It is often said that the general public is guilty of science denial—that is, rejecting scientific facts ranging “from evolution to climate change…” If scientists are unable to convince the general public that evolution is a fact, the world will not suffer significant economic, social, and environmental upheaval. If scientists are unable to convince the general public that human-induced climate change is a fact, the world will continue down a dangerous and uncertain path as governments fail to create needed climate policies. Scientists and policy-makers should consider that when it comes to garnering public support for policy, all science is not of equal value. In communicating the science of climate change to the public, we should table a discussion of evolution for another time. That debate is simply not as critical.
Data released in 2015 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Pew Research Center demonstrates that while 87 percent of AAAS scientists say climate change is caused by human activity, only 50 percent of the public believes so (and, as demonstrated in this useful interactive map by the Yale Climate Change Communication Project, fewer than half of Americans in most rural counties attribute climate change to human activity). Similarly, almost 98 percent of AAAS scientists say humans have evolved over time, while 65 percent of the general public believes so. Some attribute the gap between scientists and the public on scientific issues to marketing, arguing that scientists and the policy-makers supporting them are ineffective at communicating important scientific facts. Academic institutions have developed programs, such as the above-referenced Yale project, to address that exact issue. Yet much more work needs to be done. The nuance of who actually constitutes the “general public” is often lost on scientists, academics and other intellectuals. An illustration comes from the segment of the public that identifies as evangelical Christians, which remain a significant portion of the national voter base—a full 40 percent of Americans self-identify as evangelical Christians. Less than half of evangelicals believe that climate change is real and is caused by humans, according to a study published in Global Environmental Change. Similarly, a 2013 Pew survey found that only 36% of white and 50% of black evangelicals believe in evolution.
It is common in media communications critiquing public skepticism of science to lump climate change and evolution together in the same sentence. From a public communication perspective, however, this is a serious error. Conflating the two issues to provide a broad defense of science undermines political efforts to forge action on climate change. This is especially so in areas of the country most politically resistant to government regulation—and especially climate change policies—like the American South. Growing up in an evangelical household in south Alabama, I can attest that the issue of evolution to most people of that background calls into question the very existence of a creator. That notion is all the more threatening when scientists attribute the origin of life to mere chance with no external driver (that is, a creator). Climate change is a different matter altogether, from a faith-based perspective. Climate change does not present any discernible threats to fundamental tenants of Christian thought, such as whether or not a creator even exists. At the very least, climate change only implicates how a creator might operate, such as whether the earth is 4.5 billion or 6,000 years old (old earth versus new earth theology). Though arguments about the age of the earth create their own conflicts, both scientifically and theologically, those arguments raise far fewer controversial questions for evangelicals than does the topic of evolution.
Of course—and though many evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with the thought—a creator could have used evolution to bring creation into being. But that is beside the point. Evangelical Christians feel most threatened by the scientific notion that human existence is only a chance occurrence, and that we simply evolved out of primordial soup without a creator orchestrating anything at all. As a result, when many evangelical Christians are subjected to accusations that they disregard the science supporting issues “from evolution to climate change,” they automatically turn their trust away from scientific facts—and their votes away from policies—aimed at either. To many, trusting the science of one means you must trust the science of the other. It means that science represents a unified set of values and implications that threaten their core beliefs. While scientists and their supporters (and I certainly support science) may feel that many evangelicals hold a myopic view of how science actually works, in practical application pushing that point creates an unnecessary distraction from the discussion of needed climate related policies.
If we are to avoid the worst economic, social, and environmental effects of climate change, there is little time to banter, as a matter of principle, over scientific support broadly defined. Failure to trust in the science of climate change has far more severe ramifications for the continued, stable existence of mankind than belief in evolution. Scientists and policymakers must communicate scientific facts to the public in a more nuanced way so as not to lose that focus. Let’s drop evolution from discussions of climate change science and leave that debate for another time and place. Otherwise, future generations may read about the theory of evolution from the same textbook in which they learn about the once great cities of the world that are under water.
– Blake Hudson