by Judith Curry
The Wikipedia defines indoctrination as:
Indoctrination is the process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a a professional methodology. It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned.
Randy Olson at the Benshi has a post entitled “A moment in climate history: when Al Gore tried to brush aside the entire climate skeptic movement.” Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is a fascinating study in education versus indoctrination. Olson rails agains the climate movement for it’s unwillingness to take a critical look at Al Gore’s movie, which he characterizes as “the single most important piece of global warming mass communication to date.”
When I say “a critical look,” I’m not talking about examining it’s factual accuracy. That was performed by numerous sources shortly after the release of the movie. . . I’m talking about the critical assessment of how effectively the movie achieved it’s goals of awareness and persuasion. I’m talking about assessing “what worked and what didn’t work” about the film as an exercise in the mass communication of a major piece of science.
Olson’s essay is primarily concerned with the treatment of skeptics:
CLIMATE SKEPTICS: NOW YOU SEE ‘EM, NOW YOU DON’T! Gore symbolically dismissed the ENTIRE climate skeptic movement in his movie in this one scene that cited 928 climate papers affirming human-caused global warming, then said zero papers disagree with this “consensus.” It came from Naomi Oreskes Science paper. Certainly the substance of what he said was true. But the style of delivery sent a condescending, dismissive message to the already-enormous climate skeptic movement that “you don’t even deserve to be recognized.” Which might have been fine had they been a trivial group of crackpots. But they weren’t, as they forcefully showed with Climategate. And thus it failed as a tactic.
Gore’s dismissal of the skeptics seemed to signal to the climate establishment that this was the appropriate strategy. Olson states:
Gore had attempted to send out the simple signal, “there is no debate,” which was an effort to use the idea that, “there is no SCIENTIFIC debate,” as a means of getting the public to think there is no broader debate in general. I have no way to quantify or really document this. I only know I got a big taste of it the year after his movie when I was filming “Sizzle” in the summer of 2007. I heard this phrase all over the place, and one prominent member of the IPCC said it to me forcefully in emails as he refused to take part in any movie that would give screen time to these supposedly fringe elements, the climate skeptics. A major television journalist barked the same message at me — “there is no debate.”
More importantly, you saw the major environmental groups involved with global warming simply turning a blind eye to this significant opposition force. There existed an opponent, but no one wanted to look them in their eyes. I was amazed in 2007 that virtually no one had been to see some of the major climate skepticsm(Singer, Michaels, Morano, Hayward, Gray) to interview them for a film previous to me. There was just a big campaign to “ignore them and they will go away.” Aside from Naomi Oreskes (ironically the source of the numbers Gore cited) who was engaged in direct and blunt combat with them, no one seemed to be taking them on through any sort of mass media.
By 2008 when I released the film I began to get blowback from people at scientific institutions where we wanted to show the movie. Many said they believed there “is no debate,” and simply didn’t want to support a movie that suggested there is.
And then there was Climategate. Literally overnight the, “there is no debate,” voice vanished. The science and environmental communities finally learned there is a debate — not through effective leadership and communication, but by having their noses shoved in it.
Besides the point that Olson explicitly makes, it seems that there is a broader lesson to be learned here, of relevance to public engagement on this topic particularly in the blogosphere. Many of the mainstream climate blogs present scientific material as authoritative, and people are educated (to some extent) by this transmission of knowledge. Often, the purpose of this knowledge transmission seems to be to convince people to “act” or support certain climate change policies, rather than education. True education occurs when the learner is enabled to critically examine the material. How can we we enable true education and engagement on the issue of climate change?
A comment from Michael Larkin on a recent thread provides some interesting insights:
As this is an open thread, I want to raise an issue that is dear to my heart, and would welcome any ideas or comments. I am a trained educator as well as one-time software developer. I’ve got my educator hat on for this post.
First, we have to distinguish between educating and conveying information that is, to some degree or other, generally accepted. The latter really represents varying degrees of indoctrination, and that isn’t always completely bad, but it doesn’t have much to do with education, if you believe, as I do, that that is about finding ways of training people to think for themselves.
To do that, one needs to be attuned to the state of mind of the trainee. The technical term sometimes used is “entry behaviour”. It’s not sufficient to be able to describe this; one needs to be able to empathise with it.
I read one study where it turned out there were only a relatively few key misapprehensions that inhibited the development of basic maths skills, for example. If you want to really know how a learner with naïve entry behaviour thinks, it pays to focus on what the key misapprehensions are, why they are prevalent, and develop strategies that from the very start deal with those quickly.
Education is, I believe, a key issue in the climate debate. A little over a year ago, I wasn’t much involved in it, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see what my own entry behaviour was.
Take climate models, for example. A few years back, when I just accepted what the media said, there was a programme on TV – probably the BBC – in which there was announced an initiative to roll out a distributed-processing climate model simulation. I, and doubtless thousands of others, downloaded and ran the software, which fed back generated data via the Internet.
I didn’t have it loaded for long as I found it affected system performance, but it had a nice pretty picture of a globe with lots of swirly events going on. In my naiveté, I imagined that it was somehow creating a future prediction over some period or other – maybe centuries, and that that prediction could be reasonably accurately mapped spatio-temporally to the globe. So that – oh, I don’t know – maybe in thirty years, a specific location like Uruguay would be a certain temperature.
I didn’t know then how surface temperatures were measured. I certainly didn’t know about satellites and Argo buoys, for example, but it didn’t cross my mind to think that in recent times, temperatures were still being measured by common-or-garden thermometers which even I knew wouldn’t be much more accurate than 0.5 deg. either way. I assumed it was all some vague super-accurate technology, and whilst I imagined there must be some kind of central organisation collating and analysing all this data, I had no idea about the existence of the IPCC and the different groups of climate scientists associated with places like the CRU. I had no notion that temperature data was processed, either.
Then along came Climategate, and I started getting more interested in the nuts and bolts. I desperately needed to find a decent primer. But no one out there seemed to be clued in to my entry behaviour. They seemed primarily involved in one of two things. First, disseminating not things that would help me think for myself, but convince me one way or the other. Second, things which I could perceived had educative value, but which were presented at too demanding a level. I was often referred to scienceofdoom, and all sides seemed to think that site is worthy. But it started at too high a level, and from my viewpoint rapidly went stratospheric. I needed something to bridge the gap between entry behaviour and that.
I haven’t even mentioned all the emotional influences in the debate. Partisanship, disdain, defensiveness… and all the rest, which, once perceived (from whatever side), cast doubts on reliability.
Somehow, I had to negotiate my way through the morass. The only place I found that sometimes spoke to my ignorance was WUWT, and particularly a fellow by the name of Willis Eschenbach. Willis may not realise it, but he is a born educator; he has an instinct for how the naïve mind works, and does not speak down to it. Okay, sometimes he goes above my head, but there is no one else in quite the same league. Yes, he’s a sceptic, but in no ways a bigot, and he can be as harsh on misinformed sceptics as on proponents, and that impressed on me his likely integrity.
Now and then, as in Nullius in verba’s recent post on the recent thread about the physics of the GHG effect, something will rise to the same educative level. And just occasionally, something a poster says – it may well be in passing and incidental to the main point of the posting, hits a sweet spot and lifts a veil or two.
I hope climate cognoscenti are listening and that I am also lifting a veil or two for them. But I can’t really say at this point that I have a definitive point to make. It’s just something I wanted to express and put out there to see if it had any resonance and perhaps would lead to some constructive points, observations and suggestions, without getting into yet more pointless invective from any direction.
Just adding one thing, Dr. Curry does not always hit a sweet spot for me with her own writings. But she has another characteristic of a born educator: tolerance and respect for the learner, be s/he ever so naïve and, from her point of view, perhaps even plain wrong. She lets things play out, even lets some of the steam get vented, and, inexorably, at least in my view, that is raising the debate to a higher level. I’ve learnt a great deal since she started the blog, if not always here, through investigations elsewhere prompted by it. I think she is doing something very right here.
I have been criticized all over the blogosphere for discussing topics that I am not a particular authority on, or winging it is certain discussions. Since I don’t view myself as any particular arbiter of “climate truth,” and I allow some pretty freewheeling discussions over here and don’t flag commenters for stating “mistruths” or providing “misinformation,” I am viewed by some as misleading and confusionist. How can we strike the best balance for true education, and I’m assuming here that education and understanding should be the goal?