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Eugenie Scott at University of Minnesota

I attended Dr. Eugenie Scott’s talk, “Climate Change – Why the Resistance?” at the University of Minnesota last night.

The venue was perfect for the audience size. I sat in the fourth row of the Cowles auditorium in Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Audio was spot on and there were no technical issues to distract from the presentation.

The evening started with a brief message from Will Steger, a very-well known polar explorer and environmentalist who has dedicated a good part of his efforts to educating about global warming and encouraging the world to take action and find solutions to climate change. He outlined the types of global warming denial that we are seeing from different political, economic and religious interests, and spoke about what his foundation is doing to effect changes in strategies for dealing with climate change.

Will Steger gives a brief opening address.

Dr. Scott took the stage after that. She opened by establishing that there is overwhelming scientific consensus that AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is happening, and that while there is an opposing viewpoint (those who deny AGW), that viewpoint is not equally supported by scientists, especially those who specialize in climate science.

She explained how the National Coalition of Science Education (NCSE) became involved in climate change and why they created their Climate Change Initiative. NCSE started out by defending the teaching of evolution in classrooms. As debates over global warming began to show up on the scene, NCSE saw the same type of attacks on AGW as they had against evolution. And as Dr. Scott pointed out, “We knew how to deal with that!”

Dr. Eugenie Scott

Dr. Scott went over the three types of “antis” (her word – she vehemently protested the use of the phrase “climate-change skeptics” by AGW-deniers, saying that “skeptic” is already taken for the community of people who use critical thought to examine claims):

  1. Those who say it’s not getting warmer.
  2. Those who say it’s getting warmer, but it’s not our fault.
  3. It’s warmer, it’s our fault, but we can only accommodate, not prevent, global warming.

She pointed out that of these three, 1 and 2 have been answered by science; they are not up for debate – they are wrong. And 3 is a policy question: it acknowledges AGW, but questions how to deal with it.

This is a key point that Dr. Scott made over and over again. Right now some people are conflating the science of AGW with what to do about what we know is happening. There are some very real political and economic consequences to acknowledging AGW, and to finding solutions to AGW. This is where the culture wars begin. If we can be convinced that AGW isn’t real, we don’t have to take action, and the status quo is maintained (even though the status is not quo).

Dr. Scott next drew comparisons between what she called the Pillars of Creationism and the Pillars of AGW-denial. These “pillars” are the arguments against evolution and AGW:

Evolution is a weak science — AGW is weak science

Ideology (evo is incompatible with religion) — Ideology (AGW is incompatible with certain political and economic viewpoints)

Cultural (teach creationism to be “fair”) — Cultural (teach anti-AGW to be “fair”)

The next five or ten minutes were used to very briefly present counter-arguments to each of these faulty proposals.

  • AGW is not weak science. Dr. Scott showed the cherry-picking done by denialists of the Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index and the extent of the retreat of sea ice (I’m not going to post links because I’m not sure exactly which data she showed. Some of the same type of data that I believe she used is referenced in the Wikipedia article on global warming).
  • Believing in AGW does not preclude one from being a conservative. She attacked the perception that AGW is anti-capitalist/liberal (big government). Here again she drew similarities between the evolution and AGW debates. She highlighted the Creation/Evolution Continuum and an AGW Denier/AGW Continuum (ranging from government intervention to a laissez-faire stance). She mentioned D.R. Tucker’s article, “Confessions of a climate change convert”, from which comes his quote “I was defeated by the facts.” She displayed a website of a group for Republicans who support conservation. Again she urged that dealing with the consequences of AGW is a policy debate which we can have, but denying the science supporting AGW is not.
  • And finally onto the more nebulous question of “why not teach both?” Dr. Scott explained that this is a tricky position to deal with because in America we very much treasure independent thought, evaluation and decision-making. We are sensitive to the slightest whiff of censorship. But she urged not mistaking unsupported opinion as having equal value with scientific consensus.

So what do we teach? This lead into a discussion of the nature of science and how science deals with new ideas:

New Idea –> Research <–> Peer Review –> Scientific Consensus –> Classroom

Dr. Scott drummed into the audience’s head how much time scientists spend in the Research <–> Peer Review loop, that  it is that check and balance which leads to an evidence-based scientific consensus. She pointed out that AGW-deniers skip a good portion of the process when they try to do this:

New Idea —————————–> Classroom

And she became very indignant over the fact that deniers claim that their ideas aren’t given equal credibility with the science which has undergone the rigorous process outlined in the first process. She described the methods of advancing AGW-denial as “jumping to the front of the line”.

After that Dr. Scott gave her final remarks: A reminder to not confuse the ability to express opinions with the rejection of scientific consensus (i.e., you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts), a review of the Pillars of AGW denial and how recognizing these strategies will help us fight back against shoddy science, and an invitation to utilize the NCSE to help promote the teaching of evidence-based science in our classrooms.

The presentation was a wonderful length and left a full 20 minutes for Q&A, which was also handled well – notecards with written questions were collected from the audience, and the emcee presented the questions to Dr. Scott in an relaxed, conversational format: 

I enjoyed hearing Dr. Scott’s thoughts on the matter and her presentation; she was very charismatic and focused on the NCSE mission of helping teachers present evidence-based science at the grassroots level. Kudos to the university for putting on an inspiring event on this very topical, important issue.

Comments

  1. says

    I think I was sitting about 8 seats to your left. Your write up is spot on.

    I disagreed with Eugenie’s approach in one way though, she compared the climate change denial strategy with evolution denial strategy. While the tactics in the field might be similar, the philosophy is different. The fight over evolution is a fight over religion. The fight over climate change is an economic/political issue. I thought the comparison with big business (Merchants of Doubt) was the most apt, but this didn’t arise until the Q&A (which was really just Elizabeth and Eugenie having a discussion). Because the philosophical underpinning is different in the climate debate than the evolution debate, the way you fight it is different. You can seldom beat faith with facts, but climate change doesn’t have that baggage (at least not as much).

    Best line: ‘Americans may not believe in climate change, but the US military certainly does.’ That’s the kind of drum that needs to be beaten loudly and often.

  2. says

    I did not think this talk was up to Dr Scott’s usual high standard. Without an exhaustive analysis of the details of her talk, I would take issue with the reference to the argument by analogy, infering that because some similarities were shared by creationists and climate change deniers they were analogous. Both share a description: weak science. However, argument by analogy is even weaker, and should not have been used to infer that features of the creationist argument would inform the climate change debate.

    What the climate change debate needs is the truth. I

  3. says

    I did not think this talk was up to Dr Scott’s usual high standard. Without an exhaustive analysis of the details of her talk, I would take issue with the reference to the argument by analogy, infering that because some similarities were shared by creationists and climate change deniers they were analogous. Both share a description: weak science. However, argument by analogy is even weaker, and should not have been used to infer that features of the creationist argument would inform the climate change debate.

    What the climate change debate needs to reach is the truth but the whole truth is somewhat obscured by the complexity of the problem. Dr. Scott’s view is that the science is settled, but her evidence was derived from an appeal to authority, and a somewhat motley one at that. Again not a strong argument (but both sides of the debate use it). It might well be right but I am yet to be convinced, and do not consider that I am a denialist, I am still a skeptic. However, it seems prudent to do what we can to reduce CO2 to a sustainable level by, for example, using fuel-efficient vehicles and in my case photovoltaic cells on the roof. A denialist would not necessarily take such measures!

    Lawrence Baker

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