I heard a piece by David Kestenbaum on NPR’s “Morning Edition” that hasn’t been sitting right with me. You, dear readers, get to help me figure out what’s bugging me about the story, a profile of 16-year-old climate skeptic Kristen Byrnes.
Here are some details about Kristen Byrnes from the story:
“I don’t remember how old I was when I started getting into global warming,” Kristen says. “In middle school I remember everyone was like: ‘Global warming! The world is going to end!’ Stuff like that … so I never really believed in it.” …
[S]he has a quality scientists try to cultivate: she is skeptical. Has someone made a claim? She wants to see the data.
So about a year ago, when she was 15, she started to look at the scientific evidence. When she got confused, she consulted [her step-dad] Mike [Carson].
Soon they had printed out a mound of technical documents from the Internet.
Kristen was convinced by the skeptics and she began to write, summarizing their arguments adding her own touches. Yes, she says, the Earth is warming. But no, humans aren’t causing it. She says it’s part of the natural climate cycle.
At some point, Mike and Kristen decided to post her work online.
“I felt it was important to inform people that this wasn’t completely true,” Kristen says. “A public service to let people know.”
Naturally, I’m thrilled to see a young person (or any person, really) who wants to get at the evidence that backs scientific claims, who wants to get her hands dirty working through the details of whether the data really supports a claim, whether it better supports a competing claim, or whether it gives no compelling reason to prefer one hypothesis over another. I also think it’s impressive that she got enthusiastic about grappling with scientific details on her own, rather than because some class assignment made her grapple with them and she decided it wasn’t so bad.
But, I have some concerns.
Is Kristen Byrnes an equal opportunity skeptic here, or is her skepticism directed in such a way that she’s more likely to come to the conclusions most comfortable to her? She was “convinced by the skeptics”; did she apply the same critical examination to their claims as to the claims they criticize? If she “never really believed in” anthropogenic climate change, did her examination of the data take her just far enough to support her disbelief?
Indeed, the story kind of makes it seem like this is a smart kid who has made a conscious choice to be different from everyone else in school — not in her choice of clothes or music, but in rejecting what “everyone knows”.
That in itself is not necessarily problematic, since sometimes what “everyone knows” has little to no evidential basis, and even if this knowledge is grounded in facts, the middle school students (and likely many of the adults) who “know” it are accepting it on the authority of someone else — say, a scientist (or a group of many scientists) who actually knows how the complicated computer model making the predictions works.
But sometimes a teenage rejection of what “everyone knows” is less about pushing through to objectively grounding one’s own knowledge in the data and more about reveling in the role of the contrarian. If being a rebel against the scientific consensus on climate change is your preferred stance, can you really be unbiased enough to go where the data lead you? Or have you simply fallen under the influence of a different crowd?
And here, as appealing as I find the D.I.Y./punk rock stance of a teenager messing with the data and closely examining the conclusions that feel to her like they’re being mass-marketed (in Oscar winning films and such), I can’t help but think that expertise matters. Just as not all of those punk rockers were able to make anything like music come out of their instruments, so not everyone who messes with models and data is in a position to evaluate whether she’s doing it in a reasonable way. As far as I can tell from the article, Kristen Byrnes has gotten most of her guidance from her step-dad — we are told he is also skeptical of anthropogenic global warming, but we are not told what work or educational background he might have that could be relevant to understanding climate science — and from those climate skeptics online. Surely it may be possible for non-scientists to evaluate the credibility of particular scientific arguments, but I get no sense from the story of whether anything like that is happening here.
To be fair, the story does raise the issue of expertise and hanging our beliefs on the authority of others:
During lunch at a local chowder house with her friend Chrissy Flanders, they talked about food and friends and clothes.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Chrissy piped up to say she disagreed with Kristen on climate change.
“I think it’s partly because of humans,” she says. Asked why she believes that she says she doesn’t know. Kristen chimes in: “She just believes what everyone else is making her believe.”
It’s probably fair to say that most people — even those who have strong opinions about global warming — couldn’t make a strong scientific argument for why they believe what they believe.
Most of us delegate, decide to believe someone we trust. We don’t actively seek out the other side. We probably wouldn’t know what to make of it, or how to reconcile the two. Who has time? Or the expertise?
The thing is, especially in the audio version of the story, Kristen Byrnes comes off here as pretty committed to intellectual rigor, while her friend kind of comes off as having been sucked into a trend. But reporter David Kestenbaum doesn’t get into the extent to which Kristen Byrnes’s stance is the result of deciding to believe someone she trusts. He doesn’t ask whether she actively seeks out the other side, critically examining the claims of scientists who see evidence of AGW rather than just the climate skeptics’ versions of these claims. Indeed, Kestenbaum doesn’t make any evaluation of the strength of Kristen Byrnes’s scientific arguments.
Kristen had no fear. She took on Al Gore the Nobel laureate, Academy Award winner and former vice president. She went after Jim Hansen, one of NASA’s top climate scientists. E-mail poured in, mostly from skeptics happy a young person had taken up the cause. …
Mainstream scientists would argue that many of the issues on her Web site are red herrings or have been put to rest — and Kristen did get emails from people challenging her science. But after a few exchanges, she says, her opponents backed down. “A few of them gave up and figured they can’t win against a 15-year-old,” she says. Mike laughs as she says this.
In the story (especially the audio version), Kristen Byrnes comes off here in a very positive light — fearless, unwilling to back down, and (maybe) able to persuade her critics. Of course, this ability to win the scientific argument is the perception we get from Kristen Byrnes and her step-father. Possibly the folks who were emailing her to challenge her science and eventually gave up would disagree that she had made her scientific case. Maybe they decided that there was limited utility in trying to convince a teenager to critically examine a stance that has distinguished her from her peer group and made her a lot of fans on the internet.
Ultimately, what bugs me about this story is that it seems to boil down to a piece about a teenager who has done something unusual and become a minor celebrity because if it. Yet, there’s no critical examination of the something unusual that she’s done — in particular, of whether she’s done it in a way that holds up to scientific scrutiny — of what sorts of deeper motivations might be behind it, and of what the impacts of this project might be for the rest of us. To the extent that the “something unusual” this particular teenager is doing is presenting herself on the internet as a reliable source of scientific information, it feels to me like the critical analysis missing from this story is very important indeed.