Agnotology is the study of ignorance and how it’s produced. For example, examining how misinformation can generate misconceptions about climate change. An interesting (and influential, at least in my case) paper on this topic is Agnotology as a teaching tool: Learning climate science by studying misinformation by Daniel Bedford, a professor at Weber State University, Utah. Bedford suggests how how examining and refuting misinformation is actually a powerful way to teach climate science, sharpen critical thinking skills and raise awareness of the scientific method. He then illustrates this with case studies applied in his own college classroom. This paper opened my eyes to the educational opportunities in addressing misinformation - an approach I adopted in the chapters “Understanding Climate Change Denial” and “Rebuttals to Climate Myths” in the textbook Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.
Recently, David Legates, Willie Soon and William Briggs published a paper in the journal Science & Education, Learning and Teaching Climate Science: The Perils of Consensus Knowledge Using Agnotology. The paper comments extensively on Bedford’s agnotology paper. Unfortunately, it comprehensively misrepresents Bedford’s arguments. Consequently, Daniel Bedford and I have co-authored a response to Legates’ paper that was just published in Science & Education: Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change: A Response to Legates, Soon and Briggs. For those without library access, our paper is unfortunately behind a pay-wall. However, the full pre-press version of our paper is available here.
In our response, we examine the scientific consensus on climate change and briefly look at the results from our recent Consensus Project paper. We explore the consensus gap - the large discrepancy between public perception of consensus and the 97% reality. We also clarify that while there is a scientific consensus on the basic fact of human-caused global warming, this doesn’t mean there is overwhelming agreement of every aspect of climate science. Legates misrepresents this point by misquoting Bedford’s paper. We examine one of the reasons for the consensus gap - two decades of a persistent misinformation campaign focused on casting doubt about the consensus.
The survey considered the work of some 29,000 scientists published in 11,994 academic papers. Of the 4,000-plus papers that took a position on the causes of climate change only 0.7% or 83 of those thousands of academic articles, disputed the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity, with the view of the remaining 2.2% unclear.
The study described the dissent as a “vanishingly small proportion” of published research.
“Our findings prove that there is a strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change, despite public perceptions to the contrary,” said John Cook of the University of Queensland, who led the survey.
Since the start of the New Year the GOP has had such a laser focus on fiscal matters that they’ve had time to introduce or advance the following anti-science bills in state legislatures:
When I left the GOP in 2009 I had a choice - I could have remained an (I)ndependent, but it’s exactly this type of anti-science bullshit that forced me to register Democrat rather than to take non stand on important science issues.
With the new legislative session beginning in most states around the country, this is the time that we see creationist bills crop up all over the place. Colorado has one (HB 13-1089), disguised, as many of them are, as a bill to boost “academic freedom” — but only about subjects where they think the textbooks and the scientific consensus are wrong.
The bill creates an “Academic Freedom Act” (act) for both K-12 public schools and institutions of higher education in the state of Colorado (act). The provisions of the acts direct teachers to create an environment that encourages students to intelligently and respectfully explore scientific questions and learn about scientific evidence related to biological and chemical evolution, global warming, and human cloning.
I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the bill just happens to require “academic freedom” on those ideas on which they think the scientists have it completely wrong. Because if they were actually interested in “academic freedom” and wanting students to “intelligently and respectfully explore scientific questions,” wouldn’t that apply to all scientific questions?
UPDATE: A welcome news bulletin from Phil Plait, Colorado bill is “DOA”
The modern techniques for genetic improvement — recombinant DNA, or “genetic modification” (GM) — began to be applied to bacteria and plants 40 years ago. For the first time, molecular biologists could very precisely move genetic material and its traits from one species to another. The resulting new plant varieties have revolutionized agriculture by boosting farmers’ profits and food security in much of the world. But not in Europe.
For more than 20 years, bucking a worldwide scientific consensus, the European Union (EU) has maintained literally nonsensical laws and regulations that focus not on the risk-related characteristics of new plant varieties but on the process — recombinant DNA technology — used to create them. The result is a dysfunctional regulatory system in which there is an inverse relationship between the degree of regulatory scrutiny and the perceived risk of the products. Recombinant DNA-modified plants are regulated into virtual oblivion while new plant varieties crafted with less precise, less predictable techniques are generally unregulated, whatever risk they might pose.
The EU regulatory system has authorized only two recombinant DNA-modified crops for cultivation in the European Union. Some member states have been so antagonistic that one variety (potato) has been virtually abandoned and the other (corn) has been banned from many EU nations on the basis of completely bogus concerns about safety. This situation is not expected to change, at least in the short term, despite a September 6 ruling by the European Court of Justice that applications to cultivate recombinant DNA-modified crops are not subject to national authorization procedures by individual EU countries when the bloc has approved their use and marketing.
As Sir Richard Roberts, a British Nobel Prize laureate, concluded, “European opposition to genetically modified organisms is political rather than scientific in nature.”
As a result of its unscientific regulatory approach, Europe collectively ranks behind countries like Uruguay, Pakistan, and the Philippines in the cultivation of recombinant DNA-modified crops.
Aside from the sheer biological ludicrousness of Todd Akin’s ideas on female physiology, one unsettling subplot to the debacle is his presence on the House of Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
That’s right: A man who, to put it gently, ignores what science tells us about how babies are made, helps shape the future of science in America. It would be shocking, but for the fact that many of the committee’s GOP members have spent the last several years displaying comparable contempt for climate science.
Now, there’s no question that climate change is less well understood than human reproduction. The rate at which warming permafrost will release methane is open for debate, whereas it’s a long-settled fact that women can become pregnant from rape. But in both cases, there exists a factual proposition that can be studied through observation and hypothesis-testing — and it’s the scientific method itself that’s ultimately under attack in the House science committee.
The committee’s chair, Ralph Hall (R-Texas), lumps “global freezing” together with global warming, which he doesn’t believe humans can significantly impact because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) thinks cutting down trees reduces levels of greenhouse gases they absorb. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) still trots out the debunked notion that a scientific consensus existed in the 1970s on “global cooling,” which he portrays as a scare concocted by scientists “in order to generate funds for their pet projects.”
“We can’t control what god controls” !? Okay some might say I put my life in gods hands when I get on the interstate. But then my hands snapped that seatbelt on. Methinks Mr Akin has missed that “who helps themselves” revelation. We will help ourselves with sane energy policy, and laws that protect Women from his kind of fictional biology.
A death row prisoner who has been medically diagnosed as “mentally retarded” and therefore exempt from execution is set to die on Tuesday in Texas, a state that rejects scientific consensus and instead applies its own definition of learning difficulties based on a character in a John Steinbeck novel.
Barring a last minute intervention by the courts, Marvin Wilson, 54, will be put to death by lethal injection even though he has been subjected to scientifically-recognised tests that show him to be intellectually disabled - or “mentally retarded” as the US legal system still calls the condition.
In 2002, the US supreme court banned executions for all such prisoners under the Eighth Amendment of the constitution that prohibits excessive punishment. The 2002 ban, in Atkins v Virginia, is categorical: individuals with mental retardation cannot be put to death. The court allowed some discretion on the part of individual states to devise procedures for administering the injunction, but no right to ignore it.
Texas took that discretion to mean - wrongly in the view of many lawyers and mental health experts - that it could set its own definition of retardation.
Instead of a clinical or scientific approach, based on widely recognized tests set out by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Texas decided to go its own way.
It came up with a set of seven criteria, known as “Briseno factors” after the decision that announced them, to determine which prisoners with learning difficulties should live and which should die.
The determinants were posited around the character Lennie Small in Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.
“Frozen Planet,” the seven-hour series that has attracted millions of viewers to the Discovery Channel in recent weeks, shows Earth in extremis. On this planet, the poles are violently cold, yet are also atypically vulnerable to the warming trends that are endangering polar bear populations and causing huge chunks of ice to break off Greenland and Antarctica.
All of it — the struggling polar bears, the collapsing ice shelves — is shown in stunning high definition. It is accompanied by the voice of Alec Baldwin, who narrates the series and says categorically, “The ends of the earth are changing.”
What the series never assesses, however, is why.
The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate — especially at the poles — and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.
Including the scientific theories “would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary, and would then have become utilized by people with political agendas,” Vanessa Berlowitz, the series producer, said in an interview.
She added, “I feel that we’re trying to educate mass audiences and get children involved, and we didn’t want people saying ‘Don’t watch this show because it has a slant on climate change.’ ”
This approach — anticipating criticism and tiptoeing around it accordingly — is a reflection of the political and ideological fury that infuses many conversations about climate change. Some scientists say that the politicization of the subject has succeeded in causing governments, corporations and media outlets to shy away from open discussion about it.
“Many organizations, and it sounds like Discovery is one of them, appear to be more afraid of being criticized by climate change ‘dismissives’ than they are willing to provide information about climate change to the large majority of Americans who want to know more about it,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
The people who are dismissive of human effect on climate change make up about 10 percent of the American population, according to Dr. Leiserowitz’s research, but they sometimes drown out the broader conversation about the subject, making themselves seem more numerous than they are.
In private, some people involved in the production said that Discovery and its production partners, including the BBC, were wary of alienating any of the potential audience for “Frozen Planet.”
Roger Cone is a microbiologist, not a politician. He struggles with a basic truth: For all the scientific acceptance of evolution, many Americans simply don’t believe it is factually accurate.
And when Tennessee lawmakers passed a measure allowing teachers to question accepted theories on evolution and climate change in the classroom, Cone acted. He and two other scientists wrote an op-ed in The Tennessean last month opposing the bill, which he says “started out as a backdoor attempt to get creationism, or ‘intelligent design,’ taught in the schools.” He fears it will be another black eye for Tennessee — a throwback to the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” when teacher John T. Scopes was put on trial for lecturing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Cone is not alone. The Tennessee controversy is only the latest example of scientists leaving their labs and universities, and clashing with politicians.
A number of battles have played out at the state level: Indiana, for example, recently tried and failed to join Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky in passing a law challenging evolution; other states have passed resolutions slamming the scientific consensus on climate change. And the strain has been heightened by comments on the GOP presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum called global warming a “hoax”; Michele Bachmann accused schools of censorship for not allowing the teaching of intelligent design; and Rick Perry accused scientists of manipulating climate data “to keep the money rolling in.”
“I don’t consider it politics, I just consider it civics,” says Cone, chairman of the department of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “I think scientists have a responsibility to be in the public sphere and to try to communicate and make sure that our kids have a great education in science.”
Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science magazine, says the tension between science and politics is greater than at any time in his scientific career. As a result, he says, scientists have increasingly felt forced to try to set the record straight.
“When scientists see that science is being distorted, they feel compelled to stand up and say, ‘No, that’s not true,’ ” Leshner says.
Ken Whitney, a professor of evolutionary ecology at Rice University in Houston, found himself in a similar situation as Cone five years ago. He was among more than 100 biology faculty members from Texas universities who signed an open letter objecting to the Texas Education Agency’s “neutrality” on evolution and intelligent design. The agency’s science curriculum adviser was subsequently fired.