Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Open Letter to Premier (To Be) Prentice

Dear Premier (To Be) Prentice

Congratulations on securing such a convincing victory in the race to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Now it is time for you to show leadership, courage and focus.

This letter focusing your attention on what you need to do to repair the relationship between your Government and all who care passionately about the future of our school system. You will hear that former Minister Jeff Johnson was “trying to do the right things” but “perhaps went about it the wrong way”. You will hear that your predecessor Alison Redford, “cut a deal with the ATA which came back to haunt her”. I suggest you put all this nonsense to one side and focus on what you need to do rather than what others did, should have done or could have done.

First, you need not have an agenda for education other than to sustain and develop Alberta’s leading education system. Do not get sucked in to issues about assessment, accountability, teacher unions and professionalism, class size and all of the items on everyone’s list. Focus on the big outcome: Alberta continuing to be amongst the best systems in the world. Avoid, at least for now, issuing a Government strategy, position paper or policy paper.

Second, your most critical task is to restore trust between all who work to make such a system possible. Two Ministers in a row eroded and then broke that trust. Teachers do not trust Government; many School Boards do not trust government; parents are suspicious of government (especially in relation to curriculum reform); there is mistrust within the Department; there is certainly a lack of trust between the profession and government. It doesn’t matter why these situations exist – they do.

To remedy this I suggest:

First: You need to appoint a senior, competent and trusted Minister to this portfolio with a mandate letter which says: (a) restore trust; (b) secure alignment between teachers, school boards, superintendents and parent representatives about the 2-3 key things that need to happen in the next 24 months to get everyone back on track; (c) deal with the special needs file and the poor system of support for such students; (d) deal with the conditions of practice which teachers find themselves in so that there is a real chance we can deliver on the promise of Inspiring Education and a Great School for All.

Second, hold a summit of the key leaders of the PSBA, ATA, CASS and Parents with you in the Chair and the President of the ATA as the co-chair with 25-30 invited individuals to help the new Minister focus on the 2-3 key issues for the next 24 months. This would be a demonstration of trust, would signal a recognition of the importance of the profession and would be a watershed moment for education in Alberta.

Third, ask an expert advisory team to take a cold hard look at Alberta’s K-12 system and ask them in particular to look at pedagogy, curriculum, inclusion, assessment and accountability. My recommendation would be that you ask Harvard Professor and world-class educator Pasi Sahlberg and Professor Andy Hargreaves of Boston College to select a team of three others to work with them to undertake this work. Sahlberg and Hargreaves know Alberta well, know schools, Superintendents and teachers well and have their trust.

Fourth, halt work on curriculum prototyping and refocus this work on the need to strengthen knowledge, skills and understanding at the elementary school level. Trying to change the K-12 curriculum in a short period of time with little or no real involvement of teachers is and was always a mistake. While some really valuable work has been done (and is not lost), there is no urgency about the changes and no appetite for such a massive change to be imposed on the system. Once the system review has been done, then we can see what (if anything) needs to be done.

Fifth, refocus on what (if anything) needs to happen to the early period of pre-school and kindergarten schooling to strengthen the base knowledge, understanding and skills students have as a foundation for all subsequent learning. This may require some new investment and thinking in pre-school and early childhood education.

Finally, rethink the approach your Government has taken and continues to take on public assurance and accountability. In particular, encourage your Minister and your caucus to stop relying on simplistic and relatively poor evaluative instruments (PAT’s and PISA, for example), and start to move towards a strategy for engaging communities (especially parents) in a focused approach to assurance based on school development plans.

Your really tough task is to make clear that schools are about more than serving the short to medium term economic needs of Alberta. They are also about our democracy, the character of our society, the nature of our public institutions and about how we interact and engage with each other in a fast growing and increasingly diverse society. If you give undue emphasis to competencies and skills needed by the Alberta economy – not unimportant but also not the raison d’aitre for schools – you will be sending the signal that many of the things schools are intended to do around creativity, the arts, citizenship, nurturing civil society and democracy, encouraging and enabling innovation and imaginative entrepreneurship are not important to you or to our communities.

You also need to stop using schools as a backcloth for politics. Minister Johnson and Premier Redford liked to use schools as the canvas for political announcements. If you or your Ministers visit schools it should be to encouraging reading, science, discourse, entrepreneurship, imagination, music, art, laughter and fun. Help kids read, do not use them to make political points.

I know that, in your family, education is important. Make it the key to your legacy as Premier, however much time you have in this role. You can make a real difference, but only if you begin by rebuilding trust and seeking focused alignment from those who actually make things happen.

Good luck in making your party progressive again. Alberta needs to be and be seen to be progressive.

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBsS FRSA

Educator, entrepreneur, writer and imaginer and a friend of learners everywhere.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Future of Schooling in Canada

When we look at the future of schooling in Canada what do we see?

First we see a willingness to challenge teacher professionalism, in part on the basis of outcome data which is questionable. While PISA provides benchmark “snapshots” on a limited range of measures for school systems (Alberta vs Ontario, Canada versus Finland, for example) these data points do not reflect the broad purpose of schooling. Schooling is about much more than maths, science and language arts (though these are important) – schools are also about learning to learn, social skills and civic responsibility. They are also are about arts, laughter, music, creativity and imagination. While PISA may expand to measure soft skills and other features of learning, as it plans to do, it will never capture what schools are actually all about.

The challenge to the professionalism of teachers is in part about whether or not they are achieving the outcomes their students are capable of, but it is also directly related to a bigger question about the role of professionals in our globalized economy. Should professions like doctors, teachers, lawyers determine what should happen in key institutions (like hospitals, schools and courts) or should others (politicians, consultants, corporations) make these determinations on behalf of society? While some acknowledge the expertise of teachers as teachers, they do not feel they have the monopoly of understanding about schooling, learning and education.  The democratic control of schools is said to be the key here – but in fact few are engaged in the genuine debate about the future of schools, which is increasingly controlled by corporate interests and a select group of influencers.

Collaborative professional autonomy is essential if schools are not to be “lost” to the forces of capitalism and corporatism, already demanding that technologies for learning and standardized curriculum together with seeing schools as “business” (which they are not) should provide the operational basis for educational reform and development. Teachers need to “take back” their schools, supported by mindful school leaders, if they are not to become the new laboratories for corporate greed.

Second, we see attempts to shift curriculum (what, how and when students learn) from a broad based, socially oriented and conceptual understanding focused curriculum to one more directly related to the needs of the global economy. Shifting from “learning outcomes” to “skills” and “competencies”, from broad objectives to narrow skills signals a departure from a world in which the economy served society to one in which society now serves the economy.  It is a positive thing that the curriculum does not stay still – society changes all the time – it is unfortunate that current changes (so called 21st century skills) are actually leading to the atomisation of learning and the reduction of breadth and choice. As someone has observed, capitalism has defeated communism and is now well on the way to defeating democracy – in this case, through making it less likely that critical understanding, analysis and thinking will occur – there are just too many atomised “buts of pieces” of competency to master to permit creative time for such work.  Humpty Dumpty seems to be in charge of curriculum development in many parts of the world.

Third, we see a demand that technology find a stronger place in the daily lives of teachers and students. If there was ever an example of how corporations are influencing education it is in the pressure students, teachers, school leaders, Superintendents and educational policy makers are under to buy and use technology, whether it is iPads (or tablets), internet based learning resources, analytics, reporting systems or some other device or solution. Technology companies have encouraged the adoption of the phrase “learning anytime, anywhere” – a phrase which turns out to have no meaning or substance for most school aged learners. They have also encouraged the adoption of “bring your own device” (BYOD) so that they can compete for the $$ students and their parents are willing to spend on such pieces of kit. They are encouraging “technology for everything and anywhere” in the school – despite the compelling evidence that this actually hinders learning and genuine understanding and interaction.

A long time ago I used to say “if technology is the answer, we are obviously asking the wrong question!”. Now I say “technology is part of the problem as well as part of the solution – the trouble is, its getting to be a bigger part of the problem and is less likely to be a solution to anything”.  Education is about finding the talents, interests and passions of a person and then enabling them to flourish. This demands creative and imaginative inquiry by teachers and their students (technology can be a valuable tool here), but not standardization and compartmentalization, not rigid assessments and analytics but genuine evaluations and assessments for learning. Technology is currently too primitive to support many of the things we are trying to do in K-12 school systems (though is getting better).

The reality for many teachers is that no real and meaningful investment has been made in equipping them to leverage technologies for learning, creativity and explorative education. They have simply been given a minimal exposure to some low level capabilities of devices, systems and services and have then been expected “in their own time” to become Masters of technology. It would be rather like giving a medical team an MRI system with an instruction book and120 minutes of training and expecting them to accurately and reliable use the MRI for medical diagnosis. Sound silly? Not all teachers have had the luxiry of 120 minutes of effective training.

Technology has considerable promise, but it is no where near as transformative in schools as technofanatics suggest. I am a strong supporter of open schools, open education resources, online learning but I am also a realist. Most teachers can pass through initial training as a teacher with little or no substantial exposure to the utility and value of technology. Without investment in professional development it will continue to be a distraction rather than a substantial opportunity.

Fourth, we can see the bureaucratization of schools. In the UK the Health and Safety executive have made such things as school trips and excursions a nightmare – risk assessments, consents, security and background checks all make going somewhere interesting close to impossible. Reports, reviews, assessments, accountability statements, plans, and documented student reviews are all massively time-consuming and often add little value to the work of teachers, students and schools. They do keep central administration and school staff busy- often in distracted ways.

Some of this work is helpful – tracking attendance, reviewing student progress, case work teams for learners with special needs. But a lot of this work is CYA (cover your ass) work or done in the name of the accountability regime (about which more in a moment).  Any conversations with imaginative and mindful school leaders (of which they are many), usually involves a review of the “silly things I have had to do this week”.

Which leads us to a confusion about public accountability and assurance.  I have the good fortune to live and work in Alberta – one of the best educational jurisdictions in the English speaking world. Whether we look at PISA or TIMMS data, Alberta does very well. While we acknowledge we have a great many challenges, we are responding to these challenges from a position of strength. One challenge we have is to find a meaningful, imaginative and productive way of holding our schools accountable for the work that they do.

Misguidingly, this has been interpreted to be about testing. If we test students at key stages in their progress through school then we can see “how well students are doing”, especially when we can compare one school against another. Indeed, the Fraser Institute thinks this is marvellous, and they produce an analysis each year on the best and worst schools in Alberta – all of which disregards a whole range of challenges and issues. For example, the nature of the student population, the extent to which parents are involved in the education of their sons and daughters, the level of poverty, the nature of employment, the degree of social cohesion in the community and so on. Further, we measure so few things that we send a signal that what matters most is the few things the Province measures as opposed to what matters most is the educational agenda and learning agenda for each child. We distort the system so as it can be accountable in the simplest possible measure. We do this because others do, because its easy and because it sells to “politicians” and a select few constituents who show an interest in schools.

An alternative is to do what happens in the corporate world. Individual schools produce school development plans which commit each school to a strategy for continuous improvement on key measures which matter to that school. Such plans reflect the unique characteristics of that school, its students, its community and its parents. While some elements in every school could be the same, each school would focus on what it is seeking to achieve. We would then use simple indicators for each of the  accountabilities the school has chosen to focus on to hold the school account. No two schools are the same, no two schools have the same student body, the same conditions of practice or the same resource base. It is the same for companies competing in the same market in a similar product space. Yet somehow we want to reduce complex systems (hospitals and schools, for example) to crude and distorting measurement which tells us little if anything about how schools are doing. For hospitals it is wait times (a very poor and distorting measure) while in schools it is results on crude tests. Time to get serious about public assurance.

The final challenge relates to the conditions of practice which teachers and school leaders face. There is a growing distortion around the importance of class size and composition – classes of 30-35 with up to six students with special needs are seen as “manageable” (they are not) with a single teacher and little if any access to other supports. Custodial services are seen as being only required before and after school – not during the school day, leaving teachers to clean up after sick children or some accident in the chemistry lab. We are neglecting the basic conditions in the name of economy. Attempts to challenge the creeping Fordism which such class sizes force on school systems are seen as “teacher whining”, yet parents and citizens should be appalled at some of the conditions under which we are asking teachers to produce the next generation of imagineers, artists, scientists, engineers and trades persons.

There are other issues, but it is clear that we are not working in any conscious, systematic and purposeful way towards a great school for all. Instead, we are creating a competitive and bureaucratic system which gets in the way of genuine learning and equitable society.

Education is a key battleground for this century. It is the new space for the exercise of the shock doctrine, a new space for capitalism and a new space for neo-liberal ideology. If we value the future, we need to take back our schools in the name of equality, democracy and our social values.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Alberta's Bland Leadership Race - Time for A Big Shift

Jim Prentice, Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver are running to be Premier of Alberta by seeking to become leader of the Provincial Progressive (sic) Conservative Party. None of these three appear either imaginative enough or courageous enough for the position. Let me tell you why.

Alberta is in the top ten richest places on the planet as measured by GDP per capita. It is a petro-state, with oil and gas in abundance. It also has vibrant forest and agricultural sectors, its education system (K-12) is amongst the best in the world thanks to its outstanding teachers, its has excellent health care at this time and is also a significant innovator, especially in relation to Prions, nanotechnology, medical imaging and devices and energy related technologies. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that inequality is growing in Alberta. On average, 12% of Albertan’s live on or below the poverty line (see here). One in ten children in Alberta live in poverty – many from First Nations (here). For single parent female led households, the poverty rate in 33%.  Many of those in poverty are also in work. When we look at Alberta, we see the top 1% getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class getting less service and support from our Government. Leadership should be focused on equity in terms of building a just society and a compassionate, resilient society.

The bad news is that trust between our Government and the people is broken. Its not only former Premier Redford’s behaviour (which was consistent with that of some others in leadership positions in the party), but they have given up engaging and listening. They are command and control focused – as we can see from the behaviour of Minister of Education Jeff Johnson. They are short term focused – as we can see from the environmental (sic) platform of Jim Prentice (here – notice this phrase “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations” – so no leadership here then).

The bad news is that the vulnerable in our society – those with mental health, physical infirmities and disabilities – are finding Alberta more and more difficult to navigate and belong to. Support for students with disabilities (inclusion supports) are declining as the population of such students are growing; supports for the mentally ill are being reduced in real terms; even legal aid for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law (many of whom are mentally ill, in poverty or new immigrants) is also being cut (see here).

The bad news is that our economy is driving our social and educational policies, not our social and community focus driving our economy. Unusually, we run our economy in Alberta on the back of non-renewable resource revenue – something the Premiers Economic Council made clear was a strategic mistake which now needs correcting (see here). Canada as a whole takes so little royalty revenue (the least of all Petro States) and also has the highest production costs when compared to others, yet we are willing to forgoe equitable services, community supports and the right conditions of practice for education, health, social services and other “public goods” on the grounds that we want to be a low tax economy.

The Government actually thinks that our competitive advantage is low taxes and high rates of poorly focused government spending. Our real advantage is the compassion we show for each other, ingenuity, hard work and determination – our people. Taxes and royalties need to rise to pay for the services we require for as just and equitable, vibrant society.  No one likely to hold power takes this view. This is why we will continue to drift.

What should a leader focus on? The leader needs to stop focusing on “winning an election” and start offering a vision for our future which reflects our values – tell Albertan’s a story that inspires, engages and gives hope.
We have a significant moment of truth on September 6th when the PC members will elect a new leader who will become Premier, at least for a while. None of those running have shared a vision or story which is compelling, engaging or inspiring. It’s the bland leading the bewildered party, reeling from its own lack of ethics and courage into the fray we call the future.  

 Jim Prentice is clearly in the pocket of big oil, Ric McIver has never recovered from losing the Mayors race in Calgary and has nothing to say (and, as a result of having breakfast with him, we can also affirm that he doesn’t listen). Thomas Lukaszuk is fun, fast on his feet and vacuous leadership candidate with strange shirts. It’s a joke. None have the three things we need to see in a leader: vision, courage, focus.

It’s a problem not unique to Alberta. Look around the world and ask “where are the inspiring leaders”? The crisis in Iraq or Crimea / Ukraine, eBola in Western Africa or the continued economic debacle we call European currency zone all demand courageous, visionary leaders. Where are they? The best the world can find are technocrats like Angela Merkel or David Cameron, dictators like Mugabe and Putin and mad-men like the leaders of ISIS. No Churchill or Roosevelt, no Thatcher or Reagan.

When Prentice wins we will have elected (by default) a banker who favour the rich and corporate Alberta to continue to govern with a deaf ear to poverty, equity, social justice and the need to rethink and reboot our economy. When he fails, as he will, we will then elect the Wild Rose Party who will do more or the same, but with less social justice and focus on equity.

Its time for a major rethink of this place we call Alberta. Ask these three questions: What are the values that describe the Alberta I want my grandchildren to inhabit? What is the Alberta the world needs to see? What would it take for Alberta to be a model of a progressive, resilient, innovative and equitable society?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Desmond Tutu in Alberta

A folk singer, a vicar and a film maker decide that they understand more about the world and how it functions than anyone else. They walk into a bar and start telling everyone that they are all living their lives “for just today” but that they way they are doing it will kill the bar within a hundred years.

Paddy, the barman, points out that a Protestant, a Jew and a Catholic came into the bar just one hundred years ago and said the same thing. They are dead now, but the bar continues. Paddy points out that bars will be there no matter what people do – just in the same way that Earth, the planet will be there for thousands of years to come. The question is, what will be on sale in the bar and at what price?

The vicar looks askance, in a way that only vicars can. “You mean to tell me that my prophecies of doom and gloom mean nothing to you?” said the vicar. “Well, no they don’t. You see, you know so little about this that I can chose not to pay attention.”

“Ah,” says the vicar getting into his stride, “but I am referring to the prophecies of scientists”, as if this clinched everything.

“Listen ,” says the pub landlord, “we’ve had scientists in here telling is that they can make beer in a powder and it will do us out of business…they went bankrupt when people tasted the muck they were peddling. We’ve had scientists tell us all sorts of things, but most of it turns out to be bollocks…You wont believe this, but one bloke suggested we should all stop drinking beer and switch to de-carbonated lemonade….bloody idiot”.

“But I am talking about 97% of all scientists who know about the future of pubs and the nature of the universe”, said the vicar.

“Well, Jack over there is a scientists – works at some laboratory in Cambridge specializing in building computer models of the future of pubs – and he says its all bollocks….. But I gather you have come a long way to tell us how we should all live our lives, so here’s the deal. Here are three free drinks for you and your two friends. Once you finished them, we’d all be grateful if you would just go away and stick to what you actually know...all about God...but then…”

Psychology, Science and Belief - Climate Change and Our Understanding of Behaviour

There are very few areas of science in which a single variable thing leads to another with significance consequences unless, that is, one is a mechanistic scientist who is not interested in complexity or subtlety.

Take the simple act of remembering something. We remember people, events, places, things. But we don’t know how. All attempts to “locate” memory through fMRI scans and other brain imaging techniques have failed and memory also seems to be something that can be shared. Experiments with rats who learn to run a water filled maze show that, once several hundred rats have learned to “swim the maze”, rats who were not part of the experiment can develop this ability faster, with some seeming to know “instinctively” how to run the same maze. Materialist and mechanistic biologists are continuing to look for the “memory” location in the brain, but others have moved on and have developed what is known as the “morphic resonance” theory of memory in which memories are available in the unconscious and can be shared within cultures and between people without any physical connection between these people. It may sound far fetched, but the evidence for this theory is beginning to be commanding.

So when we see a simple correlation, like CO2 = climate change, we need to be suspicious. There is no doubt that greenhouse gasses are part of the processes involved in the constantly changing climate, but it would be unusual to say the least for this to be such a dominant factor.  We need also to consider the role of the sun, ocean heat uptake, ocean circulation, water vapour, sea ice, land topography, distance from the equator, cloud formation,  and el NiƱo and la Nina (the El Nino southern oscillation cycle). There are also feedback mechanisms in place which affect the interaction of these factors and impact weather and climate.

Weather is thus complex and climate is the sum of weather activities over time. There is no simple relationship between CO2 and climate change. Further, climate is unpredictable. We cannot predict weather much more than 5-7 weeks ahead, but we seem to be confident that we can see what the climate patterns one hundred and two hundred years from now will be using computer simulations based on our understanding of climate systems. None of these models have been able to accurately predict past climate patterns, and none came close to predicting that there has been no increase in global surface temperature for over seventeen years. The “error rate” when model predictions are compared to actual observations from weather stations and satellites suggest that the models are poor predictors, but getting better. It is, after all, early days in the study of climate.

So why do many want to believe that there is such a simple man-made explanation of climate change? What is the psychology of this belief system?

Those who support the anthropogenic theory of climate change – e.g. mankind is responsible and therefore mankind can act to change climate – are locking into three belief systems. The first is the belief in the power of experts, in this case climate scientists and economists. The second is the age-old belief that mankind can change natural patterns and nature. The third is that climate change as a belief system has replaced religion for some.

It’s About Science

Mankind has long had a faith in science.  Such faith is based on an understanding of science as impartial, truth-seeking and independent of political, social or economic influence. This is known in the philosophy of science as “the immaculate conception of science” – science as truth. This is not, however, how science is practiced. Scientists are influenced in just the same way as are politicians, businessmen and women and advocates for a cause. Science is linked to economics by the rent-seeking behaviour of scientists who use grants and donations to fund their work, with these grants and donations reflecting a view of what is worth pursuing. Science is linked to society by a sense of “social good”. When society wished to “deal with deviance”, science obliged with the evidence to support eugenics (the practice of involuntary sterilization of those who were deemed mentally deficient, which continued until the early 1970’s); when governments wished to criminalize drugs, evidence was adduced by scientists which showed the pathway from marijuana or cannabis to hard drugs like heroin was clear and firm (the gateway drug theory) – a pathway now largely discredited.

Science is not “pure”, it is influenced by policy and investment choices – it is a socially conditioned activity. This has been the debate within the philosophy of science for some time – the debate between two schools of thought. One sees science as divorced from politics and economics and social influence (Popper) and the other sees science as embedded in social and economic considerations (Polyani). Indeed, revolutionary thinking in the philosophy of science suggests that evidence be used to campaign for social and political change since scientists should be advocates for social good (Feyerabend).

While many in science try to maintain a scientific independence, the reality is that this is very difficult to do within the science establishment. For example, challenging an orthodox theory of intelligence or personality or supporting research into psychic phenomenon can be difficult to do when the “norms” of psychology as a science require a certain degree of compliance to a dominant view.   Recent events related to the esteemed climatologist, Professor Lennart Bengtsson,  who chose to disagree with the dominant anthropogenic view of climate change and to do so by joining the scientific advisory board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, earning the wrath of many on the “other side” of this debate as well as death threats., demonstrate this. Richard Tol, a lead author for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggested that competent people who take a view contrary to that of their own government on climate change are not invited to participate in the IPCC process, again making clear that social and political considerations are part of scientific activity. One final example, researchers within the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) of the IUCN have admitted that the “best guess” of how many polar bears were in the Arctic was in part based on meeting social expectations that the number should be low, enabling politicians to declare polar bears an endangered species. Polar bear numbers continue to grow for most, but not all, polar bear populations.

Some have suggested that critics of anthropogenic climate change theory are funded by the interests of coal and energy conglomerates. Indeed, Greenpeace and others are now seeking to establish the legal basis for a court case in which energy companies are to be accused of manipulating science to support their claims that CO2 is not the primary cause of global climate change. What Greenpeace is not doing is asking if the billions spent by Governments and others around the world in support of the anthropogenic view of climate change has an equal impact on science. Surely, if who makes the investment influences the outcome this would apply to any investor. The idea that governments are neutral is somewhat laughable.

It is often suggested that 97% of climate scientists support the anthropogenic view of climate change. This is based on political statements made by non-climate experts which in turn are based on some very problematic studies which seek to establish where scientists “sit” on this issue. A recent Wall Street Journal article as well as testimony before the US Congress shows just how flawed this claim is. Further, science is not about majority votes: it is about evidence and theory. New evidence can change theory and theories change over time as evidence becomes better understood. If a majority of scientists believe something, does this make it right? In 1982, Stanley B. Prusiner of the University of California, San Francisco announced that his team had purified the hypothetical infectious prion, and that the infectious agent consisted mainly of a specific protein which in turn was the cause of scrapie in sheep and CJD in humans. Prusiner won the Nobel prize for his discovery. In a recent interview he made clear that 97% of scientists working in his field rejected his ideas when first announced and that, even after the Nobel prize, he puts the current figure at 50%. Science has a culture in which skepticism is encouraged at one level and frowned upon when it looks like it is showing evidence of being a serious challenge to orthodoxy.

Faith in Experts

A part of the belief in science is also a belief in scientists as experts. We know a lot about experts and how poor they are at expert prediction.

Indeed, the so-called expert “consensus” position in climate science is based on selective use of evidence, some of it from peer reviewed journals and some not, and expert group-think. Psychologists understand this phenomenon and have developed a thorough understanding of just how wrong experts can be.

Phillip Tetlock author of Expert Political Judgement and a Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, provides strong empirical evidence for just how bad they are at predicting events. He conducted a long-running experiment that asked nearly 300 political experts to make a variety of forecasts about dozens of countries around the world. After tracking the accuracy of about 80,000 predictions over the course of 20 years, Tetlock found:

That experts thought they knew more than they knew. That there was a systematic gap between subjective probabilities that experts were assigning to possible futures and the objective likelihoods of those futures materializing … With respect to how they did relative to, say, a baseline group of Berkeley undergraduates making predictions, they did somewhat better than that. How did they do relative to purely random guessing strategy? Well, they did a little bit better than that, but not as much as you might hope …

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision-making, has looked at the issue of “experts” and why they so often get things wrong. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow he points to several aspects of their psychology as factors, but highlights two in particular: the illusion of understanding and the illusion of validity. These are primary causes of experts getting it wrong.

The illusion of understanding refers to the idea that the world is more knowable than it actually is. In particular, experts believe that they have an in-depth and insightful understanding of the past and this enables them to better understand the future. They use what Kahneman refers to as the WYSIATI rule – “what you see is all that there is” and this provides the basis for their confidence.

For example, it must be the case that high levels of government indebtedness (levels of debt to GDP ratio above 90% is the most recent version of this[3]) stifle the economy and reduce investor and entrepreneurial confidence according to some notable economists. Or it is obvious that human generated C02 is the major cause of climate change according to some climatologists. Both of these understandings are based on a particular view of historical data and “facts” and an extrapolation of these views into the future.

The views exist independently of the evidence to support them. Just as financial advisers are confident that they are successful in predicting the future behaviour of stocks, so macro-economists are confident that their views of austerity have the weight of history behind them. Those committed to the view that human produced CO2 is the primary cause of climate change are not deterred by evidence that it may not be or that climate change has stalled for the last seventeen years.

Experts are sustained in their beliefs by a professional culture that supports them. Austerians  (those who believe that austerity is the only way) have their own network of support, as do the Keynesians who oppose them. Anthroprocene climatologists who believe that man is the primary cause of global warming have their own network of support among climate change researchers and politicians while the skeptical climate scientists also have their support networks. All remain ignorant of their ignorance and are sustained in their belief systems by selected use of evidence and by the support of stalwarts. These supportive networks and environments help sustain the illusion of validity. It is an illusion because evidence which demonstrates contrary views to those of the “experts” are dismissed and denied – the expert position, whatever it may be, is valid simply because they are expert.

Indeed, using Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 work on Tolstoy (The Hedgehog and the Fox), Austerians and anthropocenes are “hedgehogs” – they know one big thing, they know what they know within a coherent framework, they bristle with impatience towards those who don’t see things their way and they are exceptionally focused on their forecasts. For these experts a “failed prediction” is an issue of timing, the kind of evidence being adduced and so on – it is never due to the fact that their prediction is wrong. Austerians who look at the failure of their policies in Europe, for example, suggest that the austerity did not go far enough; anthroprocene climatologists see the lack of warming over the last seventeen years as proof that they are right, it is just that the timing is a little out. Even the climatologist trapped in thick ice in the Antarctic in December 2013 who set out to study the thinning ice-cap claims he just went to the wrong place – “climate change is happening and the ice is melting” he says, as he is lifted off the thick ice by helicopter.

Tetlock’s work, cited above, is a powerful testimony to these two illusions – understanding and validity. His results are devastating for the notion of “the expert”. According to Kahneman, “people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart throwing monkeys”.

Tetlock observes that “experts in demand were more overconfident that those who eked our existences far from the limelight”. We can see this in spades in both economics and climate change. James Hanson, recently retired from NASA and seen to be one of the worlds leading anthroprocene climatologists, makes predictions and claims that cannot be supported by the evidence he himself collected and was responsible for. For example, he suggested that “in the last decade it's warmed only about a tenth of a degree as compared to about two tenths of a degree in the preceding decade” – a claim not supported by the data set which he was responsible for. This overconfidence and arrogance comes from being regarded as one of the leading climate scientists in the world – evidence is not as important as the claim or the person making it. Hanson suffers from the illusion of skill.
Kahneman recognizes people like Hansen. He suggests

“…overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”  

There are other psychological features of the expert that are worthy of reflection. For example, how “group think” starts to permeate a discipline such that those outside the group cannot be heard as rational or meaningful – they are referred to as “deniers” or “outsiders”, reflecting the power of group think. The power of a group (they will claim consensus as if this ends scientific debate) to close ranks and limit the scope of conversation or act as gatekeepers for the conversation. Irving Janis documented the characteristics of group think in his 1982 study of policy disasters and fiascoes[4]. He suggests these features:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks. We can see this in the relentless pursuit of austerity throughout Europe.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. We see this in relation to both climate change and austerity economics.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions. Austerians appear to willfully ignore the level of unemployment and the idea of a lost generation of youth workers, especially in Greece and Spain. Anthropecene climate researchers generally present themselves as morally superior.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Climate “deniers” commonly face suggestions that they be prosecuted or punished in some way[5].
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views. This has occurred in climate change research community, since grants appear to favour those who adopt the view that man made CO2 is the primary cause of climate change.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous. This is especially the case in “consensus” (sic) climate change science and amongst austerians.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

- all of these characteristics can be seen to be in play in the two examples used throughout this chapter – economics of austerity and made man global warming.

There is also the issue of the focusing illusion. Kahneman sums this up in a single statement: “nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it”. “Government debt is the most important economic challenge facing society today” says a well known economists, or “climate change is a life and death issue” says US Secretary of State, John Kerry.  Neither of these statements are true for anyone unless they are obsessive.

Climate Change as Religion

 “Because it is what science tells us” is one explanation for why some people believe in the anthropogenic view of climate change, dutifully ignoring the growing evidence that this theory about climate (CO2 = climate change) is weak. Many people look up to expert opinion and permit this to influence their own thinking. But the other reason is that they want to believe because it means we can act in the good of humanity: climate change is religion, albeit in a very particular sense.

Indeed, in 2009 Mr. Justice Michael Burton, ruling on an employment appeal matter in the British legal system, ruled that a sincerely held belief in climate change and the need to act accordingly constituted a belief system according to the Employment Equity (Religion and Belief) Regulations of 2003. That is, climate change was not a new religion but had equivalent status under the law. Those who “believe” need the protection of the law to enable their beliefs.

All religions have a certain characteristics. Niels Nelson, in his book Religions of the World, suggests twelve such characteristics. Amongst these two are these three:

  • 1.     Providing a coherent worldview.
  • 2.     Promoting social organization and collective action.
  • 3.     Offering future hope, provided certain actions are taken

Environmentalists have developed a coherent worldview – e.g. the planet is endangered by mankind and we should respect nature and return the planet to its “natural state” (sic) and not damage it further through overpopulation, deforestation, industrialization, globalization and the emission of CO2 – around which many feel able to organize some of the whole or their lives. Future hope is provided by the simple idea that we can “stop” climate change by massively reducing CO2, even though this may mean radically changing the nature of developed society.

So profound are the belief systems associated with this particular world-view, that those who do not share this view are vilified. There have been calls for climate change “deniers” to be criminalized, prosecuted for crimes against humanity  (a call made by James Hansen formerly of NASA), with some calling for public trials and executions – all of which are contained in a 2007 US Senate Report. Many of the more rabid suggestions about what should be done with those who are sceptical about anthropogenic causes of climate change rival what was done in the Spanish Inquisition – indeed, some would make the inquisitors blush.

So why the fervour? Some environmentalists sincerely believe that the planet is in peril and that it is their duty to save it.  Further, they believe that time is running out (“the day of judgement is upon us”) to act – with estimates ranging from days, to weeks to months. It is urgent that we act (repent) and do so with gusto, so as to change the nature of nature.

Prince Charles is a follower of this religion. He recently told business leaders that it was necessary to “fundamental transformation of global capitalism” in order to halt “dangerously accelerating climate change” that would “bring us to our own destruction”.  He went on:

“Over the next eighteen months, and bearing in mind the urgency of the situation confronting us, the world faces what is probably the last effective window of opportunity to vacate the insidious lure of the ‘last chance saloon’ in order to agree an ambitious, equitable and far-sighted multilateral settlement in the context of the post-2015 sustainable development goals and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Put simply: we are doomed now if we do not repent and engage in acts of contrition and change our sinful ways. The end is upon us. A hypothesis which remains unproven has become an unquestioned truth.


As a psychologist and part-time philosopher of science the issue of a belief in anthropogenic theory of climate change poses interesting challenges. So many people are so passionate about something they know so little about and the evidence, when reviewed systematically, is not as compelling as many claim it is. Faith, not science, and commitment, not evidence, is driving and shaping behaviour.

Experts are no better than a group of “dart throwing monkeys” according to Kahneman, yet experts are who we are asked to believe and many are overly confident that experts know what they are talking about, after all “they are scientists”. Yet science is not a search for truth but a social and economically driven activity in which the cultural requirements for group-think are high, especially when supported by rent-seeking and status seeking behaviour.

Climate change is occurring, but we don’t fully understand the complexities of climate or how the changes are occurring. The earth is not warming, the sea level rises are within normal limits, yet the belief that the evidence is all pointing to catastrophe remains strong. C02 continues to rise, but the global surface temperature is stable – a challenge to the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Extreme weather events are known not to be directly connected to CO2, but the belief that they are persists, even amongst experts. A social psychological explanation of these beliefs and behaviours is needed.