I’ve given my presentation to several different classes at school this week. As I spend so much time corresponding with people who are very knowledgeable about climate change, it’s fascinating to step back and see what average students know, and what they don’t yet understand.
The most interesting was definitely the credibility game – when I call up five volunteers, give them signs (in a random order) saying “some guy named Joe”, “Al Gore”, “Dr Andrew Weaver”, “Science magazine”, and “NASA”, and ask them to put themselves in order of credibility. All three classes immediately put Joe at the bottom and NASA at the top. But the middle was a little mixed up, and it intrigued me to see why.
Al Gore was high on the credibility spectrum in all the classes. He was always placed in the top three out of five, if I recall correctly. I’ve known for a while that most of my peers equate climate change with Al Gore, and don’t know much more about the problem. But I didn’t expect that familiarity would translate to credibility. It was unexpected. Even teenagers don’t trust politicians too much.
The students didn’t know that Science was a peer-reviewed journal, assumed it was a popular science journal like Discover or National Geographic, and put it low on the spectrum. This wasn’t too surprising, although it was disappointing. Strong students who are about to begin university, as was the case with one of the classes, aren’t familiar with one of the most well-respected scientific journals in the world.
Dr Andrew Weaver, for some reason, also attracted suspicion. Somebody called out, “He’s just a doctor,” as in a medical physician, “so how credible can he be?” Another guy decided that he didn’t like the look of Dr Weaver and so wasn’t going to trust what he said. But I think that was just a deliberate attempt to be difficult.
The students were generally unfamiliar with scientific sources, but they were very well-versed in advertising strategies and business. I showed some images portraying think tanks’ claims that secondhand smoke doesn’t cause cancer, CFCs don’t deplete the ozone, and the world isn’t warming. I then asked the classes to identify the common thread running through these claims. All three classes quickly came up with a correct answer – that the think tanks were denying well-established science which, upon public acceptance, could lead to government regulation and short-term financial loss for certain industries. I found it interesting that the students were willing to give such a complex explanation of this phenomenon, whereas they were generally quiet and unsure when I asked them questions about scientific credibility.
When I asked the students to guess what percentage of climatologists thought humans weren’t affecting the climate, the answers were usually random guesses (67%, 84%, etc) or absolutes. I heard a lot of 0% (implying that climate change wasn’t a scientific theory at all, and was just cooked up by the media), 100% (implying that a unanimous opinion in the scientific community was not only possible, but commonplace), and 50% (implying that it was a fairly equal-sided debate). I feel that my presentation was structured to refute the 50% answer. But I think it also addressed why 0% and 100% aren’t reasonable.
Following the presentation, the most common question was, “Why is a warming of only a few degrees such a big deal?” I wish I could have answered this question on paper instead of explaining it on the spot, as I think I would have been able to form a much better response. Oh well….
One guy had something very interesting to say. He noted that climate change, as well as many other global problems, was partly due to the fact that people couldn’t see past their own backyards. They couldn’t comprehend just how huge and diverse the world was. I then got very excited and brought up the July temperature anomalies as an example of how accurate his point was – people in our area noticed it was a cool summer and dismissed the idea of global warming. They took a look at their little corner of the world and assumed that everywhere else was the same.
I present one more time tomorrow to a class. Then I’m off Friday morning to the conference! It will be a different audience – students who are already interested in climate change, rather than those who just happened to be in third-period English – but it was very helpful for me to have a few practice runs, and fascinating to see what my peers think about this issue.