I haven’t posted here for a while now, partly because of upcoming travels. As of now, two posts are currently in progress, one about the power of words and metaphors in the context of climate and education (in which I make some rebellious statements), and another about communicating the science of global climate change (in which ditto).
As for the latter, I have learned so much from the UCSD course on climate change that it is taking me some time to process all the information. It is not a simple matter to communicate to the public the urgency of climate change when a) the subject is unfamiliar and in some way defies common sense, and b) there is much deliberate obfuscation of the issue by contrarian groups well funded by the fossil fuel industry. As someone who has been working on the pedagogy of climate change, particularly for non-science majors (and thus by extension the public in general), communicating climate change is of paramount interest to me. Through the UCSD class I have found a number of resources, from scholarly articles to videos, that can inform anyone committed to teaching climate change in an effective manner.
However, to teach or communicate the science in an effective manner is one thing. What comes after? Does one’s audience – a member of the public, or a student – get fired up to act? Does he or she put pressure on politicians and public officials, start to recycle, change lightbulbs, and walk more? Unfortunately even a successful communication of climate change science is unlikely to inspire meaningful action, unless other things are also taken into account. Often the result of such a successful communication is some degree of depression. This is hardly surprising, given that climate change is humanity’s greatest challenge. The consequences are immediate, imminent, and dire. Faced with this, most people feel helpless, and depression might turn into apathy or denial.
The UCSD course material did not deal directly with this phenomenon, so the upcoming blog post will include some of my thoughts and explorations on possible ways to address post-communication despair.
One of the things I haven’t yet written about is the other online course I am taking this spring: an introductory course on Dynamical Systems and Chaos, taught by David Feldman of the Santa Fe Institute. It follows a course I started last fall (and managed to finish in January by working on it like crazy) by Melanie Mitchell on Complexity, again offered by the Santa Fe Institute. I’ve always been fascinated by complex systems, perhaps in part because my training is at the reductionist end of the spectrum – in particle physics. Complex systems are arguably the other great revolution in physics (after quantum physics and relativity) but they are also richly multidisciplinary, applying across the board from physical systems to biological and social systems. The roots of the science lie in the 1800s with certain speculations of Poincare, but it was really developed in the 1980s, when its now-well-known subset, chaos theory, was developed. From Melanie Mitchell’s course I learned that as yet we have no general theory of complexity. And yet it is everywhere around us. It is no surprise therefore that given my early interest in complexity, I am fascinated by climate change from a theoretical perspective as well, since global climate is a complex system. Plus the story of chaos is inextricably linked with the meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who discovered the butterfly effect in the context of weather. I hope to start posting about the dynamical systems course at some point.
I’ll end with a quote from Poincare, because I like it, and it makes sense, and because it is wonderfully ironic coming from the man who laid the foundations of deterministic chaos. Quoting from memory:
A scientist must order.
One builds science with facts,
As a house with stones.
But an accumulation of facts is no more science
Than a pile of stones is a house…
Watch this space!