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.