The following is an email sent by Roberta Johnson to an interest group on Climate Change Education. It includes her thoughts on an interview that aired on NPR's This American Life in January of 2011, along with recommendations for reaching those who may be sceptical of scientists in general.
Several colleagues from this group have been in touch with me over email recently regarding the rebroadcast of the This American Life: Kid Politics interview I had with Ira Glass and Erin Gustafson last January, regarding climate change. I have some thoughts about that interview - the discussion itself, the outcome, and thoughts thereafter that may be valuable to the group, so thought I'd share them with you all, with the hope that they are useful to you.
Some background - Ira met Erin at a Glenn Beck rally in the fall of 2010 in DC. She seemed like a lovely young lady (14 at the time), well-spoken, and intelligent, and in the course of their conversation, it became apparent that Erin thought that global warming was a hoax, and the scientists involved in promoting that view were all on the make. Some time later, Ira and his staff came up the the idea for a show to look at the question of asking young people to make adult decisions, and they thought climate change might be an example of that.
The hour-long show includes two other parts. For my part of the interview, I was located here in Boulder, Ira was in New York, and Erin was in a studio in rural Virginia. We spoke together for 1.5 hrs total, and only something like 10 minutes of that was spliced together, with narration (of course) to put together a story. Although I must say I didn't really realize what I was getting into when I blithely said "yes", when asked if I would be willing to talk with a 14-yr old climate skeptic (not realizing it was for radio ), I am very happy that I did the interview. It was a very good experience, I think I learned a lot from it, and has led to interesting post interview contacts, discussions, and extended thinking about it on my part. I will share some of those thoughts with you, below.
Before I do, though, I want to comment on one perspective, that seems to be driven by the way the interview was presented in the 10 min segment. It appears, in the shortened version broadcast, that Erin did not change her mind as a result of the conversation. That is not actually what happened. When we started the interview, Erin stated that she did not believe that the climate was changing, and that furthermore she felt that the scientists promoting that view were making it up, and after research money - ie, they weren't credible. 1.5 hrs later, her position had changed (but that didn't make it into the broadcast interview) to "well, maybe climate is changing, but I'm not sure why", and "I what to learn about both sides". From my perspective, that felt like a significant achievement - and maybe all that could be expected from a 1.5 hr long conversation with a Glenn Beck supporter. I was dismayed when I listened to the broadcast interview, and saw that this did not come across.
Also, Ira started off the interview with the statement "Dr. Johnson, this is your chance to try to convince Erin that climate change is real." My response to both was something like - "Hold on, let me be clear, it is not the responsibility of a science teacher to "convince" a student of anything - their job is to prepare students with an understanding of science concepts and process skills, so that they can use these to analyze observations and make science-based conclusions using this toolset". Throughout the interview, I repeatedly mentioned that this is not about belief, but about observations and science, and I was happy that I think one of those statements made it into the broadcast.
Now, to some post-interview thoughts I've had, which I hope might be useful. I really enjoyed talking with Erin - she seemed like a lovely person - and she must be brave, to take on such a project. She is clearly a good student, too, and has a loving family. Several of the points she made in the interview showed that she is really misinformed about climate change, how climate change works, and probably aspects of Earth science in general - but she has done independent research. A key problem is that she puts her trust in different authorities than (hopefully) those of us in this group. At one point in the interview, she said she wanted to see data from "both sides". I replied that there is an enormous amount of data that I'd be happy to point her to (which I did) online, and that she could look at the data herself - that the data were from authoritative web sites from places like NOAA, NASA, and NSF, and others (and of course I mentioned http://www.skepticalscience.com and Windows to the Universe). I also replied that there really isn't anything like a comparable amount of data on the "other" side, but that there are a lot of other websites, which are more focused on opinions, that include those views but that these were not comparable. It was clear, though, that for her, NOAA, NASA, and NSF are not authoritative, and their results are suspect - I expect she would put more trust in the views expressed on skeptical websites.
This experience brought into clear focus the importance of "frames", and also really got me thinking about trust. As a scientist myself, and living in a world of scientists, I know that the lion's share of those working in this area are good, honorable, honest, and hardworking people - looking for what the scientific evidence is telling them, and not slanting that to try to get research funding. I think we all know that the large majority of these folks would not think of making stuff up, not only because it is clearly wrong to do so, but that they would get caught through review, and their careers would be ruined. I know this - but it occurred to me, after speaking to Erin - that perhaps she doesn't (although I did mention it to Erin). I don't know, but it may well be that, living in the rural parts of Virginia, she may not know any scientists - in fact, there may not even be any of them in her community. Or maybe there are, but perhaps they do not share much about their work in their community.
That then led to thoughts about the importance of scientists being engaged in their communities. We all know about how scientists are being encouraged to be involved with education and outreach (and indeed, that's probably how we all got on this group), and there has been a similar focus about getting scientists prepared to talk with the media, and to public groups. My point is a little different from these, although related. My sense is that, perhaps out of frustration or understandable exhaustion, many scientists have tired from sharing what they do with their neighbors and in their social groups. Perhaps they think that people won't understand, or that they won't be interested. But if we don't share what we do, in a way that is understandable and interesting, how will our neighbors, friends, and communities learn to transfer the trust they put in us as neighbors, friends, and community members to what we say as scientists? It occurs to me that if the same people that trust us to help with their kids over the weekend, or to look after their house while they're away, knew a little more about what we do, some of that personal trust might naturally migrate to a tendency to trust what we say about science. Instead, by not sharing, I think we may have inadvertently set ourselves up to be easily classed as "the other" - someone that exists outside of the frame of "regular people" - someone easily to not trust.
This note is getting too long, so I'll stop now, but briefly mention the importance of thinking carefully about and building on common values when you are reaching out with this content to different groups. Also, the value of having a trusted third party in the conversation (Ira Glass in this case), and the value of patience and respect in our discourse. In fact, that's probably what made this interview so enjoyable.
Finally, you might be interested in a blog that erupted shortly after the interview - http://www.sindark.com/2011/01/20/roberta-johnson-and-erin-gustafson/ - the discussion there (which I weighed in on a couple of times) is pretty interesting, and sometimes scary.
Best of luck to all of you!
Dr. Roberta Johnson
National Earth Science Teachers Association
Director, Windows to the Universe