Our nation’s current state of polarization is perhaps most vividly displayed in the hallways of social media, where commenters on all sides exchange derogatory remarks with an astonishing lack of inhibition.
This is clearly true on any post regarding climate change. In a matter of moments, it seems, someone will chime in to exclaim that the climate has changed before, and, anyway, scientists are receiving untold riches for their research. And not long after that, the conversation typically breaks down into a string of insults.
But then, in an anomalous showing of genuine good manners, Scott enters the conversation, equipped with graphs, relatable explanations of science, and unflappable steadiness. That would be Scott Gruhn.
Scott delivers, via a sequence of posts, a mini-lesson on the structure of the atmosphere, or the history of atmospheric science, or an overview of environmental policy under well-known Republican leaders.
For those who appreciate movie references, Scott is the science equivalent of The Princess Bride’s Westley. Good natured, capable, and always appreciated when he arrives on the scene. Given his approach that tends to rise above the din, I wanted to know more. Who is this person? What makes him tick? Has he ever changed the mind of a hardened climate contrarian? Does he ever show anger?
After admiring Scott’s posts for quite some time, I asked him if he’d share his story. We connected with a Facebook video session to talk about science, misinformation, faith, and love for the outdoors.
‘I really want to be a proponent of science’
Scott is a structural engineer in Alaska. He spends his workdays designing buildings, working with contractors, and dealing with the challenges of Alaska’s weather and melting permafrost.
An avid outdoorsman, he grew up on Alaska’s beaches, digging clams, hiking, and swimming in frigid alpine lakes. His parents were schoolteachers and his father taught math, physics, and chemistry while also infusing Scott with a palpable enthusiasm for science. “I love science!” he exclaims in a way that assures he says it often.
This theme underlies his efforts. “I think science is crucial to making good policy decisions, not just in terms of climate science, but in terms of vaccines, space exploration, our priorities as people. We need to be investing in science. We need to trust the scientists …. I really want to be a proponent of science and the acceptance of science.”
‘Nobody’s going to listen, deeply, to words that are insulting.’
Part of what makes Scott’s online conversations so refreshing is that his motivation is different from what one normally encounters. He is not out to score political points, nor determined to prove someone wrong. In fact, his approach is often the opposite: “If someone’s purpose is to convince someone else, then they shouldn’t insult them.” In part, this reflects Scott’s better nature, but it turns out to be an effective approach too.
“If you can build up someone personally while showing how they’ve been misled, you have a better chance of having those words sink in. Nobody’s going to listen, deeply, to words that are insulting. I think we can make inroads if we do our best to bring the science along in a way that is accurate but also gentle and considerate and honors the other readers. That’s my goal.”
Scott readily acknowledges that “I do get frustrated; I do get tired of the arguments.”
Despite his best efforts, the toxic environment sometimes takes its toll, as does the monotony of countering the same tired myths over and over (“The denial of science is not cutting edge,” notes Scott). But he can see the bigger picture. “When people are out of arguments, all they can muster is profanity and rage. It’s not pleasant, but I’m willing to stick around so that other people who are reading can see who’s being reasonable, calm, gentle, rational. So I think it helps to have a measured voice the whole time.”
‘You gotta know the details.’
Scott has uncanny versatility. He can wax about carbon isotopes in one post, and recount environmental policies during the Reagan era in the next. “You gotta know the details. People who defend the science really have to know it. You learn more too. I mean, not only what works, but you also learn, ‘I was wrong on that point. I need to make sure I’m right in the future.’”
While discussions with climate contrarians tend to begin with scientific topics, the debate often wanders over to policy. Scott recognizes that this shift in the conversation for many is when people finally become sincere, because dismissal of climate science is usually driven by fear of what they see as oppressive policy responses.
“I so appreciate that bit of honesty, because up to this point it’s just been a smokescreen of ‘I’m going to use this to deny it because I don’t want bigger taxes; I don’t want bigger government.’ Once that little bit of honesty comes through, I just really appreciate being able to address their underlying concerns, being able to show how cleaner sources of energy actually result in lower utility bills, higher employment, and much better health outcomes.”
‘Nobody wants to be duped. Nobody wants to be fooled.’
I asked Scott about his methods. Does he have an organized approach when confronting someone who won’t accept science? He raised two interesting points: that there’s an element of truth to many of the dismissive arguments, and that, by and large, people who are repeating these arguments have been misled.
Scott’s tactic involves pointing out that the myths that contrarians repeat are designed to hoodwink those who are predisposed to believe them. Scott tries to show how and why the science got distorted. “You know, nobody wants to be duped. Nobody wants to be fooled.” For example, volcanoes do emit greenhouse gases. That part is true. But they do not emit more greenhouse gases than humans, as is often asserted. Scott breaks down the science and explains to a commenter, “Well this is how an element of what you said is technically correct, but when you look at this other aspect of it you realize you’ve been really lied to.”
Scott acknowledges that the discrediting of climate science is not an ad-hoc movement; rather it’s often the result of an orchestrated effort, which is something casual readers and commenters may not realize. “It’s more powerful when you can show that there is a scheme afoot to try to mislead people. If you can explain that, then hopefully it helps people see that there really is this misinformation campaign going on.”
Whether intentional or not, Scott’s tactics are backed up by cognitive science: People are more likely to accept information contrary to their worldview when they feel supported as a person. Scott often posts graphs and images, which are effective ways to convey complex ideas. Lastly, pointing out specific uses of misinformation has been found to “inoculate” readers to be more resistant to future encounters with inaccurate information.
It takes courage to say ‘I was wrong.’
Many who have engaged in conversations with someone who dismisses climate change is intrigued by the idea of changing someone’s mind. Scott has managed that feat three times, but he knows that he’s unlikely to witness a complete 180.
“It’s very rare for someone to find the courage to publicly say, ‘I was wrong.’ But my hope is that over time, some of the people would soften their stance or maybe silence their stance until they can figure out what they truly believe. Maybe the science does catch up with them and they are persuaded over a period of time.”
Moreover, the defense of science is not solely directed at those involved in the conversation. “I also feel like it works for people who read the threads. People say, ‘Wow, that really makes sense,’ or ‘Thanks for explaining this, I understand it better now.’ It helps bolster their understanding of the science. It helps bolster their commitment to protecting what’s valuable to them in the world.”
One encouraging trend Scott has noticed is that he’s far from alone in his efforts. “Over the years I’ve noticed that a lot more people respond with science now. People take up the mantel. It’s important to others as well.”
‘Stewards or caretakers of that which belongs to someone else’
In part, Scott credits his faith for his enviable ability to remain calm and respectful. He teaches Bible study at his church and begins most days with Bible reading and quiet reflection. He is familiar with the intertwining of religious faith and conservative ideologies, but is quick to add, “There isn’t a religious necessity for disbelieving climate science. There’s nothing in any religious text that says that carbon dioxide does not trap heat.”
Ultimately, Scott calls on the uniting value of stewardship: “I believe God created the world and saw that it was good. Our purpose is to be stewards or caretakers of that which belongs to someone else. We are also to be caretakers of each other.”
For all the vitriol and hyperbole that one encounters in online debates, it’s reassuring that some people are living their own values. Asked the one thing that he wishes contrarians could understand, he underscores his fundamental motivation: “It’s precious. Creation is beautiful. It’s something we should take care of. It’s something that we shouldn’t discard for the sake of profit.”
Scott’s recommended climate change reading:
“One stop shop for any of the common denial arguments. Links directly to original science, you can wade in as deep as you want. It’s honest. It’s accurate. It’s a good place to answer a lot of questions.”
Denial 101x – Making Sense of Climate Science Denial
“When someone wants to go a bit deeper, Denial 101 is great for watching an expert in the field address some of the common denial talking points. You learn the underlying facts, and how a grain of truth is sometimes twisted and distorted till it doesn’t even resemble the truth anymore.”
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and Christian who tackles the value-laden perceptions of climate change head on.
“She is that professor that you always wanted to have because she is so excited about her work. If I were a wiser person I’d be more like her.”