Teaching Climate Science by Studying Misinformation

Daniel Bedford
Weber State University
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Initial Publication Date: July 9, 2012 | Reviewed: October 16, 2012


Students critically evaluate the arguments about climate change raised in a climate contrarian newspaper op-ed. This strengthens student critical thinking and content knowledge.

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Upper-division course on weather and climate.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

  1. The difference between weather and climate.
  2. The workings of the scientific process, specifically the nature of peer review.
  3. The scientific consensus on climate change, including physical evidence.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is a culminating project. In many respects, it is very important that this exercise *not* be attempted until late in the semester. The fairly extensive list of required skills and concepts listed above indicates the need for placing this exercise late in the semester. In my class, I use it as a final exam question, but it could easily be used as a late-semester discussion focus or homework assignment.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students should come away from this activity with a strengthened understanding of the scientific consensus on climate change, including its theoretical, physical, and model bases, as well as the strength of the scientific consensus (i.e. how widely supported the scientific consensus on climate change is within the scientific community). Students will also become more aware that a climate change misinformation campaign exists, and what some of that campaign's common tactics are.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This activity should strengthen student critical thinking skills by requiring that they compare competing views of the science of climate change.
Scientific argumentation is also necessary: students must support their views with evidence.

Other skills goals for this activity

This activity can be used in several different ways. If used as a written assignment, students need to be able to write clearly and support their arguments with evidence. Alternatively, key sections of the op-ed could be assigned to small groups of students, with a short presentation to the rest of the class on their findings, which would strengthen presentation skills.

Description of the activity/assignment

As used in my class, this activity is the culmination of a semester of learning about Earth's climate system, and the basis for the scientific consensus on climate change. We conduct an exercise in myth debunking in the classroom (examining the arguments used in Michael Crichton's popular 2004 novel State of Fear) via classroom discussion and a written homework assignment. Analysis of the climate contrarian newspaper op-ed (featured here) is part of the final exam at the very end of the semester.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students who have understood the preceding semester's worth of material should be able to refute the arguments presented in the newspaper op-ed, explaining carefully why the arguments presented in the op-ed are flawed. There are two specific areas that students must demonstrate an understanding of:
  1. The climate system is subject to forcings at multiple timescales. A cooling trend of a few years does not negate a warming trend of 150 years.
  2. Evaluation of sources: material not published in the peer-reviewed literature should not be given the same weight as material that has been peer-reviewed; and one peer-reviewed study does not by itself negate a greater weight of peer-reviewed research.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Bedford, D. 2010. Agnotology as a teaching tool: learning climate science by studying misinformation. Journal of Geography 109:4, 159-165.

CLEAN Climate Communication 2012 on-line workshop materials, available http://cleanet.org/clean/community/workshops/communication2012/program.html

Cook, L. and S. Lewandowsky. 2011. The Debunking Handbook. http://www.skepticalscience.com/Debunking-Handbook-now-freely-available-download.html

Oreskes, N. 2004. The scientific consensus on climate change. Science vol. 386 p. 1686.

SkepticalScience website, http://www.skepticalscience.com