How To Teach Skeptical Students

The Center for Inquiry (yes, I follow CFI on Twitter because hearing both sides is important) posted this article from the New York Times about a Climate science teacher’s struggle to convince his skeptical students that climate change is a real thing with real consequences.

The article begins,

When the teacher, James Sutter, ascribed the recent warming of the Earth to heat-trapping gases released by burning fossil fuels like the coal her father had once mined, she asserted that it could be a result of other, natural causes. When he described the flooding, droughts and fierce storms that scientists predict within the century if such carbon emissions are not sharply reduced, she challenged him to prove it.

“Scientists are wrong all the time,” she said with a shrug, echoing those celebrating President Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

When Mr. Sutter lamented that information about climate change had been removed from the White House website after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, she rolled
her eyes.

“It’s his website,” she said.

Let’s be honest, this kind of student-teacher exchange could be centered on any topic, not just climate change. And that’s what I want to discuss.

If we want to be good educators then we must embrace the fact that critical students are a pain in the butt. But they can also have the raw material to be great thinkers.

If we put aside the emotional and interpersonal issues (of which my own experience leads me to think this situation must have had many), on their face, the objections given by the student in the article are real objections deserving substantive responses.

  1. Scientists are wrong all the time. This is true. And some (though not all) of the greatest advances in science have been when the majority of scientists were proven wrong (cf. the popular discovery by Galileo). So of course we should always be open to inquiry. That said, Galileo’s view is now the popular one. So there’s a difference between skepticism that just asks questions and inquiry that seeks proof. We need to be seekers of truth not just objectors to ideas. I mean, when should we willing to say that something  discovered scientifically is actually true?
  2. Presidents can put whatever they want on their own websites. Again, that’s totally true. But the question is not about ability, it’s about responsibility. Not what we can do but what we should do. It’s a question of moral duty. That said, some people think if you don’t have the president on your side, it hampers your ability to make a difference. I imagine there’s some truth to that, but don’t ever fall into the trap that your cause needs presidential approval in order to get traction. It doesn’t. You can win the people without the president.
  3. Teachers should be open to opinions. Everyone should always be open to opinions (including me and including you). But openness also requires a filter: how do we evaluate those opinions. Again, it’s about responsibility not ability. Yes, we can all express opinions, but how am I supposed to know if I should agree or disagree with the opinion?
  4. You can’t disagree with a scientist or you’re “denying science.” Sadly, some people do talk this way and you’ve rightly identified that it’s illogical. The technical term is an “appeal to authority” where you claim something is true because somebody in charge says it’s true. That’s not a good enough reason. But the question we have to ask is this: how much should we, as a society, trust specialists in a particular field? What’s the point of spending so much on “education” if we don’t trust the people who spend their lives studying something? Also, we should ask, why don’t we trust them? Are we being skeptical or are being inquirers?
  5. Climate change does not jibe with Christianity. If, by this, you mean that God promised to never flood the whole earth again so therefore we can’t see a catastrophic rise in ocean levels, then that’s a good, initial observation. My short response would be that, granting your assumptions about what Scripture says regarding the flood (though we should definitely explore those assumptions more deeply), even if all the ice in the world melts, the land masses stay pretty much as is.. In that sense, it wouldn’t cover the whole earth with water, unlike (according to your view) the Biblical flood did. It’s also worth noting that lots of Christians “believe” in climate change and caring for God’s beautiful creation. If you Google “creation care” or “Christian ecology”, you’ll find lots of (non-crazy) fellow-believers taking up this question.
  6. It felt like people were saying “All these people that I pretty much am like are wrong and stupid.” I’m sure there are some people who harbor prejudice against your community. That’s sad and wrong. The best thing to do is win them by lovingly, patently, proving them wrong with your actions. There’s a wonderful example of regional prejudice in Jesus’s story. One of the disciples tells his friend that Jesus is from Nazareth and his friend replies, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” The disciple has a perfect response, “Come and see!” (John 1:43-46) That’s the model we should follow: when people say prejudicial things about us or our community, we should give them welcome invitation: come and see! And then show them the beauty that our community really has.

Those responses don’t seem too difficult or time-consuming. But they do require that we take the questions and objections seriously (admittedly something tough to do if the relationship is strained).

When we look at the much-bemoaned state of our national discourse, it roots to two key issues: an unwillingness to ask clarifying questions (what do you mean by that? Tell me more about that? How do you know that? Who have you found most convincing about this?) and an unwillingness to concede points of agreement while clarifying our own position (“You’re absolutely right about X, which is why I would say Y.” “On that point, we totally agree. And it leads me to conclude…” “Yes, that’s a completely reasonable conclusion and I agree with you. Where I would disagree is…”)

Instead we get, “I have the facts so you should agree with me or shut up.”

Yeah, that’s not how it works. We have to win people. Something that can only be done through patient listening and clear interaction.

To the point of teaching, typically, if we want to foster critical thought and healthy conversation, we have to model good interactions with the students, encouraging them to question the validity and trust worthiness of both their teacher (I tell students all the time, “Do not trust me. Check it our for yourself.”) and the course materials. In my opinion, “Students just trust the teacher” and “Students just believe the textbook” are as great a threat to education as “Students just google things.” All three point to the same issue: a students inability to properly evaluate sources.

But occasionally, when we have skeptical students, it’s a huge blessing because they naturally don’t trust sources. So teaching them is just the inverse of the usual experience. Usually, we have to teach students to be skeptical. With skeptical students, we have to teach them how to be convinced.