On climate change, we’re being bamboozled

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The astronomer Carl Sagan, perhaps more than any other modern thinker, always encouraged us to take the long view. And quite literally, too. His public television series Cosmos, recently given new life on FOX and now hosted by physicist extraordinaire Neil Degrasse Tyson, is an important reminder of the beauty of the universe and our place in it.

But science is under attack across America, from climate change to the earth’s origins to two-parent child rearing. It is as if time has frozen. As if we have lost the capability of seeing ourselves as part of something larger. And, perhaps even worse, lost the ability to interrogate that larger something to better understand our relationship to it. Carl Sagan summarized this in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. There, Sagan said:

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Although Sagan, avowed atheist that he was, is referencing the power of religious tradition, we’re bamboozled by more than just our religions. In the lead up to the Iraq War, we were bamboozled into believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, despite significant evidence to the contrary. And even when the ostensible reason for invading Iraq–weapons of mass destruction–were not discovered, the United States kept up with the war for years. It took the election of a new president to finally end that war.

The sad rejection of climate change by large segments of the American population is another example of the way we’ve been bamboozled. Skeptics remain convinced that either A) climate change is not happening or B) any change that is occurring is natural and not connected to human action. That skepticism remains despite large amounts of data to the contrary. At this point, climate change deniers are so entrenched in their positions, likely as a result of the significant social and political capital they stand to lose if they recanted their positions, that it’s unlikely they’ll ever give up the bamboozle. The effect on people like you and me could be disastrous.

Although it is certainly gauche to quote Karl Marx in today’s political climate, his views on history are actually pertinent to this conversation. It’s worth noting that before Marx was a revolutionary, he was essentially an historian. It was Marx that said, “History repeats itself.” To which he added, “First as tragedy, second as farce.” Placed next to Sagan’s quote, Marx’s quote points to the harmful effects of being bamboozled–it never happens just once.

It might not be immediately clear whether the numerous disasters we face are more tragic than they are farcical. Certainly the extent to which climate change will disrupt our current way of life is a tragedy that may be beyond compare. But the extent to which a certain segment of our elected leaders are willing to ignore any and all evidence that points to climate change would certainly be comical if it weren’t for how devastating that attitude might turn out to be.

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