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Educators under fire for teaching climate science, visiting speaker finds

By: Beth Hawkins of MinnPost. Read the article on MinnPost here.

For three decades, the National Center for Science Education(NCSE) has focused most of its efforts on defending the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Increasingly, however, the teachers its executive director, Dr. Eugenie Scott, hears from are under fire for teaching global warming. So much so that in January, the organization formally added a climate initiative to its efforts to support the teaching of science.

Scott will be in Minnesota next week to attend a number of events, including a talk sponsored by the Will Steger Foundation and the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where she will be joined by Steger. Free and open to the public, "Climate Science in Schools: the Next Evolution" will take place Monday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m. in the Humphrey School's Cowles Auditorium.

Scott, who holds a doctorate in physical anthropology, recently talked with MinnPost about her work. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Continue reading here or visit MinnPost.

MinnPost: How did we get from evolution to climate change?

Eugenie Scott: The similarity we see between the pressures that teachers receive about teaching evolution and pressures that teachers feel about teaching climate change ultimately go back to the fact that people hold strong ideologies that influence their willingness to accept information.

In this case, scientifically based information -- and that's kind of a complicated way of saying that the scientific community is uniform in accepting that the universe has had a history, evolution happened. And the scientific community is unified in the opinions that the planet is getting warmer and people's activities have had a lot to do with that and things have to be done -- although the policy issues range all over the place, and that's not something that science alone can tell us what to do.

But in the case of evolution, the main ideological driver is religious ideology. There are people who believe that evolution is incompatible with their religious beliefs, so they reject it. With climate change, there is a piece of the objection that's religious but it's a fairly small driver of anti-global warmingism. When it comes to global warming and climate change, the ideologies that drive the denial of this science are really political and economical.

There are people who believe, for political reasons, that climate change is a hoax, that it's only a political ploy of liberals to increase big government and take away individual American rights, etc. There's another group of people, and there's overlap of course, who believe that climate change is a hoax because it is anti-capitalist and would require changes in the free market. These are free-market fundamentalists, as opposed to religious fundamentalists, who believe that there should be no constraints on, for example, carbon producers like coal and oil and gas.

MP: How does climate change get into the classroom?

ES: Many states have standards which incorporate climate-change science. Climate change comes in to earth science courses. It comes in to biology classes where you're talking about ecological effects of human and other kinds of changes that take place on the planet. And it sometimes comes in to chemistry because there are activities that humans do that are relevant to a chemistry class. Chemistry classes often can deal with ecological issues, water and air and stuff like that. So, you find climate science scattered throughout the curriculum, although not uniformly in any one particular grade or field.

Certainly any teacher who's bringing religious views into class is overstepping because the [U.S. Constitution's First Amendment] Establishment Clause requires a class to be religiously neutral. In the case of climate science, of course, the Establishment Clause issue doesn't come in unless the teacher is saying climate change is bogus because God would never let anything happen to the climate.

But in the case of just sort of your generic political and economic opposition to climate change, it's not so much a legal issue as it is a matter of professional competence and professional responsibility. It is the responsibility of teachers to teach good science.

MP: Teachers and schools frequently deal with issues they perceive as prickly or potentially inflammatory by end-running them, by just not teaching anything at all. How often does that happen in this arena?

ES: Because of the decentralization of American public education it's very difficult to give statistics on something like this, but in our experience districts often will devise a controversial issues policy which may or may not be understood by the teachers. The good policies of this nature will stress that teachers should respect the scholarship of the discipline, whether it's history or math or science, and not avoid controversial issues, whatever they are, but teach them responsibly but also with sensitivity.

In the case of sex ed -- which, goodness knows, makes the evolution wars look tame -- you should be respectful of students' different moral views about sex but you still need to teach them the plumbing. You still need to make sure that students understand that certain behaviors have consequences. In a responsible sex-education class, you should be giving students the full range of behaviors and let them decide, of course with input from their parents, which is the most responsible for them.

In the case of something like evolution, you really need to teach students that the consensus view in the scientific community is that evolution happened. Clearly there are religious views that don't accept that, and it is the right of the student to reject the science, but the student has to learn it to be an educated citizen.

Learning does not require adherence. We teach students about communism, fascism, the Catholic inquisition and the burning of witches by the Protestants. We don't expect them to go burn witches.

We're getting lots of anecdotes from teachers about pressure against teaching climate change and we really want to be there to support them and to encourage them to do the professionally and educationally responsible thing and to help generate support in communities for the teaching of good science.

MP: So where is the pressure coming from, school boards, parents?

ES: Students, who often will be channeling their parents: "My dad says climate change is a hoax," or "We heard on Fox News that climate change is a hoax." We have newspaper accounts of parents complaining when a teacher shows "An Inconvenient Truth," for example, or a teacher brings in other materials about global warming.

Sometimes parents will request equal time for the opposite view, for the denialist view -- exactly the parallel that we find with the teaching of evolution and parents demanding equal time for creationism.

And sometimes it's state legislatures. You may be aware of the recently passed law in Tennessee, where evolution and climate change are bundled as controversial issues that teachers are supposed to teach the strengths and weaknesses. There really is nothing from standard science to teach, so what you have to do if such policy is passed is go to the creationist literature and go to the climate-science denial literature, which does not represent good science.

And state boards of education can also impose these kinds of policies, such as Texas and its pressure to weaken the science standards this last year.

MP: I was actually just about to ask you about Texas. Texas buys so many textbooks it often determines what's in the curriculum nationwide. So, what is the state of affairs in Texas?

ES: Currently, because of a great deal of work of people who care, especially Texas Freedom Network, our affiliate in Texas, the Texas Citizens For Science and, of course, we spend a lot of time there too, and the fortunate election of a more moderate school board, the Texas standards have a lot more evolution in them than they ever had before.

And there's also a decent if not really adequate treatment of global warming and climate change in earth and space science, although we'd like to see more. That's the good news. The bad news is that a flurry of amendments at the end of the process of approving the standards in 2010 opened up some loopholes, if you will, for teachers to bring in creationist materials and for the potential for denialist arguments in climate change as well.

Now, whether this is going to influence textbooks is yet to be seen. We will be returning to Texas because 2013 is when the textbooks will be submitted. The [state] Department of Education's civil servants will review the textbooks and they'll have their little check-off sheet as to whether all of these standards are covered and so forth. And then the board will decide yay or nay as to whether the books, in their opinion, meet the standards.

The number of creationist members of the board has dwindled over the last few years and the board is much more moderate, so as long as the textbooks themselves haven't wimped out on these two subjects, we should be OK.

Textbook publishers, however, in the past have been notoriously nervous about the Texas standards. And they don't send their books to us for review right now so I don't know what's in them.

But it's true that, by and large, what Texas wants is what you get in Minnesota. Textbook publishers prefer not to do separate editions, but they will if you lean on them. Squeaky wheels are very important in the publishing business.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs or the University of Minnesota. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota or the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.