by Christie Klimas
So, as a new blogger, I’m thrilled when anyone reads my blog, so you can imagine my excitement when I got an e-mail from my biggest fan. My biggest fan also happens to be my brother, which means that his fan letter came with recommendations for potential future blog posts. As I want to be receptive to all my fans, this blog post addresses this request:
I was watching Up with Chris Hayes the other day, and he was talking about the trade-off between covering a topic in-depth, and making a piece short enough to catch people’s attention and get them to watch/read all the way through. This made me think about the complexities of global climate change that you’ve told me about, i.e., it’s not just global warming but also cooling, etc. Could be an interesting piece…how to communicate about environmental issues is a way that is sophisticated to be accurate, without losing people in the minutia. –Geoff Klimas
I have spent months thinking about how to address this question and I decided that I might best address it with teaching. I will also draw upon some information presented by David Brooks in his book “The Social Animal.” I would like for there to be an active discussion with others contributing to how they would combine depth and breadth in communication of environmental issues (or any complex issue) in the media (or in the classroom).
Climate change is a politically contentious issue, in large part due to the substantial cost associated with changing from a fossil-fuel intensive economy to a new economy based on renewables. So, I think that explaining the scientific fundamentals is crucial. Indeed, when I lecture on climate change, I start by defining weather and asking students whether they would be surprised by a warm day in the winter or a cold day in the summer. Then I define climate and ask students if they would be surprised if their biome were named a desert (or the tundra). Then we discuss the differences between weather and climate and how these two are often incorrectly presented in the media. While I won’t go into the minutiae of my climate change teaching module, I talk about how scientific analysis of tree rings, ice cores, ocean sediments and other techniques have allowed us to view a long (800,000-year) record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations (a good example is from the NOAA site http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/history.html). I use a simulation (recommended by my husband) to talk about greenhouse gases and to show how increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases lead to less escape of solar radiation. To visually show the evidence of climate change, I show the TED video “James Balog: Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss”
It’s true that I could go into great depth on any one of the topics I’ve mentioned above (and this is only a part of my climate change module). There’s an impressive scientific literature on reading historical climate records using ice cores. Similarly, looking at deep ocean sediment samples is its own area of research. So, to say that we use these methods to look at what the climate was previously like is different than explaining each in depth (which would probably lose many students in the minutiae). Now, if you’re a graduate student interested in these areas, it’s important to dig further, but if you are a citizen wondering about the strength of the scientific evidence supporting climate change, it may be enough to know the general methods used to determine our historical climate records and what those records show.
So, is providing the fundamentals without the details a good way to present complex issues? Maybe. The initial stage of learning is knowledge acquisition. According to Benjamin Bloom, “this first phase of learning is to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.” While some may argue that an interactive lecture is not the best way to go about this, for students who would not otherwise initiate the knowledge acquisition process about the science underlying climate change, I will argue (at least here in this blog), that it can be effective. This core knowledge is then the foundation for future learning. “Human knowledge is hungry and alive. People with knowledge about a topic become faster and better at acquiring more knowledge and remembering what they learn” (Brooks 2011). I often perceive this when I’m talking about my research or Brazilian culture – things that I’ve been immersed in for more than a decade. If I’m getting confused looks, sometimes I realize that I’ve started in the middle of a thought that’s based on a decade of experience and expecting that others are right there with me. When I realize my error, I try to go back to the beginning (or let’s face it sometimes I can tell the other person is not interested and I switch subjects).
The next step of learning is “taking things that are strange and unnatural, like reading and algebra, and absorbing them so steadily that they become automatic (Brooks 2011).” This is achieved through repetition, as those who effectively study (reviewing topics briefly multiple times) and new exploration. Start with the core knowledge, and then learn something new. Then integrate the new knowledge into the core. Repeat. “Learning is not entirely linear. There are certain breakthrough moments when you begin to think and see the field differently (Brooks 2011).”
To conclude the section on knowledge acquisition, I’ll finish with an excerpt on expertise. I think that an undergraduate degree is one way of gaining expertise in a degree area (though not the only way). And maybe the media provides an entrance to exploring an area – though I’m not always sure that this is true. If so, perhaps a general article on a complex issue, with links to explore for further information, provide a means of working toward expertise (or understanding). But I welcome comments and insights on this topic. I doubt I am done thinking about this question and I would love new directions in which to send my thoughts.
In one exercise, a series of highly skilled chess grandmasters and a series of nonplayers were shown a series of chessboards for about five to ten seconds each. On each board, twenty-five pieces were arrayed, as if in an actual game. The participants were later asked to remember the positions on the board. The grandmasters could remember every piece on every board. The average players could remember about four or five pieces per board. It is not that the grandmasters were simply a lot smarter than the others. IQ is surprisingly, not a great predictor of performance in chess. Nor is it true that the grandmasters possess incredible memories. When the same exercise was repeated, but the pieces were arrayed randomly, in a way that did not relate to any game situation, the grandmasters had no better recall than anyone else. No, the reason the grandmasters could remember the game boards so well is that after so many years of study, they saw the boards in a different way. When average players saw the boards, they saw a group of individual pieces. When the masters saw the boards, they saw formations. Instead of seeing a bunch of letters on a page, they saw words, paragraphs, and stories. A story is easier to remember than a bunch of individual letters. Expertise is about forming internal connections so that little pieces of information turn into bigger networked chunks of information. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information. – Brooks 2011