FORMAN: Not up for debate

Student groups should not invite scientifically illiterate speakers to Grounds under the guise of promoting free discourse

As students of Mr. Jefferson’s University, we value public debate and discussion. We understand the value and benefit of open dialogue between fellow students, faculty and experts in their respective fields. Debate not only helps reaffirm our own beliefs, but also allows us to educate others, while at the same time becoming more educated ourselves. However, are there certain subjects that shouldn’t be debated?

This very question came to the forefront this past week when an organization on Grounds invited Phil Valentine — conservative talk radio host, son of a former US congressman, and producer of the documentary, “An Inconsistent Truth” — to speak to their group. This group welcomed Valentine to grounds because they “welcome a variety of different viewpoints and their proponents.” On the surface, this group seems to be doing exactly what we all believe in: welcoming speakers from across the spectrum to help educate fellow students. However, I contend that this specific case is in no way beneficial to the student body, and is instead highly detrimental, due to the subject being debated: climate change.

The topic of climate change has been a hot button issue for many years now. On one side, you have scientists such as former University professor Michael Mann, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with thousands of scientists and organizations. Individuals and groups such as these have been able to conclusively declare, using scientific evidence, that over the past hundred years the Earth has experienced an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, as well as a corresponding increase in atmospheric temperature. On the other side, you have individuals such as Valentine, who are climate change skeptics. This group either chooses not to believe in the scientific proof that has been published, or they believe that the information that has been produced is not yet conclusive.

The two distinct groups of beliefs on the issue troubles me deeply. I contend the issue of climate change is not like any other issue that we may normally debate or discuss on Grounds, such as foreign policy, the national debt, gay marriage or income inequality. Climate change is not a subjective issue; it is proven science, backed by hundreds of studies and research full of empirical data. Climate change has been proven by researchers such as Prof. Mann, government agencies such as the EPA and many private universities and institutions. Hard science is not something that should be debated the same way we debate other topics, such as those found in political science. Subjects such as politics or philosophy have no clear definite answer; either side can make a compelling case as to why its beliefs are correct. However, the same cannot be said for climate change. There is one proven answer, and it is protected by scientific fact.

We should keep our debates out of our science classes and keep them in our government classes. You don’t see groups around Grounds inviting individuals who don’t believe in biology, physics or chemistry to speak to the student body. Why? Because we all accept that “evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth, [that] carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, [that] the basic unit of life is the cell, [and that] the basic unit of distinguishable matter is the atom.” We accept science for what it is — proven facts, backed by empirical data. So why don’t we do the same for climate change?

Allowing groups or individuals to give talks where they argue that science is not true gives these “scientifically illiterate” individuals legitimacy, which we should always avoid doing. When student groups invite individuals to debate the issue of climate change like they would any other non-scientific issue, it seems as if climate change is a subjective topic that has no definite answer, which is simply false. I accept the view that some science is not definitively proven yet; therefore, it requires more research and study. However, climate change does not fall into this category. Allowing a conservative and liberal to debate is not the same as having a scientist and climate change skeptic debate. Science (climate change) is inherently different than politics, and therefore should be viewed and discussed as such.

R.L. Bays recently wrote a piece in the Humanist where he termed this phrase “scientific literacy” and “described global warming deniers as demonstrably ‘scientifically illiterate.’” Bays argues that “in the case of those who are educated yet reject the evidentiary basis of scientific findings, as in climate change denial, it means that one is willfully ignorant.” Individuals such as Valentine either try tricking individuals to believe that the scientific evidence that supports climate change is false, by citing unrepeatable journals and blogs, while “he simultaneously ignores the tens of thousands of papers published in scientific journals year after year that demonstrate how real global warming is.” Or he tries to present “junk-science” as science and tries to claim that the data presented by other researchers is not conclusive enough and we therefore must continue debating it.

As Bays aptly pointed out, “proper science is not a political or ideological tool. It’s a way of using evidence to understand how things work…. [W]e need to value knowledge and we need to act based on what the data and evidence show rather than on what we want to believe is true.”
As a student who believes in open dialogue and debate, it concerns me greatly that we give legitimacy to individuals such as Valentine who refuse to accept science. While we should always have an open dialogue and debate, we should also recognize that some debates simply give legitimacy to a group just pushing its own agenda by not accepting science. Allowing individuals like Valentine to speak on Grounds — and then defending it by arguing that you allow individuals from all spectrums to come speak — is misguided.

Climate change isn’t something that should be debated in political organizations like we would other issues; it has been proven in study after study and is taught as fact in our ecology classes. If these organizations continue to be “scientifically illiterate” and give voice and legitimacy to these types of individuals, we will never be able to move forward. The most basic knowledge that we should all accept is science. I’d ask organizations like these to keep their debates to current affairs and leave the science up to scientists who are not afraid to accept empirical facts.

Thomas Forman is the President of the UVA Environmental Sciences Organization.

A correction was made to this article to reflect the fact that Phil Valentine is the son of a former congressman, not a former congressman himself. In addition, he did not direct the documentary “An Inconsistent Truth,” but rather produced, wrote, and featured in it.

related stories