Dale Hughes’ Sept. 25 opinion letter raised an important issue — teaching critical thinking and analytical skills in schools. The world would certainly be better if students were more effectively taught how to evaluate evidence and arguments objectively and reliably, including on the issue of climate change. Unfortunately, this letter equates climate change denialism with “analytical thinking.”
Critical thinking is discriminating between sources: the past statements made by politicians in the 1930s or by one’s own teachers do not reflect on the authority of thousands of scientists spanning the globe and working for over a century. Relatedly, critical thinking is recognizing the fallacy of cherry-picking: this letter focuses on favored anecdotes about perceived weaknesses in science in the past while ignoring the countless other successes of science, which should give us confidence in scientists.
Critical thinking is recognizing how word choice and rhetoric are being used to replace thoughtful analysis: labeling the conclusion that humans have driven recent climate change as a mere “opinion” is as inaccurate as claiming that “smoking causes cancer” or “bacteria cause infections” are also opinions — these are well-founded conclusions based on the best practices in science, and they yield reliable predictions, just like climate science.
Critical thinking is recognizing the fallacy of false equivalence: slow changes in Earth’s climate in the past do not mean that recent changes are similarly natural. In fact, they are unmatched in pace and magnitude and are, for the first time in Earth’s history, avoidable. Critical thinking would also include completing that line of argumentation: previous sudden changes in climate led to catastrophic extinctions, so the fact that they have happened before is not comforting. A good critical thinker would also recognize that it is the same scientific community that has produced the data on past climates and on contemporary climate change, and they of course have well considered past climate changes in all of their analyses.
Critical thinking is using actual data: referring to the 97% of the thousands of working scientists who recognize human-caused climate change as “just a few selected scientists” is grossly misinformed. Critical thinking is also recognizing that there is a place for expertise: we do not ask school students to choose between their own opinion and the diagnosis of a medical doctor, nor do I expect most climate deniers would be so quick to dismiss 97% of doctors if they were told they had a medical condition that needed treatment. Critical thinking is being watchful of information compromised by motivated reasoning and financial interests: the talking points of climate deniers have been promoted by well-funded disinformation campaigns on behalf of industries with profits at stake, which is well-attested to by their own internal documents.
I believe that the problem we really need to overcome is the politicizing of climate change. Inherently, it ought to be no more partisan than any other area of science. Unfortunately, the issue has been often ignored by one party and dominated by the other party, who colors it with their overall political agenda. But the consequences of climate change affect all people, regardless of politics, and will affect national security, the economy, children’s health, and other concerns that both parties tout. It is not a conservative or liberal issue, but a crisis for all humans. Rather than questioning climate change’s reality and its causes, people from across the political spectrum need to hold open, good-faith conversations in which we listen and share ideas. The response to climate change shouldn’t be entrusted to liberals; our nation needs the help and ideas of conservatives too, who have already put together some very compelling alternatives to the Democratic Party’s proposals for countering climate change.
We owe it to our children to teach them accurately about climate change and critical thinking and, more importantly, we owe it to our children to do something about climate change now — while we still can.