In the past few days, I’ve seen a lot of people post things like this one from a Facebook user that made the rounds on Twitter:
The gist of these posts is that it’s hypocritical for a climate change denier to believe that the eclipse would happen as predicted, because they both operate on the principle of trusting scientific consensus to tell us a truth we cannot verify for ourselves. That conclusion isn’t wrong, per se, but equating the two without any refinements is not only superficial, but also denies us an opportunity to think about more important truths regarding how people think, and maybe even how we’ve gotten to the place we are now as a country.
First, let’s establish that a solar eclipse and large-scale climate change are very, very different scientific truths. They differ primarily in three important ways: 1) experiential verification, 2) specificity, and 3) need for action.
As far as experiential verification goes, it’s one thing to read double- and triple-checked scientific data about the temperature of the ocean or increasing destability of the polar ice caps, but it’s another thing entirely to witness the Earth go dark in the middle of the day, right in front of your eyes. There’s a primal nature to it, an immediacy that no amount of doomsday scientific prediction can possibly give us. An unusually warm winter—even several unusually warm winters—cannot give us the immediate, gut-reaction verification that is on full display in an eerily still and dark sunny afternoon.
Then there’s the specificity of the prediction. Climate change predictions deal in years, decades, even centuries. Drastic changes are going to happen “by 2050”; according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, summer melt on the Greenland ice sheet increased by 30% from 1979-2006. Temperatures change by degrees over decades, and while this is a legitimate, terrifying reality, it doesn’t have the same specificity of eclipse predictions. In Denton, for example, the peak of the eclipse occluded 76.7% of the sun, lasting from 11:39am until 2:37pm, peaking at 1:08pm. You could easily access these incredibly detailed and specific predictions (many even gave you the exact second the eclipse would reach peak occlusion, as if you’d be able to tell the difference anyway). These precise measurements have a much greater effect than the sometimes drastically different estimates of climate change effects, ranging from certain fiery apocalypse to dismissive it’s-not-that-big-of-a-deal statements, depending on your (often skewed) source. (On a related note, the scale is also so different. The veracity of eclipse predictions can be tested in a single, specific afternoon; the veracity of climate change predictions won’t be proven until it’s far too late to do anything about it.)
Another big difference between the two is that the eclipse prediction doesn’t require any action on our parts, aside from stepping out of the office with dark glasses and looking up at the sky. More dedicated watchers may have traveled a considerable distance to witness the path of totality, but no action was required to either make the prediction come true or to stop it from doing so. And even the most dedicated eclipse-watchers who made long trips to the path of totality were not required to permanently alter their lifestyles for it. Today or tomorrow, they’ll go back home, back to their old lives and routines, and they will be done with it (until 2024, that is). We could do nothing about the paths of the moon, sun, and Earth, about their inevitable lining-up in the heavens. Accepting it as truth required no action on our parts. But accepting climate change as truth requires action on our parts to reduce our carbon footprint, spread the word to climate change skeptics, and keep abreast of scientific developments on the topic. It requires political action, voting candidates into office who will make policy changes on a national level. It demands of us a certain amount of activism, from simple home routine changes to larger acts of societal change. And this active commitment that stems from conviction of this scientific truth can make us look elsewhere for easier, more palatable, less action-demanding truths. And where there’s an Internet, there are any number of other truths out there for your choosing.
So the comparison is intellectually lazy, sure. But if we dig deeper into why people can hold such apparently contradictory viewpoints about the evidence of science, we can learn more about how we’ve gotten to the place we’re at as a country. What does this shallow analogy have in common with racism, for example?
Let’s start with experiential verification. A racist person will say that black people are inferior (in so many words) based on their experiences. They can verify, with their eyes that black people live in poorer neighborhoods, that they are incarcerated at higher rates, and that they are more likely to be arrested, beaten, or even killed by police. From these experiences, they will feel justified by data to conclude that black people are lazier, more prone to criminal activity and drug use, and more likely to lash out at police violently (requiring violent, sometimes fatal intervention from the officer). What a racist person cannot experience is the centuries of abuse and systematic exclusion of people of color from positions of power. This is impossible for anyone to experience. It requires a leap of faith drawn from reading history texts, personal accounts, and social analysis. It requires us to trust the voices of these communities when they speak of their experiences. It requires us, just like believing in climate change, to accept that sometimes, we don’t know best, and sometimes, we can’t verify a truth based on our own experiences.
Then there’s the scale of it. A studied, intellectual racist will have a lot of data, charts and graphs from reputable sources, to back up their claims. This data will reveal the current and even past state of communities of color in society, showing that they are, in fact, more likely to be violent criminals. But it’s impossible to capture the scale of institutionalized racism in simple charts and graphs. There always has to be detailed explanation, social analysis, and contextualization to make a graph of statistics about systemic racism readily comprehensible. There has to be an explanation of centuries of slavery, deliberate exclusion, and failed civil rights movements. There has to be explication of the workings of our criminal justice and police system, their histories, and their current state of being. The scope of it is so much more massive, so much further removed from the ordinary, lived, present reality of “white people are less likely to be in trouble with the law.” It’s always easier to believe the small-scale present than look back on centuries of history.
Finally, and crucially, there’s the need for action. If you don’t think our society systematically excludes people of color from public places and positions of power, then you are under no obligation to do anything about it. Only someone who is convinced that this is a problem will feel the urge to do something, to say something, whether through donations, conversations, writing, voting, protesting, or any other means they can. A covert attempt to avoid the guilt that comes with being a person of privilege is to deny that any such thing even exists, or to claim that it doesn’t apply to them (especially when it very clearly does). It’s also a covert attempt to be lazy—one of the easiest things in the world it is to be. All humans take the intellectual and physical path of least resistance unless they explicitly choose not to do so. Racism is intellectually lazy, and for that reason alone, it’s a powerful ideology, strongly resistant to facts that require more work to believe and act upon.
So if you’re one of those people who laugh when climate change deniers believe that the eclipse is going to happen, it’s time to think more deeply about why people hold these contradictory views. It’s a microcosm through which we can glimpse larger truths about how our society has come to be the way it is.