The Need to Teach about Ethics and Science, and the Credibility of Sources

By St John, Kristen | Journal of Geoscience Education, February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Need to Teach about Ethics and Science, and the Credibility of Sources


St John, Kristen, Journal of Geoscience Education


One of the learning objectives of general education science courses at my university is for students to learn how to "evaluate the credibility, use, and misuse of scientific information in scientific developments and public-policy issues" Qames Madison University, 2012). While peer review is the gatekeeper in place to help ensure creditability of scientific research, not all sources of publicly available scientific information are peer-reviewed. And as you may have observed, students often take the easy road when conducting literature research for a term paper - short on peer-reviewed literature and long on sources that ranked high on Google searches, regardless of their credibility. There are several classic real world examples that we, as science teachers, can use to help our students learn how to evaluate the credibility of scientific information and the sources of that information - from the historical record of false health claims made by the tobacco industry, to the flawed argument for equal time in science classrooms for teaching intelligent design as an alternative "scientific" perspective to evolution. Well, thanks to the deliberately misleading efforts of the Cato Institute (a political think tank, not a scientific institute), we now have another example to draw from, this time from a science field that is near and dear to my heart: climate science.

The U.S. general public's understanding of climate change is distinctly different from that of climate scientists, and from much of the rest of the world. For example, just over 50% of the 1,014 respondents to a 2010 Gallup poll agreed with the statement that the effects of global warming have already begun or will begin within a few years. A similar proportion of the respondents agreed with the statement that the increase in Earth's temperature over the last century is due more to human activities than to natural causes (Newport, 2010). In contrast, 97% of 1,395 climate scientists surveyed endorsed similar statements (Anderegg et al, 2010, in Weber and Stern, 2011). Furthermore, the proportion of people in the U.S. that think climate change is a very serious problem is about half of that of the global average (31% vs. 59% respectively; World Bank, 2009).

Psychologists Weber and Stern (2011) point out that the reasons for these disconnects stem from both the inherently complex nature of climate science and from the contrasting ways by which scientists vs. nonscientists develop their understanding about climate, with nonscientists relying heavily on personal experience, values, and mass media for their information. Unethical lobbying groups who have particular political or business interests can take advantage of this, and work to perpetuate the disconnect between scientific and public understandings. The Cato Institute is doing just that.

What exactly did the Cato Institute do? They produced a deceptive report titled Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (Cato Institute, 2012). It is deceptive in presentation and content. The chosen title and layout (e.g., cover design, key message sections) make it look as if it is a follow-up to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's (USGCRP; Karl et al., 2009) peer-reviewed study, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, which it most definitely is not. The USGCRP coordinates and integrates federal scientific research on global environmental and climate change and the implications for society; it is a legitimate, credible source of scientific information. …

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