There’s a lot of disagreement on political issues these days and that’s to be expected. We’re politically polarized for a number of reasons. That means all kinds of issues that shouldn’t be political are now fractured down ideological lines.
While that’s worrisome, it doesn’t surprise me or concern me the way that the polarization of science does. Climate change denial is a good example. There is a settled scientific opinion on climate change that’s backed up by research from many countries and a number of institutions. On a matter like this, I would never consult a pundit or politician for their opinion on the science. I would possibly get their political and personal reactions, but not open a debate over facts.
And here’s why: my job requires me to consult experts in various fields. Now, there are caveats to that simple task. First, I have to verify the credentials of that expert and make sure they don’t have skin in the game. Let’s stay with climate change for a moment. If a scientist works for a polluting industry, for example, or has invested in similar companies, I won’t use him or her. If he or she is politically connected in a verifiable way, I won’t use that person either. So, if it’s a politician with a degree in biology, I can’t consult them on issues of science because there’s no reasonable expectation of objectivity.
But here’s where journalists generally do it differently than many others: we believe our experts over ourselves. I am a very smart person with a couple advanced degrees, yet I would never in a million years assume that I know more about physics than Stephen Hawking because I’ve read some books and newspaper articles. That means that if I consult Hawking or any other objective scientific expert and they refute my previously-held opinion, I re-evaluate my thinking.
As a journalist, I would never pair a scientist with a pundit and ask them to “debate climate change.” If you want an in-depth discussion on the state of climate change in the world, bring in two scientists who’ve studied it and let them hash it out. THEN bring in your pundit to say, “I don’t believe in science.” I would also never consult a theologian about the Vatican and then bring in an atheist scientist to say it’s all hokum because there is no God. (I’m not implying that all scientists are atheists, but they are far more likely to be than the general public.
What I often see on social media is a refusal to believe facts because people don’t agree with them on a gut level. It’s humbling to find out you’re wrong when you’ve been posting passionate rants on an issue for months, so instead of admitting error, people often say, “I don’t believe that” or “The source is biased.” I advise everyone to take the journalistic approach: find someone who knows more on the topic than you do, listen to him or her and then learn from them.
There are experts in this world. No matter how smart you are, you can’t be an expert in every field and at some point you’ll have to rely on someone else’s greater experience and knowledge. I don’t argue with my car mechanic, I just make sure I find a good one who’s honest and then I trust him or her. The same is true for doctors and lawyers and plumbers and accountants and scientists.
Any good journalist will tell you: it’s all about finding good sources. But once you’ve found them, be prepared to hear things you don’t agree with. That’s part of what makes them “good.”