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Living Landscapes: Southeast Region
Culture, Climate Science & Education
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A Message To Students About Climate Literacy
Climate change or global warming, which is part of this Climate Science Learning Unit, has become a controversial topic, often generating heated debates in the media, on the web, and between politicians, neighbors, even friends. Good debates are healthy and can result in a more informed public and better public policies, but the purpose of this Climate Literacy Learning Unit is not to debate climate-related issues or persuade you to one political opinion or another. Rather, the purpose is to help you understand the climate system so you can assess credible information about our climate, communicate about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and make your own informed and responsible climate-related decisions and develop your own opinions.
Because the climate is a major topic in the news, and because the information in the popular media is often contradictory, you may be wondering how you determine what information is credible. Understanding what traditional ecological knowledge is, how science works, and the difference between fact and opinion is key to making that determination.
A Word About Cultural Values
This package of education materials has a strong conservation message, a message grounded in traditional native cultural values, values that remind us to take care of this Earth, our communities, and each other. When you go to one of the Climate Science Principles, you will notice that beneath the title of the Principle, is one or more cultural values. The cultural values make up a unified whole, at the center of which is a deeply held attitude of respect toward the land, water, plants, and animals and a way of living closely and in community, with one another. We believe that if each principle is to be effective in teaching about a changing climate and how it will affect the land and water and the community of life they support, the science must be placed within this larger context. In the Resources section of the course, each of these cultural values is defined in a glossary.
Traditional Ecological Knoweldge (TEK)
Traditional or Tribal Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the main way Indian people understand and pass on knowledge about the relationships between plant and animal species, ecosystems, and ecological processes. Because it encompasses knowledge that spans thousands of years and many, many generations, it has the potential to play a vital role in climate change adaptation. Not only does it hold relevance for tribes, it is also recognized as providing valuable contributions to larger climate change discussions at regional, national, and international levels. The table below identifies some of the most important differences between Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Scientific Knowledge.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)
Encompasses oral history, place names, and a spiritual relationship with the creator and creation
Encompasses ethical considerations, for example, relations between humans and the natural world that are based on the principle of reciprocity and obligations toward community and other beings
Holistic approach concerned with complete ecological systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection of it into parts
Acquisition of knowledge over multiple generations and over periods as long as thousands of years
Long-term wisdom (not just information but information paired with wisdom)
Prediction in local areas
Weak in predictive principles in distant areas (cannot necessarily predict how other landscapes will respond)
Models based on cycles, accepting variability
Explanations based on examples, anecdotes, parables, spiritual beliefs, and experience spanning generations
Western Scientific Knowledge (WSK)
May encompass elements from written history but generally considers only data collected through experiments
Strives for objectivity so generally does not consider moral or ethical obligations
Compartmentalized approach (tends to dissect and look at individual parts of an ecological system)
Rapid acquisition (often data is collected in timespans of years or a few decades)
Predictability in natural principles (depending on the type of data collected)
Weak in integrated, local areas of knowledge (because of tendency to specialize or compartmentalize)
Linear modeling as first approximation
Explanations based on hypothesis, theories, laws, and scientific process and judgment
Traditional ecological knowledge involves the accumulation of highly localized, experiential, placed-based wisdom over a long period, most often passed down orally from generation to generation.
The two knowledge systems — TEK and western science — share some similarities. Both are founded on observations and critical evaluation of the landscape, processes, or plant or animal of interest. Both rely on observation in natural settings and on pattern recognition. Both allow for revisions in the way they understand the environment or a given phenomena when initial facts and assumptions are disproven or improved upon through additional experience or testing. Both relying on repetition to validate an assumed fact.
Traditional ecological knowledge can contribute qualitative, historical field data that Western science may lack, while Western science typically provides more quantitative data.
As it pertains to climate change, contributions from both knowledge systems are critical. Traditional ecological knowledge can identify on-the-ground climate-related changes occurring at a local level and contribute traditional management practices that have been time-tested.
Western Scientific Knoweldge (WSK)
Science is an on-going process of making observations and using evidence to test hypotheses. As new ideas are developed and new data obtained, our understanding evolves.
The scientific community uses a highly formalized version of the peer-review process to validate research results and our understanding of their importance. That process involves:
Researchers describing their experiments, results, and interpretations in scientific manuscripts and submitting them to a scientific journal that specializes in their field of science
Scientists who are experts in that field serving as “referees” for the journal: they read the manuscript carefully to judge the reliability of the research design and check that the interpretations are supported by the data.
Based on the reviews, journal editors then accepting or rejecting manuscripts or asking the authors to make revisions if the study has insufficient data or unsound interpretations.
Through this process, only those concepts that have been described through well-documented research and subjected to the scrutiny of other experts in the field become published papers in science journals and accepted as current science knowledge. Although peer review does not guarantee that any particular published result is valid, it does provide a high assurance that the work has been carefully vetted for accuracy by informed experts prior to publication.
The legitimacy of this process has been demonstrated time and time again. It has resulted in virtually all of the scientific advancements of our modern world in everything from medicine to astronomy to genetics and biology to chemistry and quantum physics. This same process is used in the discipline of climate science.
Good Science Or Junk Science?
Good Science Is:
click the topics to learn about good science and junk science
Science is based on fact, not opinion. "Fact" in a scientific context is a generally accepted reality (but still open to scientific inquiry, as opposed to an absolute truth, which is not, and hence not a part of science).
Opinions are neither fact nor theory. A person writing an essay, review, or opinion article is trying to persuade you to accept his or her views, which may conflict with science-based evidence. Opinions are not officially the domain of science (but don't think scientists don't have opinions — they are only human, and opinions often help to guide their research). Science cannot directly address opinion, although it can use scientific evidence to counter incorrect or misleading information supporting an opinion.
When it comes to the topic of climate science, you will encounter both fact and opinion, sometimes in the same article. It is important to know the difference and to be able to spot when the author is voicing an opinion. Obvious indicators of opinion are when sentences include words like: "Generally, it is thought" , “Many believe that", "It is a sad day when." Test Yourself Further
It took a long while to determine the best way to investigate the world. One way is to just talk about it (for example Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, stated that males and females have a different number of teeth, without bothering to check; he then provided long arguments as to why this is the way things ought to be). This method is unreliable: arguments cannot determine whether a statement is correct, this requires proofs.
Over time, we found a better approach: to do experiments and perform careful observations. The results of this approach are universal in the sense that they can be reproduced by any skeptic. It is from these ideas that the scientific method was developed. It consists of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. When it comes to studying nature, most of science is based on this procedure.
Conclusions arrived at through the scientific method are stronger than opinion-based conclusions.
Replication is also vital to good science — for the scientific community to accept a finding, other investigators must be able to duplicate the original investigator's findings. Thus, you cannot make up your data; other scientists must be able to follow the same methods you used (whether experimentation, mathematical calculations, formulating major concepts, measuring data, or whatever) and come up with the same results.
An example of non-science is the “unpublished hypothesis”. Wild, controversial hypotheses (often in the form of television "sound bites") are hungrily accepted by the public (who cannot be blamed for not knowing better). For ideas to become accepted in the scientific community, ideas must be published (undergoing the process of peer review) to separate the good science from the bad science. Even still, some not-so-good science still leaks into publications, so scientists must think critically when reviewing other's work.
Be Wary Of:
Cherry-picked data draws on isolated papers or a limited range of data in a way that challenges the consensus view and purposely neglects the broader body of research supported by hundreds of papers.
The purpose is usually to persuade the reader to the authors point of view, which the full range of scientific data do not support. For example, a single paper (now discredited along with the physician who wrote it) suggested a connection between vaccination and autism. This unscientific paper contributed to people deciding not to vaccinate their children, which in turn has led to a rise in measles and other deadly diseases in the United States and elsewhere.
click the image below to see how cherry picking data can distort the truth.
Anybody with money can hire a “scientist” who will argue views inconsistent with established knowledge, often complemented by denigration of established experts, including questioning credentials, integrity, and motives.
The tobacco industry employed industry-sympathetic scientists to attack mainstream research. They were wrong, and many people suffered and died as a consequence. (For years, the scientific community recognized that the preponderance of data pointed to a link between the habit of smoking and cancer and heart disease.
And for years, the public rejected that conclusion, in large part because of money spent by the tobacco industry to confuse interpretation of the scientific evidence and to block a social and political consensus. But through a process of political, economic, social, and legal debate over values and beliefs, a social consensus emerged.
The public now accepts that cigarettes cause cancer and governments have set policies to address this.)
Sometimes articles you read will argue you cannot trust legitimate science because it is part of a complex and secretive conspiracy. For example, former South African President Thabo Mbeki based his denial of AIDS on conspiracy theories that appealed to legitimate historical perspectives. But he was wrong, and many people suffered and died as a consequence.