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.