Observations

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.

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6 thoughts on “Observations

  1. Interesting experiment, and excellent job in illustrating credibility. I’d consider identifying Andrew Weaver with “PhD, Atmospheric Sciences” (which avoids the “just a MD” problem), because it adds an extra dimension in the form of a sixth card – say, Dr. John Mashey, PhD, Computer Science, representing a professional individual from an unrelated field (or more specifically, replacing Weaver in Professional Individual and elevating Weaver to Professional Publishing In Field). This not only introduces a real category, but allows you to ask the Robert Grumbine version – “Now, what if the issue was the Y2K Bug? How’d you rank them?” – to point out how it’s context-sensitive. (This was a huge point even amongst my university colleagues – I studied in physics, and several of my fellow physicists were taken in by Freeman Dyson’s skepticism because they respected him as a physicist. He’s still just a layman on climate.).

    Regarding the “on paper” version of “what’s so bad about a few degrees”, have you seen the revised Skeptical Science arguments page? There are now sound-bite versions of each of the refutations that *can* be recited orally, and then backed up with “I’d be happy to go into more details afterward.” (This was discussed on Planet3.0, but I missed seeing you in that discussion…)

    In any case, though, good luck in Ottawa. If I could afford it, I’d be there as well. Instead, I’ll be with Greenpeace at the Alberta Legislature for the 24th.

  2. Outstanding! I hope that as you begin your scientific studies you will continue your outreach. Science needs good scientists who are also good communicators.

  3. Good on you. I found your account of your fellow students responses facinating. Particularly the range of the responses.

    The point regarding why a few degrees of temperture change is a concern is an important question. My own response has been to note that the change in temperature between a glacial and an interglacial period is said to be in the 6 to 8 degree centigrade range. To think that a change in the earth’s climate as dramatic as that could be desirable beggers the imagination, or to put my thought in a different form, to assume that such a change will not be harmfull to future generations is willfully reckless.

    On a related point; will you be posting on the reception of your talk at the conference? I am hoping you will.

    Patrick

  4. Cool job!

    We had a wonderful lecturer on the second year in the university (early 90s), he had done his personal credibility spectrum on scientific journals and explained some of this in his course. One quote from him:”The number of coloured images and fancy 3D graphs in a paper make the paper less scientific. While they’re pretty and nice to watch, they distract the reader’s attention from the subject and this sort of distribution of information is more commonly found in advertising, not science.” Then, in the evening there was talk about the black-and-whiteness of the student magazine, of course…

  5. Patrick: “My own response has been to note that the change in temperature between a glacial and an interglacial period is said to be in the 6 to 8 degree centigrade range”

    Actually, it appears to be more dramatic than that. The 6-8 degree difference is repeated in all the textbooks on the ice ages. But these numbers are based on the ice core readings from the arctic. Hence, it’s not a global average temperature anomaly; it’s a local temperature anomaly. Temperature changes much more rapidly in the arctic in any period of climate change, due to the way the atmosphere transports heat, so a 6-8 degree difference in the arctic probably corresponds to about a 3-4 degree global temperature average. Which means that the IPCC projections for global anomalies by the end of this century are about the same size as the difference between the glacial and interglacial.

    I’d like to back this up with citations, but I’ve not yet found any good peer-reviewed sources. I first stumbled across this issue with the reconstructed temperature record on wikipedia:

    The notes on this figure just say that the Vostok temperature record has been adjusted “by about the usual one-half”. You can clearly see on this graph that at the end of the last ice age (about 12,000 years ago) a temperature rise of about 3 degrees. Naturally, I was curious as this contradicts all the descriptions of 6-8 degree in the articles on the ice ages.

    The only peer reviewed article I can find to back this up is James Hansen’s reconstructions, which give a difference of 2-3 degrees C in the equatorial sea surface temperatures at the end of the last ice age (i.e. at 12,000 years ago), as shown in his figures 4 and 5:
    http://www.pnas.org/content/103/39/14288

    If anyone has other sources for global temperature anomaly between the last ice age and the current interglacial, let me know.

    The bottom line is that the earth was probably only 3 degrees colder when there were ice sheets 0.5 km thick across much of North America. So it takes some serious work to imagine how different 3 degrees warmer than today’s temperatures will be.

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