The Climate Change Emails: Implications for Public Education and Engagement

I've been busy the past week with wrapping up the semester. As a consequence, I have not had the chance to post about continuing developments related to the stolen emails from servers at University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

However, today is a convenient time to weigh in, since I share many of the same conclusions offered by Mike Hulme in recent op-eds at the BBC and Wall Street Journal.

Before discussing the Hulme articles, let me relay a few observations. Since the stolen email story broke, my concern has been that many bloggers and commentators are overlooking the true significance of the event. Not unexpectedly, the storyline offered by these commentators simplistically defines the event as yet another effort by the conservative movement to manufacture doubt and to wage a "war on science."

Yet this predictable storyline overlooks the fact that scientists, science reporters, educators, and their institutions may have unintentionally created the conditions that helped a single focusing event turn into a global controversy and media frenzy. Reaction to the content of the East Anglia emails is so intense because it shows scientists talking and behaving in ways that cut against the stereotypical image of impartial, Vulcan-like high priests of reason. For too long in school and in news reporting, we have portrayed a cartoon image of how science is done, its connection to policy debates, and how scientists participate in these debates. This has worked for scientists in the past, but as the types of questions that society faces and as modes of communication change, the public is expecting and demanding greater involvement in science-related decisions and greater accountability on the part of scientists.

The East Anglia emails are a wake up call that we need to shift modes to educate, communicate, and report on how science really works and its role relative to societal decisions. In short, we need to fundamentally re-think how we educate, involve and engage the public in questions of science-related policy.

Specific to the East Anglia event and climate change, Mike Hulme and Jerome Ravetz adeptly describe this challenge in an opinion article at the BBC. As they write:

The disclosure and content of these private exchanges [the CRU emails] is only the latest in a long line of instances that point to the need for major changes in the relationship between science and the public.

By this, we mean a more concerted effort to explain and engage the public in understanding the processes and practices of science and scientists, as much as explaining the substance of their knowledge and how (un)certain it is.

How well does the public understand professional peer review, for example, or the role of a workshop, a seminar and a conference in science?

Does the public understand how scientists go about resolving differences of opinion or reaching consensus about an important question when the uncertainties are large?

We don't mean the "textbook" answers to such things; all practising scientists know that they do not simply follow a rulebook to do their science, otherwise it could be done by a robot.

Science is a deeply human activity, and we need to be more honest about what this entails. Rather than undermining science, it would actually allow the public to place their trust more appropriately in the various types of knowledge that scientists can offer.


So what is a quick way to jump start changes in science education? One starting place, and an idea I have been pitching, is to develop a "civic science literacy" curriculum module that can be incorporated in entry-level college science courses for majors and non-majors alike. Here's how I describe this module in a recent review article:

[The module] would introduce students to quality online news sources about science, teach students about how to constructively use participatory tools such as blogs and other social media applications, educate students on how to critically evaluate evidence and claims as presented in the media, introduce students to the relationships between science and institutions as they are often covered in the news, and socialize students into enjoying and following science by way of digital media after they complete their formal science coursework. In short, this type of media literacy curriculum would not only potentially grow the audience for science media, but also impart the skills, motivation, and know-how that students need to be participatory citizens in the online and real worlds.


So where in the popular media might we look for examples to include as part of this curriculum? A place to start is the ongoing conversation at Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog, one of the few places in the U.S. mainstream media where many of these sociological and political questions related to climate science are addressed. A second leading source, relevant to many fields in the life sciences, would be articles from The Scientist magazine, which routinely offers strong context for understanding the financial, social, and political dimensions of science. Other sources include David Goldston's past columns on science policy at Nature or other commentary articles appearing at the Nature outlets. Past articles at Issues in Science & Technology are also good sources, such as this recent article on the "politicization" of science by Daniel Sarewitz.

Finally, a leading resource is the past series by CBC Radio on "How to Think about Science," a series that introduces listeners to research in the field of social studies of science. I raved about the series when it came out and now the series transcripts are available as an edited volume.

Of course, these popular media sources should be complemented by deeper, yet still accessible core readings. Examples might include Mike Hulme's recently published Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Roger Pielke's Honest Broker, or chapters from this excellent edited volume on science communication and public engagement.

[For readers attending the upcoming AGU meetings, a pre-conference panel will explore many of these issues. Go here for details and to register.]

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