Sunday, January 8, 2012

Our Students at Risk of Delusion on Climate Change

The newly issued report entitled 'What Do U.S. Students Know About Climate Change?, EOS Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, Vol. 92, No. 51, 20 December, 2011, p. 477) was sobering to say the least. The report noted for example, that if a cross section of undergraduates are asked climate questions - one is liable to get a whole set of "hair raising responses".

Examples (ibid.):

"The greenhouse effect is caused by a hole in the ozone layer which allows in more sunlight".

""Humans are not the main cause of climate change"

These responses and many others disclose that while a plurality of students (83%) are concerned about climate change, "many have significant misconceptions about the fundamental science behind it".

The article -report notes that the best documented of these involves confusion between stratospheric ozone (O3) destruction and the Greenhouse effect. What this shows me is that the students are sadly lacking in both chemistry and physics preparation. This is a warning that perhaps our colleges and universities need to do more. I suggest it needs to start as early as high school where U.S. students typicall take only one year of each science subject - i.e. biology, chemistry and physics in separate years, while students in Barbados take 5 consecutive years of subjects - mainly physics and chemistry. Hence the latter are much better prepared and less likely to make gross errors or confuse issues such as noted concerning the erosion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect.

In the case of stratospheric ozone depletion, what is happening is that solar UV radiation is disrupting ozone (O3) as a result of the presence of chemicals called chloro-fluourocarbons. This means the ozone layer, which protects us from the UV radiation, is progessively weakened ...and yes, a "hole" may ultimately occur within it. This "hole" then admits more UV radiation which can cause more blindness and severe sunburns, skin cancers if people aren't protected.

The greenhouse effect, on the other hand, is due to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. This particular gas - as well as some others (e.g. methane) are important in terms of the capacity to warm our atmosphere if present beyond a certain limiting concentration. That is, they possess the ability to absorb heat in the form of solar infrared radiation. This ability is directly contingent on the molecular vibrations undergone by the particular greeenhouse gas molecule which allow it to absorb and re-emit incident radiation. The particular radiation in this case is also different, namely infrared or heat radiation, as opposed to ultraviolet. (Which has a much shorter wavelength).

The other side of the problem of too little education, is too much mis-education! The Eos report puts the blame for this on "climate myths and misinformation that are perpetuated by a small but vocal group of politicians and climate change skeptics."

It adds:

"Relative to climate experts, the skeptics have an unreasonable large platform in the media and on web sites"

The web site pathology is understandable, because the blogosphere is replete with wild speculations and skepticism about a whole range of fare. The media is more difficult to countenance, since by now NO skeptic ought to be permitted a platform to spiel his nonsense and especially in the interest of a pseudo-objectivity - being paired off vs. a serious climate expert. This should no more be permitted than allowing a Holocaust denier to pair off against a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. There is no equivalence here, and it isn't a matter of "free speech". The denier has no basis at all to have his spurious voice heard! (And in Germany and Austria would be locked up for expressing these views).

But American corporate media, so obsessed as they are with the "crossfire" and fight syndrome, are always interested more in charging up a dust up than getting the truth out.

This is sad, because the way things are, students often retain their misconceptions "even after focused instruction on the topic". And this was despite the fact that students' depth of understanding of the greenhouse effect increased, e.g. during courses given on climate change.

This resistance suggests they've been infected by a mind virus and its disinfection likely requires more rigorous methods than mere counter teaching them the actual scientific evidence and data.

Another undertaking suggested for experts by the authors, is to formulate a compilation of "accepted explanations" which can serve as the minimal knowledge students can be expected to have. Such accepted explanations will also dampen the variations of emphasis and cause that many students are subject to, when they do hear or see actual climate experts...such as Michael Mann, and others. They will also come to understand that environmental activists like Patrick Moore, a former Canadian Greenpeace Foundation president and now a global warming critic, are not real climate experts or climate scientists. such discrimination of sources will enable students to pay more attention to the real experts and less to the hobbyists or others who claim to be experts.

Once more, the best web site source for information and news from real climate experts is:

Meanwhile, the Table from the Eos report with examples of student misconceptions is shown.

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