Last week we looked at the power of doubt to create an environment where the credulous can be easily led. As we have seen, there is no need to convince people disposed to believe. Doubt suffices.
Widespread doubt prevents sensible action on climate change. It also undermines democracy, dependent as that is on the collective actions of thinking, informed citizens. The founders of these United States, people of the Enlightenment, believed that only by applying knowledge and reasoning to things as they are, working with nature, can we organize a society worth living in.
Indeed, history shows countries organized on such principles succeed only to the extent its citizens actively participate, not just by voting (a basic obligation), but by doing their share of “knowing and reasoning.” This need of a democracy inspired Abraham Lincoln’s call for universal education.
Science has a successful method of learning adaptable to everyday use by anyone, regardless of the subject:
(1) Ask questions about what you observe and things you are told.
(2) Research what’s already known about the subject, to find the best way to proceed and avoid mistakes from the past. (The Internet can be a great research resource.)
(3) Make a best-guess attempt to answer your question(s), i.e., propose hypotheses that can be tested. A good hypothesis allows making a prediction, e.g., “If [this is true], then [that] will happen.
(4) Test your hypothesis experimentally to see whether it is factual and your prediction is accurate. What factors influence the outcome? The nature of your experiment depends on the subject matter — Albert Einstein conducted “thought experiments” while developing his most important discoveries.
(5) Analyze what you learned and draw a conclusion. Are your hypothesis and prediction validated?
(6) Take note of what you learned, whether or not your hypothesis was confirmed.
Avoid repeating the same mistakes. Construct new hypotheses and predictions based on information gleaned from any failed experiment.
The above steps summarize the scientific method of learning. Anyone can apply them. For example, the Maine Energy Marketers Association, which represents oil and propane dealers, contends that: (a) Heat pumps are part of a government-directed plan to “electrify everything at the expense of consumer choice.” (b) People could be forced to switch from oil, propane, or natural gas to heat pumps at a cost of $20,000 or more, and low-income residents would be hurt most. (c) Electricity costs are high and rising, making heat pumps more expensive. (d) Heat pumps don’t work well in extreme cold. (e) The electric grid would be burdened by electrification, risking blackouts. Are these claims true?
According to the governor’s energy office, using electric heat pumps cost $22.42 per million Btu; fuel oil costs 30% more at $31.73; propane costs $35.69 (38% more); and kerosene costs $37.70 (41% more). The Heseltine family of Freeport report that a heat pump makes their 37-year-old mobile home more comfortable in winter and summer, and costs less to heat with than their old kerosene furnace.
To satisfy the 157 MBtu heat load of my own Damariscotta home with oil would cost $4,980 per year. With heat pumps we comfortably heat it for $3,520/yr, half of which is supplied by solar power, leaving a balance of $1,760/yr—an almost 2/3 saving vs. oil.
There is a familiar pattern of misinformation here. MEMA’s assertions fit the tobacco and oil industries’ pattern of creating doubt. Considering their claims: (a) and (b) are preposterous: Nobody forces Americans to switch heating systems. (c) Partially true, but higher efficiency heat pumps are still less expensive to operate than fossil-fueled heating systems. (d) Untrue: state of the art heat pumps work fine in sub-zero weather. (e) Misinforms: The power grid needs upgrading for resiliency reasons, regardless of heat pump proliferation. Who benefits if these claims are believed?
Science is interested in research findings regardless of whether they support an original hypothesis. It is the learning that matters. There is no place for falsehood. No wonder science is “dissed” by purveyors of falsehoods, and book-banners. Those who lie are likely to lie again, often to sustain the original lie. Allowing ourselves to be misled can have serious consequences, both for individual believers, and for society.
Authoritarians I once lived under have unwittingly taught me to question whatever I am told. Advertising and political statements often reveal internal contradictions and inconsistencies, flagging their own misinformation. Political parties often project their own shortcomings onto the opposition.
Whether “important” people lie may be easily ascertained following the scientific method. Fact-checkers can help. The same goes for voices amplified by social media platforms. Look for motivation. What does the speaker gain from this, is an excellent question to ask.
(Paul Kando is a co-founder of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, which promotes environmental protection and economic development via energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)