“Summon reflective, serious people and inspire them.” Dan Kahan on education for climate neutrality

September 15, 2015 | 0 comments

I (Peter Buckland) sent Dan Kahan an email a recently, asking him to chime in on education for climate neutrality. Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. He studies risk perception, science communication, and the application of decision science to law and policymaking. He’s done a lot of work at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project

Picture of Dan Kahan courtesy of Penn State’s Institutes for Energy and the Environment

to understand communication around climate change and other hot-button public issues with high scientific content (vaccination, nuclear power and GMOs are others). Given this blog’s recent posts on civic literacy, disinformation and education for climate neutrality, I though Kahan could provide some some insight. I’ve copied some of my email request and his response below.*

Dear Dan,

I hope you’re well.

Right now, I’m focusing on climate change education and in particular the problems people face in teaching about it. I’m also very interested in the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (and similar signature statements) that call for colleges to make “climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.” There’s a lot to parse in just those few words.

Given your background in psychology, motivated reasoning, and issues of public importance with high scientific content, I wonder if you’d take some time to comment on this kind of thrust in education. Particularly, how does science play into this kind of educational endeavor? Is it really science we are after? What sort of motivated reasoning do you see resulting from this kind of language? Is climate education hopelessly mired in politics or can we get out of it somehow? Research seems to go lots of ways. If you can think on those questions and write something to help my readers understand it, I’d really appreciate it.

For reference, you can access the ACUPCC’s full text here.



Hey, Pete.

So here are some reactions:

1. For sure there ought to be a commitment in U.S. universities to equipping citizens with the knowledge they need to live in a world with climate change.  Creating and disseminating scientific knowledge geared to practical decision-making, individual & collective, has been the mission of universities in the U.S. pretty much since the beginning of our history, and that knowledge has always been deeply infused with attention to the environmental challenges we face (including the ones we *create* as we interact with it).

2. What people need to know, of course, varies.  Certainly there’s a core of knowledge that all citizens must have to participate meaningfully in democratic politics. But that knowledge, obviously, doesn’t have to be as detailed or fine-grained as the knowledge a future climate scientist needs or, say, a future city planner should have to make sound decisions about local land use and development, or a farmer should have to make sound professional judgments, etc.  Universities must provide all of those kinds of climate knowledge in an effective way.
3. You rightfully worry that the forms of motivated reasoning that distort engagement w/ the best evidence on climate science might interfere with the dissemination of such knowledge in universities (high schools too).  Actually, another kind of knowledge we need in order to live in a world with climate change relates to how to protect the science communication environment from the sorts of influences — the forms of science communication environment pollution — that trigger those sorts of cognitive dynamics.  If we don’t have that sort of science of science communication knowledge, we won’t get the benefit of either the knowledge we acquire through science or impart through good science education.  Universities have an obligation to contribute to the production of this form of science of science communication knowledge too– a duty that the National Academy of Sciences has called attention with its recent colloquia on this emerging area of empirical inquiry.

4.  While certainly university (and high school!) classrooms are in a position of vulnerability in this regard, it seems to me that they occupy a place of strategic advantage as well. The reason is precisely the historical and continuing role that educational institutions play in supplying citizens with the practical knowledge that they need to live and live well in their local environments.  The essence of the “science communication problem” is the entanglement of facts that admit of empirical inquiry in antagonistic meanings that convert  positions on them into badges of identity in & loyalty to competing groups.  To solve that problem, scientific knowledge about climate has to be disentangled from the use people make of such information to be members of opposing cultural groups; the best way to do that is to present climate science to people in settings in which they are seeking the best evidence in order to do something other than express their allegiances in that sort of conflict. Our universities supply us with such a setting; they are they place people — of all cultural identities — are used to going to get the knowledge they need figure outhow to live successfully in a challenging environment.  Universities thus have the advantage that they are engaging students, and citizens generally, where and when they are most receptive to recognizing what science knows and to giving it its proper effect.  Indeed, we should, I think, be studying the science communication problem in educational settings precisely b/c we are most likely to learn  lessons there  that we can then use to disentangle knowledge from identity in other domains.

5. So there are two vital projects here: one involving the integration of climate science into the instruction in practical decisionmaking that universities perform; and the other involving the university as a site for using and creating knowledge integral to protecting the science communication environment.  All those who are in a position to summon reflective, serious people and inspire them to dedicate their energy to these projects — please do so!

6.  Now, do I worry that just calling attention to the need to make use of universities for these connected practical projects can itself be divisive and polarizing, or generate dynamics that themselves interfere with the mission of education?  No, not really.  For sure, there will be people who either out of misunderstanding or bad faith try to make universities and high schools into instruments of the cultural status competition that is disfiguring political discourse on climate change.  Those who do understand the nature of the problem we face, and who are acting in good faith to solve it, will simply have to attend to that danger too; countering it, with as much energy and passion as doing so requires, is part & parcel of the projects we are discussing.  But those projects won’t happen unless they are effectively advocated for. Those doing the advocacy will show by their actions the respect for freedom and reason that the “climate debate” now denigrates.

After reading this, how have you encountered the challenges Kahan raises? What means do you have to “summon reflective, serious people and inspire them?”

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