Public Perception: Experts & Opinions

Last week Wil Burns commented on the “climate-gate” controversy noting that it is an important issue because “perception can be reality.”  A couple of recent news articles shed a bit of light on just how important this may be.  The Washington Post reports poll results showing that “four in 10 Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment,” which is “up significantly in recent years.”  Why? 

AP reporter Ted Anthony suggests

“Once, not so long ago, the planet’s prevailing voices were those of the experts – the people who, right or wrong, had years of training to back up what they said. Then came the Internet, and everything changed.

Consider the global warming debate: The skeptics shout. The skeptics’ opponents shout back. The scientists insist they have research in their corner. And public debate shifts from the provable and the empirical toward the spectacle of argument.” 

In that context, someone seeking to advance responsible environmental policy cannot be content to understand the (highly complex) scientific basis of policy options and the traditional political limitations on what is achievable.  Instead, perhaps, we have to grapple with the following:

“‘What do you do in a world when a conspiracy theory seems as plausible as something that has been arrived at by deliberation. How is this resolved?’ says [Frank] Furedi, [a sociologist at the University of Kent]. ‘It’s one of the big open questions of our time.'”

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