The tragedy of “environment” as a political word

In cultural battles, as most of us can attest, things get emotional. Small things can set people off. Complex issues get simplified down to bite-size kernels that mainly serve to separate Us from Them. There are trigger words, pregnant with meaning— often pregnant with twins. Which meaning is the is evil, mustachioed one depends on who you ask. Sometimes the triggers are invented for the battle, but other times innocent, important words get pulled into the fray. And that can be a tragedy.

One such tragedy besets the word “environment”, and confusion about the definition hasn’t helped. The environment, of course, is everything on this planet we call Earth. It’s everything around us. It’s the air we breathe in town and the air we breathe in the country. It’s the water that comes out of our taps; it’s the waters we photograph on vacation. It’s the squirrels on our birdfeeder and it’s the predators we listen to David Attenborough describe on TV. But to many, it’s just something “out there”. National parks. National forests. Antarctica. The Amazon.

Taken that way, “save the environment” gets parsed as “help some trees somewhere at the expense of people”. Those naive tree-huggers, ya know? That framing underlies a great many environmental debates, whether that’s the restoration of wolf populations or the maintenance of water flows to sustain fish populations.

And that’s the railroad switch that sends even the word “environment” down different tracks. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of wild places. It’s even harder to find someone who doesn’t want healthy surroundings. And yet, it’s now nearly a cultural fact that “environment” is a word for far left-wing liberals. Being a conservative— or maybe even a moderate— means disregarding this “environmental agenda” for far too many people. Get too close to something “environmental” and you could lose your cultural credibility. That makes it even harder to get people to see that the environment is not separate from the world in which they live, and that, in fact, their life and prosperity depends entirely upon it.

We can’t have serious discussions about how to protect the things we all enjoy and depend on because our words straddle cultural lines in the sand. That toxicity even prevents us from using other words to connect on common ground, because we are quick to retreat to the same old, tedious, fighting. It’s ignorant science-deniers vs. ignorant bleeding-heart hippies. Land punches. Score points. You already know there’s no talking with these people.

“Environmentalist” shouldn’t be a contentious description any more than “pro-children” or “anti-house-fire”— and we shouldn’t really need any of them. Unfortunately, groups like ConservAmerica still have their work cut out for them, as do we all.

Observational vs historical science

Update: For another take on this, check out this great article by John Timmer.

In last night’s debate between Bill Nye and Kentucky’s Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, Ham focused on a favorite argument of his. Ham thinks all of science can be neatly divided into two types: observational (or experimental) science, and historical science. In his view, observational science is sound, because it can be tested in a laboratory. Historical science, however, is just a belief about the past that cannot be tested, and so is not really science. Now that’s an atrocious misrepresentation of the way that, say, geology, is actually done, but it’s a tremendously useful claim for Young Earth Creationists like Ham.

It allows them to shrug off virtually any piece of scientific evidence that disagrees with their religious contentions about the history of the Universe and life on planet Earth. The first bit is obvious. By positioning any science that deals with the past as merely conjecture, they need not deal with evidence at all. “Well, you have your beliefs and I have mine,” they can say. Suddenly, the accumulated knowledge of centuries of scientists has been put on equal footing with a literal and dogmatic reading of the Bible. The second bit is even more pernicious. If evidence of physical or biological processes in the modern day (fitting under Ham’s umbrella of “observational”, and therefore trustworthy, science) causes problems for the Young Earth Creationist viewpoint, it is simply claimed that the observed process must have been different in the past– which, of course, is not a claim that can be tested with evidence because it is “historical”. During the debate, Ham stated that treating physical processes as if they functioned similarly in the past is just an assumption. (His contention that the very laws of physics twiddled around capriciously in just the right way to make each of his outrageous claims work out, however? An acceptable assumption, to him.) In this way, every scientific weapon that could possibly do damage to the claims of Young Earth Creationists is blunted and turned away.

Let’s put the past behind us

But how is this so-called “historical science” really done? Are we merely forming beliefs about the past that cannot be tested? The answer is an emphatic, resounding, “NO!!” In the debate, Bill Nye used an example that many in the audience could relate to: the TV show CSI. We all have an intuitive feel for the fact that forensic evidence at a crime scene can tell us about who was there and what happened. Let me try a simpler analogy.

Imagine that we’re examining ancient tablets on which Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…) were once drawn with pricks of black pigment akin to a tattoo. As the tablet has been worn, chipped, and even broken over time, many of the dark points are gone. How, then, can we determine which numeral was drawn? Well, whether or not you realize it, we have 10 working hypotheses for each digit. That is, it could be 0-9. Each numeral has its unique shape. Now, we carefully map the position of the remaining points and see this.


We can rule out some of our hypotheses– some numerals. The numeral 3, for example, is not consistent with these points.


That was a test. The data points, these literal points of pigment, eliminate some of the hypotheses. Which hypotheses remain? Well, it could be a 1, obviously. It could also be part of a 4, or even a 7 drawn straight up and down, or possibly even a 9 without a curve at the bottom. However, that means there are 6 numerals we know it cannot be. Now, perhaps we study enough of the numerals in this archaeological find to learn that 7s were always drawn diagonally and 9s with curves. And let’s go a step further, and say that the iron in the pigment suffused into the surrounding material such than an MRI can show us if a point was once near a surface that has since eroded. That MRI shows no signs of the rest of a numeral 4.

Now, we will have our caveats and perhaps, in this silly example, we will not be 100% confident in our conclusion, but we will be able to say that the available evidence is only consistent (or at least most consistent) with a numeral 1. Because we are thinking scientifically, we will always be open to future evidence challenging this conclusion. If a new kind of analysis somehow finds points tracing out the rest of a 4, we will immediately revise our conclusion to state that the available evidence is most consistent with a numeral 4. Were we there to see the numeral drawn? No. Do we have a complete copy of it? No. Is our conclusion merely an assumption untested by evidence? Absolutely not.

Ken Ham misrepresents the scientific study of Earth or cosmic history because he has to in order to defend his beliefs, which are completely inconsistent with the available evidence.

Elementary, my dear Watson

In science, we must always be careful to make a distinction between an observation and an interpretation. Observations are inarguable. They are measurements. A telescope measured a given intensity of light at x wavelength. A mass spectrometer measured a given ratio of isotope A to isotope B in a mineral sample. Interpretations provide meaning to observations. According to this calculation, that isotope ratio corresponds to an age of x.x million years. If research causes some detail of that equation to change slightly, our calculated age will, too. That wouldn’t, however, change the measured isotope ratio.

When thinking scientifically, observations must always be in control of interpretations. Or as Jacob Bronowski put it, “This is the scientist’s moral: that there is no distinction between ends and means.” Your conclusion is only good to the extent that you carefully followed the scientific method.

For Ken Ham and other Young Earth Creationists, however, things are much different. As Ham freely admitted several times during his debate with Bill Nye, his starting point is that his literal reading of the Bible is an unerringly accurate representation of the world. He starts with an interpretation about the world– that a global flood ravaged the Earth and must account for the details of life history and the Earth’s surface, for example– and constructs a force-field of Biblical inerrancy around it. Any observation that is inconsistent with the interpretation is explicitly rejected. It bounces right off. Observations don’t tell Ken Ham that his interpretation is wrong. Ken Ham’s interpretation tells him that the observations are wrong.

So, in fact, even the “observational science” that Ken Ham lauds as trustworthy is antithetical to the thing he calls “creation science”.

Science as a house of cards

Opponents of well-established scientific ideas (like evolution or climate change) often have to resort to the same playbook. If you can’t produce scientific evidence to support your position, your options are pretty limited. Opponents commonly feel that if they can just show that there are problems with the consensus explanation, their preferred explanation will come out on top by default. They can wade into the details and point to remaining unknowns, questions for which there are still several competing answers, or topics for which their limited understanding leads them to think they’ve discovered an error.

This seems to be motivated by, or at least accompany, a mental model of the scientific consensus as a house of cards. All you need to do is dislodge one of the cards (supporting pieces of evidence) and the entire structure will come tumbling down. I think this sometimes results from conspiratorial thinking. If the scientists who are part of the consensus cabal  have falsified their work and lied to preserve the Great Lie, then surely the clues will take you to the proof that dispels the sham. And if you think of the consensus idea as some a priori position that the scientists have merely gathered evidence to defend, you might think of the science as a vulnerable construct put together to prop up the consensus. All you need to do is discover what inconvenient evidence was left out in the interest of structural integrity.

Obviously, this mental model fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science. Instead of viewing the evidence as intentionally constructed because of an idea, it should be (mostly) understood as a haphazard collection that just so happens to result in the consensus. Perhaps it’s better to imagine piles of rocks.

Suppose (hang with me here) that we are sorting rocks on the basis of color. Black basalt, red granite, green schist, and white-gray dolomite. Collection sites for each are set up several miles from each other. Epic excavation projects on going on nearby, so there’s no end to the rock supply. Every time a truckload of rocks comes in, they are sorted by color and sent to their respective collection sites, where they are tossed onto growing piles. Some rocks are hand-sized, others are boulders as large as a car. No worries- our machinery is quite good.

Now suppose we fast-forward a few decades. As it turns out, the red granite and white-gray dolomite piles are fairly meager. The pile of green schist has grown to an impressive height of a little over three hundred meters. But the black basalt pile is a mind-bending 3200 meters tall, visibly breaking clear above the horizon for miles and miles around. (Incoming truckloads are now air-lifted to the peak by workers who have taken their initial directives very seriously.) It is, in fact, so tall that its peak now pushes above the snowline, leaving its crown dusted with white powder.

But now, a stern looking man with a brimmed hat and neat beard has arrived at the gate. He has long maintained that the bedrock in the area is almost entirely green schist, and suspects that the rock sorters have been dishonest. Convinced that no pile of basaltic rocks could ever be so large as to be snow-capped, he has come to investigate.

The workers, some chuckling and some disquieted by the man’s dour appearance, step aside as he approaches. He walks up to the base of the pile and squints his eyes as he inspects the rocks nearby. Seeing nothing but beautiful black basalt, he begins to slowly stalk the skirt of the mountain. Eventually, he nearly squeals with excitement and scrambles ten feet up the pile before nearly tumbling back down, returning with a rock clenched in his hand. It’s a dark green schist, out of place. He turns to the workers and hoists it aloft, his face beaming with triumph. A foreman shrugs, takes it from his hand, and tosses it into a nearby truck before signalling the other employees to get back to work.

The strange man spends every day for the next week scouring the mountain for rocks that don’t belong. He finds three. Removing his hat to wipe the sweat from his head, he gazes bitterly at the bright, white peak that taunts him. Exhausted, he drives home, slowing as he passes the pile of green schist. It hasn’t grown.

Clearly, the piles in this ridiculous allegory are accumulated evidence. The snowline could be the threshold of scientific consensus. If you are successful in removing a piece of supporting evidence, even if it’s a large one, the rest remain. Unless, through the slow-hard work of research, a different idea rivals the accumulated evidence of the first, little has changed. There is no “keystone” in the rock pile, without which everything comes tumbling down.

Obvious as this seems, we really do tend to think that way. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” Motivated reasoning loves easy explanations for the error of our opposition’s ways. (Uh-oh… Spot any here?) Few easy explanations are more tempting than going for a sweep of the leg we imagine them to stand on- the faulty assumption that makes the details of their evidence irrelevant.

Because of this, I think that the “teach the controversy” bills circulating in state legislatures are nearly as effective as explicitly teaching intelligent design in classrooms. In order to teach “alternatives” to something like evolution, you can’t rely on marshaled evidence. You have to propose that other ideas (like intelligent design) stand on equal footing, and it’s all a matter of how you interpret the evidence. That is, the key assumptions change everything. To validate that point of view in a science classroom is to give students all the tools they need to ignore the snow-capped mountains of evidence. It wouldn’t be so tall if it weren’t for that Jack of Spades…