The story you’re about to read is true. The reason you’ve never read it before is because it’s never been widely told. It’s a local story, a private story, one that began in my brother’s house. It’s a kind of horror story — of the natural and not of the supernatural kind. It’s emblematic of the universal challenge we all now face. It’s a story about what we’re up against.
It began about three years ago, somewhere in America, at the height of the Covid pandemic and in the midst of the lockdown. One day my brother was walking through the room where his daughter was signed onto her high school class via Zoom. My brother overheard his daughter’s teacher say that “climate change is an opinion about evidence.” This stopped him dead in his tracks.
John was never one of those pain-in-the-ass parents making arbitrary and self-righteous grief for his children’s teachers, but he knew at that moment he needed to talk to that particular teacher as soon as possible. It was important. He made a phone call to her school and arranged to speak to her at the next available opportunity.
“What ended up happening,” John later told me, “was that the teacher and I had a long phone conversation in which she advanced her personal theory that climate change was all down to ‘sunspots’ and other bullshit, while I educated her on the science.” I would have loved to have been a metaphorical fly on the wall eating metaphorical popcorn. I imagine something like a verbal combat not unlike Kwai Chang Caine versus some random, narrow-minded cowboy, where my brother deftly (as Caine) used the momentum of her cowboy ignorance against her.
By the end of the conversation, perhaps realising that she couldn’t win, but running desperately out of impotent defenses, the teacher devised what she mistook for a clever plan. No doubt trying to achieve some kind of parity in the form of a cheap draw, the teacher suggested that John arrange for an actual climate scientist to speak to his daughter’s class.
As things turned out it’s easy to guess her motives. The teacher’s experience with giving parents assignments was probably on par with giving her students assignments: something to be barely heard and too often quickly forgotten. She was counting on John giving up at that point and forgetting the whole thing. She didn’t know my brother.
John has climate science contacts throughout the online community. Using those contacts he was able to find a prominent climate scientist who graciously agreed to address the class. My brother’s (and truth’s) triumph was all but assured. He fired off an email to the teacher giving her the good news that he’d found a first class scientist to address the class! And then he eagerly awaited her response. And waited. And waited.
He sent another email. No response. Then another. Still no response. It quickly became clear that the teacher was stonewalling him, that her original offer was made in bad faith, that she wasn’t interested in the opinion of science. She’d already made up her mind and she didn’t want to be confused by the facts. But what’s inexcusable is that she’d made up her mind for her students as well.
Whether she was motivated by religious zeal or MAGA politics or both isn’t known for sure, but behind the teacher’s allergy to science probably lurk no surprises. MAGA has made it an article of faith that climate change is a hoax, and tying climate science denialism to evangelical Christianity was a Machiavellian masterstroke of genius on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. In the end it’s instructive to remember that the Dunning Kruger Effect is not the sole province of the non-academic.
As it happened, it was the first week of November that John had emailed the teacher the good news that he’d found a climate scientist and, “that was the very week Donald Trump lost the election, so I’m sure the teacher was going through some things.”
Nevertheless, John had an unstoppable response to her seemingly irresistible stone wall. He contacted the school’s assistant principal and told her the whole story of his daughter’s teacher’s remarks to her class, the long ensuing phone conversation, the agreement to arrange the climate scientist’s talk, the saga of the email upon email upon email with no reply. The assistant principal listened with growing alarm and dismay.
It was then that the assistant principal did something very satisfying, very satisfying indeed. She personally marched down to the teacher’s office and stood over her and made damned certain that she damned well answered John’s email with a gracious reply to accept his offer. And that she do it all with a smile.
And so it came to pass that in early December, 2020, a prominent climate scientist gave a wonderful and very well-received hour-long talk over Zoom about the perils of climate change to John’s daughter’s high school class. It was a triumph deluxe, one for the books. The young minds in the class got a chance to learn the other side of the climate science story. They were no longer captive to the teacher’s echo chamber of ignorance.
But there’s one more thing to relate, brothers and sisters, what the late Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.” This little drama didn’t transpire in a rural outlier community in Texas or the Deep South. No, it all happened in a middle class town in bright blue Southern California.
Ignorance knows no borders. It has no identifiable credentials. Ignorance takes root and thrives in the hearts and minds of individuals who were never taught critical thinking, or who never bothered to apply it in certain areas of their lives.
It is the hallmark of the truly ignorant that they believe they have found solutions to problems that actual experts somehow missed. We can jeer at them for willfully subsisting on the propaganda of the Fox News echo chamber, but we would do well to look within ourselves to ensure that we never fall victim to the same trap.
Without the armour and weaponry of critical thinking, we are all prone to the error of wrong-headed, misinformed conclusions. The stakes aren’t just academic, either, they are literally the survival of our species and the health of our only home. It isn’t just important that we get it right, it’s a matter of life and death. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.