“So What!”

A new study by psychologist David Budescu of Fordham University and his colleagues is actually the latest in a string of papers by these researchers showing that people systematically misunderstand what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) means when it uses phrases such as “likely” and “very likely” to describe the strength of its conclusions. Take, for instance, the IPCC’s famous finding, in 2007, that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-produced] greenhouse gas concentrations.” According to Budescu’s research, while the IPCC intends for “very likely” to mean a greater than 90 percent likelihood, that’s not necessarily the message the average person hears. Instead, when Budesco and his colleagues asked members of the public to assign a probability to the term “very likely,” the mean estimate people gave was just 62 percent.

These research findings remind me of “Arte” Johnson’s  German soldier character on the television program Laugh-In saying: “”Verrrry interesting, but not very funny”—but replacing the “funny” with “relevant.”

This finding seems to suggest that scientists bear an important responsibility for our government’s lack of significant action relative to global warming—in that by not informing citizens properly regarding the threat posed by global warming, our citizens have not been applying pressure on our “leaders” to act decisively on this issue. My reactions to such a conclusion, however, are that:

If scientists, in using the term “very likely” mean “greater than a 90 percent probability,” and the majority of citizens misinterpret the meaning that scientists give to the term, the responsibility for that misinterpretation lies with the journalists who publicize the findings of scientists. Journalists should have a degree of competence that on the one hand allows them to understand what their sources are saying/writing and, on the other hand, allows them to translate scientists’ findings in a manner that readers/viewers will understand. Thus, the problem here is not with scientists’ inability to convey their findings to the public (for they generally write for their peers, rather than the public) but, rather, with those whose job is convey scientific findings to the public; i.e., journalists.

Even if journalists would do a good job in conveying the findings of climate scientists specifically to the public in an accurate and unambiguous manner, that would not be enough. As Guy McPherson stated in the Introduction of his Going Dark (2013):

“Shortly after the arrival of the 21st century I realized we were putting the finishing touches on our own extinction party, with the shindig probably over within a few decades.”

I say “not enough” because knowledge of this very real possibility (including by climate scientists) should be regarded by those who gain it as not merely “stuff” to store in one’s memory—so that it can be recalled for future conversations with others. What the gaining of such knowledge should mean, rather, to those who acquire it is that this is knowledge that needs to be acted upon.

This conclusion is so obvious that one should not need to state it. Ironically, however, it is seemingly the case that most of those involved in generating such knowledge themselves don’t seem to “get” this! If they did, they would realize that the point is not to continue with their research but to recognize its implications for their own lives—the fact that such knowledge represents a threat to their future existence—so that from a self-interest standpoint they would abandon their research efforts and begin planning what to do to survive, and then act on those plans. After all, the prevailing “theory” is that we are self-interested creatures whose primary objective is to “look after No. 1.” The fact that highly educated climate scientists are not doing so (with a few exceptions) proves that that “theory” isn’t worth the “powder that it would take to blow it up” (as a former boss of mine—from Texas—was fond of saying).

Now if climate scientists don’t have the sense to act meaningfully on the findings of their research, why should it be surprising that those who are aware of their findings fail to do so as well? To a degree, of course, journalists can be blamed for failing to report the findings of scientists, and for not reporting those findings in a manner that the public will accurately grasp. But the companies that journalists work for bear even more culpability here for (a) not hiring competent journalists, (b) preventing them to report important scientific findings, and (c) forcing them to publish/present “watered down” versions of scientific findings—ones that, therefore, will not upset the advertisers that support the business, so that they withdraw their support of the business.

What should be clear to intelligent, educated people today is that the society they live in is likely to collapse within a few years, and that if they are to have any hope of surviving that calamity, they need to start engaging in pre-adaptive activities—and ASAP. Few are clear about this, seemingly, and the only logical explanation that I can think of for that fact is that most of us are so used to a lack of substantial change in our lives that we simply cannot accept the fact that change will come—whether we want it to or not.

This pervasive mentality is not likely to change, and I see no point in trying to get others to abandon this mode of thinking; that would be an utter waste of time. Rather, one must recognize that it is inevitable that societal collapse will be occurring, a massive culling of the world’s population will be occurring—both beyond one’s control; and that what’s necessary for (possible, not certain) survival is for one to start engaging in pre-adaptive activities.

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.