How old do you have to be before it’s acceptable for your high-school teacher to expose you to propaganda?

Last week I had the honor of taking part in a video chat with a class of eighth graders at a private school in Atlanta. I got involved through a personal connection and then took a strong interest when I learned that the students would be sitting through both Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Martin Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle as part of an environmental writing section of their English course. Then their teacher, in an effort to nudge his students toward something approaching critical thinking, added a YouTube video by British journalist Peter Hadfield that makes a desperate attempt to supply an objective take on both documentaries.


I was initially worried, first because I doubt that my 13-year-old self was capable of consuming something as dishonest as the GGWS, even when matched with AIT, without misinterpreting some crucial elements. After all, by the time I was in Grade 8, I had only recently learned that pyramid power, pyschokinesis and the Bermuda Triangle weren’t part of the scientific realm. The inclusion of Hadfield’s video only added to my anxiety, as he bends so far backward trying to find fault with Al Gore’s presentation that he practically breaks in two. (His motives were good, it’s just that Durkin’s approach to climatology is so far removed from Gore’s that to even hint at some kind of equivalency does a disservice to common decency.)

And sure enough, the reaction of many of the students was a bit predictable. As part of their class assignments they blogged about it. Some examples:

It made me feel less stupid because I learned that Gore AND Durkin had fabricated graphs and twisted the truth and made very-persuasive-but- not-quite-true movies.

a youtube video that showed how both movies had fabricated graphs.

After we watched this film, our class agreed that Al Gore exaggerated

Gore often said these scientists are saying… However, his evidence was very convincing but he often “accidentally” left things out.

Al Gore is trying to make global warming much too political.

There was also this great opportunity to talk about science in general:

Well, I must say that I wish I could accept being wrong as a learning experience but I really couldn’t convince myself that being wrong could be in any way good!

Some of those reactions were evident during our Skype chat. Most disappointingly, the first half-dozen questions I field concerned Al Gore — what did I think of him, is he the right man for the job, do you believe that what he is trying to tell people is true, and what about his animations showing Florida being swamped by rising sea levels?

I did my best to point out that that any alleged scientific problems in AIT could not fairly be called deliberate misrepresentations, and then suggested that focusing on Gore was not the best use of our time. And indeed, once we got past Gore, the questioning improved markedly. We got to talk about energy efficiency, the cost of renewables, personal responsibility, and (my favorite part) the nature of the scientific process. There are some very sharp members of that class.

The teacher’s goal is to give his students a chance to explore the process of evaluating disparate opinions, sort out of the facts from the fiction and make their own judgments. I tentatively think he’s making good progress, as some of the subsequent blog posts were very encouraging. Once post in particular got at the crux of the challenge:

We skyped with James Hrynyshyn, a member of Al Gore’s presentation team. It was so cool to actually be able to do something this. I think that it was a totally different way of learning and getting information, not just by reading off of the web but by actually being able to ask someone about what they know and their opinion of it…

For anyone, but young minds in particular, to actually learn something, there needs to be two-way communications. Sitting in a chair, watching a documentary, can only be a start. As comprehensive and comprehensible as AIT was, the producers did not have eighth-graders in mind when they made the film. For such an audience to dig their way through such a controversial subject, they’ll need to hear directly from more than just an independent science communicator. They’ll have to find some climatologists with the time and ability to connect with young people. Skype and Facetime make that much easier and cheaper than it used to be. The author of the comment above added that she hopes to get another chance to ask me some questions, but I hope the class gets a change to interrogate some genuine experts as well.

I suspect that propaganda can be useful learning tool, but only if it’s accompanied by at least twice as much time devoted to direct questioning of those capable of setting the record straight. That is, after all, what Gore’s Climate Reality Project is all about. I preface my presentations by noting that this is probably as close as most in the audience will ever get to a chance to interrupt Al Gore with a question.

I remain wary of the experiment, as there’s clearly much work left. Even after all the post-viewing discussion, at least one student remains unconvinced:

Unfortunately some people have formed very strong opinions that are not very well supported. I think that the truth is that there is no global warming and it is all politics. Although I had a very strong opinion when I came to this class I have gotten a change of heart, sort-of. I still think that global climate change is not real but I do think that we need to conserve the world for future generations and if it is not real so what we can still do our part to help the world.

A journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. And to make that journey successfully you’re probably going to need a dedicated and exceptional leader. Things look promising in this case, but the jury is still out. I will continue to watch.

Comments

  1. #1 Jennifer Ouellette
    October 11, 2011

    Sounds like a fantastic experience, overall. One question: did the teacher explain what “propaganda” is, what tools are used to promote misinformation, and how this differs from genuine science? Because it’s not enough to just “present both sides” if you don’t give the kids a means of evaluating the materials used.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    October 11, 2011

    This morning I woke up feeling kind of depressed. Then I read your blog post. Now I am confused, worried, and depressed.

    Over the last several weeks of being more involved than usual in climate change related issues I’ve come to this conclusion: Most people who think that global warming is real and anthropogenic are deluding themselves … into thinking that it is not as bad as it really is.

  3. #3 Dave X
    October 11, 2011

    There’s a typo in the sidebar trillionth ton graphic:

    “If trends over the past 20 years _contine_, “

  4. #4 James Hrynyshyn
    October 11, 2011

    Jennifer: I don’t know, but I did bother to address the difference in my chat. — jh

  5. #5 Peyten
    October 11, 2011

    As one of the teachers of that class, I must say Thank you for skyping with us, and thank you for writing about it! Our hope is that this conversation may spark others (we welcome more skyping with other interested parties!) and that our students will continue to learn about how to be good researchers, good writers, and good thinkers.

    One of the big push-backs we got from science teachers at our school when they found out what we were doing with this class was that they were worried about us “teaching the controversy when there is no controversy.” Interestingly in the science realm, that may be true, but in the social and political realm the controversy is real –just watch what our politicians say. One of our goals is to help our students better navigate those realms with a critical mind and an intellectual and rational outlook; one that considers sources, data, and information in ways that many of our students have never done so before. We are trusting that given the tools to be discerning about data, our students will come to scientifically sound conclusions with research to back up the outlook they have derived.

    Our students, like most students, are very used to being taught what to think. They hear it, they memorize it, and they spit it back on tests. They do this very well. However, this class models a different kind of learning, one that I think will actually help them when they graduate. Instead of the teachers telling the students what to think, we’re helping them explore what experts have to say and helping them to identify who is a trustworthy source. Unfortunately this type of learning, while I know it to be ultimately more long term in terms of its application and “stickyness,” also takes a long time to complete. We are still at the beginning, and all outside help is appreciated.

    At the start of this class, many of our students came in with misconceptions. Big ones. About science, about politics, about the media. Some of those misconceptions still hold sway (as you noticed). However, I will say that many students have had some misconceptions cleared up due to their own personal engagement and questioning of these issues. I am excited about the possibilities for the future and the thinking that our students are doing…..finally!

    Thank you for your support of our students’ learning. Your conversation with them made a world of difference.

  6. #6 Little Timmy
    October 11, 2011

    Dear mister rinnytin. Thank you for that line of total bs. My dad has a REAL science degree unlike you. He says you are deluded and full of crap. Please tell me why a lowly biologist like you should have an opinion on anything involving physics and higher math. Thank you. Douchebag.

  7. #7 Sundance
    October 11, 2011

    JH – I haven’t seen either film so I am unable to speak about them other than What I read about Al Gore’s AIT being found to be inaccurate by the courts in England. The school project seemed fair up until you were brought into the equation. Did you inform the students of your bias? Don’t you think that the students would have been better served if they had been able to interact with a lukewarmer like Tom Fuller instead of you?

    In spite of the bias I would say that these high school kids were better served than Scott Mandia’s unfortunate college students who are forced to use only the propaganda web site skeptical science as a source for their assignments.

  8. #8 Richard Simons
    October 12, 2011

    In spite of the bias I would say that these high school kids were better served than Scott Mandia’s unfortunate college students who are forced to use only the propaganda web site skeptical science as a source for their assignments.

    I do not believe this but if true, if this did not make them want to visit other sites, they do not deserve to be in college.

    Oh look! Big surprise – “Students were also encouraged to use other resources, especially course notes, to help them complete the paper.”

  9. #9 Wow
    October 12, 2011

    “Interestingly in the science realm, that may be true, but in the social and political realm the controversy is real –just watch what our politicians say.”

    However, the controversy isn’t in the science.

    You could, for example, have used an example of the Oregon Petition to show how controversy can be made up.

    You could then have shown the Monty Python sketch about the 5 minute argument to show how two sides in an argument can’t use merely repetitious denial. Both sides have to be involved in a REAL discussion for there to be argument and a real controversy.

    Then you could have used what you’ve discussed to dissect TGGWS and AIT and list where someone who did not want to believe either could get evidence to support that refusal.

    Once you look at the evidence of error, both the difference in length of the lists as well as the severity of misapprehension in the items of the two lists, you can see that TGGWS isn’t actually SCIENCE, it’s politics.

    Other examples of politics masquerading as science is the Nazi neo-Darwinism and the McCarthy witch hunts.

  10. #10 Wow
    October 12, 2011

    “What I read about Al Gore’s AIT being found to be inaccurate by the courts in England.”

    Sundance, where do you read that?

    You read that from a fluffer for the denialists, didn’t you. Did you actually read the judgement? Did you know that TGGWS was so incorrect that it wasn’t sufficient to have teacher notes, but had to be heavily edited or be actionably misleading?

    Did you inform others of your bias? Don’t you think we here would have been better served if you’d mentioned the far worse problems with TGGWS?

  11. #11 Collin
    October 12, 2011

    The point is that science doesn’t belong in Hollywood.

  12. #12 Wow
    October 12, 2011

    You’re getting “The Day After Tomorrow” mixed up with “AIT”, collin.

    PS why does science not belong in Hollywood? Hollywood often make a cock-up of the science, but that’s nothing to do with whether science belongs there, just whether anyone there can use it sensibly.

  13. #13 justin tv izle
    October 12, 2011

    I agree with Timmy”Thank you for that line of total bs. My dad has a REAL science degree unlike you. He says you are deluded and full of crap. Please tell me why a lowly biologist like you should have an opinion on anything involving physics and higher math. Thank you. Douchebag. “

  14. #14 Tillman
    October 12, 2011

    @LittleTimmy I have actually Skyped with Mr. H and he is very knowledgable on this subject. You have only obviously read his posts. Sure, he may have been more one sided leaning toward Al Gore only because that is what he believes. You are only mad because he is not on your side. Not everyone will see eye to eye, you have to take that into account.

  15. #15 Anna Haynes
    October 12, 2011

    Very interesting, James; thanks for helping out, and for writing this up.

    I’ve got a couple of questions sparked by your statement that “direct questioning of those capable of setting the record straight…is, after all, what Gore’s Climate Reality Project is all about” –

    There’s no “quality control” CRP screening (or prospective-booker screening) of CRP presenters’ presentations, is there? So a presenter could attend the CRP training but once trained, go off the rails & give a wildly divergent presentation.

    Also, last year one of the grad students at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication gave a meeting presentation? poster? on an analysis of this (CRP, before its renaming) project; has anyone at CRP seen it, have you seen it, could I see it?

  16. #16 James Hrynyshyn
    October 12, 2011

    Anna: No there is no quality control. And no doubt some presenters do go off the rails. Doubt that it would be practical to impose any kind of useful level of quality control. It’s a valid point. But not sure there is an alternative that would reach the same number of people.

    james

  17. #17 osmanlı iksiri
    October 12, 2011

    The point is that science doesn’t belong in Hollywood.

  18. #18 Sundance
    October 12, 2011

    Mr. Hrynyshyn were my refutations of #8 and #10 too much or did they get eaten by a spam program?

  19. #19 Wow
    October 13, 2011

    re 18: How can you refute the truth, sunshine?

    re 17: osmanh, the repetition of a statement is not an argument.

  20. #20 Tristan
    October 13, 2011

    osmanlı iksiri and justin tv izle are both spambots. Copy & paste previous comment, leave spam link in the usename. I suspect they’re more about gaming the search engines than spam, but they’re very common here on scienceblogs.

  21. #21 Dave Briggs
    October 13, 2011

    I still think that global climate change is not real but I do think that we need to conserve the world for future generations and if it is not real so what we can still do our part to help the world.

    I think this young person’s view is close to the best! I wrote a blog post a while back that concluded whether the GW is a hoax or reality, the actions we take would be the same. Polluting means of energy production don’t only add to CO2, they add lots of dangerous pollutants. It is also a case of using up resources that could be more expeditiously used in the future for a greater return on investment.
    So, I agree about doing our part, ( as much as we can individually), to take care of the planet. Thank you,
    Dave Briggs :~)

  22. #22 GSW
    October 13, 2011

    You probably didn’t get a say on the GGWS video being the ‘alternative’.

    I think the ‘Not Evil just Wrong’ video would have been a better ‘counter’ for school children. Please suggest this if you are asked for some feedback.

    Thanks,

    ;)

  23. #23 Anna Haynes
    October 13, 2011

    James, re CRP quality control, two simple transperency-enhancing workarounds would be
    1) have each presenter who’s making themselves available provide a video (and text outline/notes?) of their presentation, available for prospective bookers to peruse; and
    2) provide a response/feedback channel for the recipient group, to indicate whether&how the presentation was substantially different from the video; make this available to prospective bookers as well.

    (Transparency&predictability are good, and last I checked there wasn’t enough.)

  24. #24 Russell
    October 14, 2011

    What a learning experience !

    http://tinypic.com/r/2crsu8k/7.html

  25. #25 Sundance
    October 14, 2011

    @ #19 – How can you refute the truth, sunshine?

    I don’t know but I can expalin how Al Gore’s exaggerations were refuted by a British court if the blog owner let my comments through. lol

  26. #26 Wow
    October 14, 2011

    “but I can expalin how Al Gore’s exaggerations were refuted by a British court if”

    [They didn't do that.](http://www.skepticalscience.com/al-gore-inconvenient-truth-errors.htm)

    [Now, what about TTGWS?](http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/obb/prog_cb/obb114/issue114.pdf)

    Hmmm?

  27. #27 Wow
    October 14, 2011

    Ofcom investigation of complaints
    [edit] Ruling

    In an 8400-word official judgement issued on 21 July 2008 the British media regulator Ofcom declared that the final part of the film dealing with the politics of climate change had broken rules on “due impartiality on matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy”. Ofcom also backed complaints by Sir David King, stating that his views were misrepresented, and Carl Wunsch, on the points that he had been misled as to its intent, and that the impression had been given that he agreed with the programme’s position on climate change. Ofcom further ruled that the IPCC had not been given an adequate chance to respond to adverse claims that its work was politicised and that it had made misleading claims about malaria. However, the regulator said that because “the link between human activity and global warming… became settled before March 2007″, in parts 1–4 the audience was not “materially misled so as to cause harm or offence”.[65] According to Ofcom the program caused no harm because “the discussion about the causes of global warming was to a very great extent settled by the date of broadcast”, meaning that climate change was no longer a matter of political controversy.[66]

    Channel 4 said in its defence against the complaints that The Great Global Warming Swindle “was clearly identified as an authored polemic of the kind that is characteristic of some of Channel 4’s output”, and Ofcom said in its decision that it was “of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter”. Ofcom declined to rule on the accuracy of the programme, saying: “It is not within Ofcom’s remit or ability in this case as the regulator of the ‘communications industry’ to establish or seek to adjudicate on ‘facts’ such as whether global warming is a man-made phenomenon.” It noted that it only regulates “misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence” and “as a consequence, the requirement that content must not materially mislead the audience is necessarily a high test.”[6]

    The regulator ruled that the parts of the programme about the scientific debate “were not matters of political or industrial controversy or matters relating to public policy and therefore the rules on due impartiality did not apply.” In the fifth segment of the programme concerning the political controversy and public policy, however, Ofcom ruled that the programme-makers were “required to include an appropriate wide range of the significant views” but “failed to do this.”[6] Channel 4 was required to broadcast a summary of the Ofcom ruling but was given no further sanctions.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Global_Warming_Swindle

    Or

    http://www.monbiot.com/2008/07/21/the-self-justifying-myth/

    Now why didn’t you know about the much more extensive and incorrect problems with TGGWS yet have overstated the judgement on AIT?

    Why didn’t you tell everyone here about your bias?

  28. #28 Ian Kemmish
    October 14, 2011

    I’m afraid I got distracted by the doomsday clock in the left-hand sidebar. Why is it counting backwards at a pretty well constant rate of almost exactly one second per second? All this tells us that the fitted curve you’re using to predict doomsday is woefully inadequate, and that even the proverbial bright schoolchild ought to be able to do better and come up with a more stable estimate.

    One hesitates to ask whether this inaccuracy is a genuine mistake or some kind of propaganda, but only out of politeness…!

  29. #29 Wow
    October 14, 2011

    Alternatively, given that we’ve not managed to get any actual change (just believed-in change), the forecast is still on track.

    Just an idea, Ian.

    Of course, YOU have done a better job of predicting, yes?

    We are all ears…

  30. #30 mmoore
    October 16, 2011

    “I remain wary of the experiment, as there’s clearly much work left. Even after all the post-viewing discussion, at least one student remains unconvinced”. Really?

    Your entire article is an exercise in dissembly. Ultimately, you express dissatisfaction that every student in the class is not “convinced” of your own position. What happened to your supposed support of scientific evidence, rigor – and above all, skepticism?

    You simply wish to see more effective propaganda – and, if it means some students might come to a conclusion different than your own, you are unwilling to see a teacher and a class parse through mis-stated facts and half-truths. Sad.

    Shame on you for being so short-sighted as to prefer idiots willing to adopt your opinions to critical thinkers who won’t.

  31. #31 mandas
    October 18, 2011

    @ Dave Briggs (#21)

    “…..I still think that global climate change is not real but I do think that we need to conserve the world for future generations and if it is not real so what we can still do our part to help the world…..”

    How about you leave the ‘thinking’ on whether or not climate change is real to the people who have the background and knowledge to be able to do some rational thinking on the subject; thinking which is grounded in evidence.

    Your opinion, and the opinion of everyone who is not an expert, is worthless. You may think you should have a say in the matter, but your ‘say’ should be restricted solely to whether or not we should do anything about climate change, and what that should be. That is your right as a citizen. But when it comes to “…think that global climate chnage is not real….”, you have a right to possess an opinion, but to share it with others just demonstrates your ignorance and arrogance.

    How about, instead of opening your mouth and demonstrating your foolishness, you shut up until you know what you are talking about.

  32. #32 Rob
    October 18, 2011

    Sorry James, still laughing at #6, Too funny! Maybe you can do a presentation on eugenics. I think it may apply here.

  33. #33 HahaDouche
    October 19, 2011

    Just lmfao doucheboy. What is your point? Lmao

  34. #34 John Shade
    December 8, 2011

    Three cheers for this little hint of freedom to discuss things in US schools! It is not all relentless propaganda. I liked this quote from a pupil ‘After we watched this film, our class agreed that Al Gore exaggerated’. He most certainly did – so much so that the pupil is being exceptionally polite in describing it thus. I think James H was wise to steer away from talk on and around AIT, a film whose lack of truth in increasingly embarassing for those who wish to spread doom and gloom about CO2.

  35. #35 Wow
    December 9, 2011

    “I liked this quote from a pupil ‘After we watched this film, our class agreed that Al Gore exaggerated'”

    Was he wrong, though?

    The kid was.