The Martian Canals of Perception
In the early 1900s, astronomer Percival Lowell sat patiently underneath a rich blanket of stars. The remoteness of his observatory meant he could gaze upon a vibrant cosmological vista, unperturbed by light pollution from the cities. Whilst gazing through his telescope, he discovered that the surface of Mars seemed to be covered in a complex web of canals.
He produced beautiful drawings of these structures — spidery spokes that joined at a dark, clustered node, spreading thousands of kilometres across the surface of the planet.
Lowell theorised that the canals were the eroding vestige of a deceased Martian race – an attempt to channel water from the polar ice caps through to the equator of the planet. The discovery captured the imagination of the public, thrilled upon hearing of the detection of eroding civilisations on distant planets.
Lowell’s Martian canals weren't consistently detectable. The only times at which he spotted these canals were when he narrowed the objective lens of his telescope.
“That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain as it is uncertain what these beings may be.”
Percival Lowell, Mars and its Canals (1906)
Many decades after Lowell’s fascinating sketches, in 2003, a retired optometrist found that by positioning the objective lens of the telescope so close to his eye, Lowell had been resolving the pattern of his own blood vessels, transcribed directly on the surface of Mars. Lowell had effectively converted his telescope into an ophthalmoscope – a device used to examine the concave surface at the back of our eyes.
As part of this astronomer’s effort to examine another part of the universe, Lowell had unknowingly painted a portion of his own biology onto the surface of another world.
In trying to make sense of the world, we often transcribe parts of our own selves onto the things we perceive. My time so far in the exceptionally politicised and passionate world of renewable energy development has placed me directly amongst people who paint parts of themselves onto objective fact.
Ranging from wind farm generation data to the powerful undercurrent of climate scepticism in Australian media, I've watched others, and sometimes, myself, experience subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) changes to way evidence is consumed.
There are Martian canals projected onto everything we see, hear and read.
Public opinion on climate science paints a dire picture; polling by the CSIRO in 2013 found that 52.7% of the public either reject the well-established science behind human-caused global warming, or are unsure.
More recent polling by Gallup and Essential suggest that despite a slight upward trend in recent months, a large proportion of the general public remains sceptical about the role of humans in climate change.
The deep valley between climate science and public opinion is mirrored in the world of politics. Prime Minister Tony Abbott once described climate change as ‘crap’, his business advisor and former chairman of the ABC, Maurice Newman, argues that the Earth has been ‘cooling’ for the last decade, and Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has described climate change as ‘alarmist’.
Since their ascension to power in late 2013, the government has made unambiguous their intention to abolish nearly every single government body and policy designed to curb carbon emissions and tackle climate change.
These include the carbon pricing mechanism, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Climate Change Authority, the Climate Commission, the renewable energy target and the role of Climate Change Minister.
The political divide on this issue is reflected in the views of the Australian population. ABC’s 2013 Vote Compass project asked “How much should the Federal Government do to tackle climate change?” When the responses are grouped by ideology, a stark divide becomes clear: those that lean right contend we ought to do less. Those who lean left contend we ought to do more.
The incredibly powerful influence of ideology on the degree to which we accept climate science has been explored in scientific literature. US researchers Leviston and Walker found in 2010 that voting intention is a reliable predictor of the acceptance of climate science — results that have been replicated many times. An unambiguous marker of identity on our relationship with scientific evidence.
Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School Dan Kahan published research in the same year that examined the rejection of climate science in the context of worldview. They state:
“Even when experts by and large agree, individuals of diverse worldviews can be expected under such conditions to end up with substantially different assessments of the state of scientific consensus”
The forecasted impacts of climate change pose a challenge that the public is yet to fully grasp the magnitude of, despite repeated and increasingly nervous warnings from climate scientists.
The science is soaked in our own perception — an amalgam of biases, worldview and identity. Lowell’s Martian canals of perception, painted onto every encounter with the science of climate change.
A related and equally fascinating example of the Martian Canals of Perception inflicting themselves on the perception of science is the close relationship between climate denial and a phenomenon known as ‘wind turbine syndrome’.
The rejection of climate science comes burdened with an awkward and unavoidable encumbrance – you find yourself at odds with nearly every single major scientific institution in the world, and the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists. Simply, then, climate denial is the unreasonable rejection of a set of scientific facts for which there is incredibly strong expert support.
Intriguingly, the stern rejection of climate science occurs directly alongside the credulous and uncritical acceptance of the theory that wind turbines are response for a vast range of incredible symptoms – the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ hypothesis.
The evidence has been assessed by several scientific and health bodies around the world, including a recently-released active study in Canada, which measured physiological indicators of health near wind farms. Each has found no evidence to support the theory, nearly six years after it was first hypothesised by the wife of an anti-wind activist, living near a proposed wind farm.
Two tweets from prominent UK climate skeptic James Delingpole demonstrate these contradictory attitudes to scientific evidence:
Clicking through the site Delingpole tweet, a conservative news outlet Breitbart, again shows the acceptance of ‘wind turbine syndrome’ amongst the rejection of climate science:
The Breitbart author declares the logic they’ve deployed to reach their conclusions about mink deaths:
“A new wind farm has been linked to the premature births of over 1,600 mink at a fur farm in Denmark last month. Veterinarians have ruled out viruses and food as possible causes, leaving the 460ft (140 metre)-high wind turbines as the only variable that has changed since last year”
A domestic climate change skeptic group named the ‘Galileo Movement’ bears the same credulity towards the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ hypothesis, paired with passionate rejection of climate science:
This contradiction makes more sense when we consider the drivers that buttress these attitudes.
Science communicator Craig Cormick published a report for the CSIRO entitled ‘community attitudes towards science and technology in Australia’. Cormick’s work shows we revert to emotionally-based judgements that atheletically duck and weave around the facts — we’re driven by parts of ourselves, rather than by external information.
“Messages that don’t align with people’s values tend to be rejected or dismissed”
The instinct most have of correcting the gap between public and scientific views is the simply transmission of more information. Knowing what we now do about the role of perceptionin the acceptance of science, it’s clear that this approach can make people bunker down even more — something known as the ‘backfire effect’.
Cormick’s paper, and much of contemporary research into the cultural cognition of science, sheds important light on how people can simultaneously reject climate science and accept ‘wind turbine syndrome’ — our ideology and worldview have dominion over the deployment of reason and rationality.
The Martian Canals of Perception mutate the way scientific evidence is consumed, turning climate science into a fool’s errand, and wind turbines into sinister, genocidal antagonists.
No human is immune to the motivated filtration of scientific information. I work in the wind energy industry, and I’m no exception. This isn’t a bad thing — it just means vigilance is important.
My start in the wind industry came as a data analyst in a remote wind farm operations room. In real time, you can spectate the anthropogenic ebb and flow of electricity demand, alongside the predictable shifts in the Earth’s atmosphere, reflected in the electrical output of Australia’s wind turbine fleet.
When I first started frequenting Twitter and talking about wind energy, I had an odd attitude.
On the days where wind speeds were high, I’d feel a real sense of achievement. See? Wind farms are good sources of power. On days with low wind, I’d think nothing of it. It’ll be windy again, soon — let’s just ignore it.
This blinkered attitude stemmed from my own strong support for clean technology, and my desire to correct the still-prolific myth that, somehow, the machines are constantly ‘under-performing’. I’d not realised that focusing solely on these instances wasn’t an analytically honest way to talk about wind energy, and worse, it probably does more bad than good.
Wind speeds vary over time, and as such, wind farms need to capture the important times when wind speeds are very high. The real grunt work from wind energy comes at the times when they’re pushing out power at normal, unexciting wind speeds. Sometimes, it’s higher, and sometimes, it’s lower.
Maxima are briefly thrilling, but easily critiqued. A combination of these snapshots and summarised, long-term power output is much better, and much more honest. These nuances feed into the way I tweet about wind energy.
Our biases aggressively filter information — Lowell’s Martian Canals tweaking our relationship with objective facts. It happens more often than you’d think. Take my word for it.
One could assert that Lowell’s Martian Canals are projected more prevalently in certain political tribes - those with political leanings towards the right seem to bear a shakier relationship with science than those on the left. There’s debate about this conjecture, but it’s difficult to find a left-wing analogue of the systemic and well-funded denial of climate science.
Regardless of how the scales balance, no tribe is immune to the psychological machinery that paints pieces of ourselves onto scientific information.
Another study, led by Dan Kahan, examined how framing impacts climate communication. He found that those who lean left, essentially, egalitarian-communitarians, could be made more suspicious of the findings of a fake climate change paper, if it was discussed in the context of geo-engineering – an invasive, intrusive and highly complex proposed solution to excess greenhouse gas emissions.
In the same paper, they found that conservatives were more accepting of climate change science when framed in the context of geo-engineering, because the proposed solution sat more comfortably with their worldview.
Kahan et al write in their conclusion:
“Although small in proportion to the number of complex scientific issues on which diverse citizens unremarkably (almost invisibly) reach agreement, these cultural meaning conflicts can pose a disproportionately large threat to the health, safety, and prosperity — and even to the deliberative capacity — of self-governing societies”
They classify this issue as a ‘distinctive toxin’ — the central mission of the ‘science of science communication’.
A more recent piece of research, published in November 2014, examines ideoligcal aversion to proposed solutions to climate change — the idea that climate change skeptics don’t really reject the science, they just ‘hate the fix’. Duke University states:
“When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, which is generally opposed by Republican ideology, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read.
But when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement.”
The mechanics of Lowell’s Martian Canals are neatly outlined by research that examines how ideology drives our response to climate change, and the technological and regulatory solutions at hand to reverse the impacts of carbon emissions on our atmospheric habitat.
Recognising that some part of the electrified meat in your skull is working to project your own ideology and feelings onto objective parcels of information is useful. Doing this doesn't cripple our engagement with science — it simply makes it more interesting, and more accurate.
Like everyone else, I like to imagine that I’m a bastion of balance, and that those who disagree with me are compromised by irrationality, bias and pseudoscience. This is a comfortable delusion, but it’s stupid, and corrosive. No one’s immune to having their worldview clamp blinders onto how they perceive scientific issues.
The public discourse around climate change and renewable energy is blanketed with Lowell’s Martian Canals of Perception, a thick, intricate network of worldview and ideology spread over the crust of climate and technology. This isn’t ignorance, or stupidity – it’s humanity.