The Conversation

Understanding science of climate change and recognizing misinformation

Detroit Free Press

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A man walks into a room carrying a snowball. Although it sounds like the start to a joke, no one should be laughing when that man is Sen. James Inhofe and he is exhibiting the snowball on the floor of the U.S. Senate as “evidence” that global climate change is not occurring.

The Republican senator from Oklahoma is infamous for denying well-established climate change science, a frightening reality considering he is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and charged with the responsibility of dealing with matters related to the environment. Gross stunts like the one he pulled in February inside the U.S. Capitol after a snowstorm in Washington, D.C., are aimed at misinforming the public using logical fallacies – the weather is cold; therefore, the climate is not warming.

Antics such as his go beyond irresponsible and become dangerous. In order for members of a society to make sound decisions, they must first be informed.

Climate change is a topic that, while complicated and ongoing, has received enormous research attention, which has provided an abundance of evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body consisting of thousands of scientists from all over the world, exists solely to provide the world with the current scientific knowledge relevant to climate change. The takeaway from the panel’s most recent report released in 2014 is this: “Human influence on the climate system is clear.” The ocean and atmosphere are warming, and there is overwhelming evidence that human drivers, such as unprecedented emission of greenhouse gasses, are the cause.

So why do so many people reject scientific evidence? The answers to this question are complicated and numerous, but one answer is likely that they simply haven’t been taught how to recognize sound evidence.

For many people, evidence is something they read online or heard a “trusted” source claim. Those of us who have spent a lifetime training to be analytical can too easily forget that critical thinking, especially when applied to technical material, is a learned skill. As a scientist, it is sometimes tempting to throw my hands up in frustration and say, “I give up.” It can be overwhelming to be faced with deniers who think so differently that they may as well be speaking a different language.

How do we begin to inform the public when it would require rectifying a lifetime of education deficiencies or misinformation just to start the conversation? Scientists, especially the new generation, have seen the memo (essential reference to the movie “Office Space”). We get it; we need to improve communication with the public so that they have access to the scientific evidence and not a biased mediator’s manipulation of the evidence.

No amount of communication will be effective if the audience doesn’t speak the language. To be clear, I’m not pointing the finger at educators or policymakers, but there is so much more that we should all be doing:

Promote critical thinking early and repeatedly.

Education. Education. Education. I am not referring to the teaching of facts, although necessary and enlightening, but the teaching of skills to take in information and make logical sense of it. It is certainly much easier to teach facts: “Here is the fact. Memorize it because I will test you on it.”

It’s much more difficult to teach critical thinking: “Here are some facts. Now, what can you tell me about the related topic?” With this approach, teachers are forced to do much more than correct multiple-choice answers, but in so doing, they will help children to think for themselves and make informed decisions about the world in which they live. Many teachers do this and they do it well. Keep up the good work. You are making a world of difference.

Teach the language of science.

We can’t avoid miscommunication or misinformation if we don’t fully understand that words are often used with drastically different definitions. The most obvious example is the word “theory.”

Scientists use this word ubiquitously and with deference because an idea is not considered a theory until there are converging lines of evidence supported by myriad sources. However, the word is otherwise commonly used to describe a system of ideas, such as a theory of education, or just a guess, as in the phrase, “It’s just a theory.”

As a disappointing side note, Google’s definition of theory starts with “a supposition,” which means “an uncertain belief.” While multiple uses of the word “theory” are not likely to be discontinued, careful explanation and exploration of these differences will make children well informed and equipped to understand the different usages.

Teach statistics early and repeatedly.

This suggestion is bound to make me unpopular with students of all ages, but we should consider making statistics a math requirement for K-12 students. It has been reported often that American students have fallen behind many children in other countries where quantitative skills are involved. This is a shame because people, even scientists, struggle when they are asked to accept facts that are contrary to their “naive beliefs” or intuition. This struggle can cause people to reject evidence, especially if the topic evokes an emotional response or imposes a change in behavior.

Statistics provides the tools to more accurately analyze, describe, interpret and communicate; it allows us to uncover the evidence and remove the guesswork.

Understanding statistics also increases vocabulary. Many people think, for example, that when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that it is “very likely” that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have caused the atmosphere to warm, it means that there is reasonable doubt. In reality, when the panel uses the term “very likely,” it means that there is a greater than 95 percent probability, for example, that human activity has caused the recent climate change. If science is a language, statistics is the dictionary.

The human brain is an amazing and powerful organ. It’s most striking to me when it gets something wrong, because it usually gets it right. For example, I go to take a step down and the surface is further away than I expected, so I stumble forward awkwardly. This makes me aware of the fact that most of the time my brain is quickly and instantly predicting how much speed and pressure I should be putting into my step to make a smooth transition. How amazing!

Or, you look at a dress and see it as obviously blue and black, but the person next to you swears it’s white and gold. How can we be seeing different colors completely? If you saw #thedress as white and gold, your brain was playing a trick on you. The point being, our brains can sometimes get it wrong, and it’s not surprising because our brains are working to take in huge amounts of information and process it instantly so that we can succeed in the world.

Instead of guessing, let’s consider the evidence so that we can work together to make informed decisions about our world. Perhaps, if Inhofe had been properly trained to recognize scientific evidence, he would be less inclined to fuel deniers’ views on climate change and be better equipped to handle the responsibility of dealing with matters related to the environment. After all, what could be more important than understanding how our actions are affecting the world so that we can make the best, most informed decisions moving forward? Admittedly, this is going to be a serious feat if we aren’t even seeing the world colored with the same palette.

Ginny Fitzpatrick is a researcher and freelance writer. She is an expert in biological and climate change science with a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology.