There is a growing tendency for environmentalists (and their commentators) to avoid input from ‘experts’ and instead to use popular opinion as evidence. The belief, supported by ‘social media’, is that all opinions are equal. This could lead to uninformed programs and baseless political decisions.
The problem is that the popular response to an environmental problem may be wrong, either immediately or predictably, as shown by detailed knowledge of the processes involved.
The concern arises from the multiple global demonstrations of populism driving political decisions and programs that do not consider well-known facts and processes.
Clearly many wish to have input into decisions and processes that affect their lives, but many of those decisions and processes are poorly or not at all understood by citizens who speak to the issue. To some extent, the desire to join a movement overcomes the need to be informed on the issue.
Distrust of ‘experts’ has had many sources starting with research scientists’ communications that are calibrated to be understood only by other scientists. But, perhaps, one of the most decisive issues has been the unwillingness of many citizens to do the critical thinking and the hard work required to understand complex processes. Citizens referring to questionable information sources on the internet have overlooked this lack of critical thinking. Some of those online sources are themselves informed only or mainly by other uninformed and unthinking sources.
Relying on ‘the media’ is similar. Ability to present stories orally, in videos or in print as many media professionals do so well, does not assure that the analysis of critical knowledge is well-informed.
Sources become even more questionable when commerce strongly influences all the forms of information presented to the public. Further, those commercial forces also influence guidance presented to the public by government agencies. Remember tobacco?
The general public, the social media users, industry, government regulators, and the ‘experts’ are the actors who may affect our priorities, our focus, the management of environmental issues, and the policy decisions of our institutions and governing bodies.
Harking back to smoking it is clear that some ‘scientists’ can be bought as were those who were hired to defend big tobacco. How can we be sure that a narrative about ecological systems is truly well-informed? This has been a fundamental problem in building a base of scientific knowledge since the beginning of science. The solution used by the world of science is to expose proposed public knowledge to an array of people known by professionals to be well-informed in that particular subject field. Those ‘peers’ review the proffered knowledge, compare it with all related knowledge that has been accepted in the past, critically examine its logic, its experimental or observational methodology and often, its moral implications. The reports from these peers are examined together by a highly ranked expert in that field, the editor, and if there is consensus that the offering is a valid, new piece of information in that field, it will be published in a professional journal that is circulated to all researchers in that field and related fields. Those additional peers are able to publish their assessments of the new knowledge using the same process of peer-review.
For the general public to rely on this system of evaluation of knowledge would require members of the public to critically examine peer-reviewed papers in the primary research literature. That does happen occasionally but cannot be our major safeguard. So, how should the general public safeguard the validity of knowledge offered to them?
Refer to ‘experts’ but critically examine their expertise. Do that by referring to professional organizations that specialize in that field of knowledge. Access to those professional organizations is usually available through the appropriate department of Canadian and international universities. Note that popular books are not subjected to this professional peer-review and can be published solely because of sales potential projected by experts in book sales and business potential.
Citizens’ groups should focus on environmental issues that affect complete ecosystems and give that information priority over issues that affect only human societies and human environments. The distinction is fuzzy in these times of the Anthropocene, and requires hard logic. The important difference is that issues primarily affecting human culture or commerce are subject to biases that need to be avoided. Involving commercial effects in particular discussions commonly confuses causes, effects, and values in the analysis. Economic models and assumptions are not acceptable judges of the truth or of long-term best outcomes. Issues focused on complete ecosystems put the priority on longer-term, multi-variable, functional systems.
On the other hand, following only advice from specialized professionals risks lack of broad perspective. Too much analysis with too little synthesis is ill-advised. We need to accept the high probability that most significant environmental issues are driven by several variables. Those variables and their effects range from ecology of threatened species to landscape changes to purely social effects. Scientists need to accept the responsibility of communicating a full synthesis of findings to policy-makers and to all other citizens.
Written by: Gray Merriam