You are here

It's unfair to disregard the scientific consensus on climate change

Third Pillar of Denial: by Josh Rosenau for NCSE, 2012

The third pillar of climate change denial — that it is only fair to acknowledge a scientific controversy over climate change — is perhaps the most insidious of the lot. It takes the first pillar for granted, presuming — falsely — that there is a scientific controversy over climate change. But the third pillar is rhetorically powerful because of its appeal to ideals of fair play and even dealing that are (deservedly) popular among the American public — so popular that they are easy to abuse in the service of climate change denial.

In countering the third pillar, it is crucial to highlight and challenge the presupposition that there is a scientific controversy over climate change. Scientists are in broad agreement about the occurrence, causes, and consequences of climate change (as discussed in “Climate Change 101”); climate change deniers are wrong to claim otherwise (as discussed in “Climate change is good science”); and science teachers thus have a responsibility to help their students understand climate change, the evidence for climate change, and the fact that the scientific community agrees that the evidence is convincing.

It is not sufficient, however, to challenge the presupposition that there is a scientific controversy over climate change. It is necessary also to explain that presenting climate change denial as scientifically credible or misrepresenting the scientific consensus on climate change is, in fact, anything but fair. It is:

  • unfair to the scientists on whose research the consensus is based,
  • unfair to the authors of textbooks and the framers of state science standards who have labored to present the consensus in a pedagogically appropriate manner,
  • unfair to the science educators asked to ignore their professional responsibility to present the consensus,
  • unfair to the taxpayers, who are entitled to expect public science education and public policy to respect the consensus of the scientific community, and, most of all,
  • unfair to the students, whose scientific literacy is on the line.

In sum, what is truly unfair is not to teach the scientific consensus on climate change.

Two subsidiary points are also useful in countering the third pillar. They are subsidiary because, in the end, they depend on the fact that there is a scientific consensus over climate change, but they are worth bearing in mind because they help to highlight particular problems with the third pillar.

First, it is useful to challenge the selectivity of the idea that it’s only fair to teach the controversy over climate change, whether it is presented with scholarly allusions to Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty, philosophical ruminations on the importance of objectivity and critical thinking, or homely slogans like “Why not just teach all the views, and let the students make their minds up for themselves?” Without challenging the general importance of fairness, it is appropriate to ask: why climate change in particular?

When it comes to the capital of Burkina Faso or the cardinality of the primes or the outcome of the American Civil War, students are not left to make their minds up for themselves for the sake of fairness. Instead, it is proper and effective pedagogy for teachers to report what the consensus of the scholarly community is (Ouagadougou, aleph-null, and the South’s surrender), in addition to presenting, to the extent appropriate, the relevant evidence and theories on which that consensus is based. So, too, with climate change.

Second, it is useful to ask which controversies within climate science are supposed to be presented to students (especially those who are encountering the topic in any detail for the first time). The term “controversies” is tendentious, but indisputably, there are unanswered questions of data and theory in climate science. Such is the normal state of any vibrant area of contemporary science; it is not a sign that the discipline is in crisis or in any doubt about its central principles. Indeed, such questions provide the impetus for continued research.

Not all such questions are suitable for beginning students — do Dansgaard-Oeschger events follow linear or nonlinear dynamics? But there are unanswered questions within climate science — how will a warming world affect Atlantic ocean circulation? — that even beginning students can understand, appreciating, at least to a degree, the evidence and theory relevant to finding the answer. Such questions are not inappropriate for inclusion in climate education. But misrepresenting questions that have been answered as unanswered, or pretending that the mere existence of ongoing research undermines the consensus, is inappropriate.

It is impossible to provide a complete guide to countering every claim advanced to support the idea that it’s only fair to teach the controversy over climate change, of course. But the discussion here and the links below ought to offer a good start for countering the third pillar of climate change denial.

Further reading

Evolution: What’s wrong with teaching the controversy? (PDF) is a 2003 paper by Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. While focused on applications of the third pillar to evolution, the paper provides a general test for determining which issues are genuine controversies worth addressing in science classes and which are not genuine controversies or are not appropriate for classroom, a test readily applicable to climate change as well. The paper is discussed further in Teach the “Controversy”? in the evolution section of NCSE’s website.

“Balance As Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press” (PDF) is a 2004 paper by Max Boykoff and Jules Boykoff, published in Global Environmental Change. The authors examine how the journalistic norm of balance can produce a form of bias in reporting on climate change. They presented a less technical account of the paper in FAIR! (November/December 2004). While the authors’ analysis of more recent media coverage finds that this false balance is less common in the US media than it once was, the original paper remains a valuable critique of the third pillar’s rhetorical form.