Somerville Part 1: Better climate science education a task that “will take many years at best”


Widespread public ignorance of the science of climate and climate change results from a failure in science education, says atmospheric scientist Richard C. J. Somerville. In “How Much Should the Public Know About Climate Science?” – an editorial comment in the journal Climatic Change – Somerville concludes that a major change in science education is needed, and that much is known about how to do a better job, but that “implementing such profound change is not easy, and completing the task will take many years at best.” (Part 1 of a two-part guest post; also see Part 2)Foreword by Rick Piltz:

While tending to immediate and urgent concerns in the climate change arena, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of how we educate the next generation – those who will be living with this problem and attempting to understand and cope with it in the future. The responsibility for weak scientific thinking in general and climate science illiteracy in particular is widespread, as is the necessity of and responsibility for addressing it. The science community has a special responsibility to step forward and provide leadership on the issues Prof. Somerville raises in his article, re-posted in part below:

“How Much Should the Public Know About Climate Science?”

An editorial comment

By Richard C. J. Somerville
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, California

Climatic Change, published online 21 October 2010

This article is published with open access at

The article in this issue of Climatic Change, by Shepardson et al., “Student Con­ceptions about the Greenhouse Effect, Global Warming, and Climate Change,” is more than a science education assessment study. This article confirms and adds to our understanding of what the broad public does and does not know about the science of climate change, and it raises several important questions. The subset of the public sampled in this research consists of 51 students, 39 in junior high school and 12 in high school, all of whom attend schools in small rural communities in the mid-western United States. We are told only a few other facts about these 51 students, such as that they completed the assessment study, “prior to any classroom instruction on the greenhouse effect, global warming, and climate change.”

As the authors state, student responses were not scored as “right” or “wrong.” However, almost any climate scientist will surely want to know whether the responses are correct or not. Indeed, they are a fascinating mixture of right and wrong. Some student answers are scientifically accurate and perceptive, while other answers are wildly incorrect and seemingly unrelated to physical reality. In this respect, they are consistent with what many other studies and much polling data have shown, namely that the broad public, in many other countries as well as in the United States, is generally not well informed about the science of climate and climate change. Like the secondary school students assessed by Shepardson et al., many adults worldwide often believe wildly inaccurate ideas about climate change science. Some major misconceptions, such as confusing the greenhouse effect with the ozone hole, occur so often that they no longer surprise climate scientists who frequently give public lectures on climate change.

Seeing the results presented by Shepardson et al. immediately reminded me of two memorable films that have achieved iconic stature in the science education community: A Private Universe and Minds of our Own—Lessons from Thin Air.

Both of these videos may be purchased as DVDs and are also easy to find online, where they may be viewed at no cost. Both videos include memorable scenes from graduation days at Harvard and MIT. In A Private Universe, which dates from the 1980s, nearly all the randomly chosen interview subjects (new university graduates, alumni, and faculty) were unable to give a correct explanation of the cause of seasons. The most popular wrong explanation offered was that the Earth was closest to the sun in summer, and farthest away in winter. The well-educated people who gave this answer may have forgotten the correct explanation, that seasons are due to the Earth’s axis of rotation being tilted, rather than perpendicular to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. However, they also had clearly not thought through the issue carefully before giving their answer. For example, they did not seem to have considered several obvious difficulties with their “distance-from-Earth-to-sun” theory, such as that the northern and southern hemispheres of our planet have seasons that are six months out of phase with one another.

Minds of our Own—Lessons from Thin Air was made about a decade later than A Private Universe. One unforgettable sequence from this video consists of graduation day interviews, again at renowned universities. This time, each subject was first asked to hold both a tiny seed and a log weighing several kilograms. Then the interviewer’s question was where does all the mass in a mature tree comes from, mass that was obviously not present in the tiny seed from which the tree began? As with many of the secondary school students studied by Shepardson et al., these university graduates typically gave wrong answers. Most of them cited water and minerals in the soil being captured by the roots of the tree. Indeed, it is not obvious to an uneducated person how a tiny seed becomes a tree weighing several tons. However, the process responsible for this growth, photosynthesis, is taught in secondary schools everywhere as well as in great universities. Nevertheless, despite their having studied photosynthesis during their educations, these well-educated people forgot about it while being interviewed. These graduates of the most elite American universities clearly did not know that nearly all the mass in a tree comes from the carbon dioxide in the air.

Both the cause of seasons and the role of CO2 in tree growth are relevant to climate change, and I think the widespread public ignorance of these scientific explanations illustrates an important educational failure. I am confident that many of the secondary school students who know very little about climate science today will grow up to be adults, some of them having earned university degrees, who unfortunately will still know very little about climate science. We should ask why, and I would answer that much of the blame lies in how we typically educate students about science. Knowledge, including knowledge about climate science, should never be taught as a catalogue of boring and unrelated facts to be memorized for the purpose of passing tests.

Science is a process, a way of regarding the natural world, and a fascinating human activity. A textbook may state that carbon dioxide makes up about 0.038% by volume of dry atmospheric air. It is all well and good to learn this, but the number 0.038% by itself is just an isolated fact, without much significance. It is much better if the student will also learn who was first able to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration accurately, and when, and how the measurement was made, and whether this number has changed over time, and if so, why, and something about the importance of this number to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

For many students to achieve that level of understanding will require a major change in current educational practices. A great deal is already known about how to do a better job of science education, but implementing such profound change is not easy, and completing the task will take many years at best….

© The Author 2010

The full text of the article is published with open access at

Earlier CSW posts:

California’s new state-issued energy textbook avoids climate change, puts coal on par with solar and wind

“Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”

Somerville eulogy to Stephen Schneider

Somerville: A response to climate change denialism

Somerville: Include climate change ethics and equity issues in science research agenda

An eminent climate scientist working to hold government officials accountable

This entry was posted in Climate Change Education and Communication. Bookmark the permalink.