Why we need information and digital literacy


This opinion article in Fobes highlights the importance of critical thinking skills and the ability to read source material in the current era of inaccurate reporting. The level of misrepresentation of the cited journal article it is almost staggering.  

The title of the article is “Peer-Reviewed Survey Finds Majority Of Scientists Skeptical Of Global Warming Crisis”

The following statement for example, made to sound like a summary of the article cited,  is not even remotely close to a findings of the journal article: “Now that we have access to hard surveys of scientists themselves, it is becoming clear that not only do many scientists dispute the asserted global warming crisis, but these skeptical scientists may indeed form a scientific consensus.”

The only thing about this opinion piece that is remotely worthwhile is that there was a link to the actual journal article (which thankfully is in an open publication). Here is the link to the original article titled “Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change”

You don’t have to take my word for what I’m about to point out here is the link to the journal:  http://oss.sagepub.com/content/33/11/1477.full

The Forbes opinion piece is such a good example of information taken out of context it almost seems like it was made up expressly for the purpose of teaching a class on the topic. I’m not even sure where to begin… by the way any comments on personal opinions on how cold it was this winter “so what happened to global warming”, or other absurd climate change related debate misses the point entirely. My contention is with the gross misrepresentation of a study that likely took a long time to do, and in reality has little to do with the possible causes or climate change.

The source that is cited to lend credibility to the opinion piece is not designed to look for consensus or lack thereof amongst a broad scientific community. The article is in a journal dedicated to organizational behaviour – a social science – and is designed to look specifically at how groups that find themselves in a institutional position that appears to actively oppositional to a majority consensus frame their own understanding of the subject.

To look at this concept, the study’s authors choose a group that was likely to be in this position and asked them some questions in the form of a survey so they had some evidence to work with. Where might one find a group of people who work in an industry that finds itself in an oppositional position to a large consensus.   Well how about the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, and their understanding of climate change? Seems like a pretty good test group when looking at this organizational behaviour phenomena, since the Alberta Oil and Gas industry is the primary employer of this group and is also one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions .  

You only really need to read the first page or two of this journal article to know that it’s findings are not those portrayed in the opinion piece in Forbes. In the introduction the authors of the study write “Indeed, while there is a broad consensus among climate scientists (IPCC, 2007a, 2007b), scepticism regarding anthropogenic climate change remains. The proportion of papers found in the ISI Web of Science database that explicitly endorsed anthropogenic climate change has fallen from 75% (for the period between 1993 and 2003) as of 2004 to 45% from 2004 to 2008, while outright disagreement has risen from 0% to 6% (Oreskes, 2004; Schulte, 2008). This drop in endorsement may be a manifestation of increasing taken-for-grantedness (e.g., Green, 2004) of anthropogenic climate science; the rise in disagreement may be a result of increased funding of sceptics by fossil fuel industries, conservative foundations and think tanks (McCright & Dunlap, 2010). Yet, apart from discussions among scientists, public concern over climate change is also waning in the US (Leiserowitz, Maibach & Roser-Renouf, 2008, 2010; Maibach, Leiserowitz, Roser-Renouf, & Mertz, 2011; Pew Research Center, 2009), the UK (Jowit, 2010), and Canada (Berry, Clarke, Pajot, Hutton, & Verret, 2009).”

They write this paragraph so that they can set up their study, which actually asks the question:

How do professional experts frame the reality of climate change and themselves as experts, while engaging in defensive institutional work against others?

The study was about how a very particular target group frame their understanding of a given topic. The assumption going into the study was that most of them would be in opposition to the broad consensus. I believe that the opinion article headline was created to suggests that there was some skepticism of the idea of global warming, rather than just the potential for crisis caused by it… but maybe I’m just reading too much into it.  

However take a look at this lead off sentence “It is becoming clear that not only do many scientists dispute the asserted global warming crisis, but these skeptical scientists may indeed form a scientific consensus. ”  Then contrast it from this quote from the journal article when speaking about the views of the (narrow / relatively heterogeneous) sample group.

“The vast majority of these professional experts believe that the climate is changing; it is the cause, the severity and the urgency of the problem, and the need to take action, especially the efficacy of regulation, that is at issue.”

When reading an article on the web that presents information that stands in contradiction to the general body of information that you are usually presented with it is perfectly legitimate to question the sources used.  Unfortunately short turnaround times,  insatiable desire for content, and lack of accountability have run amok in the news reporting industry. Forbes is not necessarily a bad publication, though I characterize this op ed as shoddy, who seeks to mislead. I follow them on twitter, and occasionally read the posts on the website.  Part of our job as consumers of web media is to look at who has written what we are reading, what evidence do they use to support their argument, does what they are saying make sense in context of the other evidence that I have encountered in the past, and just in general be critical of the content.

If you struggle with that, and lots of people do because it is not necessarily easy or what we are trained to do. Find some sources that you do trust, these could be people, or online messages boards, facebook friends, etc and run an article that seems fishy by them and see how they respond. Websites like snopes are good for things that appear to be straight up hoaxes by the way. If critical thinking comes easy to you and you see perpetuation of something that can be easily cleared up, it might be a good idea to step in and engage the conversation rather than walking away in disagreement. It could be that questionable source material is being taken as fact, and a learning opportunity is at hand.

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