Monday, April 18, 2011

The data don't speak for themselves

One thing I have constantly thought about is, How do I get my message across? Over the past year, it has been interesting to observe how people react to the trashlessness. With something like trash, a visceral action and outcome, one would think that it would be easy to convince people about the impacts and tolls of their choices on society and the environment. Yet, it is never easy to convince people that their choices have an impact for several reasons. One, of course, is that people feel that their choices, in the grander scheme of things, are inconsequential. Two, they might agree with you, and choose not to act out of indifference. Three, they might agree with you, but choose not to act because changing their behaviour goes against everything they have been taught. There may be a resistance to change because that behaviour is deep-rooted culturally, and because people may see that everyone else is doing what they are that can't be wrong, right? This last reason is particularly challenging to address because true environmental activism does fly in the face of most all cultural norms and how we've structured our interactions amongst ourselves and the environment. In that light, Katie recently sent out an interview of Professor Andy Hoffman in The New York Times. He has worked for a while now with a dear friend of mine on climate skepticism. (I recommend you read this interview; it's really, really fascinating.) One thing Professor Hoffman said that struck me was, "So when I hear scientists say, 'The data speak for themselves,' I cringe. Data never speak. And data generally and most often are politically and socially inflected. They have import for people’s lives. To ignore that is to ignore the social and cultural dimensions within which this science is taking place."

Climate change is something we all have to face. But for the reasons described above, people may not want to change their behaviour, which directly contributes to the problem. The verdict on the veracity of climate change, or global warming, has been out for decades now, and yet, many people just don't believe in it. Thousands of papers and much effort has been invested in international assessments. But, it just is so damn hard to convince people (Act II) that have made up their minds. What is particularly interesting is how people choose to believe some things, and act on them or use that beliefs, and choose not to believe other things. For example, let's take the jet engine. Many decades, people are still trying to figure out how to get those things to work better. Most times, we don't even know the complex fluid mechanics going on in the engine. Yet, the understanding about the combustion and fluid mechanics and control of engines has come, not surprisingly, from the same process, social and political, that has proven that climate change is real and human induced. (I am talking about the "scientific, peer-review process.") But people will very readily put themselves on a plane, and "trust that the engineers and scientists did their job in assuring their safety," while at the same time not believe that those very planes are ecologically impactful. This is exactly what Professor Hoffman is getting at. Traveling on a plane to visit a foreign land or see relatives is important to people, but anything that will change or take away the ability to do so will be fought till the very end.


  1. You're right, they never speak for themselves. it is you who take them, manipulate them any which way you please, and then speak on their behalf!


  2. Amen to that! I'm taking a history of science medicine technology class this semester and I love how it'd challenging my ideas about this sort of stuff.


  3. Ah, this idea of science (and politics) and "speaking" is so close to what Bruno Latour, the political ecology theorist, writes about! I'm sending you a reading list.