Danglish for beginners | When madness has no method

Few people frustrate me more than those who hold beliefs that are easily contradicted by science. Topping the list are the climate change deniers who wilfully misinterpret the evidence to suit their own needs.

Referring to the record low temperatures hitting the US, Donald Trump wrote on Twitter: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.”

Harsh winters do not mean that man-made climate change is not taking place, nor does it mean that average temperatures are not increasing.

In a similar vein, I wrote earlier last year about how the centre-right party Venstre was blaming the increasing number of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Denmark on the improved conditions introduced by the government.

But the number of asylum seekers has been rising across Europe and there is no evidence they specifically target more comfortable countries.

Both Trump and Venstre have a vested interested in denying reality. In Trump’s case, it is avoiding the costs associated with combating climate change, while Venstre aims to look tough on immigration in order to harvest xenophobic voters who have been moving further and further to the right.

Interpreting science and statistics is difficult, and often the obvious explanation of a phenomenon is not its real cause. We used to think the sun circled the earth and that animals could pass on traits that they develop during their life. We know now that both are untrue, and for that we can thank the scientific method, which relies upon observation and testing, rather than intuition and dogma.

For tens of thousands of years, humans have tried to find reasons for the patterns in the world around them. This yearning for discovery was accelerated dramatically after the development of the scientific method.
But the science is often not in everyone’s favour. Evolution threatens the teachings of Christianity, and industrialists want to keep burning coal and oil. So Evangelical Christians lobby for laws forcing schools to teach ‘intelligent design’ and the Koch Brothers fund organisations that attempt to discredit the scientific consensus behind climate change.

We rely upon this method for so much of our prosperity that we should pay far more attention to people who choose to ignore the science, especially the wealthy and influential. A recent poll by the Pew Foundation found that fewer Americans believe in evolution now than four years ago, while little has been done to end their reliance on carbon energy sources despite the terrifying impact that a warmer planet will have on all of us.

The examples I have made so far have been mostly American, but I think there is a good reason why the US is facing a backlash against science, while Denmark is not: its size. In Denmark, fringe groups with vested interest can’t grow large enough for their whacky views to be taken too seriously.

A fringe religious or anti-scientific group that harvests five percent of the national vote, for example, is only supported by 200,000 people. If Denmark had the same population as the US, the party would be supported by 10,000,000 people, at which point they could exist without ever interacting with people who don’t support their view. In this way, the fringe becomes mainstream.

This phenomenon has been exploited in the US by those who stand to benefit from a polarised country – xenophobes who want excuses to close borders, oil companies protecting their shareholders, and religious groups whose power rests on the premise that only they know the truth.

For the most part, scientific reasoning is not under attack in Denmark, but there are some dogmas that I believe need confronting. The recent push by the right-wing to stop so-called ‘welfare tourism’ is a troubling example of policy that has little evidence to support it. Opposition to genetically modified crops and laissez-faire teaching in schools also need a serious reappraisal.

Failing to constantly challenge our views based on the latest evidence will mean playing into the hands of charlatans and will undermine our efforts to create the just and fair society we all deserve.