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Thursday
Mar142013

"How did this happen in the first place?"

A reader of yesterday's post posed a question that I think is worth drawing attention to.  My response is below.  As will be clear, I welcome additional ones.
There is one question I would love to see you directly address here. Its the one that most keeps me up at night. We all know that these misconceptions about climate science don't happen in a vacuum. They happen in the midst of a very successful well funded effort to create confusion, inspire debate where there is agreement and foster mistrust in general in the scientific process. Given that reality, can you help me to understand what it is about those techniques which make them work so well?

I’m glad you asked this question.

The reason, though, isn’t that I can give you a satisfactory answer. Indeed, in my view,  the lack of a good account of how climate change became suffused with culturally antagonistic meanings is the biggest problem with what is otherwise the best explanation of this toxic dispute.

But I do have some thoughts on this topic. One is that the contribution that well-funded efforts to mislead or sow confusion & division -- while hugely important-- are not the only sources of this kind of contamination of the science communication environment. Accident & misadventure can contribute too.

In the case of climate change, consider the movie Inconvenient Truth. According to a study performed by Tony Leiserowitz, only those who agreed w/ Gore went to the movie; yet everyone, however they felt, saw who did & who didn't go, & heard what they all had to say about the film's significance. Inconvenient Truth thus communicated cultural meanings, even to those who didn't see it, Leiserowitz and others conclude, that deepened cultural polarization. 

This was surely not Gore’s intent. I think it would be unfair, too, to say that he or the many smart, reasonable people involved in creating the movie should have anticipated it.  It was an accident, a misadventure.

The error should be taken account now not to assign blame but to learn something about what’s required to engage in constructive science communication in a pluralistic society.

But in fact, the failure to use what we already know about the science of science communication can definitely be another critical factor that makes policy-relevant science vulnerable to cultural conflict.

Consider the HPV vaccine controversy. There the science communication environment became polluted as a result of the recklessness of the pharmaceutical company Merck, which consciously took risks of creating polarization in its bid to be lock up the HPV vaccine market.

That danger could easily have been foreseen. Indeed, it was foreseen. But there was no apparatus inside the FDA or CDC or any other part of the regulatory system to steer the vaccine out of this sort of trouble.

What we should learn from that disaster is how costly it is not to have a science-communication intelligence commensurate with our science intelligence.

Of course, once misadventure, accident, or lack of intelligence lay the groundwork, strategic behavior aimed at perpetuating cultural antagonism, and at exploiting the resulting motivation it creates in people to be misinformed, will compound problems immensely. 

What to do to offset those political dynamics is a huge, difficult issue, I admit. But precisely because that problem is so difficult to deal with, there’s all the more reason to avoid contributing to the likelihood of them through accident, misadventure, and the lack of a national science communication intelligence.

So certainly, we need good accounts -- ones based on good historical scholarship as well as empirical study -- of how climate change came to bear the antagonistic meanings.

Indeed, “How did this happen in the first place” is to me the most important question to answer, since if we don’t, the sort of pathology of which the polarized climate change debate is a part will happen again & again.

So I’m really really glad you asked it.  Not because I have an answer, but because now I can see that you, too, recognize how urgent it is to find one.

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Reader Comments (33)

"Given that reality, can you help me to understand what it is about those techniques which make them work so well?"


I can only-- try to--add to your statement; that it may be more "what it is" about some of the people that "those techniques" are used against that the techniques themselves.


can it be said that sometimes "our"(both sides of the debate) dreams get the best of us? Not diminishing the threat at all....


....."And you measure for wealth by the things you can hold
And you measure for love by the sweet things you're told
And you live in the past or a dream that you're in
And your selfishness is your cardinal sin
." (from "Like Janis" --Rodriguez)

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave Seibert

It seems to me that most of us waltz about the internet reading much more material giving other peoples take on the original sources than we do in reading the original sources themselves. Thus much of our information input comes presorted and loaded with cultural biases.
IMHO, Gore has been the victim of organized character assassination. Thus, while he can be quite effective at addressing his base, the very mention of his name is extremely polarizing among those who are not. Similarly, "An Inconvenient Truth" communicates negative cultural meanings because considerable effort has gone into popularizing talking points among those who are highly unlikely to even closely know anyone who has seen the actual movie. This is no accident.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

The Gore/global warming issue is somewhat of an interesting conundrum. When the movie came out, global warming wasn't news to scientists but it was to a large segment of the population. So it took a person of prominence to get the movie made (I can imagine producers scoffing at the idea of scientist X or professor Y trying to make a mainstream documentary that will be shown at movie theaters in the mall) and bring awareness to the issue, but ironically the prominence of the person is what suffused the antagonistic values you advert to.

I'm not sure I see an easy way out of this dilemma. Apparently, the (presumably neutral) scientists were incapable (perhaps because they lacked the platform) of disseminating their message. In some sense, though, the partisan nature of the communicator helped to rally awareness even if it increased cultural polarization on the issue. Did the latter cost of polarization outweigh the benefit of awareness? I'm not so sure. I suspect opinions on the issue are shifting towards convergence (after all, Bill O'reily doesn't deny that the earth is warming; and the right is starting to finger point at India and China).

I further suppose that you might say, "well there was nothing necessary about this (at least for the issue of climate change)." But I doubt scientists (or whoever should be the communicator of science) would have been successful in garnering the amount of attention, both 'good' and 'bad', and sheer awareness to the issue.

I guess that's an empirical question: can a neutral expert ever garner the same magnitude of societal awareness ON A NOVEL ISSUE w/o suffusing values that will jive with some segments of the population and antagonize others? My hypothesis: most people won't care about an issue unless there is some sort of controversy or reason to pique their interest.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvil nick

I don't know the answer either. But I am fairly sure that Al Gore's movie didn't start it, the movie was a reaction to it. (Although it may have made the polarisation worse.)

I think the problem probably started when the global warming theory caught the attention of European politicians, and for various reasons they decided to try to do something about it. They funded scientific groups to investigate the threat and come up with a response. This had two effects - it immediately invested the idea with overtones of "saving the world" which encouraged "noble cause corruption", and it selected, funded, and isolated a group of like-minded scientists who rapidly formed into a closed community.

People assumed from the start there was something to it, else why were they all being funded to work on it? And why was everyone else they knew working on it? Since they were already confident of the answer they became sloppy about methods, and checking results. And since they knew political action was needed, they downplayed any technical uncertainty, confident that there was no risk of the statements later turning out to be wrong and catching them out. Less able researchers whose sloppiness led to dramatic-looking results found themselves catapulted into the limelight, their work accepted without question, and they soon came to believe in their own importance and competence both - that this was how science was normally done. Conversely, those who were unable to replicate those dramatic results came to doubt themselves, swimming upstream as they were.

The few who were both sceptical of the evidence and motivated enough to spend time researching the topic, weathering the opposition, and speaking out from the minority position were selected by these pressures to be those who cared the most, due in great part to their political persuasions. They also tended to be the same loud-mouthed individualist types of people who had taken contrarian positions on other controversial issues, and these characteristics resulted in the position getting labelled with associations from past science wars. The science-vs-crank and science-vs-greedy-and-reckless-capitalists narratives were invoked, and scientists from outside the field with no knowledge of the actual science were nevertheless easily able to fit all the characters into this heros-and-villains narrative.

From this point on, the polarisation became self-perpetuating. The louder the minority criticised, the more easily they were painted as vested interests. The more scientists joined ranks with the 'heroic' side of the narrative, the harder it became to speak up against it, and the less effect speaking up would have. And the more effectively the sloppy science was insulated from criticism.

Since everyone now believed that all opposition to the global warming theory was propaganda, it was no longer possible for it to falsify the mainstream theory. The more convincing any counter-argument appeared, the more insidious and wicked its deception seemed. The fact that few of the convinced knew much of the science helped this - they would always assume that the appearance of validity was because of the gaps in their own knowledge. They didn't know why the argument was wrong, but they knew it must be. Global warming had become dogma.

Contrary to the popular narrative, on the other side there was never any serious organisation. A few, seeing how imbalanced things had become, threw a little money to the other side. But without any profit from it larger sums could not be justified, and little of any effect was achieved. Most of the counter-movement came from volunteer efforts - individuals who were interested and personally motivated enough to spend their own time on it.

What drove the polarisation from their side was frustration that they could see the sloppy reasoning and not do anything about it. Governments and media were closed to them. Scientists weren't listening. The public was oblivious. And politicians were charging off implementing their 'solutions' without the whole thing being thought through.

Gradually, an informal social network spontaneously formed. People blogged about their frustrations. Other people started reading them. The people who knew what they were talking about were recognised, and became hubs around which news and information relevant to their common interest was evaluated and spread. Now with a supportive community to back them, private individuals spoke up. They argued, and they shared arguments and evidence to back their position with one another. A few had the talents and training to gain status in their community by generating some of that evidence. A new breed of amateur scientist was born. And that becomes its own 'hero narrative'.

I think the "pollution of the climate science environment" first occurred when the trend driven by political winds was mistaken for scientific consensus and opposition to it was fitted into the science-vs-cranks "science wars" narrative. The political split between the loudest advocates for each side then became entrenched, and the science/economics arguments increasing aligned with the political ones.

Both sides think they're standing up for Science. One side for the "scientific consensus" of peer-reviewed journals and the academic hierarchy of trusted experts, the other side for the maverick revolutionary science of Feynman and Galileo, setting evidence over authority and tradition, overturning dogma and shifting paradigms, 'nullius in verba' and all that sort of thing.


Only time will tell who's right.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV @Joshua & @Gaythia: Possibly some misremembering or (even more likely) imputing too much of what I experienced to others, but I agree w/ NiV that the issue was polarizing before Gore. Indeed, I did research on variance in climate change risk perceptions & I know others did too yrs before the movie. I can believe the movie helped to amplify the polarizing associations, though; I clearly recall it being the focus for a lot of the cycles of recrimination and denunciation NiV describes....

@NiV: do you think there is a good historical account along the lines you describe. Or too early for that too? BTW, thanks for the Wason selection "social contract enforcement" citation -- I admit I was completely unfamiliar with these studies. I knew there were lots & lots of studies suggesting that context/content matters, but thought no one had any theory to explain them.

March 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Feynman and Galileo are rolling their graves...

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

Gore may also have added to the polarization, not by his personality, but by the mere fact that he drew attention to the issue, and made people take it more seriously - or just as importantly, he made the fossil industry and skeptical elites *worried* that people were *going* to take it seriously.

Thus what drove the polarization may not have been Gore per se, but the fact that the attention provided by Gore was perceived as strengthening the push for action.

This, in turn, gave Republican elites and media the motive and opportunity to attach as many polarizing meanings as possible to Gore - apparently, not the most difficult thing in the world to do.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Stenhouse

"do you think there is a good historical account along the lines you describe. Or too early for that too?"

Dan, there are a few histories around already, but they're not impartial. The above is my view only - and I came to the party fairly late. Much of that is picked up from the random reminiscences of various people who were involved over the years (on both sides) writing articles and summaries, not all in one place. There are a number of books around, and I'm sure some of them must have done similar distillations, but I don't know which ones. (If you're interested, there are some people we could ask.)

A particularly good one for the later part of the history (2003 onwards) from the sceptical side is 'The Hockeystick Illusion' by Montford; I'd highly recommend it, even for non-sceptics (it's worth knowing exactly what you're arguing against). You'll have to ask someone on the other side for a good one from the orthodox point of view.

I suspect a proper history won't be written until the battle is long over, and all the hidden documents currently being fought over in FOI courts have emerged. Even then, I'm sure there are bits we'll never know.

"BTW, thanks for the Wason selection "social contract enforcement" citation"

You're welcome. And thanks for the other paper you pointed me to. The "Can I/Must I" model they describe aligns with my own thoughts on the matter, and I enjoy a bit of confirmation bias as much as the next guy!

I've seen lots of theories to explain it, but very few of them offer empirical tests to try to confirm them. It's a hard problem, and I'm impressed that people such as yourself take it on. My own explanations are more typical in this regard, and I make no claims for them beyond that it is my opinion based on my own experience as a participant. Caveat lector.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

",..We all know that these misconceptions about climate science don't happen in a vacuum. They happen in the midst of a very successful well funded effort to create confusion, inspire debate where there is agreement and foster mistrust in general in the scientific process..."

Please stop with the above unsupported statements. What amounts, and to who, are these vast sums to ".. inspire debate where there is agreement and foster mistrust in general in the scientific process.." going to?

between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 million in donations from the gas industry, mostly from…Chesapeake Energy – one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the U.S

Heartland, the current "green" boogieman, had a total budget in 2011 of less than $5 million. The exact number was $4,638,323. Compare this to the $238 million the World Wildlife Fund spent in 2011.

So “How did this happen in the first place”? This is an easy question to answer...money....many billions of $ into "green" pockets each year. We are witnessing a large transfer of wealth from the population at large to the wealthy due to trying to "fix" GW.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

Thanks for going into such detail. To an extent I think the polarization around Gore's movie may have been accidental on his part, but to a greater extent, I think it was deliberate on the part of those who would like to deny what he was saying. The campaign to refuting and ridiculing the movie was a remarkable success and that saddens me. I am a science teacher and what Gore did in the movie was for the most part good science teaching. His visuals were accurate and engaging. He took complex concepts and explained them clearly and simply. He kept the film moving and people who saw it generally left the theater with more of an understanding of climate science than they had when they arrived. That is successful teaching. If good teaching isn't the answer to how to educate the public, or if it can be so easily corrupted, than I agree with you that finding out why contrarian PR techniques work so well is the most urgent work we have to do.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacob Tanenbaum

Maybe I'm posting too many comments if you think I've commented when I haven't even done so?

As for my actual opinion, I have no doubt that the climate change debate was heavily polluted, politically, well before An Inconvenient Truth. This goes back well before then, to the work of Fred Singer, Frederick Seitz, the Marshall Institute, etc. The issue is inextricably connected to highly politicized policy prescriptions - and concerns about the political/policy ramifications were evident also well-before AIT. AIT shifted the vitriol into a higher-gear - but that was basically as intended because Gore and colleagues felt that it was important to shift the political environment (which it failed to do, of course).

There is no way that CC would not get as politically divisive as it is. I was a given. If you look a the debate about CFCs and the ozone hole, the political parallels are quite striking. Also, the politicization of that debate were a given. What is interesting is to examine why the trajectory of the polluted debate was so different on that topic. My guess is that it is because the problem was not as "wicked" w/r/t policy prescriptions, nor as long-term or as wide-reaching w/r/t risk assessment.


I think the problem probably started when the global warming theory caught the attention of European politicians, and for various reasons they decided to try to do something about it.

Sorry, NIV - that statement basically starts in the middle not the beginning, and your entire chronology that follows is, basically, likewise a product of motivated reasoning. There were many issues at play, and I think there is little doubt that your portrayal true for some minority of the folks involved. I also think it is roughly accurate in describing some of the ways that "motivated reasoning" influence some on one side of the debate. Further, I have no reason to question that it is an accurate description of your own trajectory - but as a generalized description, it just simply isn't realistic. You basically acknowledge the fundamental role of motivated reasoning on one side as pervasive, and ignore the presence of motivated reasoning on the other side (just frustrated people who investigated the science and found it, and the scientists studying the phenomenon to be sloppy and lacking).

If you look at your description of the problem, you will see left out anything that accurately portrays the vast majority of "skeptics," who don't know much of anything about the science, and who have a vested interest merely because of their political/cultural/ideological identifications.

For example:

Both sides think they're standing up for Science. One side for the "scientific consensus" of peer-reviewed journals and the academic hierarchy of trusted experts, the other side for the maverick revolutionary science of Feynman and Galileo, setting evidence over authority and tradition, overturning dogma and shifting paradigms, 'nullius in verba' and all that sort of thing./blockquote>

The vast majority of "skeptics" make no particular connection between Feynman (I'm sure only a tiny, tiny % of "skeptics" have ever even heard his name) and/or Galileo and the debae about AGW. They have the opinion they have on AGW because Al Gore is fat, and they believe in "hoaxes" perpetuated by librul, eco-Nazi, elitists who hate capitalism.

Only time will tell who's right.

It is sad, really, that you think that. In this debate - for the vast majority of combatants - neither side will be proven "right." They both see inaccurate fantasies of "deniers" and "frauds," created in their imagination by the pollution of their cultural cognition.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan, one of the problems here is the static and linear approaches we are trying to force reality into. This winnowing is a source of confusion, polarization, and misinformation. Both climate science and the development of public's opinions is not able to fit in such a construct. Any attempt to do so will be surficial at best.

In your SoSC, you have remarked about having experts in a role and using the correct methods for communication. I don't think trying to force history into a neat package will be successful nor follow your model, since this history in a way meets the criteria of needing good communication, especially wrt why a science communication faqilure occurred. And I would believe that good historical communication needs similar elements as good science communication.

I have been trying to get people to look at the foundation laid by the UN, the "club of Rome", and the Rio Declaration to understand the historical context of the institutional bias, and the confederacy of ideas. The history did not take place in a vacuum, and motivated reasoning did not occur after Gore's film or even the cooling scare of the 1970's. It is a hard row to hoe, because it carries the same polarized context as all things in climate change discussions seem to cary.

If we want to discuss the history of climate science and polarization, we will need to examine the polariztion that started with the beginning of the environmental movement back in the 1960's in order to understand the POV or motivation of segments of the civc populace that became the "seeds" of what we have today. Without such an examination, I believe we will misconstrue and misidentify.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@Konrad: elaborate? What is bothering Fenyman & Galilaeo here? I can come up w/ guesses but would rather just have you tell me! (Everyting bothered Feynman, so not really diagnostic of much, wouldn't you say?)

March 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I was referring to NiV's comment.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

"Sorry, NIV - that statement basically starts in the middle not the beginning, and your entire chronology that follows is, basically, likewise a product of motivated reasoning."

No doubt. :-)

"You basically acknowledge the fundamental role of motivated reasoning on one side as pervasive, and ignore the presence of motivated reasoning on the other side"

Actually, I didn't. I noted that only those with strong motivations spent the time to investigate and spoke up against the prevailing opinion. I also noted that the 'Galileo coplex' forms its own hero narrative.

As the paper Dan linked to in the other post claims, motivated reasoning has two sides to it. If it supports one's priors you ask "Can I believe this?" and do a cursory check - if it does not then you ask "Must I believe this?" and do a much more extensive check, often finding problems. The problems found are often genuine - but the reason one side went looking for them and the other side didn't was motivated reasoning.

The same principle would of course logically apply the other way too - climate-sceptical science would get criticised particularly by believers and its flaws found - except that at the start of this affair there wasn't any 'official' published climate-sceptic science to criticise.

"If you look at your description of the problem, you will see left out anything that accurately portrays the vast majority of "skeptics," who don't know much of anything about the science, and who have a vested interest merely because of their political/cultural/ideological identifications."

On the contrary. I said "The people who knew what they were talking about were recognised, and became hubs around which news and information relevant to their common interest was evaluated and spread." This implies that only a minority knew what they were talking about. I said "A few had the talents and training to gain status in their community by generating some of that evidence." Meaning most didn't. And of course I've already said both sides had vested interests.

"The vast majority of "skeptics" make no particular connection between Feynman (I'm sure only a tiny, tiny % of "skeptics" have ever even heard his name) and/or Galileo and the debae about AGW."

A remarkable assertion!

That wasn't what I said, though.

"It is sad, really, that you think that."

As a rule, I'm an optimist about science being able to correct itself eventually - even if progress is only one funeral at a time.

But in this case what I was thinking was that we'll know by the end of the century. As with Paul Ehrlich's similar predictions in the 1960s, either The World Will Come To An End, or it won't.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Agree that Gore's movie can't explain very much (it seems to me that the economy had more to do with the big-picture public polling trends 2008 and forward than anything else) even if it clearly does polarize. The chicken-and-egg question, of course, is whether a) politicians took up the public debate because it had already struck a cultural nerve, or b) it struck the cultural nerve because the politicians took it up. B would make it a little easier to understand why this issue turned out differently from others.

I guess one interesting thing to think about is to compare the "controversies" in Oreskes and Conway's Merchants of Doubt. If all share the common "organized misinformation" component, how were outcomes similar/different?

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson

@Konrad-- Oh, I see. I either didn't catch or didn't remember the reference. Certainly Feynman never had to go out on a limb the way Galileo did! But Galileo didn't have the style to play bongo drums in Brazilian night clubs (as far as I am aware)

March 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@John: I'm trying to be sure I follow you. Of course, I'm trying to superimpose a model onto something that it won't perfectly fit. But isn't that how knowledge is generated? Or do you think that the retrospective charcter of the inquiry will defy investibgation by these means? I admit that I find history a bit confusing as a genre. I would say, though, that if a historian, using her craft, came up w/ an account that reflected good causal inferences, I'd take it on, give it weight. If there were experiments one could do going forward that would help to validate the inferences, all the better ("... if that's what happened with climate change, then we ought to observe x if we look for it, and not observe y even after a fair search ....") How is what you are proposing people do different from what I would like to see done?

I agree with you, of course, about the connection between contorersy over climate change science & controversy over environmental & technological risk from 1960s/70s on. There are many ways to observe the affinity between them.

But what's interesting is that the number of issues that *could* become polarized in patterns that reflect the signature of the 1960s/70s dispute is so much larger than the number that do! We need to explain the selectivity. Then we will be much closer to figuring out how to contain the sort of dynamics that are at the source of both the 1960s/70s debates & climate change. When we manage to achieve that, we can then happily argue over what, given our shared best understanding of the facts, we ought to do given the ineradicable differences in values we will always have as free, reasoning beings.

March 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Jacob:

1. Good teaching is without question the right way to educate the public on a science issue! But I think the question of how to teach science effectively on any issue is a different one from how to avoid conflict over policy-related science. How much people in general know about scientific issue is unlikely to have any correlation whatsoever to how likely they are to disagree about it. There are zillions of science-pervaded aspects of life (use a GPS not to get lost; take antibiotic if Dr prescribes it in order to get better; buy pasteurized milk -- have laws on pastueurization in fact; don't worry about dental x-rays or high-power transmissoin lines etc) on which members of the public aren't in disagreement despite lack of scientific understanding. Moreover, the most science literate (& congitively relflective) members of populatoin are most polarized -- on climtae, on nuclear, etc. That doesn't mean people shouldn't be taught things, and taught them effectively; just that we shouldn't expect better science education to avoid cultural conflict over policy-relevant science. Someting else is causing the problem.

2. What do you make of the evidence that science literacy & science-learning aptitude don't predict people's "beliefs" on evolution? See this post & this one, e.g. Again, I'd say that people should be taught evolution, and taught it effectively. But it is a mistake to think that the reason they "believe" in creationism is that they don't know enough science (those who believe in evolution don't know anything more than those who don't, it turns out). Indeed, I think it denigrates science education, & ordinary science intelligence, to believe that the value of them depends on their reducing controversy or making people believe one thing or another.

3. I think primary & secondary school science teachers are probably the most important of all science communicators in our society. Their job -- which they do with astonishing & admirable skill -- is to infect students with curiosity and wonder about the world and what we both know & don't yet know about how it works. I think they will have a harder time doing that if people make the mistake of thinking that "being science literate means" either "believing" in evolution or having a particular position on an issue like climate change. I am curious to know, b/c you are a science teacher, whether you disagree with me & what you make of the 3 points I've stated so far.

4. Here is a sad possibility. Gore's movie might, as you believe, be an effective instrument for teaching climate change science. (I haven't seen it & don't otherwise have an opinion on this; indeed, I think a debate about that would likely be boring...). But isn't it still possible that it could be understood to have had negative consequences for the science communication environment relating to climate change? Couldn't it be understood to have had cultural meanigns likely to polarize wholly apart from its content? If so, then in the future, how should science communicators -- of all sorts -- think about this problem? What shoudl they do to be sure they are attending to both content & meaning?

March 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I noted that only those with strong motivations spent the time to investigate and spoke up against the prevailing opinion.

Motivations is not the same thing as motivated reasoning.

The problems found are often genuine - but the reason one side went looking for them and the other side didn't was motivated reasoning.

Once again - that is motivation, not motivated reasoning.

The problems found are often genuine...
What I am saying is that you are ignoring the role of motivated reasoning (not motivation) determining what are "genuine" problems.

...except that at the start of this affair there wasn't any 'official' published climate-sceptic science to criticise.

At the "beginning of this affair," there were the political underpinnings (on both sides) that have infused the debate ever since. Those political underpinnings are the "motivations." The motivations lead to motivated reasoning. Whether there was any "official" published climate-skeptic science is basically a non-sequitur. The polluted political climate existed regardless. The precondition of the preexisting political schism guaranteed that the science of climate change, which is intrinsically infused with political ramifications, would become fodder for political wars. Motivated reasoning is the mechanism by which the preordained food fight would be manifest.

"The people who knew what they were talking about were recognised, and became hubs around which news and information relevant to their common interest was evaluated and spread."

Two problems there. The first is the self-serving definition of "the people who knew what they were talking about." Who fits that description? Monckton? Sky dragons? Lindzen? Your determination of who does or doesn't know what they are talking about is subjective, and ignores the existence of your own motivated reasoning. You think that you are above the phenomenon, and as such, are in a position of superiority to determine who does or who doesn't "know what they are talking about." Let me assume that you think that Lindzen "knows what [he] is talking about" (as opposed to Monckton or Sky Dragons) As such, many very well-informed combatants would disagree. Are they "wrong" because of their motivated reasoning?

A remarkable assertion!

Dud! Really? Do you really doubt the assertion, considering how many people identify as climate change "skeptics," and how relatively obscure Feynman is? Sure - "skeptics" who inhabit the "skept-o-sphere" consider themselves the inheritors of Feynman's legacy - but the group of folks who actively read/post on climate blogs is a tiny % of the full # of "skeptics." As a few "skeptical" non-climate warriors who Feynman is. You are glorifying "skeptics" unrealistically as some highly principled lot. In reality, they are political warriors just as are anti-vaxxers and anti-HPVers, etc. Interestingly, it could be they reverse phenomenon of what you described as the "noble cause" corruption of "realists."

As a rule, I'm an optimist about science being able to correct itself eventually - even if progress is only one funeral at a time.

But in this case what I was thinking was that we'll know by the end of the century.

To repeat my point - no one working from a process of motivated reasoning will be proven "right." Whether sensitivity turns out to be 0 or 1C or 3C or 5C, it won't matter. Anyone who arrives a an over-confident position in that process, and who seeks to reinforce their position by selectively filtering evidence and fallaciously caricaturing the arguments of others, will not be "right" even if their argument happens to (essentially by random) coincide with actual changes in global temps.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Motivations is not the same thing as motivated reasoning."

Again, I didn't say it was. I said the motivation differentially affected the conclusion one came to, by affecting one's thresholds for evidence and the effort you would put into looking for problems. It's the effects of the motivation I'm talking about.

"What I am saying is that you are ignoring the role of motivated reasoning (not motivation) determining what are "genuine" problems."

Yes, that's a valid point. Even after climate sceptics have identified problems like short-centred PCA, mislabelled data, unreproducible calculations, thermometers biased by nearby heat sources, corrupted databases, and extrapolated or made-up numbers, still there are people who don't see any problem with that. Either it didn't happen or it doesn't matter.

So the phenomenon extends beyond the impetus to investigate. It also affects how seriously one takes the outcome of those investigations.

"Two problems there. The first is the self-serving definition of "the people who knew what they were talking about." Who fits that description?"

Quite so. I've asked the same question of Dan regarding the social networks by which we certify who knows what about science - what's described there as scientific "authority", although personally I'd prefer a term like "expertise heuristics" to avoid the unfortunate associations with 'arguments from authority'. The answer apparently is that people are remarkably good at telling, in normal circumstances, and the same behaviour continues to function when opinions are divided, although opinion is now divided on whether it works as well.

I suspect the expert-recognising mechanism breaks down sometimes even when there isn't a controversy - we just don't notice. But when it obviously has broken down we need other means to decide what to believe. Trusting experts is unreliable.

"Your determination of who does or doesn't know what they are talking about is subjective, and ignores the existence of your own motivated reasoning."

Of course it's subjective! Everything anybody perceives, says and does is subjective, constrained by the limits of their individual access to information, background knowledge, beliefs, etc. That's unavoidable.

What I'm doing here is to present a history from a different worldview - that of a climate sceptic. I don't expect you to agree with it. But you ought to be aware of it, and by observing the differences to be able to perceive what parts of your own reality are defined by your own worldview.

Every time anybody posts anything from a different worldview, you seem to blow up and object that they're ignoring their own subjectivity. But you don't blow up in the same way when your own is presented. Climate scepticism is the psychological phenomenon being put in the test-tube, while climate-belief is always outside looking in. I simply reverse the roles, so you can see how it looks.

"You think that you are above the phenomenon, and as such, are in a position of superiority to determine who does or who doesn't "know what they are talking about.""

Again, that wasn't what I said. I said that climate-sceptics socialised and through those interactions they figured out who knew what. My opinion didn't come into it.

How are you in a position of superiority to decide that they don't? Or that the "many very well-informed combatants" really are? Isn't that the same thing?

"Do you really doubt the assertion, considering how many people identify as climate change "skeptics," and how relatively obscure Feynman is?"

Feynman isn't obscure where I come from. I think you may be underestimating the general public.

"You are glorifying "skeptics" unrealistically as some highly principled lot."

Ah! Oho! Is that the problem? You want to portray them instead as "unprincipled", and you're annoyed at a presentation of a point of view that doesn't do so?

From their own point of view, climate-sceptics are very strongly principled. You may argue that their unconscious biases prevent them achieving their high intentions, you may argue that they're sadly misled, but they are just as sincere about their principles and beliefs as you are.

I find it helps to maintain an emotional detachment, like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture. If you spend all your time fulminating over how their different ways are so totally wrong, and they don't even seem to realise it, you'll miss out on all the things you can learn - both about them and about your own culture. Take it for granted at the start of the conversation that we don't agree and we're not going to agree. It doesn't need to be said. Instead the questions are about why, and how it all fits together, and what you can do about it, if anything. There's more to disagreement than conflict.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Dan, you ask: But isn't that how knowledge is generated? Yes, but one does not have to be restricted to linear thinking. This is in reference to this statement "They happen in the midst of a very successful well funded effort to create confusion, inspire debate where there is agreement and foster mistrust in general in the scientific process." This statement is offered, but not only do I find it not true as expressed, but it implies a simplistic black and white good and evil that should be recognized with in your framework and model as unprobably true. Though one could make that claim for scientist/activist with media compliance to force a consensus. But then that has not been particularly successful inspiration.

You ask "How is what you are proposing people do different from what I would like to see done? " I am proposing that we do as you would like to see done and the above statement reflects a conclusion of events that your model indicates is too simplistic to have much explanatory power.

You state: "We need to explain the selectivity." I offer a complex relationship similar to polymer generation or precipitation in which the number and size of the "seeds" and flux wrt subject determine how fast or how far a belief can grow. It matters not if the belief is true or not. It matters how cultural cognition comes into play. In particular I offer the alienation in the 60's of economic motivated individuals, sales fatigue in general, and polarization due to the institutionalization of a motivated Goldilocks solution by the UN. The problem is how do we measure the historical aspect of this, and test it? You can choose other "seeds of dissension" but the question remains how do we test what we choose to make sure we have knowledge and not just supposition? That question I am still considering.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

I've asked the same question of Dan regarding the social networks by which we certify who knows what about science - what's described there as scientific "authority", although personally I'd prefer a term like "expertise heuristics" to avoid the unfortunate associations with 'arguments from authority'.

I agree here.

Trusting experts is unreliable.

Unreliable as compared to what? Unreliable as compared to a perfect world? Sure. Unreliable as compared to distrusting experts, I'd say no. And I'd say that for many "skeptics," their "distrust" of scientists is highly selective (just as it is for many "realists," no doubt). We trust them when we like what they say, and we distrust them when we don't. But on balance, the average Joe trusts them more often than not - and with good reason; we have progressed as a society as a result. It isn't perfect progress, by any means. It isn't a binary world.

Again, that wasn't what I said. I said that climate-sceptics socialised and through those interactions they figured out who knew what. My opinion didn't come into it.

We have run into this wall many times. Who are "the" climate-"skeptics." Who are "they?" IMO, "they" aren't monolithic - and the descriptors you use for "them" only apply to a small minority.

Ah! Oho! Is that the problem? You want to portray them instead as "unprincipled", and you're annoyed at a presentation of a point of view that doesn't do so?

Not a all. I don't think of "them" (meaning "skeptics" in general and not some selective extrapolation from some minority) as "principled," or "unprincipled." "Skeptics," are just folks. They aren't any more or less driven by some purity of reasoning than anyone else. They are motivated just as anyone else is. And they allow their biases to influence their reasoning just as anyone else does.

From their own point of view, climate-sceptics are very strongly principled.

Of course. Just as anyone from their own point of view. That is a given. It is human nature. "I" am principled and those who disagree with me aren't.

You may argue that their unconscious biases prevent them achieving their high intentions, you may argue that they're sadly misled, but they are just as sincere about their principles and beliefs as you are.

Yes. I agree completely.

If you spend all your time fulminating over how their different ways are so totally wrong, and they don't even seem to realise it, you'll miss out on all the things you can learn - both about them and about your own culture.

This is rather ironic. If anything, that is a very succinct description of "skeptics" as a group. they "fulminate" over how "realists" are "so totally wrong" and about how either the "realists" "don't realize it" or perhaps just as often "skeptics" think that "realists" are indifferent to being wrong as long as it serves their intent to "destroy capitalism," establish a one-word government, etc.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Interesting questions. I'm enjoying this discussion very much.

There is no question that you are right about science education being so critical. And you are right that good education will not end cultural conflict. It's the reverse that keeps me up at night. The idea that cultural conflict can and does erode good education. That's what happened, in my mind, to Al Gore's movie and it is happening in schools all around the US. The fact that so many science teachers here feel afraid to teach something as basic as evolution or climate change because of controversy is a huge problem. You ask if I think someone can be literate in science without an understanding of evolution. I think people can understand science as a process and habit of mind no matter which side of the cultural divide that they fall on, but I also think evolution and deep time are basic concepts without which too much in science is missed. I took a trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, recently and wrote about it in Scientific American's January issue (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=science-teacher-draws-line-creation). Take a look and let me know what you think. The Creation Museum is home to an extreme example of some well trained scientists, who are certainly literate in their fields, but for whom there is something very deep and important which is also missing in their understanding of how the world works. The entire universe is simply not 6000 years old. When I see the curriculum they have produced for young people it does worry me, because there is a huge push to get that material into classrooms around the US and it cannot be reconciled with modern science. So, yes, I agree that infusing children with curiosity and wonder about the world is the most important part of my job, but I don't think it is my entire job. The students we teach today need to be literate enough in science to manage living in the Anthropocene and I don't think you can effectively understand that new epoch if you think the universe is just 6000 years old or that the Earth is not warming due to the burning of fossil fuels. We must attend to both content and meaning which means we can't sacrifice simple truths. The question is how.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacob Tanenbaum

Joshua says :This is rather ironic. If anything, that is a very succinct description of "skeptics" as a group. they "fulminate" over how "realists" are "so totally wrong" and about how either the "realists" "don't realize it" or perhaps just as often "skeptics" think that "realists" are indifferent to being wrong as long as it serves their intent to "destroy capitalism," establish a one-word government, etc."

Just switch skeptics with realists, realists with alarmists, alarmists with deniers, destroy capitalism with destroy the environment, environment with anthropogenic, on odd or even days or both, and Joshua,you will have joined me in my irony. Choose one side or the other or neither; refusing to make a decision is still a decision, get all these people under one tent and perhaps we will learn what it means when we state a failure of the commons. But maybe not. I don't think we disagree a lot Joshua.


Though Jacob, I would rather consider sacrificing simple truths, where these truths may be too simple, or where I might be wrong, than sacrificing the inclusion of everybody in a discussion where they have input whether anyone likes it or not.

As someone who was taught that the earth was 6000 years, and "true-believing" scientists needed to teach this truth, I can assure you that articles of faith are just that. Perhaps even moreso that you indicated. Believe, discard, have them or not, science and faith are part of our culture and have a place as you stated.

Some people have faith in experts. Go figure, I am one of them. I myself sleep at night over such things as others may worry, but worry about whether we have the wisdom to go forward, even though IMO we cannot go backwards. Once kicked out of the Garden, we have but one path in front of us, that is to go forward. We cannot close our eyes and pretend to innocence.

So I think the how is to include them and understand that we do not need them to believe in all the things we beleive but to understand their input is needed and their help will be necessary for us to be better. Jacob, perhaps cutural conflict on certain items is necessary in the sense that almost anything worth doing means that mistakes will be made on the way, since if it was so easy it probably would not be worth that much. I think that Dan's SoSC is inclusive and you and I do not disagree, but are in that iterative proces of knowledge seeking that a good citizen is curious of and pursuing.

I think we need even creationists, denialists, and alarmists involved in this pursuit. YMMV.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

"Do you really doubt the assertion, considering how many people identify as climate change "skeptics," and how relatively obscure Feynman is?"

The above is funny.

Feynman became a hero of mine when during a televised hearing on the shuttle disaster in 1986 he demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water.

The witnesses keep going on about models and theory where the rings should be fine under the temps seen. Feynman picked up an O ring, dropped it in ice water, stirred it about, took it out and hit the ring, which failed.

Feynman "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Reality ....no significant warming over longer than the last decade with CO2 increasing at a high linear rate.

Public Relations.....CO2 controls the climate

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

Joshua,

"Unreliable as compared to what?"

That's the wrong question. The question is: how do you determine who are the experts when you don't yourself understand the subject matter being disputed?

It leads to an infinite regress. You decide you ought to trust the experts, but how do you, a non-expert, tell who is a real expert and who is masquerading as one? Obviously, you find an expert on experts - an expert expert such as a university or journal or organisation who certifies who is an expert. But how do you tell which of the many such organisations are expert experts, and which are fakes? Obviously, you find an expert who can certify which expert experts are of the best quality, which universities give the best degrees, which journals have the highest standards, etc. In other words, an expert expert expert. But people differ in their judgement of whether a journal like Nature is really of high quality, or merely hyped, and so...

Eventually people give up and take a leap of faith. Or they use alternative heuristics, such as looking at all the other things the candidate for expertise says and believes in areas where Joe Public has more knowledge, and assesses whether this is generally right or wrong. A person whose judgement on economics or politics is so abysmal is probably not that smart on other subjects either. Or they listen to the people whose opinions they already respect for who they think are experts, and follow the crowd.

There are lots of other heuristics people use, some better, some worse, but nothing can substitute for understanding the actual subject.

"If anything, that is a very succinct description of "skeptics" as a group."

Yes. Exactly. And that's why I'm trying to do things differently. It's not easy, though.

Jacob,

"The fact that so many science teachers here feel afraid to teach something as basic as evolution or climate change because of controversy is a huge problem."

I agree. But I see it as a symptom of the bigger problem, which is that science teachers aren't teaching science.

Science consists of two parts:
1. Scientific method - including the ideas of experimental testing, controls, falsification, statistics, reducing biases, critical scepticism, model verification and validation, and so forth.
2. Scientific results - a long list of conclusions arrived at in the past by using the scientific method, including scientific laws, principles, and theories, concepts, quantities, relationships, equations, explanations, and so on.

Part 1 is the more important, and the more useful for people who aren't going to become scientists. Joe Public doesn't need to know how to calculate the orbital velocity of Jupiter or calculate redox potentials, but they do need to know how to tell when they're being fooled. But part 2 is what everybody thinks of as 'science' and what they test in the exams, and it's what the teachers - with limited time, a full curriculum, and often uncooperative and uninterested students - teach them.

They don't have time to teach scientific method, and they don't have time to go through all the arguments, evidence, complexities, limitations, controversies, and reasoning that backs up the part 2 conclusions. So they rely on scientific authority instead. This is what you've got to know for the exam. This is what you've got to believe. It's true because the teacher says so, or the textbook says so, or thousands of scientists say so. It's a lousy argument.

And then when they come out of school, they're exposed to a world of arguments and experts and claims and they have no critical thinking skills with which to sort it all out. They don't know how to dissect and test a claim like intelligent design. And some will find these seductive alternatives more convincing.

The problem with all the approaches so far is that they misidentify the problem as the presence of the competing claims, and try to exclude them. It's like trying to bring up a child in a perfectly antiseptic environment so they don't get sick. Or - to take an evolutionary metaphor - putting your beautiful bird of paradise on an isolated island with no predators. It works right up until they leave your protective bubble, when you find they have no immunity or defences. It's self-perpetuating too, as they grow up to become the teachers of the next generation.

An alternative is to teach scientific method, and not worry so much about being able to recite a long list of the conclusions. You can look those up, when you need them. Expose students to controversy in a safe classroom environment, where the counter-arguments and evidence are on hand. Teach them how to evaluate evidence. Teach them how to tell the difference between the experts and the cranks. Then it doesn't matter if somebody tries to teach them some other zany theory - it won't survive the cross-questioning.

Some people have criticised this as "teach the controversy" but there's a subtle difference. In the Creationist approach they teach that the idea is controversial, but they don't teach students how to resolve the controversy. They leave it hanging. The important part of the process is to administer the antidote too, to develop the immunity.

I used to argue on the internet against the Creationists, and one thing that struck me was how many of the people arguing on the same side as me didn't have any better understanding of evolution themselves. They asserted it on the basis of what the experts said. They often had many of the same basic misunderstandings of the mechanism - the number of times I had to explain that evolution doesn't happen by random chance! But because they happened to be arguing for the correct conclusion, they got counted as 'scientifically literate' and somehow better than their opponents.

It's not a new problem. Feynman wrote about it almost 40 years ago - in the 'Wakalixes' talk, and several others. But we seem to be even further from a solution.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Jacob:

Many thanks for reflections! I share your worry; part of what concerns me, though, is that cultural combatants sometimes try to equate their stance with science & accuse the other of being "anti-science"; in addition to being false & rude, this tactic I think does pose a risk of damaging the supra-cultural status of the authority of science's way of knowing in our society...

Thanks for the link. Have you seen Duncan's excellent work on creationist museums? There is obviously a lot of variation in quality, feel, and motivation in the museums, but it seems many of them tend toward propoganda & not instilling wonder w/ valid science ... I am more sympathetic with Katharine Hayhoe, who happily confines herself to the ample < 6000 yr old evidence when she discusses climate change science w/ religious groups.

One point: I didn't ask you whether you thought that "someone can be literate in science without an understanding of evolution."

I'm positive that the answer to that question is no.

I asked whether you agreed with me that it is a mistake to insist that " 'being science literate means' ... 'believing' in evolution ..."

The links I supplied describe the literature showing that there isn't a correlation between underestanding evolution and saying one believes in evolution. Those who say they "don't believe" are as likely to understand the elements of the "modern synthesis" position -- natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance -- as those who say they "do."

Indeed, most of those who say they "do believe" don't understand evolution. They'd fail a highschool biology test.

That's very sad. The only thing that is sadder than that is the perception that it is right to insult someone who could pass such a test -- and who might in fact be awed by all the wonderous things science teaches us about the universe -- by insisting that he or she is "science illiterate" because he or she chooses to say, "I believe God created the world 6,000 yrs ago..."

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@NiV, @Joshua (yes really you this time) & @Konrad:

The debate on Feynman is interesting. I am guessing, though, that you'd all agree that Feynman's 2d Messenger Lecture "The Relation of Mathematics to Physics," is one of the best exercises in science communication ever. It is also beautifully defiant & sad; I refer to the opening remarks -- about the bongo drums, art & science -- and the closing, where Feynman relates his view that those who can't understand physics in mathematical terms can't really see the wonder & beauty of nature...

Actually, I just checked up on the accuracy of my memory -- & discovered that the opening remarks I referred to are from the first lecture, and seem to be (I remembered this) an ad lib response to the introduction. Makes it all the more clear that Feynman made a very conscious, reflective decision to convey his defiant point (delayed till the end of Lecture 2) about the unique and special status of mathematics as a form of perception ... Very moving.

March 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

From Bishop Hill's blog:

""A new report written by Dr David Whitehouse and published today by the Global Warming Policy Foundation concludes that there has been no statistically significant increase in annual global temperatures since 1997.

After reviewing the scientific literature the reports concludes that the standstill is an empirical fact and a reality that challenges current climate models. During the time that the Earth’s global temperature has remained static the atmospheric composition of carbon dioxide has increased from 370 to 390 ppm.""

Joshua, until we start talking about enthalpy and using the discussion as an agreement, I dare say the consensus will keep poisoning itself.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

There is a scientist at the Creation Museum who wrote that the burning of fossil fuels is returning the Earth to the climate of the Garden of Eden. He is certainly literate in his field of study – Atmospheric Science, and he fully understands the carbon cycle and the physics behind climate change. He wrote the statement because he believes that all fossil fuels were created in a single event – the Genesis Flood. Pulling all that carbon out of the ground in a short amount of time, as we are doing, is simply putting it all back where it was before the flood. No harm done there. Of course, if you believe those fossil fuels accumulated drop by drop over hundreds of millions of years you might have a different view of the dangers that could occur if you pull them all out of the ground and dump them into the atmosphere in just a few hundred years. So the answer to your question is, a full understanding of the science is critical. You're right about that. And I'm tolerant of the wide range of beliefs out there which can arise even in the midst of a well informed room of people, until those beliefs start to put us in danger. Then I get less tolerant. I'm not sure I would call anyone with a PhD in atmospheric science, illiterate in anything, let alone science. Of course they are science literate, and they have passed a lot more than just a few high school biology exams. But something is still amiss. I'm honestly not sure what words to use to describe them, other than just wrong in a very critical area of study.

Thanks also for the interesting readings from your last post.


@NiV

I agree that teachers need to teach the scientific method first. That's what I'm referring to when I talk about science as a process. The new Next Generation Standards for US schools, which will come out this year, use that language and do a better job, in my opinion, than what we have seen in the past, at teaching science as a method not a product or set of facts to be memorized. I would also probably add peer review as part of that process so that students can have a better understanding of how scientific work is vetted. If we do that, perhaps students will have a deeper understanding of how to spot experts. I'll make a few new lesson plans when I'm done with this post. That being said we also have the responsibility to educate a generation literate enough in science to shoulder the responsibilities of life in an era when the misuse of technology and scientific discoveries, like fossil fuels, can threaten the stability of the planet's climate and ecosystem. Maybe we can do that by teaching about controversy but I worry it could backfire. Remember subjects like evolution and climate change are not scientifically controversial. No matter how you manage it in the classroom, there are things people must know in any discipline. So my question to you all is, no matter what their beliefs, what scientific concepts do the next generation of students have to know in order to safely navigate us through the anthropocene when their turn comes to lead?

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacob Tanenbaum

JFP -

Just switch skeptics with realists, realists with alarmists, alarmists with deniers, destroy capitalism with destroy the environment, environment with anthropogenic, on odd or even days or both, and Joshua,you will have joined me in my irony. Choose one side or the other or neither; refusing to make a decision is still a decision, get all these people under one tent and perhaps we will learn what it means when we state a failure of the commons. But maybe not. I don't think we disagree a lot Joshua.

I'm with you.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Thanks Dan! I was unable to resist watching them again!

I agree, it's an absolutely excellent example of science communication. Two things I'd note about it - first, he tells you what we don't know, and what the limits of our knowledge are, and it's a lot - and second, he doesn't just describe the conclusion, he actually tells people the science, how we know. He writes equations up on the board! What TV science documentary would do that today?

Jacob,

"I would also probably add peer review as part of that process so that students can have a better understanding of how scientific work is vetted."

Good idea. For that purpose, this article is interesting, and very amusing! It obviously doesn't always happen that way, but it's worth remembering that scientists and editors are human, too.

People often confuse journal peer review with community peer review. Journal peer review is an editorial function. Two or three people, working part time for no pay, do a (comparatively) cursory check to ensure a paper is worth looking at. Does it look reasonable, is it interesting and new, does it provide enough information for someone else to replicate it, does it provide sufficient evidence to justify the extraordinariness of the claims. (Mathematics papers are rigorously checked more often, but even there there are exceptions.) A journal reviewer will not generally check the calculations, redo the experiments, etc. It's strictly limited in the assurance it gives.

Real peer review occurs after publication. It's when other scientists re-do the experiment, download the data and re-do the calculations, try to extend it, refine it, or refute it, or check it in different ways. If other scientists confirm it, and none refute it, and there's reason to think that any flaws would be detected, then confidence builds.

There is a myth going around nowadays that peer-review means something like 'accepted by science'. It's not true. Scientists publish their work in journals to have it checked, for other scientists to challenge it. A lot of published results are subsequently proved wrong, and this is science working exactly as it is supposed to.
"Accepted science", to the extent there is such a thing, is found in textbooks.

" Remember subjects like evolution and climate change are not scientifically controversial."

It depends exactly what you mean by that. Some aspects of climate change are not scientifically controversial. Other aspects are. (And climate scientists acknowledge as much. It's still an active area of research.) It's very dangerous to present a theory with more confidence than is justified - if you make a number of claims and some of them turn out to be wrong, you risk tainting even the bits that are not in doubt.

" So my question to you all is, no matter what their beliefs, what scientific concepts do the next generation of students have to know in order to safely navigate us through the anthropocene when their turn comes to lead?"

That's an extremely complicated question, that I might have a go at answering later when I have more time. But briefly, I would say students have to understand that the decision has to be based on a trade-off of costs and benefits of all the options; that high stakes demands the highest quality science; that this means everything done out in the open, its validation independent, organised and systematic; that any flaws detected are rigorously rejected and excluded; that the limits of certainty are quantified, and explained clearly; that it requires the utmost honesty and integrity - not in the ordinary sense of stating only what you believe to be true, but in the scientific sense of setting out all the ways you might be biased or wrong and what you've done to mitigate that. Students have to know how to look for potential criticisms, how to chase down and verify references to other work, how to ask testing questions, how to figure out what an experiment does or does not prove. They have to be able to recognise the most common problems - logical fallacies, biases, assumptions, statistical deceptions.

I'll give you an example I've used several times before. Liquid water is transparent to visible light, but absorbs thermal IR within about a millimetre. Can you calculate the rough magnitude of the greenhouse effect in a pool of water?

The calculation is straightforward. The sunlight provides X units of power to the bottom of the pool, which the topmost 1 mm layer must radiate up and out at equilibrium. (It evaporates too, but we can consider the case when the air is saturated.) This uppermost layer also radiates X units downwards, because radiation is isotropic, thus it is continually losing 2X units of power. Where can it get it from? Only from the 1 mm layer immediately below, which therefore radiated 2X units up, and hence 2X down. The next layer below that must radiate 3X units up and down for balance, and so on. The power radiated increases in proportion to optical depth (the number of multiples of a minimally opaque thickness) and hence the temperature (measured in Kelvin) with the fourth root of optical depth, by the Stefan-Boltzman law. And hence a metre down, with a thousand layers of water all radiating back, the temperature at the bottom is FourthRoot(1000) = 5.6 times that at the top, measured in Kelvin. If the temperature at the top is 280 K (or 7 C), the temperature at the bottom must be about 1500 K (or 1300 C).

It's a good lesson plan. Put it up on the blackboard at the start - it only takes five minutes to go through the reasoning - and then get the class to figure out what's wrong with it, by asking questions (with guidance). Does water really absorb thermal IR? Let's test it. A thin film of water blocks radiant heat. Does water itself radiate? Isotropically? Let's test it. Get out an IR camera. Is the Stefan-Boltzman law correct? That's a lesson in itself, but it's subject to experiment. Is there anything else going on - besides radiation - that could affect things? Ahhh...!

Now do the same thing with the Al Gore version of the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. Can you knock the argument down? Are there any gaps in it? Fill all the gaps in, and try again. Students not only get a deep and intuitive understanding of how the effect actually works, they also get practice in evaluating ideas, generating questions, answering questions, producing hypotheses and knocking them down, considering extreme cases and thought experiments, and using general physical principles to apply to a specific problem. They get used to the sense of puzzlement, the competition of rival proposals, the limits of knowledge. And they will thereby be well-armed when someone later tries some nonsense on them, with something more useful that "experts say...".

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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