Science hijacked at school level

Michael Asten
The Australian
8 May 2012
THIS year will be remembered as the one where debate on the implications of climate change science became respectable. In this newspaper on December 31 last year we had the views of professors of geology Mike Sandiford on cherry-picking of data with reply on January 4 by Ian Plimer. In February we had internationally published articles by 16 eminent sceptical scientists, with reply by 39 equally eminent scientists from the mainstream anthropogenic global warming school of thinking.
In March and April we read opposing views in articles by Mike Steketee, sceptics Bob Carter and others, and marine scientists Neville Exon and Tim Moltmann on the existence and danger of rise in sea levels. Two weeks ago the ABC caught up with the trend with an informative study of the views and sources of sceptic politician Nick Minchin and youth activist Anna Rose, and The Age contributed with opinion pieces by these two co-stars of the ABC production.
Not all viewpoints in all these items can be classified as objective, but even the departures from objectivity are informative on the culture of the debate.
My concern is that secondary science education in Australia has not kept up with such objective debate. While there is a wider problem with general resourcing and teaching in science education (a "learning crisis" in the words of Australia's chief scientist Ian Chubb) it is especially noticeable in climate change science.
Former prime minister John Howard, speaking at the launch of a book by Plimer on climate change, commented: "There is a problem with the one-sided science being taught in schools." The arguments for and against AGW in the recent reviews may inspire a deeper understanding of the scientific method and the pitfalls of cherry-picking data and use of irrelevant ad hominem argument.
The interested student, however, will discover material that may illustrate larger problems in science education. Perusal of the resources for secondary school physics students provided by the Australian Institute of Physics (Vic) Education Committee suggests some of our science educators have indeed lost the ability to teach objective and open-minded scientific inquiry.
Web resources relating to climate science provided by this committee contain at least three teaching resource references using the derogatory term "deniers". One listed article titled "Climate deniers cause dangerous confusion" addresses claims made in a web presentation by climate science contrarian Leon Ashby and contains the telling line: "Let's look at Ashby's presentation from the point of view of science. (You don't need to have seen Ashby's presentation to follow this one. The claims he makes are typical of so called 'climate sceptics'. )"
If we ignore the multiple subheadings in the genre of "deniers", "deception", "nonsense" and "dangerous", this article contains useful if incomplete material for science teaching. But the suggestion that it is not necessary to read the source material before engaging in a critique shows a lamentable teaching methodology.
The presentation of conclusion as incontrovertible fact, coupled with the use of derogatory terminology for the "other side", fails to provide our future scientists with an appropriate sense of the scientific method of objective argument, hypothesis and experimental method or produce that inspiration which comes from studying scientific controversy.
I well remember a moment from my Year 12 physics class when my teacher illustrated the gap between experimental measurement and models with a historical note relating to the speed of sound in air. English giant of 17th-century mathematics Isaac Newton was able to analytically model the process of sound vibrations in air but gained a result inconsistent with measurement by about 20 per cent.
It was more than a century later that French giant of science Pierre-Simon Laplace was able to correct the model using a principle of thermodynamics unknown in Newton's time. My colleagues could recount more examples that piqued our curiosity and inspired us to invest our futures in science.
One of the most crucial parameters for climate science and studies of the link between global warming and atmospheric CO2 is the "climate sensitivity"; that is, the global temperature increase expected for a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Climate sensitivity in turn depends on the nature of the "feedback" or amplification effect provided by the associated increase in water vapour in a warmer atmosphere.
The wise educator will explain these steps to students, discuss the uncertainties and range of possible outcomes, quoting from views wider than those limited to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. A comment on uncertainty in climate sensitivity from Stephen Schneider (an IPCC lead author), as reported in 2009 in the leading journal Nature, stated: "We've been arguing about this for the last 40 years, and things are still not resolved." It is a reminder that this part of the science is not settled.
A scan of peer-reviewed literature will show some estimates of climate sensitivity fall variously in the range 2C to 4.5C (IPCC), 1.7c to 2.6C (Andreas Schmittner of the Oregon State University and colleagues), about 1C (Richard Lindzen of MIT), 4.4C to 5.6C (David Lea, University of California), and 1.3C to 1.8C (Nathan Gillett and colleagues, Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis).
For my part I lean to the view that the wide variability from different approaches to the determination is indicative of existence of significant physical factors other than a feedback in the CO2-temperature relationship; that is, atmospheric CO2 concentration is not the dominant contributor to global temperature variations of past and present centuries.
Of more importance in the immediate discussion is that today's students should be taught to be curious so that one of them may be the Laplace of the next decade who will shed new light on the source of discrepancies in current estimates of climate sensitivity.
I fear that the resources and mentoring available in our secondary schools do not provide the challenges needed for these future scientists. We can but hope that Chubb's forthcoming report on science education in Australia will prompt a renaissance.
Michael Asten is a geophysicist and professorial fellow in the school of geosciences at Monash University.
Professor Robert (Bob) M. Carter