Friday, October 19, 2007

Teaching with An Inconvenient Truth

I'm showing An Inconvenient Truth in class the week after next, while I'm away at the Geological Society of America meeting. I'm going to leave the class with questions to answer while I'm away. But... what should I ask?

I've used climate change to discuss the intersections between science and public policy before. I used to show What's up with the Weather?, a NOVA/Frontline documentary made after the Kyoto Accord was signed, but before the 2000 election. By 2004, it felt really dated, in part because of the four years of the Bush administration, and in part because study after study after study had come out showing that climate is changing now. So when An Inconvenient Truth came out on DVD last fall, I bought it and immediately showed it in class.

But I think I need a different approach to the discussion for the two videos. What's up with the Weather explained the science behind the greenhouse effect (and did a very nice job, I thought - there was a particularly good demonstration of the absorption of infrared radiation by CO2), but it also gave a fair amount of time to climate skeptics, and to people who had a variety of different views about what we should do, if anything. So I asked students to watch for the answers to a number of factual questions (such as what the greenhouse effect is, and what kinds of climate proxies can be used to infer past climate conditions, and what sorts of positive and negative feedback mechanisms can affect global temperature changes), and then I spent the discussion time talking about how to interpret media discussions of science. (We brainstormed lists of facts vs testable hypotheses vs opinions - I wanted them to leave the discussion ready to critically evaluate what they are told.)

That approach won't work for An Inconvenient Truth. In many ways, the movie is a piece of rhetoric... but it's rhetoric based on pretty solid science. (There's been a lot discussion lately about the UK court finding nine errors in the movie, and fortunately there are also some good discussions that evaluated the science behind nine points. Deltoid summarizes the response of a number of different climate scientists; RealClimate's summary is here.) And at the same time, it isn't hard to find critiques of the movie - try the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, for instance.

So I want students to think critically about everything that they hear and read. But, on the other hand, I don't want to encourage students to parrot the climate denialists - I want them to think about the science, about what's happened with CO2 and about the different sorts of effects that it can have.

So... any ideas about what I should do, or what kinds of questions I should ask? Should I ask about specific key points, to reinforce them? (I would love to send the students to the peer-reviewed literature to have them see what the experts really say. Unfortunately, our library is very limited - if it's not in Nature or Science, the students will have trouble finding it - and I think the students need somebody to translate scientific language for them. And if I send them to the web in search of more info, how will I make sure they are looking at reliable sources, and not climate-denial blogs? I don't want them to get in the habit of evaluating on-line sources by choosing ones that agree with their preconceived notions.)

(I do have another idea. I'm considering giving a pre-test and a post-test, same questions, and seeing if An Inconvenient Truth leaves the students with an improved understanding of climate change. One reason: I showed the movie to a math-phobic friend, and she said that she had never understood graphs before watching the gimmick with Al Gore on the lift. And that made me wonder if Gore explained the science more clearly than scientists had... which is the real reason why I show the movie in class.)


ScienceWoman said...

I'd be interested to hear what you decide to do. And I'm just curious how many of your students have already seen AIT? I asked my class about near the beginning of the semester and about 1/2 raised their hands. But then last week I asked them where they'd learned about global warming and no one mentioned it.

Kim said...

I haven't asked how many students have seen it. I'll try to remember to ask in class on Monday. (Maybe your students heard about it someplace else first? The movie is fairly new, and global warming has been news for a big chunk of the average college freshman's life.)

I'm thinking that maybe an assessment quiz would be interesting - it might reinforce info from the movie, and it might also tell me if the movie is completely ineffective.

Seamonkey said...

Ok - so I am a little late as you have already gone on to GSA. I too am interested in what you decided. We showed it and had some questions for them to answer that were entirely about the science and nothing about policy or politics. My student body is strongly republican and voiced their opinion about Al Gore before we started the film. One of the objectives of the class is to make them better informed citizens, now and in the future. So I told them to take that perspective and look past the spin and see what they could get out of it about the science.

It worked well, but the questions we used ended too soon in the movie and I watched them tune out at that point. I really like the idea of the pre/post tests....

I did give them extra credit on that assignment about using an online carbon footprint calculator to determine their own carbon footprint -- some interesting comments from that one.

Enough rambling -----