Saturday, October 31, 2015

Teaching Controversial Issues: Resources from GSA Short Courses

The resources housed on this site are associated with a pair of half-day short courses offered at the 2015 Geological Society of America Meeting in Baltimore. The courses were held on Saturday, October 31. The courses were designed so that they were complementary and several participants attended both the morning and afternoon sessions. The same instructors taught both courses. 

Instructors: Don Duggan-Haas, (, Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth; Scott Mandia, (, Suffolk County Community College; Glenn Dolphin, (, University of Calgary; Richard Kissel, (, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; Minda Berbeco, ( National Center for Science Education; Robert Ross, (, Paleontological Research Institute and its Museum of the Earth

Cosponsors: National Association of Geoscience Teachers; GSA Geoscience Education Division
Where: Hilton, Carroll Room

524 Teaching Controversial Issues 1: Climate and Energy

When: Sat., 31 Oct., 8 a.m.–noon

Cost: $35. Limit: 35. CEU: 0.4.

Abstract: Climate and energy are topics rife with controversy, which provides challenges and opportunities for teaching. This is one of two connected courses on controversial issues that may be taken separately or together. Questions addressed include: Why are certain issues controversial? How do controversial issues differ from one another? How can we help learners focus on deepening understandings rather than fortifying positions? What does the history of controversy teach us about dealing with these issues? Both courses will investigate the teaching of controversial issues from theoretical perspectives and provide nuts-and-bolts strategies to make teaching such topics more effective and less divisive.

529 Teaching Controversial Issues 2: Evolution of Life and Earth

When: Sat., 31 Oct., 1 - 5pm

Cost: $35. Limit: 35. CEU: 0.4.

Abstract: Evolutionary history and and the age of the Earth are rife with controversy, which provides challenges and opportunities for teaching. This is one of two connected courses on controversial issues that may be taken separately or together. Questions addressed include: Why are certain issues controversial? How do controversial issues differ from one another? How can we help learners focus on deepening understandings rather than fortifying positions? What does the history of controversy teach us about dealing with these issues? Both courses will investigate the teaching of controversial issues from theoretical perspectives and provide nuts-and-bolts strategies to make teaching such topics more effective and less divisive.

This was the third time the courses have been taught. Resources from 2013 and 2014 are here


8:00 Introductions of instructors and participants - Everybody

8:30 Teaching Controversial Issues - an introduction to types of controversy, classroom approaches, and special opportunities in the Earth Sciences. - Don & Rob
  • Why should we teach controversial subjects?
  • Strategies
  • Rules of Thumb for Teaching Controversial Issues:
9:15 “Communicating Climate Change: Sometimes It's Not about the Science” Scott
10:05 Break

10:20 Hydrofracking as a gateway drug for energy literacy - Don
10:50 “Scientific argumentation vs. debate - what’s the difference?” Minda
11:30 Panel Discussion (all participants) - Discussing Discussion & Debate 1

12:00 Lunch

1:00 Very brief introductions

1:15 Teaching with controversy: The role of the history and philosophy of science - Glenn

2:00 Public Understanding of Evolution and Evolutionary Relationships - Richard & Rob

3:00 Break

3:20 Panel discussion: Discussing Discussion & Debate 2

  • Know your audience
  • The role of worldview and cognitive biases

4:50 Concluding Remarks/Evaluation

Possible questions for panel discussions:
  • Are there elements that all controversial issues share?
    • Other than the scientific content, how should the approach to climate and energy differ from the approach to evolution (if it should differ)?
  • What would go into a taxonomy of controversial issues?
  • What goals do you have for your work related to controversial issues?
    • What’s needed to meet those goals?
    • What are the biggest obstacles to meeting those goals?
    • How long will it take to meet those goals?
  • Are there strategies that apply broadly to teaching controversial issues?
    • Are there strategies to universally avoid?
  • How does our work change for different audiences?
  • What does worldview have to do with controversial issues?
  • What is the role of scientific literacy?
  • What is the role of cognitive bias?
  • How does confidence in a position help and hurt the messenger?
  • Boundaries of controversy -
  • Discuss how much time is needed for effective programming and the the role that short programs can play in meeting goals.  
  • Controversial issues are emotional issues. Perhaps the most conspicuous emotion is anger. What other emotions are important? How?

Important issues/cross-cutting themes:
  • Worldview; and not everyone within a worldview sees the science in the same way
  • Providing tools and strategies to be the messenger
  • Controversial issues are always dealing with more than one thing
  • Popular vs. scientific controversy
  • Reverse tribalism/group think
Links and images we like (in no particular order):
On arguing to learn:

Workshop: Transforming Geoscience Preparation for K-8 Pre-Service Teachers
On Logical Fallacies:

Why we ignore the obvious:

Want to Win a Political Debate? Try Making a Weaker Argument

Gun control? Abortion? The new social science behind why you're never able to convince friends or foes to even consider things from your side.

Some books:

The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale

Don Duggan-Haas; Robert M. Ross, Warren D. Allmon

Evolution and Creationism: A Very Short Guide, 2nd ed.

Warren D. Allmon

List of cognitive biases

The politics of teaching evolution, science education standards, and Being a creationist

EPA study on fracking and drinking water says whatever the hell you want it to. Thanks to Ken Klemow for sharing (and to Facebook for putting it together). 

  • From Galileo: One day I was at the home of a very famous doctor in Venice, where many persons came on account of their studies, and others occasionally came out of curiosity to see some anatomical dissection performed by a man who was truly no less learned than he was a careful and expert anatomist. It happened on this day that he was investigating the source and origin of the nerves, about which there exists a notorious controversy between the Galenist and Peripatetic doctors. The anatomist showed that the great trunk of nerves, leaving the brain and passing through the nape, extended on down the spine and then branched out through the whole body, and that only a single strand as fine as a thread arrived at the heart. Turning to a gentleman whom he knew to be a Peripatetic philosopher, and on whose account he had been exhibiting and demonstrating everything with unusual care, he asked this man whether he was at last satisfied and convinced that the nerves originated in the brain and not in the heart. The philosopher, after considering for awhile, answered: "You have made me see this matter so plainly and palpably that if Aristotle's text were not contrary to it, stating clearly that the nerves originate in the heart, I should be forced to admit it to be true." 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Looking Back on Earth Day - Where my passion for sustainability came from (repost)

Today, for Earth Day, we are repeating a post from Father's Day 2010. The post reflects on where my environmental ways comes from and gives a big tip-of-the-hat to my dad, Roger Haas. Today would have been his 90th birthday, and he was certainly the first environmentalist I knew. Another excuse for the reposting is that since I wrote the original, I found a picture of the windmill he built in the backyard.

Why am I (philosophically) green?

My dad, Roger Haas, who died in May of 2004, was a very quiet man. He was unexpressive to the extreme, virtually never, to my recollection, teaching anything explicitly, yet he taught me a great deal. Most of his teaching was by example.

It gives me the willies when a friend or colleague leaves an engine running while chatting in a driveway or parking lot. That comes directly from Dad. He got the willies too.

He built things -- there was the solar thermal panel that pre-heated hot water in the form of copper pipe painted black inside a glass covered box leaned up against the souther side of our house (the inside was also painted black). There was a windmill in the backyard made from oil drums cut down the middle. I don't think that ever actually generated any useable power as was the goal, but he did get it to spin in the wind.

Dad's windmill, still under construction.

He turned things off and made sure we did too. Lights left on in empty rooms were one of a few things that made him visibly irritated, and we knew not to run water while we brushed our teeth.

My siblings and I also knew that little scraps of metal or wood, or interesting pieces of broken things could be made to serve some later purpose.

These things have been passed on -- one brother has a geothermal heating system. I'm not the only one of my siblings who mows the lawn with a reel-type mower (Dad used one too) and has insulated his or her home far more than the average American.

I know Dad did these things largely because he couldn't stand to see things pointlessly wasted. What good does it do leave a light on in an empty room? Why should I use natural gas to heat my water when the sun can do it free? Why would we want to squander our resources? Thanks, Dad, for passing this along to me.

What makes you green?

Don Duggan-Haas

Thursday, February 26, 2015

It’s freezing out there! – So much for global warming?

by Ben Brown-Steiner, Ph.D.

            Yikes it’s cold out there! This winter has brought record cold temperatures to Ithaca [1,2] with continuing waves of Arctic air [3] making life pretty uncomfortable. All the Finger Lakes are frozen except for Cayuga and Seneca [4] but with temperatures expected to barely top freezing for the foreseeable future we may yet see a frozen Cayuga Lake for the first time since 1978-1979 [2].

            The past several weeks are undeniably colder than normal, but what’s normal? Is this simply cold weather or does it imply a cold climate? What can we say about how unusual this winter is, and does it have anything to do with climate change? To answer these questions, let’s conduct some rudimentary data exploration. This is the first step when trying to understand scientific data.

           Expanding the analysis done in a previous post, here are the 10-year average maximum, average, and minimum daily temperatures (˚F) for this December, January, and February (so far). The purple line marks the climatological long-term average:

Ithaca 10-Year Average Temperature (˚F) from [5]

            Looking at the long-term climate we can expect winter temperatures to drop from 30˚F in December to a bottom of around 20˚F in January and then a slight increase to around 25˚F by the end of February. This 10-year running average matches this climatological trend with some noise (a ten year average of weather is not yet climate so we expect this noise).

            Compared to these 10-year averages, how does this year’s December-January-February compare?

Ithaca 2015 Daily Temperature (˚F) from [5]

            Yikes! The average climatological January is 28˚F while this January averaged 17˚F. The average climatological February is 26˚F with this February averaging only 11˚F. This previous December, however, was slightly warm: the average December is 28˚F while this December averaged 32˚F. Taken as a whole, however, this is indeed an unusually cold winter.

            Besides the cold temperatures, are there other aspects of this winter that are unusual? Is there more or less variability? Do other years show similar anomalies, either low or high? Here’s an animated comparison of the past 10 Ithaca winters:

Animation of Daily Temperatures (˚F) for Ithaca from the Past 10 Years from [5]

            Take a look and see if you can find anything unusual. Check out this previous post for good ways of examining these types of data.

            It’s difficult to look at the current weather and draw conclusions about climate, so let’s look at these data from different perspectives to see what we can see. My goal here is to tune your baloney detectors when being presented with weather and climate data and to do some data exploration. Data itself can’t lie, but certain interpretations or presentations of the underlying data can lie, especially if it is being presented out of context. Always be skeptical when you’re presented with data! If portions of data or methods are being hidden, there’s likely a hidden agenda in the presentation.

            For example, here is the average February temperature for the past four years. Based solely on this graph, what can you conclude about Ithaca winters?

Average February Temperature (˚F) for Ithaca from 2012 – 2015 from [5]

            I can hear people shouting in the background: “Look! No such thing as global warming!” And sure, based only on the average temperature of the past four Februaries, completely removed from any larger time or regional context, that might make sense. But what are we missing when we leave out the context? Let’s zoom out to the average temperature of the past ten Februaries:

Average February Temperature (˚F) for Ithaca from 2006 – 2015 from [5]

            Looking at ten years of data we can see that there isn’t much of a trend. The fact that the past four Februaries line up in a nice straight decreasing trend seems to be more of a coincidence than a statement about climate.

            Let’s zoom out a little more. What’s the past ten years worth of December-January-February averages look like?

Average December-January-February Temperature (˚F) for Ithaca from 2006 – 2015 from [5]

            The unusual February anomaly in Ithaca is much less apparent here. There appears to be a slight decrease in the winter temperature in the past ten years, but it’s not really a robust trend (or in more technical speak, it doesn’t seem to be statistically significantly different from no trend at all). Let’s zoom out some more. What do the previous 100 winters look like in Ithaca?

 Average Winter Temperature (˚F) for Ithaca from 1900 – 2015 from [6]

(NOTE: The data in in this figure is taken at a different site than the data from the previous figure, thus the Ithaca winter temperatures are not an exact match)

            We definitely get a different perspective here. The year 2012 was the warmest winter of the decade, so it’s not an ideal place to start looking at temperature trends. What we do see is some slow (over multiple decades) increases and decreases, with a maximum in 1932, after which winter temperatures generally decreased until 1978, after which they increased again until around 2000, after which we see no real trend in winter temperatures. These changes, however are small compared to the “noisiness” of the data.

            This 100-year perspective puts the 10-year perspective into a broader climate context. Among some slow variations in temperature from decade-do-decade we see a lot of year-to-year variability. By looking only at 10 years of data we’re missing a lot and we have to be careful about what we conclude from only 10 years of data if we’re talking about climate.

            While we’re looking at the previous 100 years of Ithaca winters, have you ever heard someone older than you talking about how the weather or climate was clearly different when they were young? Did you trust their interpretation and their memory? Let’s take a look. Here’s the average winter temperature for each decade during the past 100 years:

Average Ithaca Winter Temperature (˚F) for Each Decade from 1900 – 2015 from [6]

            If they were born in the 1950’s, 1960’s, or 1970’s, then it was indeed colder when they were young, although only by 3 – 4 ˚F. If they were born in the first half of the century, then these current temperatures are close to what they remember when they were young. Looking at the century as a whole, temperatures have certainly fluctuated but there is no evidence of a clear, unambiguous trend.

            What if Ithaca is unique? What do the same data look like for the greater Northeastern region? Here’s the December-January-February temperature trend for the entire Northeast for the past 100 years:

Average Winter Temperature Anomaly (˚F) for the Northeastern US Region from 1900 – 2011 from [7]

            Here we see that there is a moderate trend showing increasing temperatures. Over the past 100 years, winters in the Northeast have warmed by around 2˚F, although there’s a lot of variability in this data (i.e. the noise is large compared to the signal). Ithaca’s trends don’t quite match this regional trend, but Ithaca is just a single city in this broad region.

In Conclusion

            This broader climate context deepens our understanding of Ithaca’s unusual winter weather we’re experiencing this year and provides us a long-term perspective. Looking at the data like this is usually the first step in trying to understand a scientific phenomenon since it helps to understand the larger picture. Jumping right into a smaller portion of the data and drawing conclusions (e.g. the previous four Februaries) leads to distortions and misunderstanding, and we all need to be wary of data that is presented without this greater context.