Fielding on climate – How to ask a poor questionPosted: June 16, 2009
Chief scientist fails to sway Fielding on climate – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Senator Fielding has been pimping the press recently after his self-funded tour to a climate “skeptics” conference in the USA. Upon his return to our fair shores I wasn’t overly surprised to hear him touting the dead and buried idea that recent climate change is due to solar processes. Ok, the guy doesn’t have the reputation as a great investigator and seems particular poor at finding out climate information however given his political background this is not too surprising. I started to assume he probably didn’t know how to ask a good question.
And then proof arrived over the radio this morning:
“When I put forward the question ‘isn’t it true that carbon emissions
have been going up and global temperature hasn’t?’, they wanted to
rephrase my question and not answer it,” he (Senator Fielding) told AM.
The good senator does not seem to understand what is wrong with this question and why answering it would be stupid and wrong.
This is called a closed question. It’s the sort of question which is put forward when one is trying to find supporting evidence for ones beliefs and not to learn more about the topic the question is meant to address. It is obvious what he already believes and is thinking he’s got the great earth shattering question that will stump the oh-so-smart scientists. It’s the sort of poor question when you only care about an answer and not how it is supported.
And here’s the specific problem, regardless of the answer, yes or no, that answer will simply reinforce an existing belief and will not lead to any further understanding of why the answer was given. From this type of question it’s a short fall into the biases of confirmation and dis-confirmation. When teaching critical thinking this is the sort of question that people are told NOT to ask. It’s the sort of question little kids might ask and adults are not meant to ask unless they they trying to push a point of view. It is also the sort of question police would not be asking when interviewing a subject and the sort of question a prosecution lawyer would be asking in a trial to bias the opinions of others.
The question the senator should have asked, if he has any skill in finding out information, and to date there is zero evidence for that on this topic is this:
“Why have carbon emissions have been going up and global temperature hasn’t?”
With this sort of open question the scientists can then explain the factors that affect global temperature and their relative impact. It is the sort of open question we try to teach primary school kids to ask when teaching critical thinking. In answering this open question the scientists would point out that the natural variation vastly exceeds the gradual long term trend which scientists believe to be the indicator of anthropomorphic global warming. As such, over any particular short time span less than 20 or 30 years one would expect with 100% certainty to see periods where the temperature does not go up in a nice smooth manner but stays the same or goes down for a while.
This is a worry. Here we have an elected representative in the Senate of all places, the house where issues are meant to be investigated before national legislation is ratified and the Senator does not seem to know how to ask questions. In his defense he’s not the only one. Many, many of our elected representatives display incredibly poor thinking. However, considering they have probably never been exposed to training in critical thinking,especially in their adult lives, and would know even less about cognitive biases in decision making I guess one could argue they are blissfully ignorant. And politicians are not the only ones. Business leaders routinely make poor decisions and don’t ask good questions that lead to rich answers. The current economic woes have exactly the same root cause as Senator Fielding’s ignorance on climate, the inability to ask good questions.
For brief article about asking good questions see this site. It was simply the first site about the topic Google found.
This isn’t rocket science.