Thoughts on Climate Change Discussion in This American Life: Kid Politics Episode

As my first blog post, I thought I’d share some details of my interview for the Kid Politics Episode of This American Life in January 2011.

Several colleagues of mine have been in touch with me over email recently regarding the rebroadcast of this interview I had with Ira Glass and Erin Gustafson last January, regarding climate change.  I have some thoughts about that interview – the discussion itself, the outcome, and thoughts thereafter that I’d like to share, with the hope that my musing are useful.

Some background – Ira met Erin at a Glenn Beck rally in the fall of 2010 in DC.  She seemed like a lovely young lady (14 at the time), well-spoken, and intelligent, and in the course of their conversation, it became apparent that Erin thought that global warming was a hoax, and the scientists involved in promoting that view were all on the make.  Some time later, Ira and his staff came up the the idea for a show to look at the question of asking young people to make adult decisions, and they thought climate change might be an example of that.

The hour-long show includes two other parts.  For my part of the interview, I was located in Boulder, Colorado, Ira was in New York, and Erin was in a studio in rural Virginia.  We spoke together for 1.5 hrs total, and only something like 10 minutes of that was spliced together, with narration to put together a story.  Although I must say I didn’t really realize what I was getting into when I blithely said “yes”, when asked if I would be willing to talk with a 14-yr old climate skeptic (not realizing it was for radio ), I am very happy that I did the interview.  It was a very good experience, I think I learned a lot from it, and has led to interesting post-interview contacts, discussions, and extended thinking about it on my part.  I will share some of those thoughts with you, below.

Before I do, though, I want to comment on one perspective, that seems to be driven by the way the interview was presented in the 10 min segment.  It appears, in the shortened version broadcast, that Erin did not change her mind as a result of the conversation.  That is not actually what happened.  When we started the interview, Erin stated that she did not believe that the climate was changing, and that furthermore she felt that the scientists promoting that view were making it up, and after research money – ie, they weren’t credible.  1.5 hrs later, her position had changed to “well, maybe climate is changing, but I’m not sure why”, and “I want to learn about both sides”.  From my perspective, that felt like a significant achievement – and maybe all that could be expected from a 1.5 hr long conversation.

Also, Ira started off the interview with the statement “Dr. Johnson, this is your chance to try to convince Erin that climate change is real.”  My response to both was something like – “Hold on, let me be clear, it is not the responsibility of a science teacher to “convince” a student of anything – their job is to prepare students with an understanding of science concepts and process skills, so that they can use these to analyze observations and make science-based conclusions using this tool set”.  Throughout the interview, I repeatedly mentioned that this is not about belief, but about observations and science, and I was happy that I think one of those statements made it into the broadcast.

Now, to some post-interview thoughts I’ve had, which I hope might be useful.  I really enjoyed talking with Erin – she seemed like a lovely person – and she must be brave, to take on such a project.  She is clearly a good student, too, and has a loving family.  Several of the points she made in the interview showed that she is has some misunderstandings about climate change, how climate change works, and probably aspects of Earth science in general – but she has done independent research, which is laudable.  A key problem is that she puts her trust in different authorities.  At one point in the interview, she said she wanted to see data from “both sides”.  I replied that there is an enormous amount of data that I’d be happy to point her to (which I did) online, and that she could look at the data herself – that the data were from authoritative web sites from places like NOAA, NASA, and NSF, and others (and of course I mentioned and Windows to the Universe).  I also replied that there really isn’t anything like a comparable amount of data on the “other” side, but that there are a lot of other websites, which are more focused on opinions, that include those views but that these were not comparable.  From her comments, it appears that for her, NOAA, NASA, and NSF are not authoritative, and their results are somewhat suspect – I expect she would put more trust in the views expressed on skeptical websites.

This experience brought into clear focus the importance of “frames”, and also really got me thinking about trust.  As a scientist myself, and living in a world of scientists, I know that the lion’s share of those working in this area are very good, honorable, honest, and hardworking people – looking for what the scientific evidence is telling them, and not slanting that to try to get research funding.  I think we all know that the large majority of these folks would never think of making stuff up, not only because it is clearly wrong to do so, but that they would get caught through review, and their careers would be ruined.  I know this – but it occurred to me, after speaking to Erin – that perhaps she doesn’t (although I did mention it to Erin).  I don’t know, but it may well be that, living in the rural parts of Virginia, she may not know any scientists – in fact, there may not even be any of them in her community.  Or maybe there are, but perhaps they do not share much about their work in their community.

That then led to thoughts about the importance of scientists being engaged in their communities.  We all know about how scientists are being encouraged to be involved with education and outreach, and there has been a similar focus about getting scientists prepared to talk with the media, and to public groups.  My point is a little different.  My sense is that, perhaps out of frustration or understandable exhaustion, many scientists have tired from sharing what they do with their neighbors and in their social groups.  Perhaps they think that people won’t understand, or that they won’t be interested.  But if we don’t share what we do, in a way that is understandable and interesting, how will our neighbors, friends, and communities learn about our science from people they trust? I fear that, by being reticent to share our science, we may have inadvertently set ourselves up to be easily classed as “the other” – someone that exists outside of the frame of “regular people” – someone too easy to not trust.

This post is getting too long, so I’ll stop now, but briefly mention the importance of thinking carefully about and building on common values when you are reaching out with this content to different groups.  Also, the value of having a trusted third party in the conversation (Ira Glass in this case), and the value of patience and respect in our discourse.  In fact, that’s probably what made this interview so enjoyable.

Finally, you might be interested in a blog that erupted shortly after the interview – – the discussion there (which I weighed in on a couple of times) is pretty interesting, and sometimes scary.


2 Responses to “Thoughts on Climate Change Discussion in This American Life: Kid Politics Episode”

  1. I hope that more people like you put in more of an effort on this topic.. keep up the good work!

  2. Lyndon says:

    The American political landscape has deteriorated in the past 5-6 years massivly mostly from rhetoric and partisanship. We push other countries to be like ours, but we all know, our system is quite broken. Until we can start being civil and respect eachother, then maybe once, democracy will finally be as good as we say it is.

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