This American Life: Kid Politics

I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you what an outstanding program This American Life is, but this week’s episode, “Kid Politics” is a particular standout. If you haven’t already done so listen to it now.

I was particularly struck by act two of the program, act two:

Climate Changes. People Don’t.
As adults battle over how climate change should be taught in school, we try an experiment. We ask Dr Roberta Johnson, the Executive Director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, who helps develop curricula on climate change, to present the best evidence there is to a high school skeptic, a freshman named Erin Gustafson. Our question: Will Erin find any of it convincing?

The answer (in case you hadn’t guessed) is “no.” Ira met Erin at a Glenn Beck rally and was struck by how thoughtful and intelligent she seemed, so he decided to have her on the show. But time and time again, when presented with the evidence, Erin basically said, “If I had both sides of the argument in front of me, I could probably be convinced which side is right.”

In some sense, TAL was being a bit unfair. In framing the segment in this way, they essentially had an expert debating a high school student. Presumably the dynamic would be much the same if Exxon (or whatever thinktank Exxon generously funds to say such things) had one of their climate change “scientists” lecture to an environmentally active high-schooler. The fact that Erin couldn’t respond coherently to the argument doesn’t immediately demonstrate that she’s wrong (though she is), only that in this instance, she’s in over her head.

What bothers me about these sorts of discussions in general, though, is the idea that lay people are really qualified to make any sort of determination about issues like this at all. Common sense can be applied on both sides, and on the face of it, both sides sound persuasive.

  • The human population is larger and more industrialized than at any point in history. We spew lots of things into the atmosphere. We know that greenhouse effects can cause the overheating of planets; just look at Venus.
  • But… The planet is very big, and one of the greenhouse gases that we get worked up about is Carbon Dioxide, something that occurs naturally and in great quantities. Besides, we’ve dealt with pollution before. Just think of the filth during the industrial revolution.

People can tell themselves stories that fit their ideologies. Even as a physicist, I’ve not looked at the primary source data, nor would I be especially prepared to, but I’ll cop to an ecological predisposition. But there are two things that ultimately decide me:

  1. Authority. I know, “Appeal to Authority” is so egregious to intellectual discourse that it’s considered a logical fallacy. That said, what do you do when the vast, vast majority of the population is not prepared to understand the fundamental evidence?

    More to the point, there’s clearly a psychological push for people to ignore the reality of climate change. Our lives become more challenging if we can’t drive the cars we want or fly as often as we’d like. Products produced in an environmentally friendly way will ultimately be more expensive. Our overall impact has a multiplier proportional to the size of the population, and if we (as a society) acknowledge global warming, then we may have to start discussing things like population growth. People would prefer that the truth were otherwise, and so they choose not to learn about it.

    Incidentally, what’s the psychological motivation on the other side, the push to believe that global warming is real and manmade? The satisfaction of being right? It hardly compares, and frankly is only valid if we are right.

    So in the absence of taking and analyzing ice cores myself, I rely on summary reports by reports by experts. The vast, vast majority (98% by some counts) of climatologists agree with the major findings of the IPCC. While we shouldn’t blindly follow experts, this isn’t exactly blind faith.

  2. Motivations. I already mentioned that individuals have a disincentive to learn more than they already know. More to the point, having made up their mind that global warming is “propaganda” (as Erin said on the show), confirmation bias will take over, and they’ll seize on any apparent crack in the argument. “Climategate? Clearly the scientists are fudging the numbers!” Only they weren’t. Carbon Dioxide is natural! Of course, but not in these quantities. “It was colder than normal last year in North Dakota!” True, but it was warmer just about everywhere else.

    Most importantly, the financial motivation behind those willing to provide anti-warming evidence is enormous. In “Climate Coverup” James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore describe a detailed campaign by the energy industry and political interests to find someone — anyone — who can cast doubt on global warming.

    Again, what is the motivation on the other side? I’ve heard deniers say that scientists are so beholden to grant money that they’ll do anything, including faking global warming results, to get the results they want. But the peer review process doesn’t work that way. The government doesn’t call the shots, and even if it did, it’s not so obvious that the recent administration wouldn’t have intervened to make the results come out the other way around. In fact, they did!.

I guess what I’m saying is that the battle isn’t going to be won by simple education. There are a great many people who simply don’t want to know and wouldn’t be prepared to evaluate the evidence, and a great many organizations who are strongly motivated to make sure that people don’t become more strongly informed.

I suppose the only real answer is a full scale cultural overhaul. People actually need to start believing experts again, and need to start feeling ashamed of saying stupid things.


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2 Responses to This American Life: Kid Politics

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention This American Life: Kid Politics | A User’s Guide to the Universe --

  2. pointer says:

    Listening to this podcast just about broke my heart. Erin seemed so smart and independent-minded. But the method she had of evaluating expert claims was so wrong.

    Appeals to authority in this case are wrong. If the person they chose to persuade Erin wasn’t a climate scientist then, yes, that’s a fallacious appeal to authority. But Dr Jackson (name?) was introduced as a climate scientist, so there’s appeal to authority involved. After all, I don’t go around disagreeing with everything my mechanic or doctor says. Look where that’s got Jenny McCarthy.

    This is why “consensus” has been attacked so strongly by the deniers. They know that if people really thought, “Hey, 97% of scientists in the field think we’re responsible for a lot of the global warming. Who am I to disagree?”, they’d be screwed.

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