Climate Literacy? No, Says Texas A&M Scientist … ‘Meta-Literacy?’ Yes

Given the level of complexity, any realistic amount of public climate literacy will still leave openings for incorrect claims. A Texas A&M scientist and Texas state climatologist offers a different prescription.


What, one might wonder, is a self-confessed “climate literacy heretic” doing speaking at a climate literacy session?

The answer became clear when John W. Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University opened his recent talk at AGU’s fall meeting. He said the current level of public skepticism over human-caused warming “includes a widespread belief in some things that are scientifically incorrect.” His first example: the opinion that Earth currently is undergoing a warming “hiatus” and that CO2 therefore is incapable of causing higher temperatures.

One prescription he outlines: The public needs to better be able to distinguish “correct statements about climate science from incorrect statements,” in effect better distinguish true and false.

But Nielsen-Gammon, who is the Texas state climatologist, says he doesn’t buy that approach. ”My belief is almost precisely the opposite,” he said.

“Improving climate literacy would have no effect whatsoever on the public’s ability to separate the wheat from the chaff” among competing climate claims, Nielsen-Gammon continued. Which does not mean he’s opposed to the public’s having what he calls “a sound, basic knowledge of the climate system.”

But with an issue so “enormously complex,” Nielsen-Gammon continued, “Whatever the American public’s climate literacy level, it will always be possible to make a believable but incorrect scientific statement.” He cautions that uses of “an authoritative scientific diagram” can make the untrue seem plausible.

All is not lost, according to Nielsen-Gammon, who describes “an important lesson” worth considering:

Those of us who are trained scientists, but who do not have enough personal literacy to independently evaluate a particular statement, do not throw up our hands in despair. Instead, we evaluate the source and the context. We scientists rely upon a hierarchy of reliability.”

That hierarchy, he said, will allow people to “generally do a good job navigating through an unfamiliar field, even if we have very little prior technical knowledge in that field. He calls the approach one of “scientific meta-literacy,” designed to let the public sort reliable from unreliable sources of scientific information.

For more, see Nielsen-Gammon’s PowerPoint presentation and a text he prepared for use in his AGU presentation. He also has done an informative and entertaining blog post on the subject, available here.

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One Response to Climate Literacy? No, Says Texas A&M Scientist … ‘Meta-Literacy?’ Yes

  1. Tom Mackey says:

    We agree completely with the idea of a “metaliteracy” and published an article on this idea as it relates to information literacy in College & Research Libraries January 2011: Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy Nielsen-Gammon’s discussion of climate literacy is an excellent illustration of why we need to take this approach. It can be applied in many different disciplines as well.