—Marcia McNutt, editor of Science
This month’s National Geographiccontains an excellent article entitled “The War on Science.” It’s a great review of why so many people around the world (but often more so in the U.S.) reject what science has helped to establish. Skepticism and doubt lead people to question the validity of such things as evolution, the benefits of vaccination, the risks from genetically modified foods, and yes, the reality of climate change being primarily our fault, or that it’s even happening at all. I’d strongly recommend you read this article, available through this link.
Here are just a sample of some of the interesting things that the article covers:
Many people don’t understand what science is all about. They usually think about it as a large body of facts and nothing more. As Marcia McNutt, editor of the journal Science puts it: “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”
One reason many of us rejects what science teaches us is because we subconsciously hold onto our intuitions—what researchers call naive beliefs. One study showed that although university students will correctly answer that the Earth goes around the sun, they will take longer to answer that question than when they answer that the moon goes around the Earth. They get both correct but have to overcome something that’s not intuitive for one.
Perhaps surprisingly, a better understanding of the facts isn’t the way to get people to accept science. One study showed that higher science literacy leads to stronger views on these issues, but it can be equally polarized on both ends of the spectrum. That’s because people use scientific knowledge to reinforce their own beliefs that have already shaped their opinions.
Science appeals to our rational selves, but emotion is a huge motivator, often affected by the desire to remain tight with our peers. As McNutt puts it: “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”
The fact that information is so much more readily available today on the internet and through cable television, it’s easier than ever to use “filter bubbles” that only let in information that already fits with your belief systems. If you strongly adhere to a certain ideology, chances are that you watch news channels and visit websites that reinforce rather than challenge that ideology.
Scientists can’t easily become vocal advocates arguing for policies that will help a problem like climate change or they can become open to arguments that their claims are politically motivated, even if that isn’t the case. Their detachment remains one of their biggest strengths. (Which is why people like me need to speak up more loudly on their behalf.)
Read the article if you have the time. It has a lot to say about why so many of us choose to reject science in favour of long-held beliefs.