The Climate Change Skeptic’s Argument: Natural Solar Cycles or Human Activity?
How climate change has been handled by the media provides an excellent opportunity to introduce and explore the process of science in the classroom. Even today, most science textbooks convey scientific inquiry as a linear process, describing the “5 steps of the scientific method” (for instance, Step 1: Observation; Step 2: Question; Step 3: Hypothesis; Step 4: Experimentation; Step 5: Conclusion) with utter disregard for how science really operates. One scientist described the way in which she conducted research using an analogy of a boiling pot of spaghetti—ideas float to the surface, generating the need for additional data collection, or different approaches to analysis. As research proceeds, there is repeated application of the processes of data collection, analysis, hypothesis development, and emerging new questions, over and over, until the scientist has completed the investigation and comes to a conclusion. But even at that conclusion stage, the investigation is still in its early stages, because science is fundamentally a social process involving the input of others.
A very important part of the scientific process is the institution of “peer review”. Through conferences, workshops and publications, scientists present their ideas for argument and validation. There is probably no better way for a scientist to increase his or her status in the scientific community than to make an important discovery, that is, to identify new evidence or demonstrate that a commonly accepted scientific idea is inaccurate. This is one of the reasons why those who are familiar with the scientific enterprise rebuke the idea that there is a “conspiracy” among scientists to promote climate change for their own gains.
Scientific advancement thrives on debate. It is important to communicate to students that if the validity of climate change were really in question, scientists and graduate students would glom onto it like ants to honey. The results of their investigations would be all over the news as their visibility and stature in the scientific community increased.
Climate change skeptics claim there is no scientific consensus, and that many scientists disagree with the idea that humans are responsible for the global warming trend we are experiencing today. However, as succinctly noted by John Cook, we have “a numbers gap, an expertise gap and a credibility gap between the scientists convinced of human caused global warming and climate skeptics,” (Cook 2010). A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) shows that 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field accept the evidence that the factors contributing to current climate change is dominated by anthropogenic, or human-related, behavior resulting in greenhouse gas emissions (Anderegg et al., 2010).
Your students may have heard the argument that solar activity is influencing global climate, causing the world to get warmer. As you support their development of media literacy, encourage their examination of “trusted voices” in science by exposing them to websites maintained by national agencies, laboratories, and research institutions, such as NASA.gov, NOAA.gov, and UCAR.edu. Students should focus on what scientific experts within the field are saying. Most scientists have no problem admitting the limitations of their data, as well as what they still do not know.
Read “The Glory Mission’s Judith Lean Discusses Solar Variability.” This interview with Dr. Judith Lean summarizes solar cycles and what scientists have learned about solar variability. Then, read “Solar Storm Dumps Gigawatts into Earth’s Upper Atmosphere” from the NASA Science website about recent solar activity.
Evaluating and Organizing Internet Resources and Content
Check out this excerpt from the “Evaluating and Organizing Internet Resources and Content” online course from PBS TeacherLine, which explores teaching students how to evaluate websites and online content. This course is open for enrollment - read more.
Is climate change skepticism strongly represented by your students? How much of this may be a reflection of the views held by their parents and/or the community?
Do you see a barrier to teaching about climate change in your classroom?
What strategies could you use to ensure that students approach this issue with an open mind?
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