Why We're Stuck on Climate Change: A Hypothesis

In a new survey of 1.5 million citizens in 193 countries conducted by the United Nations to inform the Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals process, "action taken on climate change" is -- alarmingly, notes The Washington Post -- the least important global priority (out of 16). One could reasonably conclude that the prevailing climate change narrative -- of a pale blue dot in peril -- is just not hitting the mark.

And so it is a reasonable strategy for the Senators laudably standing up for climate this week to try a data-rich, scientific narrative to make their case to the American public. "When 97% to 98% of the scientists say something is real they don't have anything pressing them to say that except the truth," began Senator Boxer. "We stand with science," she later added. "Scientists entertain doubt... Deniers cannot in good conscience use the scientific process as evidence that doubt still exists," implored Senator Schatz. "If we do nothing to stop climate change, scientific models project that there's a real possibility of sea levels increasing by 4 feet by the end of century," continued Senator Feinstein. "Science has clearly shown that the planet is warming." Senator Whitehouse went so far as to elucidate the peer review process.

It's a compelling -- even emboldening -- narrative to a scientifically literate audience. Except America is scientifically illiterate.

According to the National Science Foundation's recently released Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, 80% of Americans do not understand what it means to study something scientifically.

"To be classified as understanding scientific study, the survey respondent had to answer correctly (1) When you read news stories, you see certain sets of words and terms. We are interested in how many people recognize certain kinds of terms. First, some articles refer to the results of a scientific study. When you read or hear the term scientific study, do you have a clear understanding of what it means, a general sense of what it means, or little understanding of what it means? and (2) (If "clear understanding" or "general sense" response) In your own words, could you tell me what it means to study something scientifically? (Formulation of theories/test hypothesis, experiments/control group, or rigorous/systematic comparison)."

(Since 2008, this figure has climbed from 77%.)

As America becomes increasingly science-dependent -- the output of science affects us individually and nationally on a daily basis, and the complex nature of national and global concerns requires the tools and methods of science to navigate -- this stunning illiteracy threatens our national competitiveness, security, economy, and perhaps most alarmingly, the future of our democracy.

And, this week, it renders America numb to the profoundly important arguments about climate change being advanced by our elected leaders. How can we pass and enact critical legislation based on scientific evidence when the vast majority of the country does not know what science is, how a scientific conclusion comes to be, or what it implies?

Sadly, we probably can't. And to make matters worse, our scientific illiteracy renders us impressionable to misinformation about everything -- including climate change -- imbuing national conversations with deleterious counter-narratives (that appear "scientific" for strategic reasons).

In the interest of our competitiveness, security, economy, and democracy, in the 21st century every single citizen of the United States of America should know what science is. All citizens should be able to apply the scientific method -- a majority of the country should have the propensity to do so -- and everyone should appreciate science's limits (that is, for example, the very foundational relationship with truth underlined by Senator Schatz). (And a majority should understand basic scientific knowledge constructs and concepts -- what we commonly associate with being "scientifically literate.")

It is important to underscore that knowing what science is and making decisions solely based on science are not the same goal. This is about raising the tide and assuring the honesty of the public sphere. If as a country we choose to periodically reject scientific evidence or thinking -- in lieu of an economic, political, or religious lens, for example -- at least we will be on the same page when we do, employing and transparently weighing scientific evidence in our deliberations not debating the merits of scientific evidence.

These goals require sustained, post-partisan leadership. This week's historic all-night Senate session is an opportunity to put them in motion.

Adam Bly is Visiting Senior Fellow in Science, Technology & Society at Harvard Kennedy School of Government