A certain truly badly done story is making its way through the skeptical blogosphere. It’s a story that NPR did about a certain teenager who has decided that she doesn’t believe the science behind global warming and has published a website to “debunk” it. What’s bad about the story is not that a teenager decided she doesn’t believe something. What’s bad about the story is that it utterly fails to distinguish between a teenager showing actual skepticism (as in challenging an accepted contention based on sound reasoning and good science) as opposed to showing pseudoskepticism (as in looking for data that supports her stepfather’s preexisting disbelief of the science behind global warming, selectively citing the scientific evidence, posting it on her website, and as a result becoming a darling of the right wing anthropogenic global warming denialist contingent). Worse, as James Hrynyshyn points out, a good argument can be made that the girl responsible for this website, Kristen Byrnes, libels James Hansen in the process.
I’m supposed to be impressed by this?
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.
What Kirsten counts as a “victory” is probably scientists deciding that they have better things to do with their time than to argue with a scientifically ignorant teen with the arrogance of ignorance added to the arrogance of youth the only things going for her. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard cranks exult that they “defeated” scientists who “couldn’t stand up to their arguments” simply because said scientists got tired of refuting the same stuff over and over. I myself have made the mistake of getting into prolonged e-mail exchanges with such people before (a mistake I most definitely do not make anymore), and I’m pretty sure that I’m probably right about this. I get tired of responding to the same canards again and again too, and I usually end up just dropping out of the exchange. Add to that the normal human wish not to be too harsh with a youngster who, at least at first, seems genuinely curious about science, and it’s far easier just to drop out of the exchange rather than waste one’s time with her once it becomes apparent that she’s recycling the same old talking points or risk looking like a bully beating up on a teenage girl (intellectually, speaking, that is).
What’s sad about this is that Kirsten is clearly bright and has a lot of potential. She just needs some patient guidance to help her learn some humility and how science actually works. (Hint: It isn’t through looking only at the evidence that supports your viewpoint.) Unfortunately, her stepfather does not appear to be providing anything resembling that; indeed, he is clearly egging her on, apparently to push his own agenda:
Kristen says when her determination sagged, Mike encouraged her.
“Kristen! MOTIVATION!” she remembers him saying. Mike is deeply skeptical humans are behind global warming and pulls up a graph on the computer to help make the case.
To me, this isn’t a skeptical teen who came to her own conclusions through her own investigation. This is a teen who’s trying to please an authority figure, and she’s clearly been “encouraged” (i.e., coached) by her stepfather.
There’s also a lot of other positive reinforcement for her to continue on this path, too. Think about it. It must be a heady experience for a 15- or 16-year-old to post her writings about a topic like climate science and suddenly find herself being taken seriously and getting letters from Senators. Even as a forty-something-year old, I have an inkling of how heady it could be for her. When my blog first started to take off, I was amazed at actually being taken seriously by bloggers I admired, being cited as a believable source, having first hundreds and then a few thousand people a day reading my verbal meanderings, and eventually even meeting in person prominent skeptics and other bloggers who had inspired me. If that rather minor level of notoriety was heady to a grown up (presumably) man like me, imagine what it must be like for a 16-year-old.
I’ve thought about it a bit, and Kirsten reminds me somewhat of Jenny McCarthy. True, she’s probably a lot smarter than Jenny McCarthy, but she’s also only 16. Both have embraced dubious science. Both have become famous (or, in the case of McCarthy, has rejuvenated her waning popularity) thanks to their embrace of that dubious science. They both demonstrate very well the arrogance that ignorance brings, not recognizing that one of the traits that training in skeptical thinking and science brings is a sense of just what one doesn’t know, as opposed to brash confidence that one knows better than experts who have devoted their lives to studying a problem. It’s also important to differentiate between skepticism, which is open to evidence that might change one’s conclusions, and pseudoskepticism, in which a “critic” expresses “skepticism” of a well-established principle (such as evolution) and then goes looking for data to confirm her own bias, dismissing contradictory evidence. It’s very depressing to see that NPR apparently can’t distinguish between the two.
Sadly, the one thing that Kirsten could have used is a public smackdown on NPR from a climate science who really knows his or her stuff, someone who could demonstrate in excruciating detail just how thin her knowledge base really is. Some might say that’s too harsh, that Kirsten is only 16, and that she shouldn’t be humiliated like that. Certainly, such an encounter would risk humiliating her. However, I say: If you think you can play with the big boys and can dismiss them as being wrong and promote yourself as being right, then you have to be ready to take the consequences of that behavior. Age is irrelevant. Of course, NPR couldn’t do anything like that. It would indeed have been perceived as picking on a teen. By doing the piece, though, NPR put itself in a no-win situation. If it criticized Kirsten’s denialist arguments, NPR would have looked as though it was making fun of a teenaged girl who’s clearly smart but not well trained in science or critical thinking. If it didn’t, well, the results are easy to see: A puff piece that portrays the plucky outsider taking on the scientists and apparently beating them at their own game.
Just like Jenny McCarthy.
It’s a narrative I’ve grown really, really sick of seeing when it comes to how journalists cover science “controversies,” and it irritates me more as I get older. Maybe I’m just turning into a curmudgeon. Or maybe it’s because I appreciate now just how seldom such a narrative ends up being true.