When Science Doesn’t Matter

John Hagan will be the 2018 Sustainability and Water Conference Keynote Speaker

Why does society make such painfully slow progress on issues that have such huge consequences, like climate change? The science is overwhelming. But until most of society participates, problems this big won’t be solved.

Conservatives, liberals, North, South, urban, rural, religious, areligious, etc., will all need to participate. Engaging such diverse segments of society is a huge challenge in an era of extreme polarization. But it can be done, if scientists use their empathic right brains in addition to their linear-thinking left brains.

So says ecologist John Hagan, president of Manomet, a non-profit based in Brunswick, Maine and Manomet, Massachusetts. Hagan will be the keynote speaker at the 2018 Maine Sustainability and Water Conference on Thursday, March 29 at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. His talk is titled “The Science of When Science Doesn’t Matter (and what to do about it).”

Hagan’s work has focused on building relationships with non-scientists who are in a strong position to put science to use—foresters, fishermen, business owners, and even institutional investors.

To wit, Hagan’s mantra is, “If you want science used, lead with the relationship, follow with the science.”

Hagan’s keynote will discuss a matter at the heart of science—the human heart, and, among other things, will detail how scientific facts do not move people, especially on hot button issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods and vaccinations.

On climate change, for example, despite an ever-growing body of scientific evidence supporting the fact that human activity leads to global warming, the issue remains as polarizing as ever.

“If you want science used, lead with the relationship, follow with the science.” —John Hagan

“We didn’t really evolve to be correct or right, we evolved to win,” says Hagan, “The facts really don’t matter. We just want to win. If you ever watch political debates, it’s not about facts. It’s about who’s the most persuasive.” But ultimately, Hagan says, facts have a way of catching up with you.

“We’re all attracted to information that reinforces what we already believe to be true, and we tend to avoid information that disagrees with our values or threatens something that’s important to us,” Hagan says.

A powerful example of this, Hagan notes, is a study by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A survey compared responses from members of the public to those of scientists.

The results were consistently lopsided. One of the biggest disparities: the survey found that though 88 percent of scientists polled said they believe genetically modified foods are safe to consume while only 37 percent of public respondents felt the same. On the question of whether climate change is due to human activities, 87 percent of scientists accepted the statement as true while members of the public came in at 50 percent. In other words, half of those surveyed do not believe fossil fuels, aerosols, deforestation, and other causes generally accepted by scientists, are responsible for global warming.

Maine Sustainability & Water ConferenceAnd lest scientists be exempt from the pull of emotion in the face of research findings, Hagan doesn’t let them off the hook. Belief in a certain set of facts or conclusions can cloud anyone’s judgment.

“The deeper we care about something emotionally, the less able we are to take in new, novel information. We all do it, even those of us who are trained in the sciences. We think we don’t do it but we really do, and we usually don’t realize when we’re doing it,” Hagan says.

Our emotions are often a blind spot. We may think we are basing conclusions on a set of solid, incontrovertible facts, but, chances are, we’ve selected findings that satiate our hearts rather than our minds.

“There’s a lot of emotion involved even though we might not feel a lot of emotion,” he says. “The values driving what we think and how we feel about particular issues is often emotionally based.”

Hagan says it’s common to assume that better education is the key to a broader worldview. But that assumption is dead wrong. A 2012 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that people with greater scientific literacy perceived less climate change risk than those with less scientific exposure. In fact, Hagan says, those with scientific literacy are experts at cherry-picking facts that match their values.

Our modern-day ability to join social networks of like-minded people can actually further isolate us from diverse ideas and viewpoints. “When we come together in groups of like-minded people, we tend to get isolated, more polarized. Studies show that when we’re in groups we can actually take on more extreme views,” Hagan says.

The way forward involves a lot of pulling back and listening with an open mind—all while understanding that everyone’s viewpoint is colored by emotions, values and personal experience. A lot of the resistance comes down to fear of the unknown, according to Hagan.

Going back to Hagan’s premise—if we want to solve the big complex challenges of our time, everyone needs to participate. Why? Because we need the diversity of viewpoints and perspectives to find truly lasting solutions.“ And that means building relationships based on trust with people who think differently from you,” he says.