Breeding Hyperskepticism?

Lindsay Miller was an intern in spring 2014 at NCSE, where she worked with Minda Berbeco on the Understanding Global Change project. She is a student at Colorado College.

Last spring I had the pleasure of working on the Understanding Global Change (UGC) project as an intern for NCSE. I spent most of my time either writing or reading about scientific studies related to global change. Being that immersed in scientific writing, I gained a little bit of empathy for the writers who have to stand up to a world of hyper-skeptical criticism, but I also gained a deep understanding and respect for the wealth of literature and evidence surrounding not just climate change, but global change too.

This spring, exactly a year later, I found myself in an introductory level college class entitled “Introduction to Global Climate Change.” We spent a month covering basic weather patterns, discussing paleoclimate data, and learning about the various proxies that point to a changing climate. We read journals, papers, and articles to gain familiarity with the scientific discussions. Then for an hour and a half each morning, my class critiqued the day’s reading.

And by “critiqued” I don’t mean engaged in the typical college discussion where overenthusiastic students attempt to discern literary connections or explain how a singular piece of writing will fundamentally alter our way of life. I mean “critiqued” in the cruelest sense of the word. Every morning, from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., my class tore apart these papers until there wasn’t a shred of dignity left to them. Everything was either too generic or too specific, made overstated claims or was too wishy-washy, didn’t provide enough graphs or gave visual evidence that distracted from the paper. My class found lots to complain about. And if all else failed, someone could always raise their hand and declare, quite solemnly, “I just didn’t like their writing style.”

It was a bloodbath. Some of it, to be sure, was necessary and useful. If you’re trying to understand whether a paper is really making its case, you must read it very critically. If you were considering buying a used car, you would kick the tires, look under the hood, and take it for a quick test drive. But some of the critiques were unnecessary and in fact counterproductive. By not guiding the class to focus intently on the scientific merits or demerits of the papers, my professor was encouraging a sort of indifference to the science. If any paper can be dismissed because of some fault or other, no matter how petty or irrelevant, then any paper is pretty much as good as any other paper, and you might as well read, believe, and cite the ones that you already agree with.

So in a class dedicated to the tricky subject of climate change, my professor was effectively breeding a generation of hyper-skeptics. My classmates were equipped with what amounted to a toolbox for not seriously engaging with the science. For example, if a scientist says, “This cause might be responsible for that effect,” the response is to seize upon the expression of tentativeness and declare it to be an admission of ignorance. If a scientist says more boldly, “This cause is definitely responsible for that effect,” the response is to seize upon the confident expression and declare it dogmatism. The toolbox leaves the hyper-skeptic never at a loss for a response—but never actually seriously engages with the science.

I felt a lot of sympathy for the authors of the papers under our harsh microscope. After writing a few pieces for NCSE, I understood just how impossible it is (literally) to write a piece that pleases everybody. When writing for the public, an author must simultaneously acknowledge the limitations of current data while also convincing readers that their explanation is valid. On top of that, different individuals prefer different levels of specificity. And to add to the mess, there are infinite ways to tell a story; some people enjoy boldness and drama, others prefer to read articles that are clear and direct. No one, regardless of their writing prowess, can write a perfect article.

But that’s what people expect. In our increasingly hyper-skeptical society, every perceived flaw causes readers to ignore or discount good evidence for fear of being tricked. Students (as in my class) are applauded for pointing out the limitations of honest attempts to explain the science rather than recognizing their merit. Some degree of skepticism is healthy, and even important, of course. But like all good things, there can be too much of it. How can we confront climate change if we dismiss everything we read about it?

I think that part of the solution is educating people on how to evaluate scientific claims. I’m not suggesting that the general public peruse the scientific research literature themselves: that takes time and training and a higher degree of interest than it may be reasonable to expect. But they should learn how to assess if news articles and the like on scientific topics are reliable and trustworthy. (This will involve some heuristics. Is the author a science journalist? Are there sources for the article other than a press release? If so, are they reputable scientists or journals? Is the article appearing in an ideologically-driven publication? You get the idea.) And they should support efforts to hold journalists and other science communicators accountable, which will help to restore public trust in science reporting. If so, warnings about climate change may finally break through our walls of distrust.