Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate Change, Education, and Open Society

Over on the Wikieducator mailing list, there was an interesting discussion. It started out about the teaching of controversy, and migrated (hijacked?) to discussing global warming and specifically the e-mail controversy (starts here and continues here).

Having been in the environmental movement for over thirty years, including times as head of local and state organizations, I have heard these arguments many times. Of course, the topics keep changing over time, but the debates continue.

I have been thinking over this discussion lately and here are my thoughts.

Why is it that climate change is portrayed in the media as being so controversial? Almost all scientists agree that global warming is occurring. There are many, many science issues are much more controversial -- genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear energy are just two examples. Let us not confuse controversy over political issues (including what to about global warming) and with controversy over science issues.

But to me what is more important here are the issues of science education and openness.

Science Education

Many times these types of discussion lead to some important issues in education. Specifically, how do we teach science, the environment, and critical thinking. Unfortunately, most people do not understand how scientists actually work. Which I think that in itself tells us that science is not taught correctly (if at all). Many misunderstandings of science are related to not knowing the scientific method or how scientists reach their conclusions.

Scientists come up with ideas, test them, change their ideas, come to conclusions, submit their results to their peers, correct their conclusions, and repeat. We need to teach our students (and many adults, including policy makers) to getting them to think analytically, make observations, take notes, have an open mind, and do more problem solving.

With the increase in technology including the internet, it is somewhat ironic that we are also turning more to quick answers through the web. Often these are unscientific (and sometimes fraudulent) sites, but they are accepted as truth. It is an even more reason to increase science teaching and replace learning by rote.

Open Science and Freedom of Information

The real issue with the leaked e-mails, which has not been addressed by the media (except for the BBC*) is freedom of information and open science/open data. This is especially true since the scientists worked for a public university. Science should be open so that it results can be verified. Maintaining open data, so that others can benefit from the information, is especially important in the case of public issues such as the environment. Also important is that we know what methodology the scientists are using. These issues are especially important where many scientists over the world are working on the same or similar projects.

The public also has a right to know how their money is being used. For publicly sponsored research this right-to-know is especially important where the results affect public policy issues. Freedom of information is the only way in which the public can now what is going on. This applies not only to environment, but to communication technology, agriculture, defense research, etc.

The issues of open science and freedom of information can also be related to science education. If we want our students to understand and apply the scientific method, then we cannot hide scientists work from the public and make it appear as black magic. And as we all know black magic is pseudo-science :).

*Link is to the BBC's Open Secrets blog. There was also a piece on the BBC World Service's Digital Planet program, but I cannot find the web address for it.

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