Avoiding Toaster Strudel Exchanges

by Keith L. Seitter, CCM, AMS Executive Director
Those of us who have siblings know that the relationship is built, in part, on needling.
When my two sons, Kevin and Matt, were eight and three years old, respectively, Kevin enjoyed Toaster Strudel® as an occasional breakfast treat. Matt, meanwhile, was just beginning to learn the joys of thoroughly annoying a sibling and was quickly becoming quite good at it.  One weekend morning, the following exchange took place:

Matt (to Kevin): We don’t have any Toaster Strudel.
Kevin:  Yes we do.
Matt:  No we don’t.
Kevin:  We do.  Mom picked some up at the store.
Matt:  No we don’t.
Kevin (becoming annoyed):  Matt, we do have some, I saw mom put it in the freezer!
Matt (remaining completely calm and collected):  No we don’t.
Kevin (stomping to the freezer and pulling the box out):  See!  We do have it!
Matt (still calm and collected):  No we don’t.

At about this point, when Kevin was clearly exasperated, I think I did the parental thing and intervened to calm things down.
I relay this little story because some of the “debate” on climate change seems to be taking on the character of this Toaster Strudel exchange.  And it is far less amusing when it is happening among adults in the media and in the blogosphere.
Frequent readers of my monthly column in BAMS will know that I have long been advocating for open and respectful dialogue on the science of climate change, with all parties recognizing that as scientists it is our job to be skeptical and require solid theory and evidence to back up claims.  We must always be cognizant of how hard it is to keep our intrinsic values from triggering confirmation bias as we review research results or listen to alternative explanations for observational evidence.  Our training as scientists, however, makes it clear that our goal must always be the objective truth — whether it supports our belief system or not.  We must all strive for that level of integrity.
I continue to feel that with open and respectful dialogue on the various complex issues involved in climate change we can achieve greater understanding within our community and less divisiveness.  We have to recognize, however, that “Toaster Strudel exchanges” are not about the evidence.  They have an entirely different goal from finding the objective truth, and failing to recognize that will only lead to frustration.