Thursday, September 18, 2008

Climate change and intro geology textbooks

A few days ago, I got the semi-annual phone call from my textbook rep. What am I teaching next semester, do I need any new books, how do I like my current textbook (Exploring Earth), etc, etc, etc. And then she told me that the book was being revised, and did I have any comments for the authors.

"Yes," I said. "I like the book overall, but I've got one criticism..."

It's in the section discussing global warming. The discussion is good, except... well, except for the waffling.

Here's the intro to the climate change spread of pages. (Bold type is added by me for emphasis. Italics are original in the book - they are the way that new terms are introduced.)

Most data indicate that some global warming is occurring. Many scientists propose that human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests, contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Astronomical factors, such as Earth's orbit around the Sun and an increase in sunspot activity, can also contribute to warming. Other factors may lead to global cooling, such as ash from large volcanic eruptions and an increase in certain aerosols in the atmosphere.
Here's an excerpt from discussion of ice cores:
Many scientists infer that these increases in greenhouse gases are partly responsible for the recent increase in temperature, but there remains debate about this controversial topic.
And here's the discussion of climate modeling:
The simultaneous rises of anthropogenic (human-caused) CO2 and temperature may be related. Climatologists use computer models to account for the effects of the various factors that might cause warming. Some model results are consistent with observations of past climates, so may be reliable. Some models suggest that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are a contributor to warming in the last century. The relative roles of different factors over the last 100 years, as predicted by these models, are shown by this bar graph.
The facts (and the supporting graphs and discussions of the factors that control atmospheric temperature) agree with my understanding of the science. But the statements are all qualified in ways that leave room for people to argue that we don't really understand the problem. "Many." "Some." And then there are the references to sunspots and the Earth's orbit, which are certainly discussed in the literature, but which may not deserve a spot in the large font at the beginning of the section. And there are the references to debate, and the subtle implications that there could be problems with modeling. (Models "may be reliable." And then again...)

So I told my textbook rep about my complaints about the wording. She was surprised at my particular complaints...

...because she's been getting the opposite complaint. That the statements about climate change are too strong.

She asked if I would be willing to review chapters for the revised edition. I said yes - but that climate change is not my area of expertise. (The youngest rocks I've worked on are around 100 million years old. The shallowest rocks I've worked on were metamorphosed at depths of around 10 km. Young surface processes? Very important, but not my expertise.)

So if you are a climate scientist, and are willing to review climate science for an introductory physical geology textbook, McGraw-Hill needs you. Please, somebody, make sure that introductory geology books reflect the best evidence that's out there.

(Why do I care? Well, I don't like misleading students. And anthropogenic climate change is an important topic beyond the political and economic issues that it raises. The ideas of climate scientists drive research in other areas of geology - see Dave Petley's post today about the possible effects of global warming on landslides as just one example. Waffling about climate change seems like... well, it reminds me of waffling about plate tectonics in 1987. There were plenty of skeptics about plate tectonics in the 80's, but students were poorly served by the textbooks that portrayed plate tectonics as some wacko idea. And, yes, there were books in the 80's that did just that - my undergrad sedimentology book, for instance. I still feel cheated by that book.

I don't want to cheat my own students by teaching them outdated or misleading science.)


Robert Grumbine said...

Kim, feel free to pass my name along. Email me for more details, the first few of which are on my blog 'about' page. Plutarchspam at aim dot com.

CherryBombSim said...

Where did you go to school that people were still waffling about plate tectonics in 1987? I remember falling in love with geology as a freshman in 1974, and the profs just told us to ignore the textbooks, as they were all wrong. Granted, it was Caltech,but something should have trickled down by 1987.

Kim said...

The faculty weren't waffling, but the textbook was. (The new prof had inherited the Sedimentology textbook from the guy who finished his PhD before 1967. It was Gerry Friedman's book, btw. And my school was a small liberal-arts college, and a number of the faculty weren't very active in research at the time.)

But I know of other geology professors who remained skeptical about plate tectonics into the 1990's. Not at Caltech, but in small schools.

Kim said...

Oh, and for the specific question about where I went to school: Carleton College, which at the time was one of the top schools whose bachelors grads went on to geology PhDs. (At Stanford, we were occasionally known as the Carleton Mafia, because we seemed to be everywhere. But we were better known as the people who would play frisbee anytime, anywhere.) So I'm not alone as a PhD who read plate tectonic skepticism in the 80's. (We rolled our eyes at it and considered the book worthless, but it was still assigned reading.)

kurt said...

In an ideal world, politics would be affected by science, but science would not be affected by politics. That would be great, but has never been so. Since antiquity, science has been challenged by politicians and religious leaders who demanded people believe an opposing view (sometimes with armed enforcers for backup).

Because the scientific community is, by its nature, always skeptical, it has always been easy for politicos to bribe/blackmail/create from scratch a few "scientists" to support their perspective. These appear to be authentic skeptical members of the scientific community participating in the scientific process. Because the public does not have time to learn the details of the science, it is difficult for them to distinguish between actual scientists who are properly questioning specifics and charlatans who pose as experts to sway public opinion.

Most people will base their beliefs on the source they most easily understand rather than the source with the best evidence. This is why it is important for scientists to communicate clearly and actively write for public consumption, not just in esoteric journals.

Bottom line: Good for you, Kim, for pointing this out to the publisher and even more so for blogging.

p.s., I work at a "small school."

Anonymous said...

Kim, it seems like a deep-time paleoclimate person would be right to try to get involved. Isabel Montanez from UC Davis has all the right chops, and since she was on the AAPG climate change statement revision committee seems likely to be interested in this sort of thing.