Learning and Teaching Climate Science: The Perils of Consensus Knowledge Using Agnotology


Agnotology has been defined in a variety of ways including “the study of ignorance and its cultural production” and “the study of how and why ignorance or misunderstanding exists.” More recently, however, it has been posited that agnotology should be used in the teaching of climate change science. But rather than use agnotology to enhance an understanding of the complicated nature of the complex Earth’s climate, the particular aim is to dispel alternative viewpoints to the so-called consensus science. One-sided presentations of controversial topics have little place in the classroom as they serve only to stifle debate and do not further knowledge and enhance critical thinking. Students must understand not just what is known and why it is known to be true but also what remains unknown and where the limitations on scientific understanding lie. Fact recitation coupled with demonizing any position or person who disagrees with a singularly-derived conclusion has no place in education. Instead, all sides must be covered in highly debatable and important topics such as climate change, because authoritarian science never will have all the answers to such complex problems.

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  1. 1.

    “Without knowledge” in Greek would be agnostos, so agnostology would be a more accurate term which is related etymologically to gnosis and agnostic. Here, however, the term “agnotology” will be used to be consistent with Proctor and Schiebinger (2008).

  2. 2.

    Indeed, almost every discussion of agnotology and the intent to deceive refers to the 1969 tobacco company memo declaring “Doubt is our product”.

  3. 3.

    We are not arguing here that the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ does not exist; rather, the Earth's surface is indeed warmer than it would be in the absence of an atmosphere. What Wood’s example suggests is that a greenhouse on the Earth’s surface warms not because light gets in more easily than heat gets out but because the processes of latent and sensible heat exchange are removed as possible pathways for energy transmission with the outside atmosphere.  In the atmosphere, latent and sensible heat fluxes are much more efficient in transmitting heat from the surface to the atmosphere than electromagnetic radiation which is why the greenhouse warms.

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The authors wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their careful and useful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David R. Legates.

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Legates, D.R., Soon, W. & Briggs, W.M. Learning and Teaching Climate Science: The Perils of Consensus Knowledge Using Agnotology. Sci & Educ 22, 2007–2017 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-013-9588-3

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  • Global Warming
  • Critical Thinking
  • Scientific Method
  • Controversial Topic
  • Climate Science