Climate Change and Our New President

President-elect Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax, his Vice President-elect Mike Pence said in 2014 that global warming isn’t “a resolved issue in science today,” and Trump appointed a leading denier of climate change, Myron Ebell, who is not a scientist nor trained in science, to head the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The election of Trump is a sad but fitting way to put a final exclamation point on this blog. After more than two years of writing and research, during which I learned a great deal (and hope others did, too), there is now another remarkable confirmation that many people, notably leaders in the Republican Party, don’t believe anthropogenic climate change is real, or important if it is real.

It is true that ten days after the election Trump told The New York Times that he is looking “very closely” at the Paris climate agreement, adding that he “has an open mind about it.” Nonetheless years before this month’s election the chances were already tiny that the world would effectively combat climate change. Virtually no expert could imagine limiting global warming to 2° C or less without immediately implementing strong new practices worldwide. Now that Trump is President-elect prospects are still more dismal.

Years before the election many powerful Republicans in the Congress were already climate change deniers. A scientist friend of mine, who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and as such shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace with Al Gore, was subpoenaed by the House Science Committee, chaired by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, a climate change denier. That Committee has harassed legitimate, mainstream climate scientists for years. The Republican platform for the national election called for reduced funding for renewable energy and increased production of fossil fuels.

How can one begin to understand an election supporting more climate change denial? One place to start is with a movie called Denial, recently shown in theaters. Based on real events, the movie tells the story of an English holocaust denier and book author, David Irving, bringing a libel suit against an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, who wrote about Irving’s work and called him a Holocaust denier. The most interesting parts of the movie, I thought, were learning about the English legal system, where the burden was on Lipstadt to prove she was right (!), and then seeing how her brilliant attorneys did research, presented evidence in court, and won the case.

The movie Denial helps one understand what made David Irving tick. The film depicts him as a man with an overwhelming motivation to be right, willing to lie to support his opinions, and with a desire to be perceived as an extraordinary individual, a “winner.” These qualities remind one of Donald Trump. While he shifts his policy views often, Trump is consistently grandiose and ran a campaign based on vicious lies.

In contrast to its depiction of David Irving, the movie has little to say about what motivated Irving’s followers to believe the monstrous lie of holocaust denial. Therefore, although Mick Jackson, the movie’s director, knew that climate change is another case where the opposite of something obviously true is believed by many people, the movie fails to explain why. I believe that this blog offers readers a fuller understanding of climate change denial than the movie Denial. The blog has discussed several dozen reasons why many people are misinformed about the issue (and if you are interested, here is a concise list of reasons, with links to the blog).

Yet another reason for ignorance about climate change is this: On election night I watched TV pundits Chris Wallace, James Carville, and Michael Steele discussing Trump’s pending election victory. Not one of them mentioned the implications for climate change. The next morning I read a half-dozen editorials and op-ed pieces in several papers and again none focused on climate change. The people behind these many sources are not all climate change deniers, yet what I heard and read was a demonstration of how climate change is merely a distant concern for most people, even those who one expected to be well informed. One report says the three TV network news programs devoted only 35 minutes total to discussions of any policy issues during the election! Media’s inadequate coverage over many years has contributed to people’s misunderstanding of climate change.

The Trump administration will have authority to overturn most of the Obama administration’s attempts to combat climate change. It is hard to see how a President Trump can be stopped from fulfilling many promises related to changing policies on the environment and energy, including stimulating production of more carbon-based fossil fuels.

Although I anticipate that he will blame someone else for failures to deliver on important campaign promises, President Trump is nonetheless likely to disappoint his followers on many counts. If he starts a trade war with China, unemployment is likely to rise, and well-informed observers say that China is the more likely winner. Another important reason to expect disappointment is that just as climate change has been pushed to the back of the policy agenda for decades, so the prospect of robots and artificial intelligence fundamentally re-making the economy has been viewed by many people as a minor issue, and kept largely out of sight. But the prospect is that in decades to come more jobs will be destroyed by new technology than are created. The working class that voted for Trump is unlikely to be the beneficiary of increased automation, whether in coal mining, manufacturing, transportation, or other areas.

The Club of Rome, which commissioned the far-sighted report The Limits to Growth more than forty years ago, warned about potential negative impacts of automation in a 1982 book called Microelectronics and Society: For Better or For Worse. The book noted that “with automation, the cheapest labor is no labor.” The world is now experiencing what has been called the “second industrial revolution,” which poses grave threats to employment. However, the public is far more likely to read excited expositions about “disruption” in every dimension of the modern world than be asked to think about the wisdom of what society is doing. By now the momentum to develop self-driving cars and dozens of other applications of smart technology appears unstoppable. China is buying large numbers of robots to replace human workers, as are other nations. The issue of automation is vitally important yet, like climate change, it has not received the attention it deserves.

Although this is my last post on the blog, I plan to continue to lobby the Massachusetts legislature to increase the Renewable Portfolio Standard (a legal mandate requiring electricity providers to steadily increase the amount of renewable energy they deliver), which may be politically feasible in the coming session. I also plan to work with two non-profit organizations that I respect, one of them focused on social justice in the Boston area and the other encouraging more people to talk with their family members about wishes and plans for end-of-life care.

People like me who had hoped Secretary Hillary Clinton would become President now wonder what they can do. Each person will find his or her own answers. To those who are wondering what to do, I would say this: In the first part of The Way of the Sufi (1968) Idries Shah wrote that “nowadays ‘wisdom’ is not a popular word.” Unfortunately that is still true, and it is still a shame. The attributes of a wise person may incorrectly be associated with rigid tradition, formality, being too judgmental, lacking compassion, or an absent sense of humor. But of course, none of that need be the case. Think of the people you know with uncommon insight, or who provide you with sound advice about difficult situations.

The reason to focus on wisdom is because, especially in the face of the many unwise decisions in the world to which we are witness, wisdom is what I think each of us needs in ourselves and others. Any “answers” there may be for climate change, the world’s other pressing problems, or for our own personal questions and concerns, depend on finding wisdom in others and ourselves.

You need not be a religious person, or even a believer in God, to appreciate the idea, “seek God in the hearts of men.” People need sound information and knowledge, of course, but it is clearer than ever that these are not sufficient if people don’t have the wisdom to apply information and knowledge properly. Books help us find wisdom, but wisdom is not to be found on the written page alone, as I expect readers of this blog would agree. In the difficult times we face, we each need the wisdom to know what to do and how to do it.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)

Climate Change in the Presidential Debates

This year’s campaign for President of the United States has been extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre—choose your  favorite term. There has been far too little discussion of substantive policy matters. Instead, Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s offensive behavior toward women have received the lion’s share of attention.

Notably, amazingly, incredibly—again, choose your  favorite word—the various moderators did not ask a single question about climate change during this year’s three presidential and one vice presidential debate, lasting five hours in all. One audience member at the final debate asked about energy policy, which is related but not identical. To her credit, Hillary Clinton mentioned climate change on several occasions, but that was the sum total of attention to the issue. Worse yet, in the debates for the 2012 presiden­tial campaign the candidates made absolutely no mention of climate change at all. Zero.

We should remember that it’s not as if the future of humanity on this planet is threatened. Oh, wait; yes it is. So it is truly a shame that the moderators asked zero questions about climate change.

There are many reasons why discussing climate change intelligently is difficult, as readers of this blog know. Add to those the growing view of the public that politics is largely an appropriate occasion for insults, braggadocio, or entertainment. The book called Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change seems apposite. A significant segment of the electorate believes that climate change is a hoax, as Donald, Trump has claimed, or at best is not an urgent problem. Only 15% of Trump supporters care “a great deal” about climate change, compared to 56% of Clinton supporters.

Who is it that for decades has been telling Americans that climate change is a major problem? You might think of Al Gore, NASA scientist James Hansen, and President Obama and observe that the federal government often has been the bearer of this bad news, the “inconvenient truth” about climate, as Gore called it. Now look at the graph below showing how trust in government has eroded among both Democrats and Republicans during the past 57 years. (An informative discussion of this erosion of trust by Michael Svoboda can be found here.) It seems probable that many people are paying insufficient attention to the climate change message because they do not trust the messenger.


If you had been a moderator for one of the debates how would you have framed a question about climate change? Knowing that political candidates find ways to be evasive in their answers to questions they don’t want to address directly (with respect to climate change I am thinking mainly of Trump), you might have wanted to frame your question in an unusual way.

Perhaps it would have been useful to pose a climate change question in terms of national security. For many years, starting even before Barack Obama became President, the Pentagon has identified climate change as a serious threat to national security, because changes in the climate create more refugees, greater competition for resources (including food), threats to naval harbors for American vessels as oceans rise, and increased potential for armed international conflict. A Pentagon report published last year concluded, “the Defense Department already is observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, the Arctic, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.” Donald Trump might have replied to such a question by saying that he knows more than the generals do about climate change—but if he had, then at least he would have been clearly on the record and not able to deny he said so.

Today, less than a week before the election, the odds are high that Hillary Clinton will be elected President. The Senate may also flip from Republican to Democratic, but the House is likely to remain Republican. The first two would be good outcomes for people concerned about climate change, but a Republican House could mean more years of gridlock. The outcome of the election could be even better if there could then be a productive conversation among and between elected politicians and the public about the threat of climate change.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)

The Enormous Value of Modern Psychology

Researchers have documented dozens of reasons why the human race has been slow to react to climate change.  Humanity’s reluctance to contend with climate change is, understandably, a source of sadness for some people. Indeed, one reader says that findings about psychology and climate change, about voting behavior in the U.S., as well as other research highlighted here, leave her feeling depressed.

Although sympathetic to that point of view, I offer two responses. First, it is usually difficult to solve a problem if it has not been diagnosed properly—and with climate change we clearly have a problem. Second, delving into the findings of modern psychology shows how useful it is for many purposes.

Every day we rely on psychology. How can I build a strong relationship with my spouse, or my boss? What are effective ways to teach my child? Psychology provides guidance about many practical situations. As an example, Good Thinking, an online series of short and amusing animated videos aimed at science teachers, illustrates barriers to learning science, based on research, and helps teachers teach in ways that minimize those barriers. As another example, psychologists’ understanding of infants and young children has grown enormously since, say, the 1950s, and has resulted in a host of useful findings, as suggested by the title of a recent book review, Memo to Parents: Back Off, and Children Learn More.

Manipulative rhetoric helps dictators, con artists, and some politicians to sell “the big lie” by taking advantage of weaknesses in how people think. (Consider how the phrase “death tax” obscures the fact that the federal estate tax applies to only about 2 in every 1,000 estates, or fewer than 1 percent!)  By focusing on rhetoric, the Frameworks Institute, a non-profit organization, offers policymakers research-based suggestions about framing public policy issues (related to education, the environment, health, etc.) to encourage members of the public to understand the issues, rather than react negatively based on prejudice and reflexive thinking.

Research demonstrates how public and private institutions can offer better choices so that more people make smarter decisions. If employees must opt out of funding retirement plans, for example, they are more likely to make smart decisions than if they must opt in. Simply changing commonly used forms and norms to better reflect how people think can pay off—literally, in this case—for millions of people.

At a deeper level, a major goal of both secular and religious education from ancient times to the present has been to understand ourselves: Who am I? What goals shall I adopt and why? How should I live? Proverbs urging self-understanding—for example those condemning people who criticize the ‘mote’ in another’s eye while being unaware of the ‘beam’ in their own eye—have been used across many cultures and religions for millennia. We now have scientific evidence to support that proverb, in the form of research demonstrating that virtually everyone shares some of the cognitive and affective limitations they would like to believe are characteristic only of other people, ranging from racial and ethnic prejudices (in fact prejudice can often co-exist with compassion and decency), to thoughtless “logic” where careful thinking is required (see Thinking Fast and Slow), to excessive obedience to authority figures (e.g., experiments by Stanley Milgram showing that normal people will often obey orders to hurt others), a contributing factor to horrible events such as at Abu Ghraib prison.

Realizing that psychological flaws are so prevalent among human beings, specifically including ourselves, is critical for anyone interested in self-improvement. We can teach ourselves, and others, to think more clearly; and when we are aware that prejudice is common we can better guard against it and re-examine personal and cultural assumptions (e.g., about Islam, the Jews, racial minorities, drug addicts, the poor, or other targets of prejudice). Psychologists who have documented the difficulty of changing people’s deeply held opinions about climate change and other issues conclude nonetheless that few people are impervious to information, and find that how new information is presented, and by whom, can make a big difference.

This blog has referenced work by Idries Shah, the leading writer in the West about Sufism. Many years ago Shah selected a world-renowned psychologist, Stanford University Professor Robert Ornstein, to be his deputy in the United States. Prof. Ornstein, an accomplished psychology researcher, teacher, and prolific author, also heads up the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), which publishes books about the human sciences, and supports literacy programs for children around the world, among other activities. Shah wrote that “the psychological insights of the Sufis have proved a source of continuing knowledge which is not inferior to the achievements of modern workers in the field of the mind.” As his choice of Ornstein demonstrated, Shah was an admirer of modern research in psychology, saying “What I really want, in case anybody is listening, is for the products of the last 50 years of psychological research to be studied by the public, by everybody, so that the findings become part of their way of thinking.”

The first entry in this blog, my take-off point for thinking about psychology and climate change, referenced Doris Lessing’s suggestion in 1987 that the findings of psychology be applied to public affairs. Now, decades after her suggestion, at a time when even more people seem to ignore or dismiss facts affecting public policy, and many others wonder why, Lessing’s suggestion remains pertinent. Increasingly, individuals and organizations are constructively applying psychology to public policy issues. And beyond public policy, the more one learns about what modern psychology has discovered, the more compelling it seems, as Shah suggested, that everyone be encouraged to benefit from knowledge of how the mind operates—not only to influence public affairs but also for personal reasons, not least of all to develop better understanding of oneself.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)

To Make Progress, Participate! And Vote!

Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam is an astute observer of American life. Putnam is the author of many books, including Bowling Alone (2000) and Our Kids (2015) which draw on hard data and on people’s stories. Bowling Alone documents the decline of “social capital” in the United States; citizens “have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and our democratic structures.” Americans attend fewer events with neighbors than in the past, and are less politically active and civic-minded. Our Kids shows that the American dream is increasingly out of reach for students from low-income families, and that policies that once supported young people no longer do. In public schools, for example, it can cost $1,600 per year for a student to play on the high school football team, whereas a generation ago it was free. For students from low-income families football is now out of reach.

As a student Putnam was influenced by President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve the nation (“Ask not what your nation can do for you …”), and he has since consulted for three American Presidents. Drawing on his experience teaching generations of undergraduates, Putnam compared his own perceptions as a student with attitudes today and said in a recent interview:

“[If I were a young person in college today] I hope I would have enough self-confidence and enough knowledge of history [to know I could use my talents to try to help the country]. This is not science fiction that I’m talking about; Americans have done these kind of things – not every day, we’re not perfect people – we have actually looked at problems and figured out how to fix them. And that sense is just so missing from our current dialogue today.”

Putnam was thinking of problems and solutions of many kinds, over more than a century, including creating and supporting public schools, developing boys’ and girls’ clubs, building the interstate highway system, implementing effective environmental regulations (e.g., taking lead out of gasoline, reducing acid rain), and going to the moon. Problem solving was done routinely by political parties, which often worked together, and also by government agencies and strong civic institutions.

Today many people have lost faith in institutions, creating a vicious cycle in which lack of trust erodes participation, which further erodes trust. An example is that voter turnout for congressional mid-term elections in 2014 was little more than a third of the eligible population (36.3%), the lowest in more than seven decades. Voting rates for young people ages 18-34 are especially low (under 25%), and have fallen substantially over the decades. The comedian Samantha Bee aired two segments on her television show Full Frontal (here and here) aimed at encouraging more young people to vote, including in mid-term elections.

In a democracy, the growing lack of participation in elections and of faith in political institutions reflects the fact that citizens no longer believe they collectively have the capacity to identify and solve problems. Climate change is only one example of a major problem without an appropriate and far-sighted solution. Growing income inequality is another; crumbling national infrastructure is a major problem; and there are more. Serious problems and a corresponding lack of solutions are a concern in many cities, states and localities, not only at the federal level. Voter participation in the U.S. is lower than in many other developed countries.

Do you want American society to change for the better? Then choose an issue—growing student debt, the minimum wage, potholes in local streets, or whatever may especially concern you—find a group, volunteer, do the hard work, participate, vote! Don’t always sit on the sidelines.

Many of my friends as well as members of my family are and have been active in politics and/or civic affairs, providing useful models of action throughout my life. As a child I thought that being civic-minded and politically active were things that responsible grown-ups naturally do.

Plenty of people are not so fortunate in having good role models, yet it still puzzles me to watch some of those I know avoid any significant involvement with civic or political affairs. These people act as if democracy were a kind of spectator sport, as if it were up to other people, but not them, to do the hard work that a democracy requires. Large numbers of people are disappointed or disgusted by the results, namely an increasing lack of timely, thoughtful, and effective action on a wide range of vital issues. Yet whether a growing number of people will connect the dots and link the problems American society faces to widespread disengagement from civic and political affairs, and to their own behavior, I cannot say.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)

The Perils of Pauline Meets the Three Stooges

In June I compared the fate of the energy bill in Massachusetts to the Perils of Pauline. As in the movies, the legislative drama lasted ‘til the final frame—in this case the night of the last day of the session, and beyond (because the Governor still has to sign the bill, scheduled for August 8). The legislature was in recess during the Republican and Democratic national conventions, so their work in the last two weeks of July was crammed into three weekend days (July 23, and July 30 – 31). Despite supposedly tight deadlines, clocks at the State House on July 31 showed different times, and the House Minority Leader said, “It’s sort of like ‘The Three Stooges.’” Indeed! According to the Boston Globe, there were only a few minutes to read over lengthy conference committee reports reconciling House and Senate versions of bills before they were hurried to a final vote. Some important bills that were years in the making did not beat the clock (which kept ticking beyond the midnight deadline), and therefore were not acted upon.

State Senator Ben Downing, one of the legislature’s experts on energy and climate, who is now retiring, said of the House, “I think [their] operating procedure is: Do as little as possible and still be able to say you did stuff. I just think that’s where [House Speaker Robert DeLeo] is at.” He also said that this method of doing business “happens to line up with the priorities of the governor and some of the special interests, business groups in particular.” But hey! We know that low energy prices are more important than saving the planet, right?

Nonetheless, the energy bill that passed did include several significant items. Perhaps most important is that electricity providers are required to enter into long-term contracts for 1,600 MW of offshore wind (less than the Senate bill included), which for the first time in history makes it likely the United States will create a viable offshore wind industry. Once that energy is available (the turbines need to be built), this clean electricity will power more than a half-million homes. The bill also requires new long-term contracts for 1,200 MW of electricity generated from hydro-power, probably originating in Canada, where plenty of hydro-power is available.

Another important feature of the bill is that it requires natural gas companies to identify and repair “environmentally significant” gas leaks. This provision is notable because so much gas in the state is lost to leaks—but customers pay for it, and methane is a significant contributor to global warming.

However, the bill could have been far better. The Senate version included a provision to double the annual increment of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, from 1% annually to 2%, but that language was dropped from the final bill. The RPS mandates that a growing fraction of electricity be generated from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar. Without doubling the RPS, the state is unlikely to meet its goals for greenhouse gas emissions, established by the Global Warming Solutions Act (2008).

And then … ah, democracy! The state Senate voted 39-0 to prohibit electricity providers from charging customers in advance to build new natural gas pipelines—pipelines that several respected studies show are not needed. In the House, 97 of the 160 Representatives signed a letter to the Speaker objecting to a new pipeline “tax.” Yet despite overwhelming support in the legislature and among the public the Senate prohibition was not included in the final bill. There is some hope that the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will soon rule the “tax” to be illegal, but should that not happen electricity ratepayers may be on the hook for $3 billion, like it or not.

There were other positive parts of the Senate’s version of the bill that did not make it into the final version, and negative items that did make it in. (See this account.) But at least the offshore wind and hydro-power provisions will eventually provide a major increase in the amount of “green” electricity in Massachusetts. It is not enough renewable energy to claim Massachusetts is doing its fair share to combat climate change, but it is better than nothing.

Perhaps in the next session of the legislature more progress can be made to combat climate change. However, that is hardly a sure bet. In any case, the Massachusetts energy bill will do some good.

In a democracy, progress on major issues like civil rights or environmental protection requires political activism by citizens. But documented declines in civic and political participation over time will be the topic of my next blog post.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)

Massachusetts’ Energy Bill, Psychology and The Perils of Pauline

About a century ago a serial called The Perils of Pauline introduced movie-goers to such images as a heroine tied to the railroad tracks while a train rushed toward her. Would she be found in time and saved?

Massachusetts’ pending “comprehensive energy bill” might be safer than Pauline, but one cannot be sure. Only time will tell how this story comes out, and the legislature wraps up its work a month from now.

As the House and Senate do their work on the bill a great deal is at stake, including whether or not Massachusetts will guarantee the beginning of a robust offshore wind industry for the United States. Yet even an assiduous reader of The Boston Globe would be hard-pressed to know much about the energy bill. On the one hand, a recent Globe editorial urged that the pending energy bill (which is not in its final form) be among about a dozen bills that ought to be passed into law; but the editorial devoted only a few words to a description. On the other hand, another recent article in the Globe tells readers that the powerful Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo, “reassured” business leaders that the energy bill “will curb the high costs” of electricity in the state—a statement that is not reassuring to anyone deeply concerned about climate change. (Fossil fuels are cheap; it costs money to combat climate change by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.)

The Paris climate agreement, which was signed about six months ago, was front page news for a while. Yet people are so people-ish (as my father used to say), and their memories are short. Now a major and critical piece of legislation related to climate change is pending in Massachusetts and it seems a safe bet that the majority of voters in the state have no clue what is in the bill.

Adding to the perils of Pauline atmosphere is the fact that multiple important bills are pending with little time remaining in the legislative session. Senator Ben Downing, one of the best informed, most respected legislators on the topics of energy and climate, recently said, “I can’t remember a time that I’ve served that this many big things are still up for grabs.”

Two days ago the Senate Ways and Means committee released its draft energy bill, which is better and more comprehensive than the House version. Importantly, the Senate bill changes the required annual increase in the amount of renewable energy that electricity providers must include, doubling the annual increase from 1% per year to 2%. This doubling means that by 2050 80% of electricity in the state would come from renewable sources, whereas if current law is not changed the figure would be only 45%, which is far from enough. The Senate will vote on the bill this week, and then the House and Senate will need to reconcile their two approaches. Lastly the Governor must sign the resulting bill, if there is one.

Massachusetts has for many years been a leader on combating climate change. Will that leadership continue? We should know how this drama ends by the close of July.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)

Climate Change and Eighth Grade Algebra

One notable feature of today’s industrialized societies is a commitment to science: an organized set of investigations designed to understand the world. Innumerable benefits have resulted from a commitment to science, including much of modern medicine. Yet there are times one wonders whether the same society that has invested so much in building knowledge is serious about absorbing and applying it. The case of eighth grade algebra is one example of our society “knowing” but not acting on what it knows.

As way of background, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) manages the peer-reviewed Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME), which has been published for nearly 50 years. During that time scholarly research has informed much of NCTM’s work, for example the efforts that NCTM began in the 1980s to develop and disseminate national mathematics education standards.

In 2008, based on research studies and on the experience of tens of thousands of mathematics teachers, NCTM published a position statement, Algebra: What, When, and for Whom. At a time when “raising standards for all students” was a powerful philosophy in education policy circles, NCTM wrote:

Only when students exhibit demonstrable success with prerequisite skills—not at a prescribed grade level—should they focus explicitly and extensively on algebra, whether in a course titled Algebra 1 or within an integrated mathematics curriculum. Exposing students to such coursework before they are ready often leads to frustration, failure, and negative attitudes toward mathematics and learning.

NCTM was trying to bring greater sanity to mathematics education policies. You might think that having students “demonstrate success with prerequisite skills” before enrolling in algebra would be an obvious policy—but if so, you would be wrong. The state of California, as one example, placed so much pressure on school districts to move algebra into the eighth grade that by 2008 “the proportion of California eighth graders enrolled in Algebra more than tripled [from just nine years earlier], from 16% to 51%.”

Even if they chose not to consult NCTM, California policymakers could easily have noticed an article in the Los Angeles Times, “A formula for failure in L.A. schools,” reporting that in 2004 fully 44% of students taking algebra in the city flunked, and another 17% received Ds. Evidently taking algebra was a disaster for L.A. students even before larger numbers of them were pushed to enroll in the course in eighth grade, ready or not. Shouldn’t policymakers have been aware of the failure rate of algebra students when a major newspaper reported on it (or earlier), and acted on that knowledge before the California State Board of Education mandated in 2008 that all students enroll in algebra by eighth grade?

Now, years later—accumulating research knowledge is slow work—education researchers have proved the obvious, that enrolling eighth graders willy-nilly in algebra is a bad idea. One recent study in California concluded “enrolling more [middle school] students in advanced math courses [notably algebra] has negative consequences for mathematics achievement.” Another study, based in North Carolina, concluded that students affected by accelerating enrollment in algebra “scored significantly lower on end-of-course tests in Algebra I, and were either no more likely or significantly less likely to pass standard follow-up courses, Geometry and Algebra II, on a college-preparatory timetable.”

Didn’t education policymakers have sufficient information, such as reported in the news article, as well as research and practical knowledge that NCTM drew upon, to reach a sensible conclusion about algebra requirements years earlier than publication of these two recent research papers?

Society often says that it wants to base policy on sound knowledge, including well conducted research. In fact, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 mandated that federal money spent on school programs be supported by “scientifically-based research.” However, that was a terrible idea because the research base in education is surprisingly thin, research has very little to say about what is worth teaching, and reality often falls far short of good intentions.

The case of mandating eighth grade algebra was based on ivory tower theories and wishful thinking more than it was based on knowledge or research. At times the missteps involving education research have been even more shocking such as when, despite mandates of No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration supported “abstinence education” in schools although available research showed that it was not effective.

Generalizing, one conclusion is that ignoring well conducted research, as well as ignoring common sense, happens more frequently than one might wish. Even in medicine, which is especially driven by scientific research, a 2003 study found that Medicare patients with well-known illnesses had less than a 75% chance of receiving an appropriate and proven treatment that their medical condition called for.

Clearly, then, ignoring important scientific findings, as well as ignoring common sense, is not unique in the case of climate change. (Why are sea levels rising if the oceans are not substantially warming and expanding? That’s an example of common sense thinking.)

However, the stakes are so high for climate change that the world’s governments should have been paying closer attention decades ago, and acted more quickly. Yet in the United States we have the head-spinning spectacle that all the Republican candidates for the Presidential nomination were either ignorant of what climate science research has found or were in denial about the conclusions. One influential Republican Senator, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, even brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate last year, in an effort to show that scientists are wrong about climate change. It seems virtually impossible to have a thoughtful conversation about science and the search for truth with anyone who thinks and behaves like that.

Psychology helps us understand why people can be so obtuse, even in an age of science.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)