by Judith Curry
One of the most important issues raised by the Heartland affair is what should be taught to students in K-12. On the one hand, we have the efforts of the NCSE (where Peter Gleick was a board member). On the other hand, Heartland is funding David Wojick to develop curricula that teaches the controversy.
So, should we teach the consensus, the controversy, or none of the above?
A strong argument for teaching the controversy was made by Nullius in Verba on a thread at Collide-a-Scape:
“Let’s be clear about something. The Heartland Institute, based on the legitimate document, wants to teach the controversy.”
Good! All science education should be about teaching the controversy. That’s what science is.
This is only a workable strategy on the part of the Creationists because the mainstream hasn’t taught the evidence, they’ve used authority and consensus instead. Showing controversy breaks the consensus argument.
Keeping controversy out of schools does a severe disservice to children, because the moment they leave school they will be faced with the controversies full force, and they won’t have the mental tools or experience with which to decide. Do you think they won’t be taught the controversy at home? Or with their friends? Or watching TV? And if they believe from school that real science is all neat and uncontroversial, and then somebody shows some issue is controversial in the extreme, won’t they be inclined to believe it’s therefore not settled science? Isn’t that why ‘teaching the controversy’ works?
Whereas if they’re very familiar with controversies from having been introduced to them in school, and have been taught the research methods needed to find more information, test claims, construct counter-examples and so on, they’ll be better able to resist.
‘Teaching the controversy’ is only to be feared by those who rely on holding a monopoly over education to keep alternative viewpoints out, rather than teaching good quality science.
I certainly agree with NiV here, although I personally have no idea what would make sense in this regard in the K-12 classroom (it will be interesting to see what David Wojick comes up with in this regard).
However, I do have some insights and experience with regards to teaching the controversy at the college level. Let me share some of the things that we have been doing at Georgia Tech in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS).
Climate and Global Change
Peter Webster teaches a course on Climate and Global Change, that is taken by senior undergraduate students and also graduate students. More than half of the students from the class come from other fields (mostly engineering and biology). The course is primarily the science of climate dynamics.
The last two weeks are devoted to the climate change problem as framed by the IPCC. The students were shown 6 online (youtube) presentations: 3 from the consensus perspective, and 3 from the skeptic side: Pat Michaels, Bob Carter, Vincent Courtillot. I led a discussion on the movies. The general opinion of the students was that none of the presentations were wholly convincing, and that each had at least some good points. I asked which “side” did you find more convincing, the consensus or the skeptics? Most said “somewhere in the middle.”
Balance of Power
Kim Cobb teaches an innovative course called A Balance of Power: Energy, the Environment, and Society. The web page for the course is here. In addition to being taken by undergrad students in EAS, this course is also a course for the Honors Program and Energy Certificate, so a majority of the students are outside of EAS, from a range of different majors.
The outline of the course is here. The course has numerous guest lectures. Early in the semester, they hear from an exec at The Southern Company, whose main message is that coal is king in the Southeast U.S. and the key to regional prosperity. Two weeks are spent giving them the basics of climate science, in the context of the IPCC WG1 reports. Energy and climate policy is discussed from a range of perspectives, and then experts on various energy technologies give lectures. They also do a carbon reduction challenge project.
I lectured in the class yesterday, giving my perspectives on uncertainties in the climate debate, the dynamics of the public debate on this issue, and decision making under uncertainty. My ppt slides can be found [akim cobb class 12]. We had a lively discussion. The students don’t seem to spend much time on the blogs (the were unaware of the Heartland affair). They seemed particularly interested in how to identify no-regrets strategies and the ideas of motivating energy policy in the context of clean air and energy security in combination with climate change. I talked about some of the issues facing scientists who engage in public debate, we talked about the role of think tanks and advocacy groups. We talked about teaching the controversy (or not), and how you would get different perspectives on the climate change issue at different universities. I emphasized that my goal was to teach students to think critically rather than just give them facts, since the “facts” can change, and they need to know how to evaluate future controversies. So the class was lively. Kim Cobb will do a debrief in the next class to see how they reacted to my guest slot in the class.
This is the most balanced treatment of the global warming debate that I’ve seen. Its done in ‘mockumentary’ style, its funny yet insightful. It has a number of features that would appeal to high school and college audiences, including the hip-hop photographers and the flaky producers. It has a number of important, yet subtly made points: that there is a scientific debate, it is very easy to get distracted from the global warming issue to deal with more immediately relevant issues, and finally that the U.S. doesn’t know how to deal with such challenges (as exemplified by continuing problems in New Orleans).
People interviewed from the ‘warm side’:
- Dr Jerry Meehl, NCAR climate scientist
- Dr. Richard Somerville, Sripps climate scientist
- Dr. Naomi Oreskes, History of Science Professor
- Dr. Megan Owen, San Diego Zoo Research Dept
- Julia Bovey, Natural Resource Defense Council
People interviewed from the ‘cool side:’
- Dr. George Chillingarian, Professor of Petroleum Eng.
- Dr. Bill Gray, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Sciences
- Dr. Steve Hayward, American Enterprise Institute
- Dr. Pat Michaels, CATO Institute
- Marc Morano, former staff member of Senator Inhofe
- Dr. Fred Singer, Science and Environmental Policy Project
UNFORTUNATELY, the movie is not available on DVD or in movie theaters, apparently it is shown in special screenings. But this is an excellent example of teaching the controversy.
JC comments: I think the most important thing to impart to college students is motivation to learn and to give them the tools with which to evaluate scientific and other controversies. Whether or not we call this critical thinking (which was debated on the climate classroom thread) or something else, doesn’t matter. I also think that high school students should be exposed to this kind of approach to learning (whether or not in the context of the climate debate).
In any event, I think that this whole issue of if/how to teach climate science and the broader issues surrounding climate change, is going to be deservedly receiving increased attention.
I’m interested in critiques of what we are doing at Georgia Tech, but I would be particularly interested in hearing about approaches being used at other universities and in high schools.