E. Calvin Beisner: What if Evangelical Students Heard Both Sides of the Global Warming Debate?

Two years ago, evangelical environmental law professor John Murdock wrote in First Things that in 2012 former Evangelical Environmental Network head Jim Ball, author of Global Warming and the Risen Lord, “speaking at the World Wildlife Fund in D.C., [proclaimed] it a ‘fool’s errand’ to try to reach the right side of the evangelical spectrum” with the message that human-induced global warming is real and dangerous enough to justify enormously costly policies to curb it.

Lately, some evangelicals have sought to prove Ball wrong, and it is worthwhile to consider how. But first, a little historical vignette that might offer some instruction about better and worse ways to try to change people’s thinking.

In 1981, as a reporter, I attended and wrote in-depth reports for a community newspaper on, a fascinating trial, McLean v. Arkansas. In it, plaintiffs sued the State of Arkansas for requiring that public schools teaching scientific evidence for evolution must teach scientific evidence favoring creation as well. Not surprisingly, the state lost.

One of the most fascinating of the many fascinating testimonies during the trial came from Dr. William Scot Morrow, then a professor of biochemistry at Wofford College in South Carolina. Morrow described himself as an agnostic and an evolutionist. Nonetheless, he testified that both evolution and creation should be taught because a multi-model approach helps students think about evidence and fosters open minds. That, he said, “makes for good science.”

Morrow also said he had found that students taught evidences for both sides of a controversial issue learned more not just in total but also about each side than if they were taught only evidences for one side. That is, students taught only the evidences for evolution learned less about the evidence for evolution than students taught the evidences for both evolution and creation, and vice versa.

In short, multi-model teaching is good pedagogy. It equips students to weigh competing cases, and because students become more engaged when they see arguments pro and con, they also learn more about all sides.

That trial and Dr. Morrow’s testimony came to mind as I contemplated “Changing evangelical minds on climate change,” by Dr. Doug Hayhoe and two co-authors in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), and “Evangelical source changes evangelical minds on climate,” a report about it in Physics World (PW).

Dr. Hayhoe and his colleagues conducted an experiment to discover what would happen if students at three evangelical colleges—Houghton College, in rural northwestern New York, Tyndale University College, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and Dallas Baptist University, in Dallas, Texas—viewed a recorded lecture providing evidence that global warming is happening, that it is primarily human caused, that there is scientific consensus about it, that it is harmful, and that addressing it should be prioritized.

PW reported that the video lecture was by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, lead author Doug Hayhoe’s daughter, an atmospheric scientist and Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University, where she is also Director of the Climate Science Center, but the formal report in ERL made no mention of the relationship, an apparent conflict of interest. (The only mention of her listed “Hayhoe K” as one of three authors of one of the 32 references cited.) Most readers of ERL would have no idea that the article’s lead author was reporting on an experiment in which his daughter was the key player, unless they were already familiar with her work in the field. (She’s been one of the authors of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s assessment reports.)

Before and after viewing the lecture, students answered what PW called “key questions about global warming, including whether they thought global warming was happening, whether it was natural or human-caused, whether it was harmful, and whether they were worried about it.” Comparing the before and after answers showed that at the school with the most conservative students, Dallas Baptist, “the percentage of students who thought global warming was happening rose from 51% [before] to 87% after seeing the presentation,” and that “gains were significant at all institutions, with concern about global warming rising sharply from below 50% to over 70%.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, E. Calvin Beisner