A Climate Scientist's Talk at the March for Science

How to embrace viewpoint diversity and disagree respectfully

Posted May 02, 2017

This blog is a guest post by Matthew Oliver, a professor of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware.  He gave the following talk at the Lewes Delaware March for Science.  

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

"Why," you ask, "is a Marine Scientist's talk being posted here, in Psych Today?"  Good question.  Here are my reasons.  Some scientists understand that science is all about skepticism and doubt.  See this great Psych Today blog by psychiatrist Sylvia Karasu on just this issue and how much of the March for Science gets it wrong.

Get Milked
Source: Get Milked

For a prime example of science without skepticism, compare what you find below with this speech by psychologist Art Markman, also at a March for Science, which presents an extraordinarily oversimplified and celebratory view of the nature of facts and scientific self-correction.  In fairness to Dr. Markman, short speeches lend themselves to oversimplification, and the March lent itself to an excess of celebration of the alleged superiority of science.  

In this context, Dr. Oliver's talk was a great breath of fresh air and showed that one can be both brief and nuanced in one's perspective on what science is and what it isn't.  


Thank you for granting me a few minutes to talk to you today about the importance of science at this gathering. My name is Matthew Oliver, and I am an Oceanography Professor here in Lewes. I’m originally from the West Coast, but my family and I have called Lewes “home” since 2008.

My research focuses on understanding where organisms are in the ocean, and to do that we use satellites and robots to understand how ecosystems might change in future climate conditions, and what we can do about it. Certainly, understanding past, current and future environmental conditions are central to our research.

There is no doubt in my mind that I have an unusual job. I am grateful for the unique academic freedoms I enjoy as a scientist in the university setting. These freedoms are built on a long tradition of researchers before me seeking truth through scientific inquiry in service to our students, communities, and nation. This is made possible by federal and state programs, non-profits, private donations and by my employer, the University of Delaware. Science and science-based policy have driven our nation to incredible levels of technological achievement, agricultural productivity, environmental improvements, affluence, and international influence. We need to pass this tradition on to future generations for the benefit of our communities and nation.

Many geoscientists, myself included, describe our current era as the Anthropocene. If this isn’t a word you’ve heard before, the important part is “Anthropos” part of the word, meaning human. The idea is that we live in an era where human activity has become one of the major sources of significant, measureable changes to the environment.

This isn’t because we are bad at something, but really good at it.

Wikimedia Commons, Queen Victoria is not amused
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Queen Victoria is not amused

In the 18th and 19th century we were optimistic that we were going to engineer the future. Writers like HG Wells confidently asserted a techno-optimist future where through science, we could bend the environment to the hope and dreams and wants of people. We could end hunger, limit disease, and in the long-view, we’ve been astonishingly successful.

When we go to the supermarket, it’s easy to take for granted the tremendous amount and variety of food. Why? In the 20th century Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to get nitrogen fertilizer from the thin air, using the power of fossil fuels. We have nearly 8 billion people on the planet. Any rough estimation of the nitrogen atoms in your own body suggest that up to half of them have been through a Haber reaction—that’s how essential fertilizer is to our food supply [1]. Your own body to a degree, is a result of the fantastically successful vision of engineering the planet to bend it too our will for the purpose of human flourishing.

Even as we registered these enormous successes, writers like John Muir and Rachel Carson reminded us that each technological advance and modification to the planet comes with costs.

In the midst of these successes, something was being lost. The conservation movement in the United States is Edenic [2]. It is a story about Paradise Lost, about how in our rush to assert our own authority over Nature, we are in danger of losing it, and its benefits for us and our children. Instead of bending the planet to our needs, we need to change our behavior, and align our activities with the natural limits of the planet so that humans can flourish.

And therein is the rub. Some people believe our wellbeing depends on developing environmental resources; others believe it depends on conserving them. Just think about the rhetoric; what is blocking human flourishing?

If human flourishing will increase through environmental development, then we need to get rid of environmental regulations. If human flourishing will increase by protecting our planet from irreversible change, for future generations, then we need environmental regulation. The devil is always in the very important details, but my point is that we share a common goal of flourishing, and recognizing that shared goal is a significant and important start.

The really great value of science is that it helps us sort out how to best achieve our goals.

In the Anthropocene, human nature plays a central role in geoscience, which means you all get to play a central role in geoscience. One thing that I have learned from years in church and in the university, and that is agreed on in our most sacred texts and most modern social psychology is that the door to the mind is the heart. If you aren’t able to get past the heart, the mind will not hear you.

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

This is an important thing to remember if you’re ever trying to change someone’s mind. Shame, snark and belittlement of people with competing visions for human flourishing does not work. It might excite and activate your own tribe and feel good in the moment, but it does not have the power of persuasion or education. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from social media, we would rather show off to our own team how smart we are and how devoted we are to our own cause by shaming our opponents. This is not good pedagogy. If you find yourself resorting to shaming, or angrily saying “That’s just your opinion” repeatedly, then our educational system (me included) has utterly failed you. If we’ve given up on persuasion, we’ve given up on each other.

Quick Meme
Source: Quick Meme

Recently I was in a meeting with an Elected Representative talking about the huge problem of political polarization in this country. This official told us to not worry because this country had held together even through a civil war. I think the comments were meant to be encouraging, but for me they were worrying. Is this where we are? Where we’ve decided that we are done with persuasion, and all that is left is one power bloc over another? There is a better way.

A few years ago I was inspired by the courage of Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey at the 2014 Ocean Sciences meeting. She was invited to be the keynote address for 5000 scientists where she told her story about being raised in a traditional Polynesian culture and religion. In that culture they had a huge focus on conservation because every rock, tree, and reef had a spirit. But today, those spirits are largely gone. What happened? Westerners had dis-enchanted the rocks, trees, and reefs, and along with it, their cultural resources for conservation [3].

Elizabeth Lindsey understands that the scientific facts about the world don’t just hang out there by themselves, but are integrated into the stories and values we tell about each other about who we are and what this world is about, and how we flourish as a species. It was a courageous moment, a call for cultural awareness in a hard-nosed scientific discipline and she got an uproarious standing ovation. She understands what is at stake in the Anthropocene.

Now when I tell this story to my students, they get dreamy looks on their faces. They imagine themselves, as western scientists heading out to a remote Polynesian island, just being open to the value systems of other cultures so that they can use their science to support human flourishing. It sounds noble, good and important.

Did you know you could do something similar, with even more impact? Pew Research, in a highly publicized report on world religions points out that the world is become more and more religious for varying reasons. Their 2050 projections show that Polynesian religions are held by a very small fraction of people. But did you know that in 2050, approximately 62 % of all people will adhere to Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) [4].

But it just isn’t how many there are, but where they are. If we map out where the global conservation priorities are, Abrahamic religions are by far the dominant cultural framework, making up 70-90% of the people in these regions who could effect positive environmental practices [5].

Farming is the foundational image of the relationship between humans and the environment in Abrahamic religions. These farmers are doing two things. They are reshaping the land, building culture, art and cities for the sake of human flourishing. And, they are stewards of the land. They also have a deep sense of the Earth as a gift; something to be cherished and passed on to future generations as a blessing. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t this the tension over human flourishing we are divided over?

Look, I am well aware that I’m treading on sensitive ground here but my point is that as scientists we need to articulate the truth, but also work with the people and the cultures that we have, not with the ones that we wish we had.

The courage that Elizabeth Lindsay has doesn’t have to involve travelling to far off tropical islands. You may only need to cross Route 1 [6] to be with people whom, on the surface, you might not have anything in common with.

Lee Jussim, NYC March for Science
Source: Lee Jussim, NYC March for Science

How is your activism going to be worked out? Are you going to join a mob on social media to shame and attack somebody—or, more realistically, swap jokes or outrage with a chorus of people who already agree with you—or are you going to go face to face and talk to people who are not like you, really listen to them and be with them and see what is important to them.

John Inazu, professor of law at Washington University says we need the virtues of Tolerance, Humility and Patience [7]. Tolerance is not acceptance of all ideas, but respectful to people who disagree with you. Humility means you know the limits of what you can prove, and you will learn by listening to people who are not like you. Patience is not putting up with wrong facts, but not being too quick to posit motives for people you don’t see eye to eye with.

Now you need to know something about scientists. Sometimes we really stink at taking our own advice. We know we have to change, but sometimes that doesn’t come into our own lives. We can have a pretty heavy environmental footprint with all the places we go.

I have a dear friend that is luke-warm when it comes to the human impact on climate. I think I have the facts to show he is wrong. The great irony is that he is the one driving the hybrid car, and not me. Here’s the point, he got to the point of driving an environmentally car, but climate wasn’t his major motivator. It was done on his terms, not mine. Friends, there are so many ways to make progress on environmental policy if we are willing to think outside our own playbooks a little bit.

And even though my friend and I are trying to persuade each other on the issue of climate change he has never once thrown it in my face that he drives the hybrid and I don’t. The point is that I’ve learned a lot from him about what it means to be respectful of the person you disagree with, and these are things that make it back to my classroom and my students. In the Anthropocene, the implementation of good science policy is a social exercise. We need each other to do it, so lets start acting like it. Thank you for listening

1. Erisman JW, Sutton MA, Galloway J, Klimont Z, Winiwarter W. How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nature Geoscience. 2008;1:636-639.

2. Cronon W: The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. In Uncomman Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature Edited by Cronon, W., New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1996:7-28.

3. This effect is also well described here: White Jr. L. The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science. 1967;155:1203-2017.

4. Pew Research Center. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections 2010-2050. 2015

5. Mikusiński G, Possingham HP, Blicharska M. Biodiversity priority areas and religions—a global analysis of spatial overlap. Oryx. 2014;48:17-22. 6. A locally known local highway that generally separate progressive and conservative enclaves. 7. Inazu JD. Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference. University of Chicago Press; 2016.


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