We have to listen to “the” science.
We have to save “the” environment.
We have to protect “the” climate.
Catchy slogans used for political purposes but what do the terms: the science, the environment, the climate mean? Are we aware of how the subtle addition of the definite article changes our perception and understanding of important environmental-health issues?
In English, the definite article has been abused by activists needing definite truths to win policy debates on complex problems. It imposes a perception of certainty on issues defined by their uncertainty. It has got to the point that every time I hear someone utter these expressions, I think to myself: This manipulative opportunist must know how he or she is distorting reality. Still they choose the same twist of vocabulary because most people let them and few catch their trickery.
Improperly using “the” in front of an abstract noun is part of a game to claim authority, isolate dissenters, simplify an issue and close dialogue. In declaring: “This is the science on XYZ” an activist is attempting to own the issue and shut down any discussion or analysis. In a policy framework where there may be uncertainty or grey areas, imposing a “the” provides a wedge between others’ false opinions and “the” truth. It is staking a claim to colonise a debate. Interestingly, it cannot be applied to issues that don’t allow for simplification or are too broad and complex. We do not speak of “the” food or “the” health without qualifications.
Greta Thunberg tells us to Listen to the science on climate change while Anthony Fauci wants us to Follow the science on the coronavirus. What do they mean by “the” science?
Science is a continuous evolution of positions developed by rigorously challenging (in Popperian terms: trying to falsify) stated facts and paradigms. It refers to a process – a method – not some body of truth. When people claim “the” science, what they are referring to is a consensus view – a politicised pronouncement of the state of scientific research. A consensus abhors sceptics (ostracising them as deniers); a scientist must always be sceptical.
When Greta or Fauci seek to establish their position as “the science” they are equating present scientific views with the truth. But it creates an expectation that then leaves the public vulnerable to a loss of trust in all scientific positions. Scientific discovery was continually evolving in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, so claiming primordial facts (on COVID-19 treatments, use of masks, preventative measures…) and then changing your position shortly after did not encourage public acceptance.
Instead of the ‘follow the science‘ media show, Fauci should have reassured the American public by saying that: On the basis of the best available data, we believe this to be the appropriate action (but we will update you when more information emerges). While I understand that politicians need to hide behind a consensus in order to feel confident enough to act, this cannot be called “the” science and it is definitely not scientific.
If you tell me that I have to listen to “the” science, I am not going to listen to you. You don’t encourage scientific discussion; you merely want to impose your political authority.
I often wonder where exactly “the” environment is. When it is used with a definite article, it implies that the environment is a place … perhaps where biodiversity is being “stored”. Is it in some location, outside of urban areas, in “nature”? But nature is a proper noun (personified in Mother Nature). As a construct, “the” environment appears to be in peril since we are being told how we can save it by polluting less, using natural products, having fewer children… Saving “the” environment means we all get to go to some Shangri-La, living longer and more harmoniously with nature. With simple views comes simplistic polarisation: natural = good (part of “the” environment); synthetic = bad (part of man).
This is a brutal simplification of how environmental conditions evolve given the inputs and impacts. Activists are limiting what is or is not “environmental” and turning issues into a bipolar assessment of pro’s and con’s, safe or unsafe and us-vs-them. For them, industry, corporations, conventional farmers… are against the environment and they are for it.
But there is no “the” environment as a place, it is everywhere and affects everything in a complex, unpredictable manner. Those activists playing a divide and conquer approach are doing a disservice to ecological issues for their own interests.
Worse, hard-core activists have separated the environment from humanity and potentially beneficial technological solutions. In other words, the only way to “save” the environment is to keep humans away from “it”, to stop doing what we have been doing and let it heal itself (see Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet). These misanthropes welcome any environmental events as fuel for their hatred but their anti-technology solutions are simply “failure by design”.
We have talked about climate so much over the last two decades that it should be no surprise that “the” climate is now a thing – an object, even an agent. It is something we have to save; something that wreaks havoc on humanity; something we need to respect. We let terms like “the” climate go because this object has become a victim of man’s relentless negligence. But the world will continue to turn, the climate will not suffer (man just might not be so lucky).
Around the time of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, we used to remind people that climate was not weather. Now “the” climate is all about “the” weather. If it is hot, we blame the sins of man for climate change. If it is cold, same thing. If an area has a drought, it is because of “the” climate. If there is a flood, same thing. Forest fires, hurricanes, crop failures … all can be blamed on humanity’s consumption and waste, all pigeonholed as a result of “the” climate.
I worry about this objectification of a very complex, diverse field of study. The climate has become not only a political rallying call, but also an excuse for incompetence. If policymakers fail to protect communities from potential risks (proper flood preventions, forest maintenance, storm crises measures, basic infrastructure development …) and a crisis strikes, opportunists can deny responsibility and blame “the” climate. There should be a verb for this type of political irresponsibility: to “Newsomise” a natural disaster?
Then there is the “clopportunism” in developing countries where corrupt leaders can tap into funds for “the” climate without any serious scrutiny or due diligence. Money for “the” climate to relieve our collective guilt and provide a moral uplift… that is surely enough of a return on investment for projects that could not possibly ever be audited, measured or justified. Pity though… those funds could have done so much to enable development, alleviate poverty, empower and protect women, ensure food security and create a more resilient population to mitigate any potential climatic threats.
Perceptions are moulded by the terms we use and with every turn of phrase an opportunist awaits.
When the Canadian sovereign sadly passed away last week, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, eulogised that to the world, she was known as THE Queen. Indeed, Belgium has a queen, but to most, Mathilde is not THE Queen. So what does this use of a definite article imply? What made Elizabeth more than simply a queen to the entire world? This will help us to understand how the definite article can be used and abused in environmental-health debates.
Universal Acceptance (Consensus, Authority, Uniqueness)
Queen Elizabeth was, for seven decades, the most recognisable global leader, widely respected and universally accepted. Even during her annus horribilis in 1992 or after her perceived detached reaction to Diana’s death in 1997, there was never any question of her authority. This authority comes from being “the one” upon which identity a consensus can easily be formed.
But what is a consensus and what does it mean? Formally, a consensus is anything above 50% but that lacks political impact. 100% agreement is impossible but as close to 100% is desirable. Certain scientific facts are rarely disputed and widely accepted (Newton’s laws are not considered theories, certain human limitations are self-evident…) but it is not so much whether a position has been tested and retested, but that the scientific method is a mindset: Always be prepared to question and re-evaluate. By arguing for a consensus – “the” science – the scientific method is being suppressed by some political interest.
In order to stop the sceptics from challenging data on climate change, there needs to be a strong consensus from the scientific community (say 97%). For policymakers to have authority to act on “the” climate, they need some scientifically endorsed authority (they need “the” science). But if this consensus is seen as contrived (ie, not universally accepted), then climate change policies will continue to be challenged. Policymakers would have less authority to make hard decisions to address this issue. This would be politically disastrous (but not an issue at all from a scientific perspective).
Universal acceptance creates an absolutism – there is only one and it is beyond question. The Queen didn’t do her own shopping or drink from a paper cup. The perception of a royal is of one that transcends mere mortals (it was once a divine right) going beyond the mundane, the fallible, the vulgar. We elevate royalty (unlike celebrity).
A scientific consensus transcends the messy world of debate and disagreement, creating an air of certainty that can reinforce trust. Once “the” science is declared on environmental issues it is no longer open for debate – it has transcended from the murky world of uncertainty to become infallible. Those speaking to defend “the” environment and “the” climate are elevated to guru status. Nobody listens to vulgar sceptics who question whether there is a climate emergency, whether the present mitigation measures are effective and whether those efforts are not in themselves deleterious.
The environment, as a place, is pristine and should be protected from human defilement. If humans are to interact with “the” environment, it must be from a point of reverence. Many extreme environmentalists see human efforts to control Mother Nature (eg, via agriculture) as crude violations of a holy, transcendent body. Ownership and exploitation of land is man’s disrespect of what is beyond our selfish, capitalist greed. The environment has no price and cannot be bought and sold – it has intrinsic worth (dignity – see Kant’s Second Critique). These radical environmentalists are prepared to see millions die from famine in order to preserve this transcendent, iconic ideal.
If we spoke outside of the definite article – not of “the” science, “the” environment or “the” climate but of scientific issues on environmental concerns and climate evolutions, such transcendence would not be possible. Our discourse would shift from the dogmatic beliefs to pragmatic solutions and ridiculous conclusions would be rightfully challenged. This is not something that activists would want and we have not taken much notice of their linguistic deception.
We want simple answers to solve simple problems. When scientists provide a series of alternatives and potential risk scenarios, things get messy. A policymaker wants to speak and govern from a position of authority, certainty and strength. He or she needs a clear, simple truth that the public will trust. Religions do this well.
A consensus implies there is only one view – only one sovereign, only one valid scientific position, only one environment – and that to challenge that is, well, pure madness. Who would stand up and say: “I am against the Queen … the science … the environment … the climate”? This is a political trick used to simplify the debate – it is us-vs-them. Recently this polarisation in the US has taken on political colours – if you are prepared to fight a war to save the climate, you wear a blue shirt and if you question “the” science, you’re dressed in red. According to one former US leader, science is a belief system.
When Fauci said to follow the science on the coronavirus, which science was he referring to? That of the virologists (who signed the John Snow Memorandum) or the epidemiologists (who signed the Great Barrington Declaration)? So what does this mean? Do we vote democratically on what is scientific? Whichever side has the most signatures is considered as the truth? This is what EFSA head, Bernhard Url, referred to as “Facebook science“.
But even this question is simplifying the complex paradigms underlying each scientific approach. It depends on the focus – chemists measure exposures (and, as Paracelsians, tend to be more risk-based) while biologists take larger, complex systems into account (and are more likely to consider any potential hazards). If there is not one type of scientist, how can we simplify our views as one, single scientific consensus? I am curious how such an experienced scientist like Anthony Fauci allowed himself to utter such nonsense. Blinded by the bright lights no doubt.
Simplification is for simple people who want simple answers. That is not science.
In claiming “the” truth on any subject, there is an air of pompous piety that should be left for Sunday sermons. As environmentalists are claiming religious rituals, this ownership shift should not be too surprising. The rise and fall of Greta and Extinction Rebellion perhaps best highlights this arrogance of ignorance as vengeful dogmatic fundamentalists imposed their narrow, simplified beliefs upon society. They used the definite article to separate the world into the young, the victims and the “awoken ones” on one side (who have “the” truth) and the perpetrators, ignorant and immoral on the other (filled with selfish greed and false gods). Environmentalism can easily become a moral crusade when the definite article separates “the” truth from “the” infidels. Anyone who dared to question these righteous missionaries on the science, the environment or the climate was labelled a heretic, a polluter and, gulp, a denier. How dare you!
I suppose what gets to me the most about these manipulative ideologues making claims on behalf of “the” truth (on subject matters which most science-minded people are struggling to find pragmatic solutions to complex problems) is their sanctimonious moral elitism. That their righteous condemnations were built on an illegitimate consensus, arbitrary divisions, linguistic deceptions and simplification just adds to their hypocrisy. They are pompous zealots cloaked and choked in their own false piety and any respect or trust they will have manufactured from their manipulative wordplay will be short-lived.
This article was written by THE Risk-Monger because there is only one universally-accepted risk satirist, transcending the herd to highlight the simplified environmental-health risk debates.