In the trenches
Over at Deltoid, a commentator going by the handle of Schneb posts from the secondary school trenches about teaching current affairs (it's pretty long, but you need the entire comment to see the issues that are raised and that Rabett Run wants to consider)
I teach a current events-type course to 12th graders. We spent quite a bit of time on Global Warming. There were two bright, very nice, responsible young people who kept to themselves in the class--I can't blame them, the rest of the class, as 2nd semester seniors tend to be, were NOT the most focused, thoughtful people.
But as time went by, I realized the two 'nice' students were not just different in behavior, but in outlook: to them, Global Warming is an invented scheme, and/or hysterical over-reaction. And like the young blogger profiled on NPR, they have news stories about various carbon reading techniques, or the growth of the polar bear population, etc. to back themselves up. They see the mass of scientists who agree that GW is real and caused by human behavior as self-serving careerists who somehow profit from adopting/promoting the GW party line.
This is as good a statement of the problem as Eli has ever seen, but it is also clear that there is not one problem but several.
But the two that I'm talking about really are nice people--so they don't do a Penn & Teller 'Bull&$#@'-type proclamation of their views. In fact, it wasn't clear that they were hardline in their views 'til we were most of the way through the unit (maybe they kept a low profile initially because, while they're sure they're right, they're used to the rest of the world seeing things otherwise and mocking or dismissing them?--just a guess). When I finally realized their 'take' on GW, I wanted to engage them and bring them around to what I see as the only legitimate view [GW is real/human-caused]--but a flat-out dissing of their view would only have put me on their long list of 'sheep who follow the self-serving GW deceivers'. So I tried a couple of ways to indirectly explore the issue so they'd see the error of their ways. They never said, 'gosh, maybe it IS real!'--more the opposite, actually--so I can't say that I had any success, but I hope they'll eventually come around and that I started opening their minds a bit.
I mention this because the problem isn't that a GW-denying teen-blogger was profiled on NPR. It's what she stands for (and that's what I saw the NPR piece as being about). There's a sub-culture of anti-GW folks out there. And like the blogger, they can sound knowledgeable. As all here seem to agree, this is the problem.
And as you all have noted, others, who see GW as real, don't always sound knowledgeable. As I remember the NPR story, the blogger's friend sees GW as real, but couldn't say why. Sit that friend in a room with 2-3 of the GW deniers, who bombard her with legitimate-sounding criticism of GW and there'll be 3-4 deniers in the room (instead of 2-3).
But it's not just that the deniers have somehow fallen prey to bad science. Those who takes this position, and particularly the young people who do so, gets quite a 'rush' of self-empowerment. Sorry if this seems extreme, but it's probably what fed the Hitler Youth, and the Red Guard, but in a less virulent form: a basis for flouting authority; instead of being a dependent, subservient 'youngster' you get to thumb your nose at the dusty old, wrong-headed, know-it-alls, and you get to do so by (in your own eyes, at least) being smarter than them.
I don't mean to say that the two very nice young people in my class are somehow comparable to the Hitler Youth. Far from it! They are not advocating violence or racism--I'm sure they are actively doing 'the opposite', whatever that would be--but I think they're getting a little of the same vibe that fed the HY, etc.
I mention this because understanding where they're coming from, is important.
It's not a question of science alone, but of psychology, as well.
Showing them that their graphs are wrong might be very satisfying--and might keep them from convincing their friends to join (if the friend witnesses your debunking of the debunkers)--but I don't think you're likely to set them straight. It's not about the graphs for them--its about how they see themselves, and that's based on how they see anyone who says GW is real/human-caused. This is about identity, as defined in terms of 'science'--not science.
And frankly, that same psychology underlies a large part of what the religious right (of which these two young women may be a part) is all about, in general, as far as I can see.
It helped me to lay this all out. Sorry if I'm didactically stating the obvious.
1. The first, let us call it modestly, the Eli/Mashey N3xus is to expose the bad science for what it is so that those with casual interests don't fall prey. At the extreme this means confronting the agents of denial publicly.
2. The second, we can call this the Schneb imperative, is to not further alienate the cultural denialists and, at best, to raise some doubts in their minds which may later have an effect.
3. Then again there is the question of how you correct a sympathetic, but wrong advocate. Simon Donner points out wrt Kristen Byrnes
Are we really having this discussion? This is a high school student. Seriously, this is exhibit A for all those who argue we do more harm than good attacking 'skeptics'.Those are the issues. The question is what is the proper order of concern, is putting out an answer more important than not further alienating the alienated, how should one avoid ticking off bystanders. In short, what should be done.