The question we should ask politicians (or anyone) when discussing controversial issues

January 2, 2016

Climate Change, Vaccination

Doocy climate change denial

Scientific issues come up frequently in political discussions, but politicians themselves are often not as concerned with the facts as they are winning arguments with their debate opponents. Climate change is easily among the most controversial issues. However, people who are convinced that climate change is a real problem frequently use two labels for those who are not convinced – deniers and skeptics. These are two very different terms. A denier is a person who refuses to accept an idea regardless of evidence presented to them, whereas a skeptic does not unquestionably accept ideas that they believe have not been adequately proven.

This brings us to a question that, if answered, could help us distinguish between deniers and skeptics.

What would it take to change your mind?

A skeptic will always have an evidence threshold for being convinced. If a person cannot offer such a threshold, and says that they will never be convinced no matter what, then their position is unreasonable.

Let’s look at a reasonable example of a climate skeptic, a man named Richard A. Muller, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley, who received funding from the Koch Brothers.

In 2009, Muller identified problems in climate studies that made him question the existence of global climate change. As a teacher of science, he understands the scientific method, and so he created the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project with his daughter to test the theory of global climate change himself.

In short, he came to this conclusion, which was published in a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed:

Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct.

Muller even went a step further to say that he is now convinced that this climate change is primarily man-made. Muller set an appropriate threshold of evidence for himself, and eventually found that scientific research supports the conclusion that climate change is real.

This post isn’t meant to simply discuss climate change, and furthermore this question isn’t limited to climate change. This question can be used to discuss vaccination, evolution, drug policy, assisted suicide, or nearly any other topic.

For example, if someone asked me what would it take for me to be convinced that vaccinations cause autism, I would answer that I would need to see multiple peer-reviewed studies by reputable scientists that demonstrated a definite link between the two phenomenon. If I ever see this evidence, I will acknowledge that I was most likely mistaken, and I will not let my political, religious, or other personal feelings interfere with my ability to think analytically.

Nothing is wrong with healthy skepticism, and even Ted Cruz stated that “any good scientist is a skeptic,” when discussing climate change. However, he forgot that any scientific theory has its stubborn deniers, whether it’s the position of the earth in the universe, the existence of germs, or the effect of greenhouse gases on earth’s atmosphere. Calling someone a denier does not make one’s position religious, but rather it is the unwillingness to accept the possibility that one’s theory is wrong that makes a person’s position unreasonable.

So, if you’re talking to someone and you disagree on an issue, ask this question to see how reasonable they really are. If you have the chance, try asking a politician this question. While politicians by nature learn to deflect difficult questions, at the very least it may prompt them to consider an answer.

Sometimes, we may not even realize how entrenched our positions are until we consider what evidence would be necessary to change them.


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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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