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Skeptical Science Educates My Students

Posted on 21 May 2011 by ProfMandia

A guest post by Professor Scott Mandia, reposted from Global Warming: Man or Myth?

I teach MET295 – Global Climate Change to first and second year community college students.  MET295 is a three credit lecture course that serves as a science elective for the general student population.  Basic high school algebra is the only prerequisite.  (See the course outline.)

I used John Cook’s as the student resource for this semester’s research papers.  As you will see from the four example papers highlighted on this blog, information found at is accessible to the typical college student and likely to the general public.

The assignment:

Each student was randomly assigned a topic from Skeptic Arguments & What The Science Says.

Students were asked to carefully study all the information appearing in the Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced tabs.

Students were required to summarize, in their own words, the information learned from researching the topic.  Students were also encouraged to use other resources, especially course notes, to help them complete the paper.  Students were to use proper APA Citation Style formatting within the content (parenthetical citing) and in a Works Cited page appearing as the last page.

I asked all students to please refer to the Term Paper Grading Rubric to maximize their final paper grades.

Sample of Four Student Papers Debunking Skeptic Arguments:

Skeptic Argument: Antarctic Is Gaining Ice debunked by Angela Flanagan

Skeptic Argument: Oceans are Cooling debunked by Ryan Maloney

Skeptic Argument: Hurricanes are not Linked to Global Warming debunked by Nick Panico

Skeptic Argument: IPCC is Alarmist debunked by Jason Quilty

Note: Each of these students gave me permission to post their papers and names on this blog.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 116:

  1. Do these students understand the scientific method? The scientific method applied to a problem is the science. A review of other studies only guides the new experiments needed- its not a replacement. Medical scientist understand this. Despite only the massive study of the human body and drugs in isolation, nothing substitutes for testing of drug on humans after testing on the nearest analog species. The human body is still too complicated to be substituted by models or individual studies. The Earth is equally too complex for part-wise studies to tell you the whole stories or even a major part. The IPCC did no science- summarising other papers is something a reviewer could have done.
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  2. cola513, I'm not sure what you are getting at. From reading the post I thought the assignment was to review and understand the science, not do the science.
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  3. Hello Scott!

    Did you make available to your students "Global Warming Science" available at:

    Probably not.
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    [DB] Your use of quote marks is very apt, given the disinformation nature of your linked site.

  4. This post tells me three things, at least. 1. SkS is a useful and easily accessible resource. 2. Professor Mandia is a creative teacher whose students are learning critical thinking. 3. You don't have to be a trained scientist to debunk the claims of the deniers.
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  5. H Pierce. Why would Science Students have any interest in a Site which is clearly nothing but Denialist Cult propaganda? I took a look at the headline articles, & its nothing but the usual politically motivated & completely unscientific clap-trap that we've come to expect from the Usual Suspects in the Denial Movement (such as yourself....oh, & Cloa513 of course). If this is the "resource" you & your mate Cloa rely on, then its no wonder that your "contributions" here-if such pointless distractions can be given such an august label-are so vacuous & easily shot to pieces.
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  6. Jimbo @ 4:

    You don't have to be a trained scientist to debunk the claims of the deniers.

    You at least need some passing familiarity with scientific method as well as some capacity to detect internal consistency and consistency with other data we know about the world at large.

    Herein lies the difference between science and religion which is held as an article of faith and which admits the possibility that some knowledge, eg, the true essence of God who is infinite and eternal, is utterly beyond our human comprehension.

    In science, by contrast, knowledge may be too extensive and complex to integrate into a coherent whole by any one individual but at least is notionally understandable given adequate effort and resources insofar as we are dealing with finite quanta of knowledge no matter how vast.

    All of which makes for fascinating debate. Moreover, we should distinguish between religious faith and humanistic ideologies which pretend to capture truth whilst enslaving it.

    If you wonder about the difference, consider only Mao Zedong's famous saying, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a a hundred schools of thought contend," following which he was able to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime, before wiping them out.
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    [DB] Fixed link.

  7. As a teacher myself, I like the layout of the course description and the term paper grading rubric. As a matter of fact, I'm going to "borrow" both for my own classes.

    However, it bothers me greatly that the students' weren't presented data and allowed to form their own conclusions. Anytime I teach a controversial subject such as AGW or evolution, I start the unit by plainly stating that my personal views do not matter and I want them to form their own opinion. As long as they follow the scientific methond, think rationally, and adhere to the course guidelines - they can earn an A regardless of their conclusions. I do my best to not allow my viewpoints to influence theirs until after the unit is over when we usually have a roundtable discussion, or the students are divided and prepare materials to present their standings in a debate.

    This class would be much more effective in creating minds that can think rationally if the students were presented all available scientific information and allowed to formulate their own thoughts. Instead, it is more of a writing class where information was regurgitated in the assigned format.
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  8. Prof. Mandia,
    Pirate's post begs a question: what if the student decided the skeptic argument was valid?
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  9. Send them all to remedial English class.
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  10. To look objectively at AGW, one must look at all the science. The little presented on this site is informative, but deffintely not the defintive source of knowledge.

    There is a lot more to climate than the level of co2 in the atmosphere. I don't know if we will ever be able to quantify all the variables, and their relationships.

    I would hope that Prof Mandia understands this when he is teaching. I would also hope that the use of this site encourages students to broaden their knowledge of understanding as to the uncertainty that we are at the present time.
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  11. apiratelooksat50, do you really think that evolution is "controversial" and that your students should be able to form their own opinions about it ?
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  12. JMurphy@11

    Personally, evolution is not controversial.

    Professionally, it is.
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  13. Seeing as the fundamentals of the theory of climate are not controversial, and validated many times over, it would be very hard to grade a student highly that considered one of the main skeptic arguments valid. One of the reasons would be that they would have to come to this conclusion without the support of the peer-reviewed literature, and therefore would not have done their research properly.

    'Controversy' in climate theory is limited to such questions as 'will the warming be bad, very bad or horrific for modern civilisation as we know it'?, or 'will the Arctic be September sea ice-free in 2020, 2030, or as late as 2050'?, or 'Will doubled CO2 lead to a 2C, 3C or even a >4C rise in temperature?' The problem with these questions is that although there is room for 'controversy' (really just valid scientific debate), the underpinning basics of climate theory are entirely sound, and there is not room for people with the view that everything will be just fine if we continue BAU...
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  14. The course outline clearly shows how the content is developed for the course. Natural climate forcing is carefully explained as well as human climate forcing.

    There is no controversy about evolution and there is no controversy about what is causing most of the modern day global warming. You do not need to take my word on that because there is overwhelming evidence and scientific consensus.

    Where there is a debate is which solutions and policy choices we need to make and that is clearly where students will make up their own minds after presented with choices.

    I chose this particular assignment to illustrate the various myths that are prevalent on the web and in books but do not appear much in the peer-reviewed literature. This site does a very good job of carefully explaining why these myths are not accurate and how the scientific method is used to show the holes in these arguments.

    This is one assignment and not a representative catch-all for the entire course. It is not wise to judge the entire course based on this blog post. :)

    Their weekly HW assignments were also illuminating. Each week they had to do a Google News search, find a climate change-related article, and explain the content while also relating that content to what was learned in class. Frequently they found very scientifically-weak articles and then proceeded to show why the "science" was wrong.

    Given that these students are freshman and non-science majors, I was quite impressed.
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  15. Skywatcher @ 13
    You're right, climate change theory is not controversial.

    Anthropogenic climate change theory is certainly controversial.
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  16. apirate@15,

    You are going to have to do much better than that. Empty rhetoric does not advance argument, whatever that may be.
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  17. ProfMandia - very good.
    Not on only from the perspectives you describe - but your students are fortunate to be guided through what 'debate' looks like, sometimes, in the public sphere, compared with the world of science etc.


    "Personally, evolution is not controversial.
    Professionally, it is."

    It may be like the dark ages where public opinion goes bad!

    So, ProfMandia, I'm very glad you're not confusing your students by bowing to this silly trend of agreeing that evolution, AGW etc. are scientifically controversial!
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  18. Is apiratelooksat50 showing an example of the type of teaching now going on in American schools (where evolution and creationism, AGW and denialism have to be taught side-by-side in science classes) ? If so, I am aghast. How will American children, being taught in this way, be able to develop any form of scientific method ? It is faith-based thinking gone mad.
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  19. I think this is a good model for a course directed at students generally. The skills learned can be expanded to other 'controversies' such as the value of immunization.

    I would love to see this course developed for a Moodle (online) environment, publically available, for other educators to copy and model for their own use.

    Moodle allows easy use of the internet, video, etc. in the course material.

    I would like to work with faculty interested in teaching the science, not the false controversy, of climate change. Can we develop a course that can be public domain?

    How about a series of courses that touch on climate change and its impacts?
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  20. JMurphy. Don't generalize to broadly about american education from someone posting on a general public blog about climate science!

    That said, I know people in certain parts of the country who, even at university level, feel pressure to "teach the controversy," despite the fact that there is none on scientific grounds. It's a trend that blurs the lines between "current events" curricula and science curricula. I can see nothing good coming of it, at least in this manifestation. But, people often surprise me.
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  21. Harry Seaward at 01:24 AM on 22 May, 2011 says

    Pirate's post begs a question: what if the student decided the skeptic argument was valid?

    What if a student "decided" (interesting choice of words) Beer-Lambert's Law, or Planck's Law was wrong? Well, he could be a genius, but chances are on the side of his being just a pranck trying to draw attention to himself.

    Anyway, if you "decide" established science is wrong, be prepared to back your assertions with very good data. Better data or better explanation of the data than the previous theory.
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  22. apiratelooksat50
    "Anytime I teach a controversial subject such as AGW or evolution.."

    Erm, they aren't controversial. Or rather any controversy is not universal. It maybe controversial in the US, which is rapidly losing any direction due to internal extremism, but it isn't very controversial in the UK.
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  23. apiratelooksat50, with respect:

    Your post #12 is backwards. Professionally, these aren't controversial subjects. Personally, they are. This is what separates a proper scientific education from teaspooning some odd sense of democratic sensibility into our youth, and letting them think that "all opinions" are equal. It's also what separates first-rate education at top research universities from second-rate education typical of elective meteorology courses at a community college. This is where Scott Mandia and his class is a strong exception, and I like that. But my textbooks in climate and atmospheric radiation never came with a disclaimer saying "this is all a theory" as some anti-science groups demanded happen to evolution texts.

    This isn't to say that I agree with the indoctrination of students into a particular world view; rather, a proper evaluation of the relevant physics (or in the case of evolution- the biochemistry, genetics, geological evidence, etc) will inevitably lead the student to the right answers, or in the case of real skepticism, actually learning to ask the right questions. I am of the perspective that teaching someone how something works is better than teaching them what is wrong with 50 fallacious arguments. The latter is how SkepticalScience is set up, which is fine. For some reason, when it comes to climate change and evolution, the latter is sometimes the more efficient setup for educating the casual reader.

    Furthermore, any real education will give the student a good perspective on the things which are well-known (like the validity of Planck's law) and those things which aren't too well-known (like the magnitude of cloud feedbacks). Teaching something like "anthropogenic global warming," which is not really a theory in itself, but a consequence of many different lines of physics, as intrinsically "controversial" is just doing an injustice to your students and the subject. People pay tuition for a reason, you know.
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  24. DB at 3

    An honest instructor should make available to the students the sources of all points of views on the topic, and then let them form their own conclusions and opinions.

    He could arrange a debate on AGW where the "Against Team" challenges the "For Team". After the debate, he could have the audience vote on the performance of the teams.

    ( -Off-topic and inflammatory snipped- ).
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    [DB] "An honest instructor"

    A truly appalling way to begin a comment.  While that may be de rigueur in your usual venue of choice, the insinuation of dishonesty you make here is a violation of the Comments Policy.

    An apology to Professor Mandia should be in the offing.

  25. h pierce @24:
    An honest instructor should make available to the students the sources of all points of views on the topic, and then let them form their own conclusions and opinions.

    Really? In grade 11 when my physics teacher was teaching my Newtonian laws of motion, and Newtons law of universal gravitation, not once did he bring out an Aristotelian. He did not bring out any geocentrists or flat earthers either. Did that make him dishonest?

    And why do you limit yourself to "both points of view"? There are at least five or six distinct theories presented by various kooks in opposition to evolution. There are about as many distinct denier theories on climate. But, revealingly, all lose any desire to criticize each other when a chance to attack climate scientists is in the offing.

    What you mean by an "honest instructor" is simply a person who will uncritically feed pseudo-science to their students without distinguishing it from the genuine article, taking great care, of course, to not give the students the critical skills needed to distinguish between the two.
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  26. Tom @25,

    Excellent points. Likely lost on the confusionists though.

    And I second Daniel's request @ 24 for h pierce to apologize to Prof. Mandia. The contrarians have nothing and it is showing.
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  27. hpierce #24: "make available to the students the sources of all points of views on the topic"

    Yes. Teach both sides; let the students decide. Where have we heard that before?

    The 'debate' and subsequent vote between 'magic' and 'physics' should be quite entertaining.
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  28. "He could arrange a debate on AGW where the "Against Team" challenges the "For Team". After the debate, he could have the audience vote on the performance of the teams."

    Ive been trying to think about why this idea as formulated struck me as particularly bad. I mean, I'm all for democracy and having open debate. I think it comes down to two things.

    First, a debate should never be structured as "For" and "Against." The latter position is so much easier to maintain - you just have to sew doubt, while the other side must defend against every competing idea around, no matter how nutty. Sounds familiar.

    Second, public debates are actually very poor analogs for what happens in science. They are too defined in time, and in structure. As a consequence, their outcome hinges too much on rhetorical and dramatic skills of the debaters, the predispositions of the audience, and the terms of the debate. None of those have much to do with evidence.

    In science, the setup is actually quite different. A group of people work on a related set of problems for an indefinite period of time. Useful ideas survive and become part of settled science while non-useful ideas don't.

    Personality can play a role, but only temporarily. That's because scientists are not presenting evidence to a bunch of naives who aren't vested in whether their judgement is correct. Rather they are sharing with colleagues who often know as much or more about the evidence. That enforces a strict focus on the evidence, as artifice will be found out. If your colleagues accept an idea, it's because that idea has enough validity to be useful to them in future investigations. They are vested in making good decisions about which idea is wrong or right.

    I wonder how one could create something more akin to the activity of science in the classroom.
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  29. I'm amazed that anyone can seriously believe that a debate can determine the validity of any science. That is the sign of someone who knows the science is against them, so wants to be able to rely on debating skills - knowing, particularly, that those who work in the sciences are hardly the best at communicating and/or debating against ideological polemicists.
    Presumably, if h pierce had his way, there would be a debate and vote on Evolution in America, thereby leading to its dismissal and replacement in education establishments (if opinion polls are true) by some form of Creationism.
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  30. Tom Curtis @ 25:

    It's a shame your teachers didn't mention Aristotle who together with Plato remains the bedrock of philosophy and especially logic and without whose contributions much of modern science would very likely not have emerged.

    Of course, Aristotle’s thinking was limited by the primitive state of scientific knowledge of his day. Significantly, Sir Isaac Newton for all his insights into modern physic had his own raft of odd idea (at least by the standards of today).

    It would be fascinating to see what our descendants might make of some of our more treasured notions a mere two hundred years from today.
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  31. Stephen Baines@28 You are absolutely right, a debate would be a very poor way to resolve a scientific issue, and science discovered that a long time ago (which is why science is now pushed forward via journals rather than public debates).

    The reason why it is a bad idea is that debates are won by rhetoric and oratory, not necessarily by truth. Debate favours the quick-witted, rather than the deep-thinker. Science needs deep thinkers more than it needs a ready wit (although some have both).

    Organising such a debate in a science lesson may be enjoyable for the students, but would be profoundly counter-productive if the aim was to give the students an idea of what science is about. It is a search for the truth, it isn't about "winning".
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  32. Dikran Marsupial @31, the worst feature of debates is that time is allocated, in a debate, equally between both parties. In journals, in contrast, space is allocated in proportion to the evidence that can be adduced in favour of a position. That is why denier view points are almost entirely absent from journals, but every where purveyed in public "debates".
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  33. chris 1204 @30, you don't need to teach a double major in philosophy who Plato and Aristotle are. But nor do you need to teach me that Aristotle's physics was based primarily on a priori considerations, and that it has been definitively refuted by experimentation since Galileo's experiments. Aristotle, therefore, has no place in the physics class room, unless, of course, your purpose is not to teach science but to sow confusion. Likewise, Creationism has had no place in the class room since the 19th century; and AGW denialism has had no place since about 2000. (Some AGW denialist theories have never had a place, because they are out right contradictory, or simply pseudo-scientific.)

    I would add that no self-reflective scientist would want their theories taught in the class room until they have taught a majority of their peers of the validity of those theories. Those peers are experts in the most important sense of the word, they know how to avoid all the basic mistakes in the subject. Therefore, if they are not persuaded, it is probably because of a genuine mistake in the novel theory.

    In contrast, it is patently obvious that children, even teenagers do not have the mental tools to objectively assess complex theories. Even undergraduates are normally just developing those tools, and an undergraduate course will not be able to provide even a significant fraction of the relevant information. Clearly high school students and undergraduates are non-expert in the most important meaning of that term. They are likely to make fundamental errors, and therefore to be easily persuaded to make those errors if confronted with false theories in the class room.

    Any scientist who wants to persuade children where they cannot persuade their peers is seeking all the rhetorical advantages of indoctrination over honest persuasion.
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  34. Tom Curtis @ 33:

    So nothing taught today in science classes is based on a priori considerations?

    I'm sure Aristotle as a true philosopher or lover of knowledge would be utterly delighted to see his physics overturned by Newton, Einstein, and the proponents of quantum physics.

    The scientist who is ignorant of Aristotle and his contributions is a scientist impoverished. The Aristotelean corpus above all trains the student in the analysis of argument and an assessment of internal and external consistency. The student need not explicitly affirm his or her dependence on Aristotelian antecedents so long as s/he knows how to use them well.

    Understanding logic as opposed to rhetoric lie at the core of the scientific method.
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  35. chris1204: I think the point Tom Curtis is making, is that while it is important that students learn *about* Aristotle and similar contributors to the early bodies of science, you wouldn't want to teach some of Aristotle's now-discredited hypotheses as to how the physical universe works. At least, not in a standard physics class, where you're trying to educate students as to how the world actually works, to the best of our current scientific knowledge.

    Perhaps in a class looking at the history of physics, though.
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  36. As Bern points out, chris1204, you're putting up a flimsy straw-man argument here. No-one here has suggested that we don't learn about the role which Plato or Aristotle played in the history of science. What we're saying is that, when you're teaching kids about a theory like-say-the one relating to the motion of planetary bodies, you don't offer them the Heliocentric theory & a Terra-centric theory & get the students to determine which is the correct theory one based on a series of debates. Yet this was what H Pierce was effectively suggesting by insisting that ProfMandia provide students with this website (which is based on hard science) & a website which is nothing more than a load of pseudo-science & politically motivated propaganda, & get students to determine which is valid-*not* on the basis of the science, but on the basis of whose better at debating. Pierce then tops it off by claiming ProfMandia is "dishonest" for not engaging in such Polemical nonsense.
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  37. Bern @ #35:

    Perhaps in a class looking at the history of physics, though.

    My point exactly. We so often teach science without any understanding of how and why scientific insights evolved at particular times in particular places whilst failing to get traction elsewhere. Whole books have been devoted to precisely this issue in relation to global warming including, of course, John’s recent scholarly efforts.

    For a fascinating glimpse of one aspect of the history of science, one can do little better than to glance through the works of the late Stephen Jay Gould who provides inter alia a spirited defence of Archbishop James Ussher and his now much derided chronology of the history of the creation of the world to which the leading scientists of the time, Sir Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, both subscribed. If you're interested, see Fall in the House of Ussher” for Gould's complete essay from "Eight Little Piggies."

    Awareness of the history of science in all its (to us) stranger permutations is essential if we are to approach the today’s scientific challenges with due humility thus striving to generate more light and less heat. Otherwise, we fail to appreciate the challenges facing our forebears in scientific endeavour whilst ignoring our own blindness.
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  38. One should never debate "science" in front of a group that does not have a rigorous scientific background in that specific discipline. Debate is a sport and the winner is the person who looks best even if he is delivering complete nonsense.

    Why do you suppose that people like Lindzen, Monckton, Pat Michaels, and groups such as Heartland Institute ask for debates? Is it because they have the science right or is it that they wish to "keep the controversy alive"?
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  39. Again, Chris1204, you're offering up a Straw-man argument. Where, here, has anyone said that teaching of Aristotle & Plato don't have their place? Their role in the history of science is one thing, but to suggest that their actual *hypotheses* should be given equal weight to modern theories which have been proven through direct observation-then determine which is valid on the basis of a *debate* & a *vote* would cause science to degenerate into nothing more than a farce-which is exactly what the Denial Crowd actually want.
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  40. I suppose "skeptics" here would suggest it would be more productive in the quest for the Truth if students were always presented "both sides"of an issue.

    Man on the moon: "official sources claim American astronauts have set foot on the moon in the late 60s and early 70s. This is disputed by this and this book, and that website, though."

    HIV and AIDS: "mainstream science insists the HIV virus causes AIDS, and therefore you should use condoms. However, it must be stressed that condom sales are a source of revenue to large corporations. Moreover, this and this scientist claim that it's all a big hoax, and present their case in very technical and impressive terms."
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  41. Marcus @36, a very nice summation.

    chris 1204 @37, anybody undertaking to teach others should be very clear what they intend to teach. If you want to teach physical theories then that is what you should teach, and there is no need to venture into the history of science to teach them. If you wish to teach the theories properly you should also include some of the epistemology of science, but taken only from the best examples. As such Aristotle does not rate a mention because his epistemology of science was bad, and a shackle of science for the better part of two thousand years. Even in biology, where Aristotle was at his best, you learn more from Linnaeus than from Aristotle so including discussion of Aristotle for anything but side reading is a waste of valuable instructional time.

    Certainly if you were to explicitly teach the history or sociology of science, Aristotle then rates a major mention, and perhaps a quarter of a lecture should be devoted to him (and the rest of the pre-moderns covered in the rest of the lecture). However if you are teaching explicitly the epistemology of science, then Aristotle rates barely a sentence, with time far better devoted to Bacon and Galileo.

    The simple fact is, all of Aristotle's physical theories are false. Further, his epistemology of science was bad, and anybody who follows it is likely to produce false theories.

    Gould's defence of Ussher is a perfect illustration (thankyou). Gould defends Ussher as being a careful scholar in an accepted scholarly tradition of his age. Well, Aristotle was not just careful, but brilliant - certainly far the superior of Plato (which is no mean feat). But Gould rightly does not defend Ussher's method as science, for it was not. Anybody who teaches Ussher's determination of the age of the Earth in a geology class is wasting their student's time. And the same is true of Aristotle. Aristotle's epistemology precluded the possibility of genuine science, and so his theories and methods have no place in the science class.

    I would, of course, make an exception for his teaching of logic; but even that has been superseded by boolean logic and its successors; and by probability theory.
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  42. ProfMandia #38

    You should teach your students to be aware of the wide uncertainties involved in climate science. You could also point out that the oceans are not quite following the AGW script.

    You could also illustrate that the first law applies to climate science as much as any area of thermodynamics.

    You could point to Hansen's latest paper which claims the startling point that Aerosols are providing much more cooling forcing than previously assumed - which illustrates the wide error bars on this large unknown.

    You could refer to Trenberth's paper of 'travesty' fame to show that energy and sea level budgets are far from closed with current measurement technologies and spatial coverage.

    And finaly you could say that there is a vast array of misinformation on the 'denier' side of the argument, and a vast amount of exaggeration and hubris on the AGW advocacy side as well.
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  43. Tom Curtis @ 41:

    I'm so pleased you like Aristotle and Gould. However, you miss the point. Gould does in fact defend Ussher as a careful empiricist (ie, a man operating in a genuinely scientific spirit) using the limited tools available to him at the time.

    Nowhere do I propose that we should teach Aristotelian physics qua physics as understood today.

    However, one cannot appreciate a subject without at least a rudimentary understanding of our historical predecessors and their strengths and limitations. After all, Newton did speak of standing on the shoulders of giants. I suspect Aristotle featured in their number.

    My own fields (medicine generally and psychiatry specifically) remain very conscious of their historic antecedents. The Hippocratic corpus, for example, remains a fascinating source of the manifestations of disease through the ages as does the Bible (witness some powerful descriptions of depression as in the Book of Job, bipolar disorder or the madness of King Saul, and schizoaffective disorder, as in the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar). The Hippocratic corpus also describes depression or melancholia demonstrating all too clearly that it is no mere modern malady.

    No doubt, until the advent of calculus thanks to Newton and Leibniz, physics as understood today was greatly limited. More than anything, my comments are a response to a seemingly (perhaps unintentionally) derisory dismissal of a philosopher whose thinking remains pivotal to this day.

    The cursory treatment afforded to the philosophy of science in all too many university courses highlights the tragic schism between the exact sciences (ie, knowledge that can readily be quantified) and the humanities (knowledge that is less readily quantified) which in times gone by were both known as sciences [scientia].

    Yet, without a philosophy of science, we cannot approach a subject such as global warming. Underpinning the debates are fundamental questions related to what kind of world do we want to live in, what priority do we give to competing goods, what levels of evidence do we accept, how much uncertainty do we allow, and the like.

    To give but one simple example, I have never been convinced by John's notion of "multiple converging lines of evidence," which I see as epistemologically problematic (much as I admire the integrity and passion that all too clearly drive his efforts).

    My "quarrel" (perhaps too strong a word) with this line of argument does not prevent me from believing that we quite likely live in a warming world to which human activity has made a substantial and potentially quite damaging contribution. However, our response to this undoubted risk must encompass the reality that humankind will ultimately exercise its right to respond as it sees fit for better or for worse.
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  44. Really Ken !@42,

    You honestly believe that you comment comes across as constructive?
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  45. Chris1204,

    A very eloquent articulation of your thoughts. With that said, please read Dr. Spencer Weart's excellent book titled The discovery of global warming"-- a fascinating read and demonstrates that many of the arguments being put forth today are merely recycled from those made in the early 20th century and before that even. The roots of the theory of AGW go way back.
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  46. Well, any digging into the issues Ken L outlined (besides the thermodynamic one, huh?), would entail much more then just mentioning those areas as "uncertain". As Prof Mandia pointed out, just mentioning that there is a "debate" over scientific subjects will only sow confusion without expert analysis. I don't believe the assignment is set up to do such a thing.
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  47. chris1204, how can you possibly be unconvinced by the importance of multiple converging lines of evidence in scientific decision making, if you really are as knowledgeable about science as you claim?
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  48. For my first post on this site I wanted to congratulate John Cook (and the many excellent contributors) for what is arguably the best moderated and most informative climate science site on the web and also to specifically comment on the issues of teaching science to students as described by Mandia. I myself am an analytical chemist but I deal with these issues of publicly controversial science topics in my "Weird Science" freshman seminars at the University of Oregon that I offer every fall.

    In my own case, I spend the first six weeks of the quarter going over the scientific method (and history thereof) in as entertaining a manner as possible using a variety of stimulating activities such as optical and cognitive illusions, magic tricks, and student designed experiments (for example, how could we test the ability to detect if we are capable of knowing when someone is staring at us from behind).

    Then the students pick a topic from a long (but not exhaustive or exclusive) list of possible "weird science" topics for example, "big foot", ESP, ghosts, etc. and give an oral presentation of the subject by taking one side or the other (in which I usually find a way to get pairs of students to argue pro and con against their own intuitions by swapping the sides they wanted to argue). This is followed by a final paper summarizing the evidence on both sides and stating their conclusions. The motivation for this class of almost completely non-science majors is I think similar to Mandia's goal: to teach students how to think critically and scientifically. Something that I suspect most here will agree is a highly unnatural state of mind and one that must be painfully inculcated within each new generation of students (e.g, how to look for evidence that falsifies ones hypothesis as opposed to the general human practice of only accepting data that confirms their heartfelt but naive intuitions).

    For science majors this is traditionally performed through a sort of osmosis, with the senior undergraduate or grad students learning at the elbow of a practicing scientist. But for non-science majors the opportunity for understanding this type of knowledge process is almost nonexistent even at the college level (not that excellent scholarship isn't abundant in other areas of the university, but some of the humanities have an uneven track record in a few respects on this score). Of course there's a lot more to say on this subject but I will just close by proposing that Mandia's class is another wonderful example of how teach this type of critical analysis for both science and non science students in an academic environment. That is, by giving the students something to think about that they actually care about.
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  49. Instead of "controversial", a better word choice would have been "polarizing". We are instructed by our local school districts to make sure we present evolution as a "theory" even though it is required curriculum. Of course, all of the science teachers believe in the theory, as do the vast majority of the rest of the faculty and most of the students.

    I personally support the theory of evolution because of the multiple lines of evidence (homologous organs, the fossil record, genetics, etc...) that make predictions, such as common ancestors, that can be supported. A rather vocal creationist in the area was published in the local paper as stating that you couldn't expect anyone to believe that all of a sudden a living organism turned into cats and dogs. I replied that the organism (Tomarctus) actually existed and the process of evolution from Tomarctus to canines and felines took millions of years. What was once proposed by the fossil record is now supported and strengthened by the genetic evidence.
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  50. On the debate:
    The debates are not held to determine a winner of pro or anti AGW. They are held to allow the students to collaborate and encourage the participation of students who might not be at their best at test taking or writing. The debate requires them to process presented knowledge, or their own research, organize their findings, and communicate well with peers.

    We teach the students more than just science and the ability to work together in a group, take on multiple roles, and participate in public speaking is important to their success after high school.
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