Climate education: forget the consensus messaging?

Picture credit: NOAA.
Picture credit: NOAA.

Note: I have joined the “virtual class” component of Dan Kahan‘s Science of Science Communication course at Yale University. As part of this I am endeavoring to write a response paper in reaction to each week’s set of readings. I will post these responses here on my blog – my paper for week 11 is below. Previous responses are here. I will also be participating in the discussion on Kahan’s own blog.


This week’s focus:

What is/should be the goal of climate science education at the high school or college level? Should it include “belief in” human caused climate change in addition to comprehension of the best available scientific evidence?

I started off thinking I had not changed my mind since writing my evolution education post two weeks ago. I planned to contend that, as with evolution, there is a reason that we are not satisfied for students to simply acquire knowledge about climate change. If they were to cogently describe what the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) entails, but flat-out deny the truth of the theory, that would leave us unsatisfied – not just because global warming is a pressing issue which requires political will and thus voter backing to tackle (though that’s certainly true) but because we’d be left with the feeling that on some level the student still doesn’t “get it.”

Unpacking my argument from last week – which proposed that we should aim for students to believe the following…

(proposition p) Evolution, which says x, is the best supported scientific way of understanding the origins of various species, the way species adapt to their environment, etc etc.

… I can identify three reasons for this to be our aim:

  • First, because science *is* the best scientific explanation for these phenomena, and thus by knowing this, students know a true fact about the world;
  • Second, because armed with that knowledge, they are better equipped to apply the theory of evolution to scientific and other real-world problems; and
  • Third, (as I outlined in my comment to Cortlandt on the next post) because we wish students to understand the scientific justification for the theory of evolution, and if they understand that, then belief in proposition (p) necessarily follows. (It occurs to me now, however, that this is not the most terrific argument, because necessity does not flow in the other direction. Believing that p does not necessarily mean the student understands the scientific justification for evolutionary theory; he could take (p) on faith.)

The consensus problem

The climate equivalent of proposition (p) might be something like:

(q) The theory of anthropogenic climate change is the best scientific explanation we have for observed increases in the mean global temperature, and the theory predicts that if man continues to produce greenhouse gases at a similar rate, the temperature will continue to rise.

Proposition (p) could have included a stipulation about predictive power – indeed, to be a valid scientific theory, the theory of evolution must have predictive power. But while I didn’t think that needed to be spelled out for (p), I have done so for (q), because climate change is a subject whose vital importance – and whose controversy – truly rests on its predictions.

But there’s a problem here, and maybe a mismatch. In proposing that we aim for student belief in proposition (p), I figured we were disentangling identity from knowledge. Any student, taught well enough, could come to see that proposition (p) is true – and still choose not to believe in evolution, because their identity causes them to choose religious explanations over scientific ones.

For climate change, however, we may not get that far. There seems to be mixed evidence for the effectiveness of communicating scientific consensus on AGW.

As previously discussed, Lewandowsky et al found that subjects told about the 97 percent scientific consensus expressed a higher certainty that CO2 emissions cause climate change. Dan Kahan counters that this finding seems to bear little external validity, since these are not the results we’ve seen in the real world. From 2003 to 2013, the proportion of the US public who said human activities were the main cause of global warming declined from 61 to 57 percent.

In Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus, Kahan finds that ideology, ie “who people are,” drives perceptions of the climate change consensus. While 68% of egalitarian communitarians in the study said that most expert scientists agree that global warming is man-made, only 12% of hierarchical individualists said so.

2015-04-30_22-26-11
From Kahan, Jenkins-Smith and Braman, Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus. Journal of Risk Research, Vol. 14, pp. 147-74, 2011.

 

On the other hand, as Kahan said in a lecture at the University of Colorado last week (which I live-streamed here – unfortunately I don’t think they’ve posted the recording), most people who dismiss AGW nonetheless recognize that there is a scientific consensus on the issue. At least on the surface this seems at odds with Kahan’s previous findings, so I’d like to look further into these results. (I think the difference may come down to what Kahan describes, in Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem, as the difference between questions that genuinely ask about what people know and those that trigger people to answer in a way that aligns with their identity. Why one of Kahan’s consensus questions fell in the former camp and one in the latter, I do not yet know.)

How is it possible that someone can recognize the scientific consensus on AGW, but still dismiss the truth of AGW? The most natural answer is that such people can readily dismiss the scientific consensus, perhaps arguing the scientists are biased and untrustworthy. This, by the way, points strongly that we should have always expected consensus messaging to fail!

 

So, if the aim is not consensus…?

Returning to education, I think this warning about consensus messaging points to the importance of creating a personal understanding of the science – i.e., exposing students to the reasoning and evidence behind climate change theory, and walking them through some of the discovery processes that scientists themselves have used. There may be serious limits to what this can achieve, because smart students may perceive that the arguments being used in the classroom have been developed by the scientists that they distrust. But undecided students may be persuaded by the fundamental soundness of the scientific arguments.

There is another danger: conservative students (especially the smart ones) may also reject the scientific arguments advanced in class because they will perceive that at a certain point they must taking things on authority; that the processes involved are too complex and the amount of data too large for a non-specialist to come to a solid independent judgment on. Furthermore, the students can entertain the idea that there is a viable alternative scientific theory because there are many prominent voices that back up this view.

 

Back to evolution

Again looking back at last week, I realize now that the same problem exists for evolution. The genius of “intelligent design” and “creation science” is that they allow an exit from the scientific-religious conflict in what many of us would call the wrong direction. Students can use this “out” to accept the science they like, reject that they don’t, and view it all as a “scientific theory.” Rather than accept (p) and then be forced to either choose religion over science, or somehow partition these parts of themselves (which Hermann, as well as Everhart, indicate is how many people cope), students may use religion *as* science and reject (p) altogether.

So now I’m beginning to doubt whether my aim in that essay really was achievable. It’s probably still a good idea to aim for beliefs of type (p), because this is a means of encouraging scientific literacy and nature of science understanding. But religious students with a good grasp of the nature of science will probably still find that “out” and will not agree with the evolution proposition. And other, less scientifically oriented students will simply say, “OK, this is the best science, but I trust religion over science.”

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9 Replies to “Climate education: forget the consensus messaging?”

  1. “If they were to cogently describe what the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) entails, but flat-out deny the truth of the theory, that would leave us unsatisfied – not just because global warming is a pressing issue which requires political will and thus voter backing to tackle (though that’s certainly true) but because we’d be left with the feeling that on some level the student still doesn’t “get it.””

    Alternatively, it could be seen as an indication that there is something “we” don’t get.

    It’s a curiosity of the global warming debate that *both* sides think they are scientifically justified. Assuming you can believe this, and that it is possible for the other side to be *genuinely* convinced they are in the scientific right, while actually being wrong, does this not imply that it must be possible for “us” to be so, too? And therefore, when somebody comes along and claims not to be convinced by our arguments – to see flaws and gaps in them – is it not our duty as people who respect science’s principles of challenge and refutation, to take their arguments seriously? To consider whether it might be possible they might be right?

    And if you find yourself wanting to answer “no”, does that not in itself ring alarm bells?

    Incidentally, there are other solutions to the problem that don’t require the same degree of political will. They’ve not been considered, and the fact that they’ve not is one of the more convincing pieces of evidence against.

    “The climate equivalent of proposition (p) might be something like:”

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of different propositions that you might use, for which there are completely different situations, both in terms of the scientific evidence and public opinion (including the opinions of scientists and sceptics).

    Some examples:
    1) The climate changes naturally.
    2) The climate has warmed recently.
    3) The recent warming of the climate is historically unusual.
    4) The recent warming is partly anthropogenic.
    5) The recent warming is partly due to anthropogenic CO2 (and other GHGs).
    6) The recent warming is mostly due to anthropogenic CO2.
    7) The recent warming is entirely due to anthropogenic CO2.

    8) The ‘greenhouse effect’ is a real physical effect that causes the Earth to be warmer than it otherwise would be.
    9) The greenhouse effect is caused by infra-red absorbing gases in the atmosphere.
    10) The greenhouse effect works like a greenhouse.
    11) The greenhouse effect works by “trapping” heat, that can enter as sunlight but cannot leave as infra-red.
    12) The greenhouse effect works by warm GHGs emitting infra-red radiation downwards, warming the surface.
    13) The greenhouse effect works by heat flow in and out balancing where it is emitted to space, which because of GHGs is about 5 km up, and the convective adiabatic lapse rate maintaining the surface at a higher temperature in proportion to their separation. Extra GHGs work by increasing their separation by raising the altitude of emission to space.

    14) The greenhouse effect alone does not give rise to much warming, but it is magnified or reduced by a variety of feedback mechanisms, the total effect of which is unknown.
    15) Software climate models have been built by researchers, in which these feedbacks roughly treble the warming due to anthropogenic GHGs alone.
    16) These software models are the embodiment of the best scientific understanding of climate we’ve got.
    17) These software models make predictions known to be false. They differ from reality in numerous ways, including the behaviour of clouds, the amount and variation of precipitation, humidity, upper tropospheric temperature trends, and even surface temperature (their estimates of natural background temperature vary by several degrees between models).
    18) These software models predict that continuing to add GHGs will raise the temperature by around 2 C by the end of the century, and about 3.5 C eventually when the deep oceans warm up too.
    19) We can rely on these models, even though they’ve not been validated and are known to be wrong in many regards.
    20) We should rely on these models, despite their shortcomings, because they’re the best we’ve got.
    21) We should rely on these models, despite their shortcomings, because the stakes are so high.

    And so on. There are arguments about measurements, mathematics, historic climate changes, theory, emissions, impacts, economics, technology… It’s a complex subject. Trying to boil the entire debate down to a single statement, which people are to “believe” or “disbelieve” is an exercise in folly.

    “As previously discussed, Lewandowsky et al found that subjects told about the 97 percent scientific consensus expressed a higher certainty that CO2 emissions cause climate change. Dan Kahan counters that this finding seems to bear little external validity, since these are not the results we’ve seen in the real world.”

    This may be because in the real world there are people pointing out that the correct number isn’t 97%, even according to Lewandowsky’s own sources. (It’s a majority, but not a 97% one.) Although I expect there are many other reasons – that people don’t trust argument ad populam when the survey is confined to their ideological opponents, and they don’t accept Argument from Authority from people they don’t recognise as authorities. Indeed, any self-respecting scientist ought to be ashamed to have been caught trying to use either fallacy.

    Even if they don’t recognise “Nullius in Verba” as a bedrock principle of science, they’re well used to the same tactic from commercial advertisers and politicians. Once global warming was identified in the public mind as “politics”, all such methods go through the same filter as the claims of any other salesman. How well they work depends on whether you *want* to believe.

    “most people who dismiss AGW nonetheless recognize that there is a scientific consensus on the issue. At least on the surface this seems at odds with Kahan’s previous findings, so I’d like to look further into these results.”

    Most sceptics are well aware of the scientific consensus; they just don’t think it’s justified. Most scientists are no better informed than the general public – they take the statements of the ‘authorities’ on trust, without looking into the technical issues themselves. Climate scientists themselves are influenced by the funding – which being directed by the government is politically driven. Some of it is people saying what is required to get the funding. Some of it is because those scientists who openly disagree don’t get the funding, and so are effectively driven out of climate science. Some of it is because of the vitriolic political campaign, as a result of which most scientists keep their heads down and don’t rock the boat. It’s not just their own careers and reputations at stake, it affects the wellbeing of the institutions they work for, too.

    “How is it possible that someone can recognize the scientific consensus on AGW, but still dismiss the truth of AGW?”

    “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” Galleo Galilei.

    People will only accept ad populam “consensus” arguments when they have no reason not to. When they don’t like the conclusion, they’ll go *looking* for reasons, and very often they’ll find them.

    They disbelieve for the same reason they’d disbelieve if the scientific consensus said that two plus two equalled five. Because they know plenty of arguments saying it’s not.

    “The most natural answer is that such people can readily dismiss the scientific consensus, perhaps arguing the scientists are biased and untrustworthy.”

    This is indeed a major problem. There are two different aspects to it. One is that a small number of scientists have *shown* themselves to be biased and untrustworthy. There are reams of evidence that any sceptic will be able to quote from memory. That, however, would be survivable if it was not for the far *bigger* problem, which is that almost all the rest of the scientific community has chosen to support them. Not only were their errors not caught by the peer review process at the time, but even after having been exposed most scientists refuse to see anything wrong with their behaviour. That points to a far wider, systemic problem.

    It requires no conscious conspiracy to explain. Only human nature. Science is not only an intellectual endeavor, it is a human social institution, a community, and a career. Humans in a community stick together against outsiders. Everybody knows themselves to be vulnerable, to be imperfect, and nobody wants to see standards being set that they might later fall foul of themselves.

    I’m sure there are many other reasons too – it would be nice if the social scientists were to do a bit of research to find out why. It strikes me as an important problem for the health of science. But first they’d have to be convinced there was anything to look at…

    “Returning to education, I think this warning about consensus messaging points to the importance of creating a personal understanding of the science – i.e., exposing students to the reasoning and evidence behind climate change theory, and walking them through some of the discovery processes that scientists themselves have used. There may be serious limits to what this can achieve, because smart students may perceive that the arguments being used in the classroom have been developed by the scientists that they distrust.”

    Explaining the science would help. What would be even more helpful would be showing the *scientific dialogue*. Science progresses by a process of challenge and refutation: theories are challenged as other scientists try to knock them down, and they either survive this process (whereupon confidence in them becomes stronger) or they don’t, in which case they’re disposed of and (hopefully) replaced by something better.

    What best convinces people of science is to see people trying their best to knock it down in a fair fight and failing. They’re not convinced by the authority of the advocates for a hypothesis, they’re convinced by the authority of their *opponents*: people on their own side. What you need to do is find some honest sceptic scientists, people the sceptics know and trust, and convince *them*. People watching might not be able to follow all the technical details, but they can follow enough to know who’s winning, and who’s cheating. Word then spreads through the social networks.

    A strong majority of the most prominent sceptics in the public sphere accept that the climate has warmed and that increasing atmospheric CO2 will – other things held equal – increase temperature. That wasn’t always the case. It was a consequence of the scientist sceptics arguing it out, being convinced, and making the case to their own side. It’s possible.

    But it would require climate scientists to radically improve the quality of the science they do, and the quality of their arguments and evidence, and it would require a painful degree of honesty on their part, to recognise when arguments aren’t working or when errors have been made. Recognising that sceptics have a point, and addressing it, would be the biggest step towards resolving the scientific controversy.

    The controversy over policy is another matter. Free market believers are only ever going to accept free market solutions, not socialist solutions. The more convinced they are of the danger, the more determined they will be to apply them. Believing that only their own methods will work, they in turn will see opposition and delay as dangerous, and will push the world harder in their preferred direction. You might want to think carefully about the consequences if you *do* ever manage to convince them.

  2. “Some examples:
    “1) The climate changes naturally.

    […]

    21) We should rely on these models, despite their shortcomings, because the stakes are so high.

    And so on. “

    I think that there is a large category of propositions that you have left out…

    Just a tiny sampling of examples:

    22) AGW is a hoax
    23) “Skeptics” only believe what they believe because of well-funded propaganda campaigned by well-heeled vested interests.
    24) The putative scientific evidence is invalid because the scientists that produce it are only generating material in order to maintain their funding
    24) “Skeptics” are indifferent to starving children in Africa
    25) “Realists” are indifferent to starving children in Africa
    26) The supposed evidence of this supposed warming is the result of deliberately adjusting the data in order to fool/scare the public.
    27) “Skeptics” are conspiracy-mongers
    27) Mitigating emissions is economic suicide.

    And my latest favorite..

    28) “Realists” are irrational because their reasoning is biased by their emotions

  3. “The most natural answer is that such people can readily dismiss the scientific consensus, perhaps arguing the scientists are biased and untrustworthy. “

    Yes, that’s a straightforward answer. Nullius expands on this above. As he rightly says, a few climate scientists have behaved in a biased and untrustworthy way; and more worrying is the fact that the community has not ‘called them out’ but done the opposite, ‘circled the wagons’ in response to criticism. Also, it has been well established that university academics have a strong left-wing bias (papers by Rothman, Haidt etc) and this bias seems to be getting worse.
    Quite often you hear the claim that people are sceptical about climate change because they don’t like the policies proposed.
    But when did you ever hear it said that people may be enthusiastic proponents of climate action because they like the policies?

    Dan Kahan gives great lectures and does some very good research, but he doesn’t seem to accept your simple explanation, preferring to believe that there is some kind of contradiction. Nullius and I have tried explaining why there isn’t, on more than occasion.

  4. Teaching belief in climate change is going to be difficult for a high school teacher. So imagine a world where common core is fully implemented and every kid in the class has been taught statistics in a prior math class. There’s a non zero probability that one of them actually learned and understood the material. Then you get a conversation like this:

    Teacher: The theory of anthropogenic climate change is the best scientific explanation we have for observed increases in the mean global temperature, and the theory predicts that if man continues to produce greenhouse gases at a similar rate, the temperature will continue to rise.

    Student: Real quick, is the trend in mean global temperature statistically significant?

    Teacher: According to the IPCC, yes it is.

    Student: What statistical model do they use?

    Teacher: A linear trend model that allows for first order autocorrelation in the residuals.

    Student: Why is that the appropriate model?

    Teacher: Actually, no one knows what the appropriate model is, but we do know linear trend with first order autocorrelation is not an appropriate model.

    Student: Then why does the IPCC use it?

    Teacher: They’re lazy.

    After that conversation, I highly doubt the student will ever end up “believing in” the proposition, and signs wouldn’t look too good for the rest of the class.

    L. Ron Hubbard said, “the only way to control people is to lie to them.” I don’t think that’s literally true. You can also cause people to believe propositions by telling them precisely calculated levels of truth.

    Imagine if the teacher had responded to the “why is that the appropriate model” question with “The 5th Assessment Report is online, they discuss statistical models in Volume 1, Chapter 2.” This particular student may look up the report, read the relevant section of Chapter 2, see that it says the model is not appropriate and they’re using it because they’re too lazy to come up with an appropriate model. And yes that’s one believer down. But at least you didn’t forfeit the rest of the class.

  5. Wow! OK, lots to chew on here. Let’s see…

    NiV, I think you misunderstand me slightly. I’m not saying teachers should march into classrooms and say, “Right! We’ve got this proposition (q) we want you to believe. Let’s get on it.” I’m putting forward prop q as a very high-level aim for science education. You get there, quite necessarily, by discussing all the detailed “arguments about measurements, mathematics, historic climate changes, theory, emissions, impacts, economics, technology” that you mentioned.

    “What would be even more helpful would be showing the *scientific dialogue*. Science progresses by a process of challenge and refutation” – I like this. Yes, I agree.

    “What you need to do is find some honest sceptic scientists, people the sceptics know and trust, and convince *them*. People watching might not be able to follow all the technical details, but they can follow enough to know who’s winning, and who’s cheating. Word then spreads through the social networks.” – hmmm. Intriguing, but it raises a question that’s been bugging me for a while: I don’t see how any ordinary person – even an ordinary, vaguely scientifically literate person, and I’m including myself here – would really be able to follow this argument between climate scientists. The reason I and many others revert to the scientific consensus is because we can say, “You know what? I’m not a climate scientist, and without changing careers, I’m *not* going to understand these fine details.” I think where a lot of people go wrong is in reading some of the literature themselves, overestimating their own abilities, and then concluding that the scientists are wrong. (Think of all the people who say, “Ooh, carbon dioxide is good for plants, therefore it can’t be bad for the environment.” They’re on the more extreme end of this phenomenon but subtler versions undoubtedly do occur.)

    1. “NiV, I think you misunderstand me slightly. I’m not saying teachers should march into classrooms and say, “Right! We’ve got this proposition (q) we want you to believe. Let’s get on it.” I’m putting forward prop q as a very high-level aim for science education.”

      Fair enough. But the point still stands. Which of those statements, if any, do you want to use as your very high-level aim? If you just want to pick one to keep things simple, how does that help the public understand what is actually a very complicated debate?

      My point was that all of those are positions I’ve seen climate communicators take, but some are right and some are wrong, and some are agreed to by pretty much everyone, including climate sceptics and some are opposed by pretty much everyone, including climate scientists. There’s no point in spending a lot of time on points that nobody is arguing against anyway. But people do – one of the big problems seems to be that many climate communicators don’t understand what the debate is actually about.

      Whether those positions are classroom questions or high-level strategic aims, if you don’t understand what you’re aiming to achieve, you’re unlikely to succeed.

      “Intriguing, but it raises a question that’s been bugging me for a while: I don’t see how any ordinary person – even an ordinary, vaguely scientifically literate person, and I’m including myself here – would really be able to follow this argument between climate scientists.”

      It depends on the topic. I would agree that there are some things that scientists don’t understand well enough to ever explain in simple terms, and the best an ordinary person can do with those is to say “I don’t know.” But there are a lot of parts of the climate argument that *are* accessible to the ordinary person.

      For example, here is a picture of a weather station used to measure min/max temperature for detecting climate change. Can you figure out from looking at the picture what the scientific issue with the data is?

      Not hard to understand, is it?

      There are other topics that do need separate explanation in simple terms to make them accessible – producing such explanations is a lot harder than it looks, and relatively few scientists are taught how to do so. But there are people who specialise in doing that, and simple explanations for most of the technical issues in the debate are available, if you know where to look/ask.

      And even if you can’t follow *every* aspect of the debate, on every question, you can usually follow enough of them to come to a moderately informed conclusion. There are a lot of useful heuristics for telling whether an argument is of good quality. You can certainly do a lot better than having to take scientists’ word for it on everything.

      “Think of all the people who say, “Ooh, carbon dioxide is good for plants, therefore it can’t be bad for the environment.””

      Yes. There’s a lot of talk about how climate change will devastate crop yields, so the world will starve. And yet people know that food crops are often grown in greenhouses that they pump extra CO2 into. It is quite right that they at least question how these two claims can be squared.

      The actual issues can be fairly easily understood. Many crops only grow well in a certain climate range, and farmers select what crops to grow on that basis. If the climate bands shift polewards, farmers will have to adapt. If they don’t, crop yields will fall, and at a local level in many places the overall economics of farming will change for better or worse.

      And it is also true that higher CO2 levels boosts the growth of many plants (they’re evolved for the much higher CO2 levels that occurred in pre-history) and we can expect some minor benefit from that, but it’s probably not significant compared to the effects of fertilizers, pesticides, plant breeding, and better irrigation techniques.

      There’s nothing in either of those statements that I think an “ordinary person” couldn’t understand. It’s not simply a matter of :- “The IPCC says ‘Famine!’, the sceptics say ‘Nonsense!’, I don’t know who to believe.”

  6. Joshua, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I’m beginning to think I really was not clear on what the proposition is meant to do. Maybe that was in my last post and I arrogantly assumed people had read that.

    The proposition is simply meant to be a high-level aim for education in a particular subject (in this case climate change) and a way of resolving the question of whether we are aiming for *knowledge* or *belief.* The proposition itself is not trying to posit or describe anything about the science communication environment.

  7. Tamar –

    ==> “Joshua, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. ”

    My comment was directed at tweaking NiV – it wasn’t really in response to your post. Apologies for not making that clear and for focusing on what is essentially off-topic..

    ==> “The proposition is simply meant to be a high-level aim for education in a particular subject (in this case climate change) and a way of resolving the question of whether we are aiming for *knowledge* or *belief.* ”

    I would question whether or not it is possible, with the question of climate change, to disentangle “knowledge” and “belief.” How can you focus on knowledge about climate change if someone believes that AGW is a hoax? Whatever might be considered by Dick to be knowledge might be considered as belief by Jane, and visa versa.

    Ir response to your original post:

    ==> “How is it possible that someone can recognize the scientific consensus on AGW, but still dismiss the truth of AGW? The most natural answer is that such people can readily dismiss the scientific consensus, perhaps arguing the scientists are biased and untrustworthy. This, by the way, points strongly that we should have always expected consensus messaging to fail!

    Keep in mind that people who distrust the ‘scientific consensus” on one (polarized and identity-infused) topic might have implicit trust of the “scientific consensus” on a vast array of other issues (into which they don’t project their own identity-protective behaviors).

    1. “My comment was directed at tweaking NiV – it wasn’t really in response to your post.”

      I’m afraid I didn’t understand your point, either. I did say “And so on” to indicate that the list wasn’t meant to be complete. And I don’t think that the more … political… statements would be suitable goals/topics for science classrooms. But I put it down to your usual tweaking and passed by. 🙂

      “How can you focus on knowledge about climate change if someone believes that AGW is a hoax?”

      Then you take it as a hypothesis, work out what testable predictions you can make from it to distinguish it from the alternatives, and observe.

      For example, if Al Gore secretly did not believe that CO2 emissions were dangerous, he’d probably have a bigger carbon footprint than the average guy. Does he? If the global government elite climate negotiators at the famous Copenhagen climate conference had secretly known that CO2 emissions were not a problem, they probably would have flooded the airport with private jets and hired every gas-guzzling limousine in the country. Did they? And so on.

      And you can then counter those with arguments about whether the model generating the predictions is accurate, whether the selection of observations is unbiased, whether there are alternative hypotheses able to explain the same facts.

      In short, you would apply the scientific method.

      Science works by falsification. You list the hypotheses and eliminate all but one. If you want to show that AGW is not a hoax, you start by using the claim that it *is* a hoax as your null hypothesis, make the best arguments you can for it (and it’s very useful to have a motivated believer for this purpose), and you show the predictions the null hypothesis makes are falsified by observation. The stronger the attacks it survives, the more scientific confidence we can have in the theory. A theory which has never been challenged we can have no confidence in.

      The enormous confidence we have in the second law of thermodynamics is founded on the failure of the many thousands of attempts to break it. It was the hordes of perpetual motion machine inventors that made this crowning scientific achievement possible! Science *needs* people to challenge it.

      And since the confidence science has in its conclusions depends also on the quality and competence of its challengers, you can best help science by training the sceptics to make more effective attacks. Give them the data, so they can try to find something wrong with it. Explain your methods. Teach them. Fund them. Encourage them.

      And then either show in convincing detail why every one of their best arguments fails, or modify and refine the theory to account for what they’ve found.

      If you come across people who don’t want to play the game that way – who want to shut down dissent, cut the funding of contrarians, hide the data, ridicule and marginalise opponents – then anyone should have been taught enough about the scientific method to seriously question whether what they are doing is really science.

      To return to the topic of Tamar’s post, I’d call that a good strategic goal for public science education. Irrespective of which side you’re on in any particular scientific controversy, we would like for everyone to understand and believe in the scientific method. Does that sound like a reasonable goal to you? 🙂

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