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Climate change and critical thinking

Wednesday, April 16, 2008 - 01:24 PM

map of areas affected by climate change and global warming (yeimaya/flickr)

NPR’s David Kestenbaum ran a piece yesterday on Morning Edition about a 16-year-old climate skeptic named Kristen Byrnes. This ambitious teenager has set up a website and dedicated huge chunks of her time to arguing that the rise of global temperature is part of a natural cycle and not, as most climate scientists agree, caused by human action.

The debate about the piece swirling around the science blog world provides a fascinating view into questions of expertise, critical thinking, and role of the media in covering the issue of climate change.

Kestenbaum draws us into what seems like a feel-good story about a young girl who has done something rather unusual. But his piece is really about much larger, and much more complicated issues: We’re not all scientists, so we have to look to others for expertise. At the same time, we should be critical in the face of that expertise.

Perhaps Kristen is a good example of critical thinking; as Kestenbaum says, “Kristen has a quality you want in a scientist, she is skeptical.” And she definitely tackled a pile of data and technical information that most teenagers would balk at. But Kristen may also have some qualities you don’t want in a scientist, particularly if she’s just seeking out evidence that supports her prior beliefs. She herself says “I never really believed in it.” And some of her science is questionable.

Toward the end of the piece, Kestenbaum does point out that 'the overwhelming consensus is that humans are causing global warming, and the consequences could be serious.' Many of the science bloggers argue that Kestenbaum was wearing kid gloves during this interview. But then again, Kristen is a kid. And, in the end, maybe Kestenbaum is making a more subtle point. While the discussion of hard science is somewhat absent, the story takes us to the true front lines of the climate debate: the hearts and minds of Americans who have a lay person’s understanding of climate science and how to evaluate complicated scientific evidence.

Check out the story and the bloggers' response, then come back to us and let us know what you think.

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Comments [5]

Jeffrey Callen

There seems to be a trend in thinking about science that by understanding the form of the scientific method taught to us in high school we can then evaluate scientific knowledge generated by scientists. On the Internet it does not matter how little education one has, one can declare oneself an expert for a myriad of reasons and challenge what highly educated scientists have been studying for decades. This challenge can be done in a seconds, maybe a few minutes.

Fine. Think what you will and let us know how it turns out.

What about the questions of expertise? of critical thinking? the role of the media?

In this world of blogs, everyone is an expert simply because they have an opinion. Critical thought has been deflated into a skill of identifying the best fit with your understanding of the world amongst the massive amount of posts. The media then reports on individuals that have no expertise or critical thought but happen to phrase something just right so it can be leveraged into a news story.

It seems like a good business model as news firms that have less advertising revenue simply cannot afford a large and competent team of reporters. The risk of not having investigative journalists is leveraged by the asset of having a readership that can generate news themselves...

...but what does this have to do with climate change? It seems that the above story demonstrates my point. A 14 year old has become an expert because she can sort through the web and find stories that fit her ontological assumptions and epistemic values. Fine.

But what does that do to advance human progress? To expand the horizons of our knowledge and discover things that were not previously known? We do science for a reason. That is to generate new knowledge to understand the world in which we live so that we can solve the problems that affect our life. This requires disciplined scientists who are smart... not armchair ideologues that have enough leisure time to philosophize about how the world and their beliefs fit together.

Media outlets like NPR, PBS, and Scientific American, to name a few, do an excellent job of digesting science in a format that informs the actions that we take in our lives. That is priceless.

Where critical thinking needs to happen for us non-scientists is in engaging what we hear from our media outlets to aid us in how we live. By using critical thought we can defer to experts in climate change to do their job. Critical thinking helps you identify that this blog entry that I am writing is one of a billion on the Internet and has as little value to you as the previous or the next, which just might be yours.

Nov. 20 2008 07:23 PM
Greg Nicholson

I found Kristen to be a welcome ray of light in this whole discussion. The global warming debate has become religious and political dogma. The scientific method is supposed to embrace skepticism - if anything, I found Kestenbaum's comments regarding the "the overwhelming consensus is that humans are causing global warming, and the consequences could be serious" to be rather patronizing. The overall consensus was in favor of Newtonian physics until Einstein proved them wrong. Gallileo famously disagreed with the Pope that the earth moved around the sun (as opposed to the sun moving around the earth.

The scientific method requires you to make an assertion based upon observations known as a hypothesis. You then experiment to test the hypothesis. Only upon the conclusion of replicated experiments that prove the hypothesis does the hypothesis cross the threshold to a scientific theory. To date, the scantest amount of data which seems mostly derived from computer models is being used to support this "theory" and as justification for taking measures to wreck the global economy (as an aside, look how much the current global economy has already been wrecked by computer models related to derivative trading...)

In my mind, the earth has cooled and warmed many times prior to any meaningful impact of man - as one of your previous episodes noted, humans are but a "speck, on a speck, on a speck, on a speck..." Is the world warming? Who knows. But in the end, it is immoral to consign the developing world to continued poverty by embracing trendy "science."

Apr. 19 2008 07:04 AM
Cara

The central issues that fuel this debate are not of degree but, rather, those of certainty and practicality. If we examine the situation from either of two extremes it becomes obvious that the solution is binary and relevant (in practical terms) if we humans are to effect any significant, meaningful outcome. Either we can prove empirically--which we have yet to do--that global warming is largely due to humans or that it's largely due to nature. If indeed it is a result of natural forces of such magnitude that any practical measures we concoct in our efforts to ameliorate its effects yield minimal--token-results then should we not resolve to employ our energies and resources toward devising means that will permit as many life forms to survive in the (warmer global) environment that may very well be destined to result? The alternative is to fret and chortle as the sky falls... alarmed by the discovery of a gaping hole in the hull of our boat and armed with nothing but a Tupperware bowl we bail furiously and futilely--in spite of mounting evidence of the futility of our strategy--while all the while ignoring more practical options offered us by, say, the lifejackets and life raft and first-aid/other emergency provisions on the boat of which (had not our focus and efforts beenso narrow) we might have availed ourselves prior to the boat capsizing.

Apr. 18 2008 03:38 PM
Marc Naimark

I heard the piece via the Bryant Park Project recycle, and it raised a question for me that I rarely hear asked of climate change skeptics. If we accept that there is at least some component of global warming that is man-made, doesn't their belief that much or most of global warming is part of a natural cycle make it more, rather than less, imperative to act on the human component? It's not because global warming, or 80% of global warming, is "natural" that it is any less of a threat to our civilization. If we can only act on the 20% (for example) that is man-made, we have to be even more aggressive at reducing that component.

I've never heard this argument made... why not? Is it stupid (I can accept that)?

Apr. 18 2008 07:11 AM
Adam Coate

I've read a few different news stories and one article in Discover magazine saying that perhaps hotter than normal sun spots are to blame for global warming. This theory does make sense. Back in the "Dark Ages" the sun spots were cooler than usual which led to a cooler than normal climate, which caused crops to dwindle, which caused people to be weaker, which allowed diseases like the bubonic plague to run rampant. Now it seems to be the opposite; the sun spots are hotter, the climate is getting hotter, ice caps are starting to melt, the ocean is getting warmer, etc. However, I read one article that said that while the sun spots are definitely hotter than they have been in hundreds or thousands of years, they haven't gotten hotter since 1980. Of course, global warming has gotten steadily worse since 1980. My conclusion on the matter? Global warming is caused by both the sun burning hotter and also from our increased usage of fossil fuels. What percentage of global warming is to blame on us is of course debateable.

Apr. 17 2008 04:34 PM

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