Thursday, December 29, 2016

How to Assess Climate Change Through Critical Thinking

To quote Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book, Unscientific America, “[t]he problem with the internet is obvious to anyone who has ever used it; There’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap.” The same is true of Facebook, where pages can be set up on various topics, including Climate Change, and saturated (and administered) by people with no science training and/or who intentionally suppress science and promote denial of that science.

So how does the average person determine what is reliable information on the internet, and what is "crap?" The answer is through critical thinking.

That may sound all elitist and difficult to some, but it really isn't. We use critical thinking every day. When we are sick we call on doctors, not plumbers. When our bathtub is leaking, we call on plumbers, not doctors. Raise your hand if you would ask a trained surgeon to perform the much needed tumor surgery rather than see if your local bartender could cut you open before happy hour gets rolling.

So critical thinking is what we all do dozens of times a day as we decide between running out into traffic or waiting for the walk like at the intersection...or whether to drive our kids to school rather than handing them over to some random stranger who knocks on your front door. We think critically all the time. And yet, when it comes to assessing science we often stop thinking critically. So here is a reminder of how to assess whether what you are reading is science or anti-science.

Is it Science?

Science is both a body of knowledge and a process. Scientists observe what is happening, suggest a possible reason for it based on physical, biological, mathematical, and statistical knowledge, then test that possible reason (which we call a hypothesis) to see if it's true. We then keep testing to try to falsify it, that is, try to prove it wrong. Most scientific studies deal with small, measurable points, science is the sum total of all the relevant studies; any one study is not enough. Eventually you have enough information to call it a theory. Gravity, evolution, and man-made climate change are all called theories; they represent as close as science gets to proven fact.

Does the information come from a science source?

As the opening line to this post notes, you can find tons of information on the internet. But as we saw this past year, there is a lot of fake news and conspiracy junk out there in addition to accurate information. So how do you tell which is which?

For climate change, there are many scientific organizations that study the climate. These alphabet soup of organizations include NASA, NOAA, JMA, WMO, NSIDC, IPCC, UK Met Office, and others. Click on the names for links to their climate-related sites. There are also climate research organizations associated with universities. These are all legitimate scientific sources.

If you have to dismiss all of these scientific organizations to reach your opinion, then you are by definition denying the science. If you have to believe that all of these organizations, and all of the climate scientists around the world, and all of the hundred thousand published research papers, and physics, are all somehow part of a global, multigenerational conspiracy to defraud the people, then you are, again, a denier by definition.

So if you deny all the above scientific organizations there are a lot of un-scientific web sites out there that pretend to be science. Many of these are run by lobbyists (e.g.., Climate Depot, run by a libertarian political lobbyist, CFACT), or supported by lobbyists (e.g., JoannaNova, WUWT, both of whom have received funding and otherwise substantial support by lobbying organizations like the Heartland Institute), or are actually paid by lobbyists to write Op-Eds and other blog posts that intentionally misrepresent the science.

How do you know it's a science source?

In short, follow the credentials. More on that below in "Is the person an expert?"

Is the source accurate?

I wouldn't tell a brain surgeon what the brain looks like or how to do the surgery he has been trained to do. Most of us know how to do whatever we have been trained to do and have practiced through a career in that field, whether it be brain surgery, plumbing, librarian, beekeeping, accounting, or nuclear physics. We rely every day on experts in their fields, just as we expect others to call on us for whatever our particular expertise is. So if you aren't an expert in the field, you either accept the scientific expertise of those who are trained or you become an expert yourself. Note that becoming an expert doesn't mean "googling the internet" for an afternoon, it means going to graduate school and working in the field.

Non-experts, however, can learn the basic principles so they have a greater understanding of the science, thus allowing them to better employ critical thinking to assess the veracity of the source.

Is the person an expert?

The scientific organizations listed above (NASA, NOAA, etc.) only post information from their in-house experts. Other experts are professors at universities. You can determine if someone is an expert by following their credentials.

Michael Mann, for example, has a PhD in physics from Yale University (in addition to 3 Master's degrees and a Bachelor of Arts). He is director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, has worked for many years as a climatologist, and published hundreds of scientific papers. Another expert is James Hansen, who also has a PhD, decades of experience in the field, and hundreds of publications. This is the norm for climate scientists. For legitimate experts you can usually find their credentials online, either at the agency they work for or their university.

In contrast, someone like Ivar Giaever is not an expert in climate science. Giaever was an accomplished scientist in his field - tunneling in superconductors - which has no relevance at all to climate science. He has done no work in the field, has no publications in the field, and in fact admitted to "googling the internet" for a few hours before declaring he was a "skeptic." But even he is an outlier because the vast majority of anti-science sources are not scientists at all. Most are lobbyists or paid front groups or political ideologues with no knowledge of climate science. Again, track back to their credentials, or lack thereof.

But maybe some random person on the internet is right? 

This is a common refrain: "Sure, he has been proven wrong every single time in the past, but maybe he is right this time! You should evaluate the information, not the source!"

The problem with this refrain is that these unreliable sources are always wrong. Every single time. Their information has already been proven false many times. They simply repeat the same talking points over and over and over. Despite what many political ideologues believe, falsehoods don't suddenly become true because you've repeated it enough times. They are still false. Some sources will always - every time - print falsehoods. This is their job; to misrepresent, mislead, and, sometimes, outright lie. Lobbyists have a network of collusion that includes bloggers, media outlets, and paid spokespeople. Their job is to "manufacture doubt," just as the tobacco companies did for decades to suppress the science of smoking causing cancer.

There is no reason for honest people to waste time with sources who have established themselves as either intentionally dishonest or grossly ignorant. There are plenty of legitimate sources out there, and we do ourselves a disservice to hope that someday one of these constantly unreliable sites will stumble upon something accurate. Just ignore them and move on.

But what about blogs?

For most of us the science sources can be overly technical and hard to understand. That's true, though some, like NASA, have attempted to provide pages that get the basic information across without getting bogged down in technical language. Still, most people are going to get their climate science information from blogs or Facebook.

It's important to remember that blogs are not science, though they may help communicate the science to non-scientists. Some blogs are always reliable sources of information while others are always unreliable; how to tell one from the other was described here. Reliable blogs (including those from the scientific agencies as well as some news sites) will generally link back to the actual scientific study or studies being discussed. Don't stop with the blog; always go back to the original study. Be aware that the headline often doesn't reflect the actual content of the article (headlines are written by marketing people trying to be provocative in order to stimulate "hits") and the article often doesn't quite get the science right (again, because more provocative means more hits means more revenue for the author and any advertisers). Read the original paper, or at least the abstract if that is all that is available.

Lobbyist blogs and their front groups (and the unaffiliated but ideological blogs that plagiarize and saturate the blogosphere with the information fed through lobbyists and front groups) will often link back to another front blog rather than the original study. The reason is because these front blogs will "reinterpret" the study results, often drawing conclusions that are exactly opposite of the actual study conclusions. This is done by cherry picking pieces of the study or statements from the study report and then interpreting those pieces as if they were stand-alone. Thus, a paper that unequivocally states the humans are causing climate change might have one sentence of the uncertainties section cherry picked and used to claim the paper says humans have no part in climate change. Yes, lobbyist blogs and their plagiarists do that, and they do it all the time. This is why nothing on those blogs can be trusted. [When someone lies all the time, you can't assume that maybe this one time they accidentally said something true.]

I want to emphasize this point. Legitimate blogs will link to the scientific source and/or published papers. If the blog links to a lobbyist site or one of their front groups (e.g., WUWT, Climate Depot) then you can be assured that the blog is intentionally steering you to the "reinterpretation" of the study, not the actual study conclusions.

The above tips should be employed to ensure you think critically about the sources of information on which you rely. A blog by a comedian/satirist/radio talk show host three steps removed from an actual study they misrepresented is never going to be a reliable source. An Op-Ed in a business blog written by a lawyer paid by a tobacco and fossil fuel lobbying organization with a history of promoting falsehoods is never going to be a reliable source.

Legitimate sources like NASA, NOAA, IPCC, etc. are always going to be reliable. Stick to reliable sources. And ask yourself, do you have to dismiss 100+ years of published science and/or believe in a global, multigenerational conspiracy of the world's climate scientists for more than a decade? If you have to do this to believe something written on a blog, then the blog is not going to be reliable. In fact, the blog is promoting the denial of science.

Here are more ways to critically assess the validity of information you read on the internet.

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