New paper on agnotology and scientific consensus

Agnotology is the study of ignorance and how it's produced. For example, examining how misinformation can generate misconceptions about climate change. An interesting (and influential, at least in my case) paper on this topic is Agnotology as a teaching tool: Learning climate science by studying misinformation by Daniel Bedford, a professor at Weber State University, Utah. Bedford suggests how how examining and refuting misinformation is actually a powerful way to teach climate science, sharpen critical thinking skills and raise awareness of the scientific method. He then illustrates this with case studies applied in his own college classroom. This paper opened my eyes to the educational opportunities in addressing misinformation - an approach I adopted in the chapters "Understanding Climate Change Denial" and "Rebuttals to Climate Myths" in the textbook Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.

Recently, David Legates, Willie Soon and William Briggs published a paper in the journal Science & Education, Learning and Teaching Climate Science: The Perils of Consensus Knowledge Using Agnotology. The paper comments extensively on Bedford's agnotology paper. Unfortunately, it comprehensively misrepresents Bedford's arguments. Consequently, Daniel Bedford and I have co-authored a response to Legates' paper that was just published in Science & Education: Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change: A Response to Legates, Soon and Briggs. For those without library access, our paper is unfortunately behind a pay-wall. However, the full pre-press version of our paper is available here.

In our response, we examine the scientific consensus on climate change and briefly look at the results from our recent Consensus Project paper. We explore the consensus gap - the large discrepancy between public perception of consensus and the 97% reality. We also clarify that while there is a scientific consensus on the basic fact of human-caused global warming, this doesn't mean there is overwhelming agreement of every aspect of climate science. Legates misrepresents this point by misquoting Bedford's paper. We examine one of the reasons for the consensus gap - two decades of a persistent misinformation campaign focused on casting doubt about the consensus.

Next, we get to the real meat of agnotology-based learning - exploring the educational opportunities in addressing misinformation in the classroom. Correcting misperceptions are an important part of education - it's not all about downloading new information into students' brains. Over two decades of research have found that refutational style lectures are one of the most effective ways of correcting misperceptions.

To long-time SkS and Debunking Handbook readers, I know what you're thinking - what about the familiarity backfire effect? By directly addressing myths in the classroom, don't you risk making students more familiar with the myths? Educators and communicators need to walk a fine line - we don't want to make the myth too prominent when we debunk it but if we don't mention the myth at all, it isn't "activated" in the learner's mind and conceptual change won't occur. Consequently, the most effective way to reduce a misconception is to "co-activate" the fact and the myth at the same time in a single debunking.

Lastly, we discuss the importance of scientific consensus. Let me excerpt from our paper:

We do not advocate ‘‘simply bowing to authority by proclaiming consensus science’’ (Legates et al. 2013, p. 7, emphasis in original), and this position was not taken by Bedford (2010). However, nor do we agree that a scientific consensus is a meaningless concept. Our view is that the processes of peer review and postpublication critique ultimately move human understanding of the universe closer to reality. This movement is not always incremental or linear (see Kuhn 1962); it is, however, mostly (though not always, as discussed above) based on scrutiny of the empirical evidence. Thus, before a research result is published, it must, at least in theory, undergo some measure of scrutiny. Once published, the broader scientific community can scrutinize the work further, and provide critiques and attempts at replication of the results. Thus, while it would be unwise to place too much confidence in any single research result, multiple independently-derived results all pointing towards the same finding provide a much higher degree of confidence that the finding is correct. This is the case with climate change, where a consilience of evidence has been observed that humans are causing global warming (Oreskes 2007).

Posted by John Cook on Wednesday, 19 June, 2013

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