Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow day and Friday make-up assignment

This email is for students in the 8am section of IC 3013 Environmental Sustainability, Mick Womersley

Dear students:

Because of the snow day I am unable to announce in class this morning that this coming Friday 4th February I have to spend all day at KVCC.

(I'll be working with Maine Rural Partners and Efficiency Maine to provide a wind mapping and wind modeling training as part of a joint state/federally funded effort to provide better support for small scale wind power and related planning, such as noise issues.)

Unity College rules require me to provide some reasonable additional assignment if I cancel class for some reason. They're also encouraged, although not strictly required, for snow days.

Accordingly, here is an assignment for you in lieu of Friday's class and today's snow day.

Question: What is a science fact and should I believe one when I see one?

Later in class we will be discussing climate change. Some of you have already expressed that you don't "believe in" climate change.

(Others of you might think it unimportant or unrelated to careers and choice of major. I might draw your attention to recent events in Queensland, Australia, to suggest how climate change might impact your life whether you're interested in it or not.)

I might suggest that this "belief" is a conceptual error and that even the most concerned of climate scientists doesn't "believe in" climate change. A science theory is not something you believe in. It's the best explanation we have so far, of the available evidence so far. When more or different evidence is found, the theory must change.

If the theory doesn't change on the basis of new evidence, we're no longer doing science.

So scientists don't actually "believe in" things the way that other folks do. If you believe in something, that's a very fixed kind of a notion. Good scientists must be able to change their minds on a dime.

This is a kind of critical thinking, and in practice closely related to the concept of statistical significance.

The following social science paper attempts to explain why people of non-scientific belief systems approach facts in very different ways. Please read it and try to understand it as well as you can prior to Monday's class.

An optional follow-up paper, a recent update, is available at

If these links don't work, this same email is posted at my blog with tested hot links.

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