Extreme Earth: Coming to An Environment Near You

The Earth’s climate has changed rapidly over the past fifty years, but when people talk about climate change, they frame it as a future threat.

David Popeik, in Scientific American guest blog, says that “climate report nails risk communication.”  He suggests that the National Climate Assessment that was released by the White House presented a powerful report that he hopes will play a role in the U.S. acting on climate change.  He writes:

Most climate change communication has framed the issue as a future threat. Future risks don’t worry us as much as threats that are imminent or current. The basic message of the National Climate Assessment, offered repeatedly through the entire report, is that climate change is not something we need to worry about tomorrow. It’s something to worry about now. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” it reads.

In this post, I was to focus on the latest report about climate change, and how the report should be used to have people take seriously climate change.  I am convinced the earth is heating up (see Figure 1).  In one sense, we might say were living in a period of “extreme earth.”  This is not to say that there haven’t been other extreme (hot or cold) periods in the paleoclimate record.  But this extreme earth period was caused by the activities of humans.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change. Global warming has been in the public eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized , and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.  (see Hassard, Jack (2012). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching  Kindle Edition.)

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Figure 1. Temperature fluctuations from various sources over the past 1000 years. From Mann, et al 2008

Many of you are familiar with the environmental phrase, Think Globally, Act Locally.  We used it with middle and high school students as an important concept in the Global Thinking Project, which was headquartered at Georgia State University.

But, there is good reason to rephrase this statement, and put it this way: Think Locally, Act Locally.  In the Global Thinking Project, which was a hands-across-the-globe environmental science program, we engaged students in local problems (acid rain, ozone, soil erosion, water quality), but connected them with peers using the GTP telecommunications network and web resources.

The project helped students realize that studying their own environment was as important (maybe even more so), than connecting with problems in other parts of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the attractive features of the GTP was bringing middle and high school students from different parts of the world together to share ideas, and solve problems.

But there is something missing about the issue of tackling the problem of global warming and the induced climate changing of which we are participants.

As Dr. Popeik says, climate change is now and it is affecting each of us at the local level.  If those of us that live in the Atlanta area think about extreme earth events that occurred in the recent past, we can list a few: the flooding of rivers and streams, a drought that cost many people their livelihoods, high temperature periods that were hazardous to many people’s lives, snow events that created chaos in Atlanta, Augusta and other communities, increased number of fire threats across the state, more tornadoes than have been reported in the recent past, and increased concern about hurricanes.

But perhaps one of the most serious problems that we face in the context of climate change, are those few deniers that distort climatology to support their political and economic views.  For example, some researchers have commented that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco was not associated with cancer. (see Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In the field of science education, professional science teachers have had to deal with a subset of deniers who inhabit or hope to get elected to state legislative houses.  The Next Generation Science Standards, the latest published set of science standards in the U.S. have come under fire for the position and specific content related to climate change and global warming.  There is also the usual protest about teaching evolution, but for this article, we’ll limit it to climate change.

Several states have moved to block the use of the NGSS in their schools.  In Kentucky, a coal-producing state, the legislature blocked the NGSS, but the governor overruled them.  But it is the case in Wyoming where the issue of teaching climate change became a hot political issue.  Apparently some legislators objected to teaching “theories” and not ideas in science that had been proven.  But if we go deeper into the issue, we find that they oppose those theories that don’t fit with their world view.  In this case, supporters of the fossil fuel industry object to teaching any science that might put them in bad light.  In Wyoming, the NGSS was blocked by a footnote added to the state budget that prohibits the spending of any money on the review or revision of student content and performance standards for science.  Even their own!


Will data from the National Climate Assessment change people’s views of climate change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But those that oppose climate change science will probably not be swayed by this report.  After all, it is a government report.

But perhaps if people begin to realize that the extreme weather events that have come to them are do to an increasing risk for several weather events by the warming of the earth.  Most climatologists would agree that we can “blame” a single event (such as Hurricane Sandy) on global warming, but how can we not consider the possibility that the extreme weather events that have been documented over the past twenty years might be due to human activity?

Pictures tell a story more powerful than words, in many instances.  Here are few that might bring back events that affected you.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.
Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States:
The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Do you think the events of the past few years will impact people’s views of climate change?


A Heads Up: Smoking is to Cancer as Greenhouse Gas Emissions are to Climate Risks

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On March 5, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed the state’s budget into law.  The bill has a footnote that prohibits the Department of Education from spending any funds to check or revise the state’s science standards.

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The reason this footnote was added to the Wyoming budget is because it satisfied some members of the legislature and citizens who believe in objectivity and neutrality in science education! To get to the point, they are opposed to the teaching of “unproven theories,” most notably with those topics in science that deal with climate change and evolution.  Phil Plait, who writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog, provides an excellent discussion of why some in Wyoming are denying global warming, and don’t want educators to teach about it.

I won’t take on evolution here, as I’ve done that in recent posts.

But let’s look at climate change.

According to some in Wyoming (and in most any state you might want to mention), if we teach climate change, or more specifically if make a link between human activity such as greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, then we are teaching children that some of the state’s key industries are harmful to the earth.  Some Wyoming citizens add that we shouldn’t teach about global warming because it is not settled science.

Ah, settled science.

The term settled science was used by the tobacco industry when they were fighting against scientists who had shown conclusively that there was a link between the consumption of tobacco products and cancer.

Now, we see the term settled science being used in the context of discussions of global warming.  The problem is that using the phrase, “the science isn’t settled” is an oxymoron. In discussions of any scientific theory, we are missing the point if we try to claim that someday the science will be settled.  It won’t.  It will never be.

But there is evidence that can be used to support or refute a scientific theory.  We should be looking for evidence of climate change, and then ask if the evidence supports the idea that greenhouse gasses might be contributing to the rise in earth’s temperature.  We should be asking if there is evidence to support human-caused climate change.

What We Know

On March 19, the American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS) published a report entitled What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change. The report provides evidence that climate scientists (97%) do agree that climate change is happening, here and now.  There is also evidence in the report that we at risk of pushing the climate system toward “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.”  The report also says that the sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost.

How confident are writers of the report about the link between human activity and climate change.  In the following passage, the writers ask to think about the link between smoking and cancer.

The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer.  And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real.

A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.  The National Academy of Sciences, for example, says that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

Extreme Earth

The report cites evidence that climate change is happening now, and explains that extreme weather is no longer an abstract concept.  How can any of us ignore the extreme weather that we have seen over the past few years.  And, indeed, it is reported that two out of three Americans said weather in the U.S. has been worse over the past several years.  And I can assure you, because I travel to England several times per year, that the British people would clearly agree with Americans on severe weather risks.

In Extreme Earth, an eBook published in 2012, the importance of understanding extreme weather is explored, and related to teaching.  As you will see ahead, there is a lot of evidence to support the connection between human activity and climate change.  But, there are those who work to obscure the evidence.  It was put this way in Extreme Earth:

In a Science Progress article, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway suggest that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco did not cause cancer.  (Hassard, Jack (2012-07-09). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching (Kindle Locations 128-132). Kindle Edition.)

Extreme earth events are piling up.  People around the world live in areas where these extreme events are common place.  Here is a list I compiled from the AAAS report.  If you live in Wyoming, why would enable your legislators to deny these facts, and pass a bill that prevents educators from doing their professional work.

  • The CO2 level of 280 parts-per-million was stable for thousands of years, but in the last 150 years has increased to 400 ppm.
  • Sea ice has been shrinking and according to researchers, the rate of loss is accelerating.
  • Ice sheets and glaciers are melting at increasing levels and contributing to sea-level rise.
  • Oceans are acidifying due to the absorption of CO2 from smokestacks and tailpipes.
  • The earth has gotten warmer.
  • Plants and animals have moved toward the poles.
  • In some cases, species are moving up mountain sides and marine species are moving deeper and to higher latitudes.
  • Sea level rise has accelerated, and to the researchers, this is affecting storm surges by making them higher and bringing salt water into aquifers.
  • Floods, heat waves and drought patterns have changed and increased in intensity.
  • Wildfires have increased, especially in the western U.S.
  • Effects on health and well-being can be traced to changes in climate, including droughts, floods, heat, severe storms.  The CDC has studied effects of climate change on infectious diseases.  Also, since life cycles and the distribution of disease carrying insects has changed, increasing the chances for these diseases affecting human society.

The AAAS report suggests that its paper is not to explain the disconnect between the science of climate change and the public perception of climate change.  Instead they provide American citizens with information about climate change.

That said, the report will probably not seem on the top ten list of what to read over the weekend for people who support the action of the Gov. of Wyoming who signed a bill preventing educators from making decisions about the nature of science in the school curriculum. The report will probably creat more controversy. I suppose ignorance is bliss.

What do you think?  Tobacco causes cancer.  Do you think human activity contributes to climate change?

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons Attribution.  Hot shot firefighters prepare to cut a fire line near Colorado Springs to help battle several fires in the area in June, 2012. 

NBC’s Climate Debate: Enabling the Deniers

On NBC’s Feb. 16 edition of Meet the Press a “debate” was broadcast between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Rep. from Tennessee and David Gregory, the media enabler.

Figure 1.  By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.
Figure 1. By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.

On the one hand, its unfortunate that Bill Nye agreed to go on the program and acknowledge by his presence that global warming is a debatable issue.  Marsha Blackburn, who has no credentials in science (at least Nye is an engineer and science educator), teamed up with David Gregory to voice the side of denialism.  This irrational thinking is part of the tactic of “persistent distortion” of climate change.

The media supports this distortion by using their “split-screen” imaging to pretend that there are two equal and competing views on what ever issue they put up for debate.

The research on the “media wars” is quite compelling, and sheds light on why we continue to witness debates such as the Nye-Blackburn debate on climate change, and Nye-Ham debate on origins.

A few years ago, I reviewed Stephen Schneider’s research on climate change politics and climate change science as it is portrayed in the media.  His book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth’s Climate (public library), documents the history of how climate change has been distorted, and how to understand the media’s approach to enabling science denial.

Figure 2.  In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere.  Source: Science as a Contact Sport
Figure 2. In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere. Source: Science as a Contact Sport

Dr. Schneider was professor of biology at Stanford University, and internationally recognized for research, policy analysis and outreach in climate change.  In particular he focused on integrated assessment of the ecological and economic impacts of human-induced climate change.  He was senior participant in the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

As Dr. Schneider points out in his book, we have been warned that human technology could disturb the functioning of nature.  He reviews for us the Swedish chemist Arrhenius in 1896 who theorized that CO2 and H2O trapped the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, connecting CO2 the burning of fossil fuels.

And of course he cites Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, which showed the interconnectedness of nature and how human technology was ravaging nature.  As he points out, the Rachel Carson story is one example of how it is possible to take action to prevent the further threat caused by insecticide technologies.  But the most compelling work that Schneider points to is the atmospheric measurement of CO2 levels at Mauna Loa by David Keeling (Figure 2).  The resulting graph became known as the “Keeling curve” showing the steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011.  There are many other scientists who delved into climate change during this time, including James Hansen, S. Ichtiaque Rasool, and Schneider.  You can read one of the best histories of the environmental movement to not only bring awareness to the climate change associated with increased CO2 levels in Schneider’s book.

Figure 2. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.
Figure 3. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.

Given this early work, and the research done by independent researchers around the world, and the most  research compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, why do we continue to debate the question, Is Global Warming Real?  Or is the Earth warming up, and is this warming attributable to human engineering and technology?

Well, its obvious that the media thinks that the “debate on global warming goes on.” And in these debates, not only does the media enable the continued denial of the evidence for global warming, but the method used is called “balance journalism.”  The tactic that was identified by Schneider is the tactic of persistent distortion.  He puts it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is the perceived need for “balance” in journalism.  In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue.  Got the Democratic view?  Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different.  There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility.

In the NBC debate, there is not another side of global warming.  There is only denial.  But in the debates that do occur, the denier uses the scientific notion of skepticism, that people in the field of science generally welcome.   But in our view, such as, in the Nye – Blackburn debate, there was only one skeptic.  The other was a denier.

Schneider helps us distinguish between skeptics and deniers.

When I give a public talk on aspects of climate change, I always take the time to explain the difference between climate deniers and skeptics.  All good scientists are skeptics—we should challenge everything.  I was a big-time climate skeptic, changing from cooling to warming and nuclear winter to nuclear fall when that is where the preponderance of available evidence led.  As more solid evidence of anthropogenic global warming accumulates, the numbers of such legitimate climate skeptics are declining.  Climate deniers, however, are not true skeptics, but simply ignore the preponderance of evidence presented.  Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.  The latter is, at best, bad science, or, at worst, dishonesty.

Crap Detection

We need to heed Neil Postman’s classic essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection“which was presented at the National Convention of the Teachers of English in 1969.

Here is how Postman explained the title of his speech:

With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

Is climate change real? Is the greenhouse effect based on fundamental science? To what extent are “debates” on TV news outlets using split screen technology peer review or rhetoric? Do large companies abuse the concept of peer review by using rhetoric to cast doubt on scientific findings?  We need to practice the Art of Crap Detection in these situations.

These are questions that should underscore student’s pursuit of an understanding of climate change, and the skepticism that has inverted the public’s view of global warming, the greenhouse effect, and the burning of carbon. For many years, large corporations, starting with the tobacco industry, have led the public and politicians down a path that leads to denial (of the science) that has been established by scientists through the publication and peer review process. Casting “doubt” on the “science,” has been a tactic used to put a wedge between real scientific information and the rhetoric of the deniers.

There is almost no accountability for the “skeptics.” They don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, and they spend most of their time on media outlets giving their point of view, but with almost little data based on scientific evidence.

We need to call these deniers out, and tell them that we understand their tactic of persistent distortion.  You are not going to change their minds.  But at least you can call it when you see it.

What is your view?  Do you think the media enables the deniers of climate change and global warming?

PISA Testing in the Year 2063: Fives Walk to School on Thursday

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Note: This is a letter written by a teen living in Atlanta in the year 2063.   Her name is Sklyer F., a 14 year-old girl living in Atlanta with her family—3 brothers, her father who home schools his children, and her mother who is an activist-independent-politician. 

The PISA test, developed by the OECD, is in its 100th year, and is now used by all nations of world to assess the performance of students.  The test has been shortened so that each student can be assessed in reading, mathematics, and science.  

What has been the effect of the PISA World League Competitions fifty years out from the 2013 release of PISA findings?

Dear Friends:

I learned that in America, in the year 2001, the Federal Government enacted the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that required each state in the country to develop tests in mathematics and reading, but over time, the policy makers decided that science and history should also be tested.  Then, in 2009, the Department of Education created a national competition called The Race to the Top.   It pushed further the control of local schools by insisting on a common curriculum and mandatory exams.  As you know, this annual testing event became known as “The Testing Games,” a kind of spin off of the 2012 movie, “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins.  Every year kids compete in a series of tests that take on a professional sports type of mentality with league standings and tables.

It’s now 2063 and we’ve elected our first woman president, Maya Armstrong Fusaro, an independent candidate from Georgia. People are very optimistic because of President Fusaro’s political philosophy, especially with regards to economics, education and equity, and ideas about the environment.  Although we had another great recession eight years ago, we are on the road to recovery, much like what happened in your day.

But, right now things are much different than you might realize compared to 2013.

Life in 2063

trainLet me tell you a bit about my life in the year 2053.

Let me introduce myself.  My name is Skyler, and my number that I use for identification purposes is 897502415.    I am 14 years old and I live in the United States in a very large southern city.  It’s very crowed in the urban areas of the U.S., so much so, that parents have been asked to either home school their children, or enroll them in online schools.  There is simply not enough room in our schools.

The students who do go to schools come from very well-to-do families.

I do most of my studies online from my room in our apartment, and my father also helps us (I have three brothers) as a home school teacher.  There are so many courses to choose from, you simply can’t believe it. But, as my father keeps reminding me, I have to take courses that will prepare me for high-stakes PISA test, because—well, you know—politicians in the first decade of 2000’s decided that all kids needed to be tested to prove that that their teachers were good or bad, and that their schools were doing the job, not to mention to tell me if I passed or failed.  Then, in collaboration with the European organization OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development), nations decided to use PISA like tests each year for all kids at the high school level.

New Reform Was Nixed in 2015

Things changed very fast during the second term of President Obama.  He tried to implement a new education reform agenda that would have eliminated high-stakes testing, and replaced them with low-stakes tests.    He met with several education activists during your day, including Diane Ravitch, Mayor Bill De Blasio, Jean Sanders, Anthony Cody, Audrey Watters, P.L. Thomas, and many others.  They convinced President Obama that the Department of Education was leading the country in the wrong direction and that it would be the interests of American families to turn the tide away from the corporate led education agenda.

He also proposed that curriculum (the stuff we study and have to learn) would be developed by teachers at the local level and that teachers would use formative assessments (weekly tests, projects, laboratory reports, portfolios, questions, participation) to determine how well students do in school.  End-of-year tests could be given, but they would be only used to see how the system was doing.  They were never to be used to evaluate teachers, or principals, or determine if schools were good or bad.

These ideas never were realized.

Instead politicians and business leaders continued to lead our country along the same path developed earlier that we call the authoritarian standards and high-stakes testing reform movement.  Not only did they insist that all schools adopt the Common Core State Standards in English/language art and math, but they added science, and history to the common core.

My father has told us that extending this policy was an awful mistake.

The Climate Changed!

But something else happened which had a profound impact on schooling as you knew it.

imagesClimate change ravaged our country in ways you couldn’t image.  If you continued to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists at the Hadley Centre in London in an article in Nature in 2000, predicted significant changes in climate would occur.  According to one report that I read scientists in your day predicted that sea level would rise because of the melting of glaciers and ice-sheets, and that the general warming that was in effect would lead to more and more really hot days, and many less cold days.  Your scientists also predicted that warmer temperatures would upset or accelerate the water cycle which would lead to more extreme droughts, and/or floods in some area, and less severe droughts and/or floods in other areas.

All of these predictions were unfortunately accurate, especially droughts and/or floods, and how they have affected the North American continent.  From Texas right up through Oklahoma to North Dakota and into Canada, and spreading east to Indiana, and west to Utah, a huge desert has been formed after years of drought.  States in the far west, south, and east coast have received sufficient to extreme rainfall causing unusual flooding.  But at least they are not what you called The Dust Bowl.

Our family was forced to move from the New Orleans area to Atlanta and we started a new life here.  We live near the city center in a high rise apartment building, from which I can see Stone Mountain to the East, and Kennesaw Mountain to the West.  I’ve never been to either, but I’ve seen close up pictures, and stories about people who actually visited these parks, and climbed to the summits. Oh, well.

Learning in 2063

UnknownThe apartment I live in with my brothers and parents is amazing.  You thought that technology in 2013 was cool, you simply can’t image the technology we have today.  Our house runs with power that we generate as part of the residential solar power project.  We actually generate so much power, that we sell the excess back to Georgia Power.  We spend most of our time in our apartment, as Atlanta is so crowded with people, and we don’t use the kinds of cars that you used–you know the ones that used fossil fuels.

We didn’t run out of fossil fuels, we simply were forced to use other energy sources because with an increased population, we were polluting the air at rates never seen before.  Plus, as I told you, we have had massive climatic changes in North America caused by Global Warming.

Why didn’t you believe the scientists in your time that Earth was heating up at an alarming rate?  I just don’t understand your thinking back then.  The evidence was all around you.  Glaciers were shrinking at alarming rates.  Fires were ravaging huge parts of the Earth.  The weather during your lifetime was getting more extreme—remember all of the tornadoes, hurricanes, and huge blizzards?  Oh well.

Online Learning

But lets shift gears again.  Online learning is now the standard for most American’s today.  Today’s computers are not only faster than the ones you used, but we think of them as an extension of ourselves.  My computer has the processing power of our brains, and scientists have developed software that led to an “intelligence explosion” and interestingly, a better way to participate in the actions of our government.  President Fusaro was the first American President elected when all eligible citizens voted from their computers in their homes or in public libraries.  Don’t worry, every citizen in our country has all the technology I spoke about.

We have great courses to choose from.  However, we are accountable to the government in four areas of learning: reading and language arts, mathematics, science and engineering, and history and political science.

My Favorite Lessons

My favorite lessons on my computer are in courses that combine activities from different fields of study.  One course I took was entitled: Why People’s Ideas Don’t Change?  This was interesting to me because I wondered why people in the early part of this century wouldn’t change their ideas about climate change, evolution, and how children learn.  Seemed as if everyone was stuck in the muck, and resisted changing their ideas.  Climate change is real.  Life evolved on the Earth according the ideas laid out the famous Charles Darwin.  And we humans are not robots.  We learn in many different ways.  What happened back then to turn your back on solid research supporting these ideas?  Well, let’s take a look.

The course was based on research done early in this century that found that beliefs about controversial factual questions (such as climate change, evolution, or how children learn) was closely linked to one’s ideological preferences or partisan beliefs.

The teacher used a teaching method that I really like.  It’s called the “Case Study” method, and using this approach, we learned the basic ideas of people’s resistance to change, but in the context of a real issue or problem.  One of the controversial questions that we studied in our course was the question of whether or not Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) prior to the Iraq War invasion.  Honestly, I had not read much about this war, but once I did, I realized how controversial the war was to Americans during the early part of the century.

The researchers who conducted the study on the Iraq War found that people’s pre-existing ideas are preserved even when they are presented with contrary information.  The first mechanism that they shine a light on is that individuals may “engage in a biased search process, seeking out information that supports their preconceptions and avoiding evidence that undercuts their beliefs.  A second mechanism is called the “backfire effect.”  In this case, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—i.e.–the backfire effect.

The fact that people’s pre-existing ideas influenced whether they would accept new information was also related to their ideological beliefs—liberals tended to accept the new information; for centrists, it didn’t matter, but for conservatives, they tended to push the new information away, and hold more solidly to their exiting ideas.  Even when people were given information that Iraq did not have WMD, most of these people did not accept the information, and even became more resistant to alternative explanations.

Well, this course helped me understand why we have held on to your education reforms that so many researchers in your day showed were not supported by research.  I read about one of your researchers by name of Diane Ravitch.  At one time she did support the standards-based high-stakes reform movement, but in mid-2005, she wrote a book that showed how the reforms starting with NCLB were ruining American education.  It was in your day that you actually decided to use student test scores to determine if our teachers and schools were good or bad.

So many people have held on to their preexisting beliefs about how we learn.  They continue to believe that everyone should learn the same material, and that the way to find out if we learned the stuff, is to take a multiple-choice test.  It’s like they think that ideas can be stuffed into our heads!  Don’t they know the work of Jean PiagetLev Vygotsky, or Marcia Linn?  All of these educators discovered and taught you that we humans learn from experience, and that we actually build up our ideas through interaction with the content and other people.  Why did the education reformers of your day ignore this research, and instead listen to corporate types who knew nothing about education, let alone how people learn?

Enough of this.

Few Schools, Lots of Kids

During the early years of this century, school districts all around the country closed one school after another.  They blamed it on budget short-falls.  But their decision led to a real problem for us.  Remember I said that because of the radically changing climate, many people had to move to safer areas, and these tended to be cities in the far west, in the south, and along the east coast.  The cities filled up, but there was very little space for kids to go to real brick and mortar buildings.  There just weren’t enough classrooms for all of us.  We only get to go to school once a year.


Back in the day, I found out that the OECD used the term PISA Day to refer to the day when the results of the PISA assessments were announced.  It was a world event.  As I understood, newspapers clamored to get ahold of the League Standings so that they could write stories about how bad or how good kids did on the test.

We now have PISA Week.  Its a week during every year when all kids around the world take several PISA tests that are now used to assess student learning around the world.  That’s right, every kid takes the same test.

I know that there were many educators in your day who opposed this, and fought hard to change the law.  But they were outspent and didn’t have the political support to adopt ideas that were based on learning theory and cognitive as well as humanistic psychology.

Fives Walk to School on Thursday

The NEW EDUCATION law insists that all students must take the exams in a school building under very tight security measures.  I read an article published on the blog site, The Answer Sheet that said that testing days were like a “lock-down” rather than a normal day at school.  The author of the article, Larry Lee, visited an Alabama school when the state reading and math tests were given (NCLB act).  According to Mr. Lee, there was “no laughter, no smiles, no hugs, too many straight-faced youngsters, too many with stress that the nurse was on call.”

The teachers picked up the their tests from a secure room.  After signing off for the tests, the teachers returned to their rooms, and opened the big plastic box that contained the exams for the students.  The students started bubbling in their answers.

Believe it or not, the same system is still in effect today.

The Big Day. But in my day, things are a bit different.  Remember I told you that I take all my courses from home using my computer.  My computer screen delivers all the content that I need to prepare me for the Big Day.  On the Big Day, each kid takes a walk to the closest school building.  There are so many people living in the our urban areas, that not all the kids can come to school to sit down and take the bubble type examination on the same day.

My test day is Thursday, because on Thursday Fives go to school to take their high-stakes PISA test.  That’s right.  On the last Thursday in April, those kids whose numbers end in 5 get to walk to school and take their PISA tests.  There just isn’t enough space for all the kids in the neighborhood to come to school on the same day.  When we get to school, we are assigned a room where we will spend six hours taking our exams.  We also get a 40 minute break for lunch!

This is an exciting day.  It’s the one day that I get to go to school, and see the kids that I have been communicating with over the Internet.  Its a great experience.  As that last Thursday in April gets closer, I get more and more excited.  Not only do I get to walk to school, but I get to walk through the Green Spaces near our apartment, and see the beautiful buildings that surround these spaces.  We can visit the Green Spaces, but only on allotted days and only for a couple of hours.

I can hardly wait until tomorrow, because tomorrow is Thursday, and we Fives walk to school on Thursday.  We’ll get to take our PISAS tests, and see our friends!

Well, that’s the way it is in the year 2063.

Best regards,

Skyler F.

P.S.  I found the following articles valuable in my research to write this letter to you.  You might want to check them out.

This is a fictional story written by a 14 year-old student living in the year 2063 in Atlanta.  She brings us into the world of the future by writing a time travel letter telling us about life, education and testing in her day.  

Is Skyler’s world a forecast that has any believability?  Is the convergence of the effects of global warming and the effects of a failed education policy a coincidence, or could they be related?

Note: This post was adapted from Five’s Walk on Thursday, published by Science Workshop, Inc., Atlanta, GA, and published in print in by Jack Hassard, Science Experiences, Addison-Wesley Publishers, 1990.


Babel from The Right: Truth, Justice, & Which Way

There are millions of people who deny the scientific truth that the Earth is 4.55 Billion years old.   They insist that it no more than 10,000 years old.  In poll of U.S. adults, 40% did not accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on earth.  Instead they believe in creation myths, or intelligent design.  Many people claim that climate change is a hoax.  Others reject the link between HIV and AIDS.  Still many others spread fear that vaccinations with harm their children.  And there are others who believe the Holocaust did not happen. And, still there are millions who think President Obama’s birth hospital is not in Hawaii.

Jon Huntsman sent a Tweet while running in the Republican Primary for President that many people heard, loud and clear.  He Tweeted:

For a Republican running for President, this was like saying he agreed with President Obama.  For Hunstman, this was a reflection on his character and courage to go against the grain of his political party.  Most Republicans, when asked about the topics I mentioned above (age of earth, evolution, global warming etc.) would NOT accept and trust the work of scientists.  In their public appearances, they do their best to spread doubt, claim outright denial of the scientific facts, and reject the methods that scientists use to do science.  See this paper by Joshua Rosenau, of the National Center for Science Education.

Why can’t we simply tell these people that they have their facts wrong?  Why can’t they just be told the truth?  It’s  not that simple as we will see ahead in this post.

The Effect of Correction on “Truth”

In a study that I reported on here, entitled When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan, University of Michigan, and Jason Reifler, Georgia State University  suggest that beliefs about controversial factual questions are closely linked to one’s ideological preferences or partisan beliefs.  The study is important at several levels.  For those of us who are teachers, their study might be disheartening.  Even after providing “corrective” information on a contemporary problem, subjects in their study didn’t necessarily change their views, opinions or concepts.  In some cases it hardened their belief.  For those who are trying to figure out why so many people deny the facts of science, as well as historical and current events, read on.

In their study, three hypotheses were investigated about how the effectiveness of corrections will vary by participant ideology (liberal, centrist, conservative):

Hypothesis 1: An ideological interaction
The effect of corrections on misperceptions will be moderated by ideology.
Hypothesis 2a: Resistance to corrections
Corrections will fail to reduce misperceptions among the ideological subgroup that is likely to hold the misperception.
Hypothesis 2b: Correction backfire
In some cases, the interaction between corrections and ideology will be so strong that misperceptions will increase for the ideological subgroup in question.

The researchers investigated three areas from contemporary politics: the war in Iraq, tax cuts, and stem cell research). This brought more realism to the study and not using hypothetical situations and questions. The war in Iraq focused on the risk associated with Saddam Hussein passing weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks. Subjects read a news article that included remarks made by President George Bush that defended the Iraq war, and that there was a real risk that Saddam would pass on weapons or information. Some respondents were given correction which discusses the Duelfer Report, which documents the lack of Iraqi WMD or active production program prior to the U.S. invasion.

After reading the article, respondents were asked to state whether they agreed (on a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5) with the following statement:

Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program, the ability to produce these weapons, and large stockpiles of WMD, but Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived.

In this 2005 experiment, the results supported the “backfire” hypothesis. For very liberal subjects, the corrective information made them more likely to disagree that Iraq had WMD. For liberal and centrist people, the corrective information had little effect. But for those that were to the right of center (ideologically conservative), the correction backfired—that is conservatives who received the corrective information that Iraq did not have WMD were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD. One explanation was that conservatives tended to believe Bush and not the media, thus resulting in the backfire effect.

The researchers conclude that their study seems to support the idea that citizens engage in motivated reasoning. Their studies support the notion that using corrections on factual beliefs shows that responses to the corrections about controversial issues vary systematically by ideology.

As the researchers point out, their study did support the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic, but they also pointed out that liberals and Democrats also interpret factual information in ways that are consistent with their political world views.

This important study reveals that conservatives are more dogmatic than others, but we all “filter” information to fit our particular views.  But this does not explain the outright denialism that is rampant in the right-wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

The Republican Brain

For decades empirically based scientific theories and ideas have been deliberately denied by primarily conservative males.  A reality exists that science writer, Chris Mooney explains in his book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality.  One of the characteristics of the Republican Brain, according to Mooney, is how the science of denial has become a political force in affecting the minds of many people, especially the media on significant science related social and economic issues of the day.

The field is very young, according to Mooney, but scientists are already showing that average “liberal” and “conservative” brains differ in suggestive ways.

Mooney shows us in his research that the science of denialism is practiced by more Republican and Tea Party members than not, to the bewilderment the rest of us.  He is helpful in putting this in perspective on two issues, global warming and evolution.  He writes:

In a nationally representative survey released just as I was finishing this book—many prior surveys have found similar things—only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent accepted human evolution.

In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.

The evidence suggests that many conservatives today just don’t. (Mooney, Chris (2012-03-22). The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (pp. 6-7). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition)

The lies, distortions, and the denials that we see and hear everyday by conservative politicians , right-wing talk show hosts, Fox News, and right-wing editorials, as Mooney says, “drive us crazy.”  In the midst of this babel of unreason has emerged an ideology in which one systematically reacts by refusing reality and truth (Didier, F., 2007).  Some of the babel includes statements about global warming from Senator James Inhofe: “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state,” or better still, Representative Paul Broun’s (Georgia) opinion that “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell” (from a published talk he gave at a church in Georgia).

As I indicated in the first section, “convictions,” especially involving feelings and attitudes, are difficult to change.  Teachers who embrace the learning science of constructivism know this.  Initial ideas or prior conceptions that students hold about ideas in math, science, social studies, literature are not changed directly, but require an environment of open inquiry and discussion, and the movement on the part of the learner that they want to learn something new or they are willing to consider ideas different from their own.  This is not an easy matter.  As teachers we bang our heads against the wall trying to come with novel ways to engage our students so that they have a chance in the game of school.

Now, I want you to think about adults who would look you in the face and deny facts presented that support the theory of global warming and its effect on climate change.  Some of them will try and dredge up one of the few scientists (typically ones who have not done research in the area of global warming), and say, “See, here’s a scientist who does not believe in global warming.  Even scientists can’t agree.  The science is not settled on global warming.  We need to hold off doing anything until all the facts are in.”  Or something like that.  You get the idea.

Even with evidence that global warming effects are getting worse as reported in a New Scientist, climate change article, deniers are teaming up to fight efforts to increase funding for renewable energy sources and projects.   Increasing renewable energy project and research is one way of reducing global warming.  According to an article on Climate Progress, the Heartland Institute (climate change denier organization) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a right-wing group of nay-sayers made up of Republican representatives) are teaming up to kill clean energy projects.

At the individual level, its the brain, as Mooney suggests, that determines our actions.  Mooney, citing modern neuroscience research, tells us that “thinking and reasoning are actually suffused with emotion or affect.”  Indeed, many of our reactions to stimuli and information are not reflective, but emotional and automatic, and set in motion prior to conscious thought.  When people who have been harboring the idea that global warming is a hoax are presented with facts and research results that show how global warming is affecting, say glaciers, the denier simply goes into automatic and selectively looks at the information, or questions it, or the authors.  No facts, no evidence will change the denier.  However, Nyhan and Reifler found that “corrective” information (facts) produced a “backfire” effect for ideologically conservative people.  That is, the new information tended to make them deny the idea even more.

Science denial appears to be a special ability practiced by Republicans, some industry CEO’s.  It has a long history in American society.  When Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, she was not only attacked at the personal level, but her research and findings were ridiculed (even up to now), especially by the chemical and pesticide industries. When health organizations began to cite research showing the link between smoking and cancer, the tobacco industry went to war against anyone who supported the scientific support of the link.  More recently the rampant denial that AIDS is caused by the virus HIV, and that vaccinations cause autism.

Although we can’t blame the Republican brain for all of these denials, the pattern of denial is there.  The pesticide, and tobacco industries poured millions of dollars into campaigns to disgrace and besmirch the research by scientists to further their own interests.  Right wing groups, to be sure, were involved in these actions.  Fundamentalists groups clearly played a role in the AIDS/HIV and vaccination denials.

In an article, Science denial: A Guide for Scientists, Joshua Rosenau suggests that its important to find out what are the underlying reasons for people denying scientific findings and theories.  He writes that:

Although science denial claims often seem absurd to scientists in relevant fields, they make sense when viewed from an insider’s perspective. For example, creationist journals run their own version of peer review, but require identity of a social group.

As Mooney points, we are not giving the snake eye to those who honestly lack information, but we must push back against those who run campaigns of misinformation.

If you listen to right-wing talk radio, or Fox News, especially after the election, the distortions and misinformation continues.  The Republican brain is active and alive.  All you have to do is switch on your radio, read Tweets from Bortz, Limbaugh, or Hannity, or watch Fox News.

Blue and Red Morality

In my view, the most relevant theoretical explanation for Mooney’s assertion that the Republican brain (read conservative) is different from the brains of progressives and liberals is the work of George Lakoff.

According to research by George Lakoff and the Rockbridge Institute, the moral world-view of either conservatives or progressives can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family. Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here). In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.

The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we look at schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:

  • Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
  • Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

The right-wing babel on any issue (global warming, evolution, school choice, AIDS/HIV, contraception, etc.) can be understood by using Lakoff’s concept of cascading, a kind of sorting that goes on in the brain.  Look at this diagram from Lakoff.  When the brain is activated by any issue, ones response is related to frames and values higher up in the hierarchy.

Lakoff explains: When you mention a specific issue, all the frames and values higher up in the hierarchy are also activated. They define the moral context of the issue. Any discussion of a specific issue activates the entire cascade, strengthening all parts of the cascade in the brains of those hearing the arguments for the specific issue.

Understanding the babel from the right (and the left) requires a deeper understanding of the brain.  Lakoff has developed a model that we think is powerful.

We end with a quote from Lakoff and Wehling.

All politics is moral.


Please refer to: Lakoff, George; Wehling, Elisabeth (2012-06-19). The Little Blue Book (p. 13). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Didier Fassin, When bodies remember: experiences and politics of AIDS in South Africa, Volume 15 of California series in public, University of California Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-520-25027-7p. 115

What do think about the concept of a Republican brain?  Do you think that we can use the work of Mooney and Lakoff to understand the babel that permeates the discussion of important issues?