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Teaching kids to think critically about climate

Two recently published books suggest that the public - and school children in particular - are being fed lies about environmental issues such as climate change. The books - “How to Get Expelled from School…

The days of ‘sit down, shut up and do your science’ are over. Today’s students ask hard questions. University of Iowa

Two recently published books suggest that the public - and school children in particular - are being fed lies about environmental issues such as climate change. The books - “How to Get Expelled from School: A guide to climate change for pupils, parents & punters” by Ian Plimer and “Little Green Lies: An expose of twelve environmental myths” by Jeff Bennett - clearly demonstrate how important it is to have a scientifically literate Australia. The distorted and selectively reported science in these books highlights some of the challenges that Australian teachers face in teaching science, and how important it is that they are supported in this task.

The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCCEE) has condemned Plimer’s book as misleading and inaccurate. However the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is apparently sending copies of Plimer’s misleading fringe book to Australian schools. The Executive Director of the IPA John Roskam is, incidentally, on the editorial board of the publishing house of these two books.

Plimer’s book tells school students that they are being “conned” and “fed propaganda” if their teacher “waffles” on about issues such as human-induced global warming, sea level rise and the IPCC. He deplores this as “environmental activism”. This is despite the overwhelming evidence for human induced climate change accepted by a vast range of climate scientists and scientific organisations.

Climate change in science classrooms

The NSW Year 7-10 science syllabus reflects the accepted scientific view: “students will learn about waste from resource use and identify excessive use of fossil fuels as a contributing factor to a greenhouse effect”. The new Australian Curriculum: Science includes similar content: “explaining the causes and effects of the greenhouse effect” and “investigating the effect of climate change on sea levels and biodiversity”.

It’s ridiculous to suggest a student would be hit or expelled for asking questions. RiAus

Arguably worse than the disinformation in Plimer’s book is the disdain and disrespect for teachers that he advocates. After a few chapters of strenuous denial of human-induced climate change, Plimer lists 101 questions that students (and parents and punters) should ask teachers to catch them out at their propaganda spreading. Fair enough – questions are good. However this section includes helpful advice to students along the lines of: “This question will get you smacked around the head, turfed out of class or expelled …”. There is another gem relating to the question of whether the sun is responsible for the past 150 years of warming of the Earth: “if the answer from your teacher is no, then you should complain to the head teacher that your teacher is a buffoon”.

The insulting suggestion that teachers hit or expel students for asking questions is compounded by the disrespect to teachers that comments such as these (and there are plenty more) explicitly incite. Secondary science teachers have a hard enough job contending with the challenges that a class of 30 adolescents can generate without this.

However the questions that he asks show how demanding a secondary science teacher’s job is. Students should (and do) ask questions; it is the job of science teachers to encourage questions, yet impossible to know the answers to them all. In one sense this doesn’t matter: teachers and students together can do a bit of research and find out the answer.

But whose answer? Where do they look? Do they read Plimer’s outlier book or do they go to the most authoritative and mainstream sources they can think of? Do they do both? If so, how do they adjudicate between alternative views?

Evaluating ideas and testing them against evidence is core to the process of science - the NSW secondary science syllabus explicitly states that students learn to seek evidence to support claims and evaluate evidence for reliability and validity.

So let’s try.

Answering tricky questions takes time and resources

In answer to his own question Plimer says Mars and other planets (including the Earth) show global warming because of the sun. He uses this as an argument against human induced global warming on Earth. The DCCEE (in its “Accurate Answers to Professor Plimer’s 101 questions”) says there is no real evidence for Plimer’s position. Neither of these answers gives us sources to verify their claims.

So teachers (and their students) might do a bit of further research. They might start with the IPCC reports: but these are so voluminous and detailed that it is difficult to find what you are looking for. They certainly don’t support Plimer’s contention though.

Teachers must find time to sift through a lot of information. Selena NBH/Flickr

For more specific detail on the Mars question teachers might go to that incredibly useful standby, the Skeptical Science site. This points out several flaws with the “It’s the sun, like on Mars” claim.

Teachers could then look for the original paper to evaluate it themselves, finding and reading the abstract. They’ll note the authors make no mention of their Martian observations having anything at all to do with climate change on Earth, but might decide that they don’t know enough about albedo and dust storms on Mars to really assess the results. They will probably baulk at paying $US32 to buy the full text of the article (after all this was only one of many questions they received that day).

So the teacher might dig further, and find a paper in National Geographic that reports on a Russian scientist’s claims that the Sun is in fact responsible for recent warming of both Mars and Earth, but that states that his argument is also flawed on several grounds. Despite an hour of searching, the teacher might not be able to find any peer reviewed original source for the Russian’s claim: the closest they can get is an interview reported by the Russian International News Agency. And then they’ll find that evaluating the science of this dubious claim means knowing again about astrophysics, planetary imaging and the climate and atmosphere of Mars.

After hours of all this, the teacher looks at their watch and finds they still have 100 Plimer questions to go, dinner is burnt, tomorrow’s chemistry lesson for Year 9 is not prepared and they run the risk of being called a buffoon.

Yes, Professor Plimer, critical thinking is vital

Of course, testing claims by examining their underlying science is an essential way of examining their reliability and validity. But this is sometimes very difficult and time consuming to do. Most science teachers are generalists rather than climate science specialists, and there is a huge breadth of very complex different scientific sub-disciplines contributing information to climate science.

Moreover this work has already been done: by some of the hundreds of appropriately qualified scientists contributing research and analysis to organisations such as the IPCC, CSIRO, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Australian Academy of Science and so on (this could become a very long list indeed).

So clearly, evaluating the science behind many similar claims about climate change requires a high level of scientific literacy and demands that this be taught and developed in schools. However, broader critical thinking is also required – the same science syllabus requires that student use critical thinking skills in evaluating information and drawing conclusions.

Students learn to think critically, evaluate information and reach their own conclusions. University of Salford

Critical thinking would explore the reliability of the claimant as well as the claims. For example, what might it mean that Plimer’s views are rejected outright by 97-98% of climate scientists and major scientific organisations across the world? Might his extreme and nastily expressed views have something to do with vested interests - given that he is the interim chairman of one mining company and director of at least one other - in the context of a looming carbon tax?

Teaching critical thinking in this context would also look at the concept and role of peer review and relevant credentials when deciding on the worth of conflicting statements.

Professor Bennett is on to something: teachers need economics as well as science

Bennett’s 12 “Little Green Lies” (not to be confused with the 10 “Little Green Lies” published by Jonathan Adler 20 years ago – we are now two lies worse off) raises similar issues and more. In his chapter on climate change, Bennett cites discredited climate change deniers such as Christopher Monkton and Ian Plimer, and conferences organised by the extremist right wing Heartland Institute to shore up his contention that the science of climate change is not settled.

Bennett’s book contends that we should consider economic factors in relation to environmental issues - not a novel argument. One of the organising ideas for the Sustainability cross-curriculum priority of the new Australian Curriculum spells it out for teachers: “Sustainable patterns of living rely on the interdependence of healthy social, economic and ecological systems”.

This is the second challenge for science teachers. Teaching kids about this interdependence of systems requires, well, a cross-curricular perspective that marries accurate science with socio-political and economic considerations. But secondary education is traditionally conducted in subject silos, with the science teachers busy beavering away at Plimer’s 101 questions, and knowing very little about things that Bennett knows about such as “individually tradable quotas”.

Secondary teachers are going to need a lot of support and resources for the cross-curricular priorities of the Australian Curriculum to really be implemented.

Plimer and Bennett have starkly illustrated the need for a genuinely cross-curricular approach to sustainability in the Australian Curriculum, and for support to help science teachers enhance the scientific literacy of Australia’s children.

A recent report by Australia’s Chief Scientist and the 54 million-dollar science and mathematics Budget package both signpost the need for more good science teachers in Australian schools. This is to ensure we have appropriately skilled workers in the future and to improve the scientific literacy of the next generation of Australians.

It’s hard enough helping kids understand the main ideas of science without having to deal with diversionary and scientifically invalid materials exemplified by these two books. It is also too terrible to contemplate the consequences of a generation not able to critically engage with and disentangle the science from the spin. So yes please – the support and resources for science teachers are very welcome.

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