Discussion Starters – Scientists

scientists_02.jpgScientists – Discussion Starters

Teachers: Use the following information to spark discussion in your classroom. Familiarize students with the events, people and organizations in the following paragraphs and then encourage students to discuss their opinions and reactions. There are several example questions and suggested areas for discussion. Remind your students that discussion requires well-supported opinions, respectful listening, and sometimes agreeing to disagree.

Although there is scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that the majority of that warming is likely caused by humans, the general public remains confused about this basic fact. Some of this confusion comes from the complex nature of the issue and the difficulty scientists have communicating complicated or subtle issues through the mass media to an audience that may not have a strong science background. Some of the confusion may also come from deliberate efforts by certain groups to confuse and mislead the public or to muzzle scientists.

In a December 12, 2007 lecture,.University of California Science Historian Naomi Oreskes traces the history of scientific consensus building about human caused global warming and then highlights the actions of one organization she asserts has misrepresented science and contributed to public confusion.
First Dr. Oreskes explains that a scientific consensus that human actions were contributing to global warming existed as early as 1979 when the Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences released a report stating:
“A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use.” Source: National Academy of Sciences Archive An Evaluation of the Evidence for CO2-induced Climate Change. Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Climate Research Board, Study Group on Carbon Dioxide, 1979.
Then Oreskes reveals that even earlier in 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee warned we “will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate . . . could occur.” This prompted President Lyndon Johnson to give a special message to Congress in 1965 stating, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Oreskes continues by outlining steps the U.S. government took to address the issue of climate change including passing the National Energy Policy Act of 1988 “to establish a national energy policy that will quickly reduce the generation of carbon dioxide and trace gases as quickly as is feasible in order to slow the pace and degree of atmospheric warming…to protect the global environment.”
It was not only the scientific community and the government that was paying attention to the issue. The New York Times wrote on August 23, 1988, “The issue of an overheating world has suddenly moved to the forefront of public concern.”

At the U.N. Framework Convention of Climate Change (1992) George H. W. Bush signed the document and called on world leaders to translate the written document into “concrete action to protect the planet”
Dr. Oreskes then asks how today, almost thirty years after the first scientific consensus emerged that humans are impacting global climate, the perception remains among a large portion of the public that scientists are still debating whether or not humans are contributing to global warming. She claims it is because the public has been repeatedly told by the media that there is no consensus.

Why does the media give the impression of a scientific debate where none exists? Oreskes suggests it may be partly due to strategists like Frank Luntz, a corporate and political consultant and pollster who worked for Fox News, whose leaked 2002 memo to the Bush Administration stated, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”

Oreskes also suggests that it may be due in part to the work of the George C. Marshall Institute, founded in 1984, whose board members include people who have worked in the past to claim that CFCs do not harm the ozone layer, that sulfur and nitrogen emissions do not cause acid rain, and that smoking does not damage health. Although these previous causes were abandoned after public sentiment and lawsuits made the arguments longer tenable, the Marshall Institute uses the same strategies employed in the earlier fights to try to foster confusion about climate change.

What Oreskes calls “The Tobacco Strategy” is to use the popular media (in contrast to the scientific literature that requires peer-review) to create the impression that the science is uncertain, concerns are exaggerated, technology will solve the problem, and there is no need for government intervention. Once published in the popular press, their articles are picked up by listserves, websites, and talk radio shows and continue to circulate.
Another strategy the Marshall Institute uses is to push journalists for what they call “balance.” In this strategy they insist that media pays an equal amount of attention to what they call “both sides” of the issue, even though there are thousands and thousands of scientists who agree with the basic tenets of human-caused global warming and only a handful of scientists who do not. This idea of balance appeals to journalists’ own sense of fairness and so they often end up giving equal time to global warming “skeptics” thus creating the impression of the existence of a scientific debate when there is none.

Oreskes claims the “balance strategy” works. She cites an analysis of print media (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004) who found that more than 52% of Climate Change articles published in prestige media (like The New York Times and Washington Post) gave equal time to the view that global warming either was not happening or was not being caused by humans as they gave to the mainstream scientific positions. Only a third of the stories reflected the actual scientific perspective that the anthropogenic contribution to global warming was dominant.

Why would scientists working for the Marshall Institute misrepresent science and try to confuse the American people? Dr. Oreskes believes it is because they are disguising an ideological argument as a scientific one. These men (S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Frederick Seitz) worked diligently to help the U.S. win the Cold War. Oreskes thinks they are “market fundamentalists” who have an unshakeable faith in free markets to solve all problems, who see government regulation as a form of creeping communism and who worry that signing treaties like the Kyoto Protocol would undermine national sovereignty. Dr. Oreskes concludes by saying, “these men may have been perfectly justified in their political beliefs, but they did not make a political argument on political grounds; they disguised a political debate as a scientific one.”


  • Does Naomi Oreskes’ description of how distortion in popular media coverage of global warming science has led to public confusion seem plausible to you?
    • What do you think are some of the biggest sources of public confusion about global warming?
  • Do you get the impression from the media you watch or read that scientists are still debating about whether or not humans are causing global warming? If so, what gives you that impression?
    • Do you know how to tell the difference between an article written for a popular media source and a study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Do you think most people can tell the difference?
    • How strong of a science background do you think one would need to be able to be an informed media consumer on the topic of global warming?
      • Do you feel you are savvy enough to understand media coverage of global warming?
      • Do you think most of your friends/family/neighbors/elected officials are?
  • What impact do you think the level of public confusion about global warming has had on our ability as a society to take action to slow it?
  • Is it important to understand the science of global warming while filling the following roles? Why or why not?
    • Consumer
    • Citizen
    • Journalist
    • Government official
    • Business leader
    • Religious leader
  • What could be done to lessen public confusion?
  • How could you help your friends/family/neighbors/elected officials better understand the fact that a scientific consensus exists that humans are contributing to global warming?



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