Teachers like me must keep explaining how an expert is different from a pundit.
The recent United Nations report on climate change references more than 6,000 documents and studies. The bad news is that many voters won’t ever read about them and if they do, they won’t understand the process of peer review used to vet those sources.
An acquaintance once told me that she had heard on the radio that “the guy who came up with global warming didn’t even have credentials.” She was unaware that, unlike the discredited link between vaccines and autism, climate change has been studied and reviewed by the international scientific community for decades.
One problem is the lack of basic scientific literacy in our country. Although the number of high school students taking STEM courses has risen since the 1980s, less than 20 percent of recent college graduates took chemistry, physics and calculus in high school. Among those who did not go to universities, the number is much smaller. Not everyone has to be a high-achieving science major, but the rest of us need to understand that scientific literacy is the starting point for understanding climate change.
The you-have-your-experts-and-I-have-mine mentality leads to President Donald Trump’s statements like, “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records. They’re at a record level.” That simply is not true.
We must become a society that understands why experts are called experts. I like my “mainstream” neurologist, for instance. I like traveling in airliners whose pilots are experts. Bellevue Fire Department experts have saved the lives of at least three of my good friends.
According to the U.N. climate document, we have 12 years to limit the worst effects of rising temperatures. If we don’t, much of the planet will become uninhabitable. The study proposes limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. I understand the reasons for that seemingly arbitrary number about as well as I understand my doctor’s explanation of my thin-slice MRI. She didn’t “invent” neurology, but she’s an expert. She practices mainstream medicine, and that is a good thing.
Schools must teach all students, not just the STEM superstars, about the process of peer review. News media have to balance coverage of unhinged college protests with coverage of the long-term, carefully conducted research that universities quietly and meticulously conduct. Politicians, if they can muster the intelligence and honor, must put dogmatic populism aside and educate their bases on the real issues of our survival. And teachers like me must keep explaining how an expert is different from a pundit.