08/23/2011 06:48 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

The Perry Principle

There's a powerful new idea that's gaining acceptance. For lack of a better name, let's call it the Perry Principle. And the idea is very simple: reality is just a theory.

In the past few weeks, the charismatic governor of Texas has dominated the headlines with his public assertions that evolution is just a theory, and that the jury is still out on the question of whether human activity is responsible for climate change. Perry, unfortunately, is just the latest and most prominent public figure to call scientifically accepted ideas into question.

This is not a case of ignorance. We're not talking here about elementary school students who haven't been paying attention in class; we're talking about reasonably intelligent adults who have chosen -- quite intentionally -- to reject a widely-accepted scientific conclusion.

Welcome to the Era of Willful Ignorance, in which it is acceptable -- indeed, fashionable -- to pick and choose which scientific conclusions to embrace, as casually as one decides what to wear.

Rejection of a scientific consensus may be relatively harmless when it comes to the theory of evolution or the age of the Earth, but when scientific warnings about climate change are cavalierly dismissed by public leaders, the stakes are immeasurably higher.

And it's not just climate change science that being ignored. Scientific warnings about the loss of biodiversity or deterioration of the oceans are being casually dismissed, as are concerns about the overall impact of human activity on the biosphere.

Almost two decades ago, 1700 scientists, including numerous Nobel laureates, issued a "Warning to Humanity" that cautioned that:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

Since that warning was issued in 1992, several of the world's fisheries have reached a point of collapse or near-collapse, global temperatures have risen, severe droughts and flooding have increased, the rate of species extinction has accelerated, deforestation has spread, food and other commodity prices have soared, oil production has plateaued, and world population has jumped from 5.4 billion to 7.0 billion.

Unfortunately, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the level of scientific alarm and the level of public concern. As problems intensify, and the evidence accumulates, scientists issue more warnings, but people simply tune them out by rejecting the science. Albert Bandura, the noted social psychologist, called this a form of "moral disengagement."

But who can blame people for becoming "deniers" when public leaders, like Governor Perry, feel at liberty to reject accepted science?

Reality, it appears, is just a theory. Until it comes crashing down upon you.