Roberta Johnson and Erin Gustafson

January 20, 2011

in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

This week’s episode of This American Life features a discussion between Roberta Johnson, the Executive Director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and Erin Gustafson, a high school age climate change denier and appreciator of Glenn Beck.

The pattern of the discussion is a familiar one to me. Dr. Johnson lays out the evidence that humans are changing the climate dangerously, based on things like ice core samples and isotopic ratios. Ms. Gustafson brings up some common denier talking points, like the Medieval Warm Period and the leaked climate science emails. Dr. Johnson responds to these criticisms, but Ms. Gustafson remains unconvinced.

The host then asks Dr. Johnson if there is any hope of getting through to people with evidence, once they become skeptical. Her answer is not terribly satisfying, and the whole interview is testimony to the difficulty of the task.

Of course, the word ‘skeptical’ is being misused here. To continue to disagree with a claim, regardless of how weak your arguments are or how strong those backing it have become, is not skepticism. Rather, it is a kind of dogmatism. There are many genuine difficulties in making sense of our complex world, but it seems to me that the modes of thinking about thinking are what are really broken in climate change deniers. They will cling to any scrap of evidence that supports what they want to believe, while subscribing to conspiracy theories that discredit those who argue otherwise.

As I have mentioned before, I was a lot less concerned about climate change a few years ago. I bought the argument from The Economist that we didn’t know whether it would be cheaper to stop or to simply adapt to. Since then, virtually all the new evidence and analysis has given us greater cause for concern. Unfortunately, the last few years have seen a kind of exhaustion among both advocates of action on climate change and society at large. The deniers are winning, at least insofar as they are giving politicians more than enough cover to continue to do far too little about what is probably the world’s most important problem.

People who are concerned about climate change might be wrong. There could be something about the planet we have overlooked, which means humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions don’t need to be curbed. That being said, it seems decreasingly likely that this is the case. More and more lines of evidence demonstrate what is happening and why. There is also the question of risk management. If we believe the deniers and they are wrong, the world is in a lot of trouble. If we believe the activists, move to a zero carbon economy, and then discover the threat was overblown, we will have accomplished a lot of useful things. We will have lost out on a bit of the prosperity that continued use of fossil fuels would have given us, but we would have built a cleaner and sustainable global society. At worst, we would create a better world ‘for nothing.’

* One important exception to this argument concerns extreme poverty. If there is any area where we should let another moral objective trump climate change mitigation, it is in improving the lot of those who are desperately impoverished. Since their emissions are a tiny part of the global total anyhow, this goal can be sought at the same time as the excessive emissions of those in rich countries are aggressively reduced.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 21, 2011 at 12:07 am

I think a better way to think about skepticism is to while refusing to accord a proposition objective certainty, still decide to act on it because the balance of probable outcomes is such that not acting would be immoral.

We can imagine much less cosmological instances of this than climate change. For example, I might have some non conclusive evidence which gives me some reasons to believe the road on which I’m driving may have black ice. Of course, I might still be skeptical about whether there is black ice – I probably wouldn’t say “yes, I am certain there is black ice” until I actually experience it. And yet, I slow down (which is a real cost – I get to my destination more slowly, which costs me time, and we think time is money), because the balance of probabilities and risk in this situation are such that even if the probability of an accident is low (say, 15%), the cost of an accident is so high (death? death of others?) that it makes sense to make serious sacrifices (slowing down) to reduce that probability.

alena January 21, 2011 at 10:33 am

I like the photo very much. The red shovel is a lovely focal point and everything looks like it is spinning.

Roberta Johnson January 21, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Hi, this is Roberta Johnson, of the This American Life interview. I just wanted to make a few comments on the interview. First of all, I want to thank Ira Glass, his producer, Jonathan Menjivar, and Erin Gustafson for the opportunity to have this conversation. I really enjoyed it, and I hope it was a learning experience for all involved – I know it was for me! The interview was an hour and a half in length, and was cut down from that to something like 10 minutes. So naturally, there were elements of the conversation that did not make it into the final piece that aired last weekend. I’d like to make a few points about the interview that you and your readers may find interesting.

1. Although the interview was posed as me trying to “convince” Erin that climate change is real, and largely human caused, I must confess that I don’t think that that is really a job for science teachers. The job of science teachers is to help students develop their scientific thinking skills — to be able to examine evidence (typically data or model results), and to evaluate that evidence using their scientific skill set to draw science-based conclusions. We clearly need to do a better job helping students to develop this skill set, as well as to follow the evidence using their knowledge of physical principles to science-based conclusions.

2. The interview started with Erin saying that she did not believe that the climate was warming, and that she thought it was all a hoax. One thing that did not make it in the final piece that aired is that, towards the end of the interview, she acknowledged that, well maybe it is happening, but she was still skeptical as to why it was happening. To me, that seems like significant movement – perhaps all that can be expected from a 1.5 hr long conversation being taped for a radio show. I think it’s unreasonable to think that a young woman who is pretty firm in her views and feels that she is well-versed in the matter will do a 180 degree turn around on the issue that quickly.

3. Erin said that she wanted to hear both sides of the evidence. I responded that, while there is an abundance of data publicly available that documents that it is happening, there is not an equivalent amount of evidence to the contrary. There is, however, an abundance of opinion and argument about it – which is different. It seems that we need to spend some time educating the public, as well as students, about the difference between actual physical evidence, science-based models, and opinion.

4. Finally, I was struck, in preparing for and doing this interview, by how polarized our society has become. It’s difficult for people to have calm, respectful conversations on a subject area – like Erin, Ira, and I had the opportunity to do. Based on my life-long association with scientists, I naturally view them as good, hard-working people with strong principles. People who do not know scientists as people in their communities, or their friends, may not naturally trust them – particularly if what they are saying challenges some of their core values. To some, scientists may be “the other”, and are therefore more easily ascribed negative intentions. It seems to me that perhaps scientists need to come out of themselves a bit, and interact more with others in and outside their communities. When you know someone, and like them, its more difficult to ascribe negative intentions to them. Perhaps this would help others develop more trust in scientists.

We are unfortunately facing a very difficult problem, that will not be quick to solve, and will require continuing, dedicated work. Which is why I said, we can’t give up. And now, back to the front!

thanks,

Roberta

Milan January 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Roberta,

Thank you very much for taking the time to comment and provide some additional information.

John January 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm

How ironic! A photo of the huge East Coast Blizzard at the top of a post about ‘climate change!’ LOL

. January 22, 2011 at 1:02 pm

“There are other factors, the anger and the fear and hostility int eh country about everything, carries over to this. SO if you look at the polls everyone hates congress, they hate the democrats, they hate the republicans even more, they hate the banks, and they distrust scientists. So why should we believe what these pointy headed elitests tell us; if we don’t trust everyone else, we won’t trust them. All of this combines to, the latest election a couple of days ago – you can almost interpret it as a death knell for the species. There was an article in Bloomburg business week, not a radical rag, running through the new republicans going to congress and they are worried about them. One of the reason is that they are almost all global warming deniers. That means the powerful House committees on science and technology will be in the hands of people who think there is nothing to it, or at least claim to think that, what they actually think is another story. In fact one of them is quoted as saying “it can’t be a problem, God will take care of it”. If this were happening in some small country, maybe Morocco, maybe it wouldn’t matter much. But when it’s happening in the richest country in the world it’s a threat to the species. No one else will do very much if the U.S. doesn’t take the lead.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AXwpVWLlhw

Tristan January 22, 2011 at 7:11 pm

“Although the interview was posed as me trying to “convince” Erin that climate change is real, and largely human caused, I must confess that I don’t think that that is really a job for science teachers. The job of science teachers is to help students develop their scientific thinking skills — to be able to examine evidence (typically data or model results), and to evaluate that evidence using their scientific skill set to draw science-based conclusions. ”

I must say, I believe this is a deeply deceptive standard for what it is possible to teach in high school, and what kinds of virtues we should be encouraging in students. You can’t teach students in high school how to “do science” (most of what we teach them is rejected theories). Also, I believe it is absurd to to believe you can teach a high school student to draw science based conclusions from evidence. High school students don’t even know what evidence is (this is actually a complicated idea – I wouldn’t personally claim to have a good understanding of what “Evidence” is, despite several years at University studying philosophy of science).

What’s essential is to give children the tools they need to evaluate the reliability of various institutions – not individuals, or individual claims. For instance, Newtonian gravity is false. And yet, it was a good idea to believe in it while it was accepted – and that is partially related to the moral standing of the institutions which accepted it (they were not corrupt, did not have anterior motives, for instance). If anything, it would be far more useful to teach students how scientific institutions work, and what problems actually exist with them, and which one’s don’t.

I think if we took this reasonable tact, we’d end up with students highly critical of the pharmaceutical industry, but much less critical of cimate change.

Tristan January 22, 2011 at 7:16 pm

“about the difference between actual physical evidence, science-based models, and opinion.”

Physical evidence is always theory-relative, it depends on particular models both for its meaning, and for the rational for spending money to go get it, or to care about it if someone else has already gotten it.

Science-based models are always “opinions”, in that they are views people advance from their particular positions.

Opinions are always “models” – they are ways people cope with the world by simplifying it. And that’s a good thing – because the world is way to complicated to deal with without simplifications (you wouldn’t be able to read this sentence if it weren’t for simplifications). And we like to distinguish between opinion and ‘science based models’ by whether or not those opinions are supported by reasons that can be given in public and publicly evaluated. And, that’s fair and good – but those reasons always rely on evidence which is already theory-relative.

The point is – knowledge always is circular. The point is to be in the circle in the right way, and to recognize what ways of being in the circle of knowledge are truthful and push us in the direction of justice, and which ways are deceptive, and push us towards destruction and chaos.

oleh January 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Roberta,

Thank you for your insight and your contribution, not only to the blog, but more importantly to the wider awareness of challenge and the threat of climate change.

I find it interesting that Erin started the interview with the view that climate change was a hoax and after the 90 minute interview felt seemed more open to the possibility that climate change is real.

I find if you seek to persuade someone with strong, but perhaps unjustified, views, to re-consider, it is most effective to take a reasonable approach. To simply retort that the other person is wrong, simply creates a defensiveness that stops the person from listening.

It seems you were effective with Erin to maintaining a dialogue and perhaps opening her to the possibility that climate change is real.

Milan January 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm

The hardest thing to prove isn’t actually that climate change is happening, or that it is caused by human beings. Rather, it is determining how dangerous it is.

Despite that difficulty, there is extensive scientific evidence showing why we should be concerned.

Milan January 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm

A photo of the huge East Coast Blizzard at the top of a post about ‘climate change!’

You’ve discovered the one irrefutable, knock-down argument showing how climate change is a hoax: winter exists.

Tony Lee January 26, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Dr Johnson,

Thank you so much for your comment. I have to admit that my heart just about fell listening to the podcast. Why doesn’t the scientist talk about the true nature of scientific scepticism? Why doesn’t she tell her that the lines of evidence practically all point one way and that climate sceptics just haven’t got a sizeable or coherent body of literature?

How nice to see that you covered all that in the meeting. One argument I’ve always thought was effective (though some would say it borders on an appeal to authority) is analogising the survey of 97% climate scientists who agree in the human causes of global warming to patients who trust mainstream doctors over fringe quacks. At the end of the day, it’s about whom you trust, and how to decide whom to trust.

By the way, I thought Erin’s final statement, that she wanted to hear “both sides” of the debate (and specifically comparing the climate change debate to the evolution debate), not optimistic at all. To me, it sounded like she was looking for excuses to disregard your evidence.

Dave Graham February 16, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Just a few tiny little points for you all to consider when you’ve stopped treating people as heretics for not agreeing with you.
1) Antropogenic climate change is the same as any other unexperimentally derived statement – it is a working hypothesis which seeks to match observations with a theory as to why the observed phenomena are in existence. Most of the evidence which supports this hypothesis is in the form of computer models and that which is not is generally capable of multiple interpretations. Opinion, computer models, philosophical statements and appeals to authority are not evidence and never will be. A working hypothesis is not fact however much you want it to be.
2) Please, please stop calling those who have a different working hypothesis – evidence based – “deniers”. It tells so much about the mindset of the people who use this label – if you can’t rubbish the argument, rubbish the person.
3) Perhaps you’d all like to take a long and careful look at http://www.petitionproject.org
When you’ve done that, followed up the references and considered your position carefully, I’d love to see your comments. But make them evidence based please. Oh and not personally insulting.
Oh and 4) A science teacher against a “high school student” (is this an unqualified, only secondary school educated 18 year old?). What on earth is the point of that?
All the best Dave

Roberta Johnson February 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for your comment, David.

Regarding your statement that “Most of the evidence [referring to anthropogenic climate change] which supports this hypothesis is in the form of computer models”, I find this statement to be misleading.

There is abundant and overwhelming observational evidence of climate change globally, in many different segments of the Earth system. Much of this evidence is available online and is available to the public. Some of this observational evidence is such that it specifically points to an anthropogenic, rather than natural source. For instance, the changing isotopic signature of carbon in the atmosphere.

Scientists use computer models not only to estimate future evolution of systems – including the climate system. They also use computational models to understand the impact of various components of systems, since models conveniently allow you to test the impact of various assumptions and scenarios. Using models in this way, scientists have shown that the only way we can reproduce the observed warming of the climate system over the past several decades is by adding the observed increased in greenhouse gases from anthropogenic sources.

Regarding the Petition project, there have been numerous discussions of problems associated with that effort, and I will not repeat them. http://www.skepticalscience.com has extensive discussion of this, including a thorough analysis at http://www.skepticalscience.com/scrutinising-31000-scientists-in-the-OISM-Petition-Project.html.

With regard to your comment about a science teacher “against” a high school student, I think the comment points to a larger problem. I did not view this as any sort of an adversarial conversation, and I don’t think that others in the conversation did, either. In fact, I enjoyed the discussion, and my feeling is that Erin did as well. Hopefully, we all learned something. Erin, Ira, and I had the pleasure of having a 1.5 hr long civil conversation on this topic. Everyone involved was mutually respectful and pleasant. If we could move away from heated rhetoric and name calling, and instead focus on calm discussion of the evidence, trying to understand each other, and finding common values, I expect we would make much more progress – not only in this area, but in all areas in society.

Thank you for your comments,

Roberta

Milan February 17, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Thank you for posting such a civil and substantive response. It is frustrating for those of us who are really worried about climate change to see others denying that it is even happening.

It can be personally challenging to deal with that frustration in a way that doesn’t lead to a hostile argument.

Dave Graham February 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Thank you for your responses. May I please point out that I have not said that climate change is not happening; I merely indicated that I find the evidence that it is entirely due to humans / mainly due to humans / possible to change back by human activity very, very unconvincing especially when it is contrasted with evidence indicating the reverse. I quote “Some of this observational evidence is such that it specifically points to an anthropogenic, rather than natural source. For instance, the changing isotopic signature of carbon in the atmosphere. ” Yes some evidence points to something or other but other evidence points elsewhere and there is no repeat no evidence that reducing our CO2 production is likely to have much of an effect on anything – merely computer models which in general are not capable of verification experimentally. Why is it that you want me to reduce my “carbon footprint” when even dyed in the wool climate fanatics agree that for example methane, nitrous oxide, the production of dust and even the net effects of human respiration have massive effects on atmospheric makeup and, according to some models, a greater effect than CO2. With regard to the crit of the Petition Project I wonder whether you have read the recent blog responses to this crit – please do, they sum up many of my misgivings in a sufficiently comprehensive way. I am not a climate scientist but I have spent the last 40 years of my professional and personal education learning how to think and evaluate evidence and to not be attached to a point of view. I find the rabid, obnoxious and personally insulting attitude of many of the supporters of ACC mystifying – why would anyone want to hate me just because I produce evidence for an alternative point of view which I am happy to debate. We live on the edge of an exciting universe – I expect us to move on and out from earth, increase the general level of wealth, happiness and freedom from pain, hunger and disease of everyone by our manipulation of the physical world. (just like the last 100 years) We are not going to do this by reducing our energy consumption to levels which require us to bicycle our way through life in semidarkness. Not 30 million miles from earth is an entire minor planet made, as far as we can see, from hydrocarbons. Are you all suggesting that we can’t, if we really want to, make use of this? That we can’t, if we want to, re-engineer our planet? Science, as I said before, is about evidence, not philosophy. Please decide whether you are arguing because of evidence you have or because you don’t agree with the underlying philosophy of what we are doing.
My very best regards and I await your response

Dave

Milan February 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm

May I please point out that I have not said that climate change is not happening; I merely indicated that I find the evidence that it is entirely due to humans / mainly due to humans / possible to change back by human activity very, very unconvincing especially when it is contrasted with evidence indicating the reverse.

First, scientists agree that the climate changes for natural reasons. It’s just that human activities are now changing it so forcefully that they dwarf natural causes. Our greenhouse gas emissions are so large that they put us firmly in control of where the climate is going.

James Hansen explains this well:

But shouldn’t Earth now, or at some point, be headed into the next ice age? No. Another ice age will not occur, unless humans go extinct. Orbital conditions now are, indeed, conducive (albeit weakly) to initiation of ice sheet growth in the Northern Hemisphere But only a small amount of human-made GHGs are needed to overwhelm any natural tendency toward cooling. The long lifetime of human-made CO2 perturbations assures that no human generation that we can imagine will need to be concerned about global cooling. Even after fossil fuel use ceases and its effect is drained from the system an ice age could be averted by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) produced in a single CFC factory. It is a trivial task for humanity to avert an ice age.

Note also studies on the attribution of observed changes. Models that include human activities match up well with what we are observing. Models that only incorporate natural factors do not.

I quote “Some of this observational evidence is such that it specifically points to an anthropogenic, rather than natural source. For instance, the changing isotopic signature of carbon in the atmosphere. ”

Isotopic ratios are a very convincing kind of evidence. They also line up with something quite obvious. Chemically, it is inevitable that you produce CO2 when you burn coal, oil, or gas. It cannot be denied that humanity burns a lot of these fuels and therefore produces a lot of CO2. Evidence from isotopic ratios lines up with this.

Yes some evidence points to something or other but other evidence points elsewhere and there is no repeat no evidence that reducing our CO2 production is likely to have much of an effect on anything – merely computer models which in general are not capable of verification experimentally.

This article is worth a look: Why should we trust a bunch of contrived computer models that haven’t ever had a prediction confirmed ? Talk to me in 100 years.

Also, you don’t need to rely on models all that much, if you don’t want to. We have records on what the climate has been like for hundreds of thousands of years. These records can be used to estimate how sensitive the climate system is to carbon dioxide. Since at least 1979, scientists have agreed that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would warm the planet by about 3˚C.

Why is it that you want me to reduce my “carbon footprint” when even dyed in the wool climate fanatics agree that for example methane, nitrous oxide, the production of dust and even the net effects of human respiration have massive effects on atmospheric makeup and, according to some models, a greater effect than CO2.

Greenhouse gases other than CO2 definitely need to be considered. So do aerosols and black carbon. Humanity should be working to reduce emissions of all climate-altering substances.

That said, CO2 is still especially important. That’s partly because there is so much of it (since we burn so many fossil fuels) and partly because it sticks around for a long time.

With regard to the crit of the Petition Project I wonder whether you have read the recent blog responses to this crit – please do, they sum up many of my misgivings in a sufficiently comprehensive way. I am not a climate scientist but I have spent the last 40 years of my professional and personal education learning how to think and evaluate evidence and to not be attached to a point of view.

Petitions are simply not a convincing form of evidence. The climate system doesn’t care what people believe, it just responds to changes according to the laws of physics and chemistry. Petitions are also easily manipulated.

To borrow a phrase from William Whewell, there is a ‘consilience of evidence’ when it comes to the science of climate change: multiple, independent lines of evidence converging on a single coherent account. These forms of evidence are both observational (temperature records, ice core samples, etc) and theoretical (thermodynamics, atmospheric physics, etc). Together, these lines of evidence provide a conceptual and scientific backing to the theory of climate change caused by human greenhouse gas emissions that is simply absent for alternative theories, such as that there is no change or that the change is caused by something different.

I find the rabid, obnoxious and personally insulting attitude of many of the supporters of ACC mystifying – why would anyone want to hate me just because I produce evidence for an alternative point of view which I am happy to debate.

It is dangerous to spend too long debating, rather than taking action. Our understanding of the climate system is good enough for us to conclude that dumping a gigantic amount of CO2 into it is dangerous. If we do want to limit warming to less than 2˚C (as many scientists and countries have endorsed), we need to be cutting emissions aggressively.

Misleading debates that delay action endanger people in future generations.

We live on the edge of an exciting universe – I expect us to move on and out from earth, increase the general level of wealth, happiness and freedom from pain, hunger and disease of everyone by our manipulation of the physical world. (just like the last 100 years)

If humanity is going to have a bright future, we need to find sustainable forms of energy. Fossil fuels don’t fit the bill, even if you ignore climate change. They are eventually going to run out and – long before that – burning them will probably terribly destabilize the climate system humanity depends upon.

We are not going to do this by reducing our energy consumption to levels which require us to bicycle our way through life in semidarkness.

There is a lot of renewable energy out there. We can also use energy in much more efficient ways. I really recommend that you have a look at Cambridge physicist David MacKay’s book: Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.

Not 30 million miles from earth is an entire minor planet made, as far as we can see, from hydrocarbons. Are you all suggesting that we can’t, if we really want to, make use of this? That we can’t, if we want to, re-engineer our planet?

Geoengineering is a scary idea. Human beings often start tinkering with complex systems before they are able to manage all the consequences of what they are doing. All of the ‘cheap’ proposed ways of cooling the climate carry the certainty of serious side-effects. For instance, any approach that doesn’t reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 will not do anything about ocean acidification.

Science, as I said before, is about evidence, not philosophy. Please decide whether you are arguing because of evidence you have or because you don’t agree with the underlying philosophy of what we are doing.

To me, it seems like the philosophies that are increasingly out of step with the evidence are libertarianism and conservatism. Ironically, by encouraging people to ignore the climate problem, these philosophies are setting up a situation where governments will have to be far more interventionist.

It would be far better to establish a price on carbon now and start cutting emissions efficiently than to have to cut them in a panic in 10 or 20 years.

tracey April 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I think climate change has nothing to do with human activities

tracey April 5, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I think climate change has nothing to do with human activities but has to do with uv rays that comes from sun

Milan April 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

What makes you think that is the case?

Climate models include solar changes, but cannot explain the observed warming on that basis. Meanwhile, there are several good reasons for seeing greenhouse gases as the culprits.

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