Climate-Change Party Crashers

I love the analogy, but I don’t know if the story sounds realistic.

Over at the National Center for Science Education blog, Executive Director Ann Reid tells a story about converting skeptics into climate-change believers. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale of her encounter at a dinner party with someone who does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. She explains how she made her case.

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the NCSE. Unlike some of my fellow evolution mavens, I appreciate the NCSE’s accommodating attitude toward life in a pluralistic society. I’ve personally seen the ways leaders at the NCSE speak respectfully and productively with creationists. Instead of labeling conservatives “the enemy,” the thoughtful activists at the NCSE try to understand creationist thinking, try to see things from a creationist perspective.

Will she be invited back?

Will she be invited back?

But Director Reid’s story still sounds a little outlandish to me, on two counts.

Before I describe my objections, let’s hear the story. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale (one and two) in which she chats amiably at a dinner party with a scientist who believes that today’s climate changes are just part of naturally occurring cycles. What to do?

Dr. Reid listens to the skeptic’s reasons, then lays out her best case. One doesn’t need to know everything about everything, Dr. Reid says, to see the overwhelming evidence. Consider just a couple of studies that show the drastic warming of the North American landmass. Species are moving north. And planting zones are shifting, too.

What did her interlocutor say?

Well, I’d never heard that before. That’s very interesting.

The savvy Dr. Reid knows that she won’t convince every skeptic this way. She’s not even sure she convinced this one guy.   But, she concludes,

I certainly made him think a little bit. I didn’t get into a debate, and I gave the rest of the table some conversational fuel for the next time they are seated next to a skeptic. Not bad for one dinner party. Give it a try! And let us know how it turns out.

Can it work? Like Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion, I’m skeptical. Here’s why:

First, I agree that a Thanksgiving dinner is an excellent analogy for our continuing culture wars over climate change and other educational issues. But the analogy really points in a different direction.

As I argue in my new book, conservative activists have usually been able to exercise a veto over new ideas in America’s public schools. And they do so in a dinner-party way. That is, in America’s public schools—like at America’s dinner-party tables—controversial issues are anathema. It is not acceptable at dinner parties (except, of course, at really good dinner parties) to lambaste one’s fellows with offensive phrases or ideas.

Across the twentieth century, conservative activists have used this sort of dinner-party mentality to restrict significantly the advance of progressive ideas in America’s schools. Should we teach evolution? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids how to have safer sex? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids that boys can like pink toys? …that good books sometimes include bad words? …that every idea should be questioned, even religious ideas? …that every country has its flaws, even the USA? …and so on?

When an idea can be labeled “controversial,” public schools will flee from it in terror, as timid as a dinner-party host who has invited the boss over.

In generation after generation, conservatives have been able to maintain fairly traditional classrooms—though the vision of “tradition” has changed over time—by exercising this sort of dinner-party veto. Conservatives do not need to prove their case against progressive textbooks, or science, or literature. All they need to do is prove that those things are considered offensive by some, and the dinner-party rule kicks in.

Of course, that’s not the only reason to be skeptical about Dr. Reid’s optimistic story. In real life, most encounters like hers will go very differently, for a fundamental culture-war reason.

The way she tells the tale, her two mind-blowing pieces of evidence got everyone thinking. They exposed the skeptic to a new way of thinking about climate change. And her story ended there.

In real life, educated and informed culture-war partisans are not simply ignorant of the other side. Creationists know a lot about evolution. Wallbuilders know a lot about academic history. Abstinence-only educators know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion would likely know a lot about climate change. At the very least, he would have some of his own party-pleasing evidence ready to share. Instead of receiving Dr. Reid’s examples in humble silence, he would likely have countered with his own show-stopping studies. The rest of the dinner table would be left in the same position as it was when the party started: Confronted with two competing and seemingly convincing arguments, from two authoritative-seeming sources.

How should they pick?

Like most of our educational culture-war issues, this climate-change dinner party would likely come to a more obvious conclusion. Instead of fighting vehemently for one side or the other, instead of splitting the dinner table into hostile camps, most dinner parties come to a different conclusion. Like public schools, dinner parties choose to avoid any controversial subject, rather than get into a down-and-dirty debate.

Of course, I don’t get invited to many dinner parties, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Does my dinner-party analogy seem too cynical? Too negative?

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3 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  May 11, 2015

    Well, some climate-change skeptics are just that: skeptical, but not necessarily certain, and not necessarily very knowledgeable, and therefore try to be openminded. Like me! After all, he is only identified as a “scientist” and his field is not identified. He may not presume to be knowledgeable enough on climate science to hold a strong opinion.

    Reply
  2. Sadly I think the analogy is apt Adam. What is needed are impertinent people at the party such as Christopher Reeves’ American character in The Remains of the Day. “Germany desires only peace!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=426-XOKxhk8

    Reply
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