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Lack of scientific literacy hampers global warming debate
by Matt Marusiak on January 21, 2011
In the hotly contested debate of global warming, figuring out whom to believe can be confusing. Every argument has a counter-argument; every scientific “fact” seems to have a counter-fact. Most positions seemed to governed by ideology and belief (and perhaps campaign contributions) rather than reason. A recent study also indicates that a lack of understanding of the carbon cycle also contributes to the confusion.
When it comes to climate change, there are three possibilities to consider: 1) global warming is not occurring, 2) global warming is a natural phenomenon and there’s nothing to be done about it, or 3) global warming is caused by humans. To debate any of these positions persuasively requires an understanding of scientific principles such as the conservation of mass and the carbon cycle.
Researchers from Michigan State University assessed over 500 students from 13 colleges and found that most didn’t understand the processes that transform carbon from the atmosphere to living organisms and back. Students thought that weight loss occurred because fat “melted away,” or that plants obtained their mass from the soil. Students aren’t learning science fundamentals. MSU professor Charles Anderson notes that
Instructors should help students understand that the use of such "everyday, informal reasoning" runs counter to true scientific literacy. The implications are great for a generation of citizens who will grapple with complicated environmental issues … more than any generation in history.
Unfortunately, this lack of scientific understanding isn’t very surprising. According to the recent book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses , many college students “fail to develop critical thinking, reasoning and writing skills.” Colleges – particularly at the undergraduate level – seem more interested in keeping up enrollment than providing a solid foundation for students to be able to read, write, and think clearly. Without such skills, scientific literacy doesn’t have a chance.