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The spirit of science and debate

I've always had the reputation among my students, no matter where I'm teaching, of trying to be fair, honest, direct, and understanding. I try to listen to my students and point them in the "right" direction no matter the topic, and even admit that sometimes I just simply don't know. This has been a quality I have striven for as I teach, guide, or mentor throughout my entire life.


It finally got me into a pot of hot water, as they say. My science literacy class has nearly maniacal fun seeing how far they can push me into stating my own viewpoints and try desperately to hit all of my buttons. Although their playing the devil's advocate makes for a lot of fun from both the teaching and the learning aspects, it also makes me think.


As I listen to their questions and answers, and as we discuss the various points of research, statistics, public policy, and humanitarian issues, I get an inner view of the people sitting in front of me. I opened up this can of worms unknowingly when I began to introduce them to thinking about debating the pros and cons of any particular topic, not just becoming more informed. The debate finally turned to climate change, and I got to witness a lot of opinion on whether or not they thought the climate was changing and why.


One student was shouting, "You can't debate climate change; the ice is retreating from Canada and exposing areas of land we've never seen!" Happily, they have learned to back up all statements with a citation, at least, so they produced an article they saw. The counter argument was the familiar information-deficit model, which as an educator, I'm used to hearing applied to just about any science.


The climate science debate, though, is a topic with which I should be much more familiar. I understand that all the isotopic data clearly shows a rising trend in temperature, as well as the idea that it's been rising since the Industrial Revolution. I'm aware that as we use our planet's resources we change things, and that many of the by-products of production end up in the atmosphere. In my brain it makes perfect sense that the things we do, on top of the things that happen naturally, would inevitably lead to a warmer climate. It just never occurred to me that the climate skeptics would be combining a lack of knowledge with plain denial, then using what they seem to think as logic to push the denial along.


This deficit model is not new to me. I used it often as a stubborn child when I didn't want to do what my parents wanted me to do. The general process goes something like this: 1. Deny you are wrong (or that someone is right); 2. find the data (or lack thereof) to support your own idea; 3. be stubborn when the data to refute your hypothesis come up. I mastered this art of denial early on when trying to convince my parents that chocolate cake is a viable breakfast. I saw it presented stubbornly on both sides of the debate in my students regarding climate change.


My pro-climate change student was adamant that humans were the destructive element, while my skeptic was digging heels in and claiming that the data wasn't all there. Causally, I asked them if they could find a middle ground. Could not human activity be slightly less to blame? After all, humans were not around in the Eocene, and there were cold spells both before and after a very distinctive warming event. What was the catalyst then? What ended this warm period?


To me, and now to my students, these debates are not an "us versus them" situation, but are part of the spirit of science and debate. There are elements of truth and/or concerns on each side that ought to be addressed with an open mind. A tool that will help in this is Melissa Kenney's assessment tool for climate change. Between assessment tools and education, people can become more informed and hopefully voice their concerns in a less polarizing way.