Sunday, November 11, 2007

Could the bogus climate paper be used to teach critical reading?

By this time, you've probably all heard about the fake paper "Carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria: the death of manmade global warming theory?", published online in the fake Journal of Geoclimatic Studies. (It's been taken down, but the google cache is still here.) A number of people (including Rush Limbaugh) were taken in by it. But my question is: could it be used to help students learn to question confusing literature?

It's hard to get students to critically evaluate published ideas. It's even harder when their eyes cross when they read equations. So: would your students have recognized that this paper is bogus? Could it be used to keep them from assuming abstracts and press releases are settled science? (In this particular case, neither the journal nor the researchers exist, and a quick visit to the University of Arizona's website could confirm that. But... what red flags are in the paper itself?)

My favorite spoof line in the paper is one of the references:

Tibbold, WR and JD Rawsthorne (1998). Miocene, Pliocene and Plasticine fossil records for eukaryotic mass on the West African continental shelf. Journal of Submarine Research 18:5. 196-203.

Plasticine. Heh.

The variables listed are also pretty funny:

"Where Q is raw mass, u is area, c is osmotic conductivity, Ψ is the vertical (neo-Falkian) benthic discontinuity, X is concretised diachronic invariance (P-series), F is trans-dimensional flow structure and jy is the non-rectilineal harmonic regressivity of the constant Δ."


"inter-annual variability of the asynchronistic (counterbifurcated) non-tardigrade log run"


"the polychromatic "coffeeground" Schumann factor for semi-particulate distribution"

But... you know, I regularly have students read papers that contain math they haven't studied. (Multivariable calculus and linear algebra and differential equations show up reasonably frequently, but our major only requires math through second semester calculus.) And I don't know if they would do more than skim the equations and the references.

If you showed this fake paper to students, what would you ask them to look out for?


magma said...

This may be a bit off-topic, but when you say your major requires 2nd semester calculus, what is that major - "geology"? I'm curious to compare to the way things work here in Australia.

Thermochronic said...

I think it does present a good educational opportunity, even if the focus is on things youg students can evaluate, like the source of the article. My boss recently received a reprint of a global warming denialism "paper" printed in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Like many denialists, these authors distort and mislead, in an attempt to confuse the reader. This "paper" even got reprinted in the Wall Street Journal. Anyways, my point is that I think even looking at the Journal website would tell the reader a great deal about the source (some of the articles are pure classics). And, I think that a critical discussion of the "paper" could be an excellent way to prepare students to confront these distortions. If you are interested, here is the web page. You can be convinced of their unbiased viewpoint by the other articles on the page, including a nod to the completely debunked idea that abortion causes breast cancer, and the "review" of the book by raging bigot and blowhard Michael Savage.

Kim said...

magma - Both our geology and environmental geology majors require either 2nd semester calculus or statistics - I oversimplified a bit.

thermochronic - I got that Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons "paper," as well. (Maybe that was the inspiration for the authors of the spoof paper?) And, actually, I figured out that it was bogus by googling the journal title.

I would like, at some point, to steer students away from relying entirely on arguments from authority, though. Authorities - particularly ones who pre-date a particular debate, like CSU's hurricane expert who denies anthropogenic global warming - can give bad advice, especially outside their specific expertise, or in a field with a lot of very recent important findings (such as climate change research).

My goal, in the long term, is for students to recognize junk science, regardless of the source. And to think for themselves when they do it.

Maybe I should pull out the JAPS (goodness, now that's a bad acronym) "paper," too. (Actually - that would be a great discussion topic for my writing class, in which we discuss logical fallacies and so forth. *pulls it out of the recycling pile*)

CJR said...

It might be a more interesting exercise to see what the students think first...

But I'd concentrate on the methodology. Spurious equations aside, it is fairly clear that much more work would be needed to establish their 'conclusions'.

Kim said...

It's too bad that I don't have a copy of the bogus article with the figures - those would be especially useful to evaluate the paper, I think. (It's probably a good exercise in general to get students looking at the figures as a way of seeing if the data really support the conclusions. Maybe I'm just being a spatial-thinking structural geologist, but I learn more from figures than I do from the rest of a paper, a lot of the time.)

I might give my writing class a copy of the denialism paper, though, and ask them to evaluate it. It might be better to look at something that isn't a spoof. (Though I still want to tell them about Plasticine fossils...)

One thing that I always worry about is whether students will remember the abstract of the bogus paper and think it's true. It's horrifying to know that I can teach something and have students to away with the exact opposite impression of what I've said - but I've graded enough exams to know that not everything sinks in. (And for some students, very little sinks in.)

BrianR said...

a little bit off-topic ... some of you may already have this bookmarked, but here is a great one-stop-shopping web page about the scientific consensus regarding AGW. It has tons of links and statements from numerous organizations.