A few days ago, along with almost 7,000 other folks, I shared this figure on Facebook:
The figure is drawn from the wonderful DeSmogBlog, which seeks to eliminate “PR pollution” from the public discussion of climate change. The guest post from which the figure is drawn is by James L. Powell, an emeritus professor of geology from another liberal arts college just a bit north of the one where I teach, a former member of the National Science Board (under Reagan and G.H.W. Bush), and currently executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. You can read more about the details of Powell’s survey of the scientific literature in his original post, and on his website, he even takes the trouble to list the 24 scientific papers he found that reject anthropogenic climate change.
Like many scientists, I am frustrated by the misinformation-fueled denial of human-caused climate change, and “science denialism” more generally, from climate change to evolution, vaccines, and GMOs. In fact, it is profoundly sad to me that science denialism has become not only a recognizable aspect of our culture, but a potentially lucrative profession. So when I find information like Powell’s figure, I like to spread it around.
But over the past few days, since I shared the pie chart, I have been thinking that, as satisfying as it is to share information like this and say, “The debate is over,*” this sort of action actually does little to build a public consensus on climate change to match the scientific consensus – which is presumably, the underlying goal. Don’t get me wrong – I applaud Powell’s efforts and those of DeSmogBlog. I just feel that it is important to note that it is not enough to slap the deniers with the facts.
The problem is that most people don’t understand how science works. The popular conception of science is generally limited to interesting and unusual collections of facts (think Discovery channel) and perhaps some conception (or misconception) of the “scientific method” that underlies observation and experimentation. But science is not just facts or individual experiments, it is a collective, cultural process that allows humans to constantly revise and refine our ideas about how the world works based on reason, logic, mathematics, and evidence (data). If the results of even the most profound experiment sit mouldering in some notebook (or on some flashdrive), never shared with the community of researchers, they are not really science, because they are not part of the discourse, the narrative of science. I would argue that most non-scientists, even many primary and secondary science teachers, don’t understand this cultural aspect of science; it is simply not part of their education. We are so busy stuffing our students full of the facts and methods of science that we never give them the bigger picture of how all that knowledge manages to fit together.
And if you don’t understand the culture of science, how its stories are written iteratively by generations of researchers, it becomes all to easy to dismiss the findings. Without this knowledge, those 24 contrarian papers might be seen as representing a small number of stalwart researchers courageously challenging “climate change dogma,” as can be seen in the comments on Powell’s post. In reality, scientific discourse always involves contrarian and critical contributions, and if these do indeed demonstrate substantial holes in the developing theory, they end up garnering a lot of attention and precipitating substantial revisions of scientific knowledge. The point is that during the long history of research into anthropogenic climate change, which dates at least to the greenhouse calculations of Svante Arrhenius in 1896, loads of scientists have been contributing to the story, putting forward, confirming, and refuting a variety of hypotheses – and together, through this contentious, argumentative, and incomplete process, they have composed a theory describing the climate system and our interaction with it. “Scientific consensus” is not a matter of researchers lining up behind an idea that they like, it is the outcome of a systematic, but messy collective struggle to understand how nature works.
Individual scientists, like any other human being, may or may not be trustworthy, but the fundamentally skeptical basis of the scientific process gives it additional gravitas. Its claims, from the most mundane to the most outlandish, are always challenged. Powell’s figure is powerful because: 1. it dispels the myth of censorship and publication bias by showing that one can in fact publish an article denying global warming in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and 2. it demonstrates the hard-won, skeptical scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a well-supported scientific reality. But those points can only be grasped if the person looking at the chart actually understands not just the scientific method, but the culture of science.
As scientists and educators, we have a lot of work to do. I argue that the major challenge is not to convince the people that we are “right” with facts and figures (though I will continue to accost my friends with graphs like this at every opportunity!), but to equip them to understand it for themselves by teaching them how science works.
*Or choose your own exclamation: “We win!”, “Pwnd!”, “Facial!”, etc…