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So What’s A Teacher to Do?

Filed under: — group @ 4 February 2012

Guest Commentary by Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education

Imagine you’re a middle-school science teacher, and you get to the section of the course where you’re to talk about climate change. You mention the “C” words, and two students walk out of the class.

Or you mention global warming and a hand shoots up.

“Mrs. Brown! My dad says global warming is a hoax!”

Or you come to school one morning and the principal wants to see you because a parent of one of your students has accused you of political bias because you taught what scientists agree about: that the Earth is getting warmer, and human actions have had an important role in this warming.

Or you pick up the newspaper and see that your state legislature is considering a bill that declares that accepted sciences like global warming (and evolution, of course) are “controversial issues” that require “alternatives” to be taught.

Incidents like these have happened in one or more states, and they are likely to continue to happen. Teachers are encountering pushback from many directions as they try to teach global warming and other climate science topics.

The importance of climate change education is, to the RealClimate community, a no-brainer. Numerous professional science organizations, from the American Chemical Society to the American Geophysical Union to the Geological Society of America have stressed the imperative of climate science being an integral part of science education.

So What’s a Teacher to Do?

Long a defender of the teaching of evolution, the National Center for Science Education has recently launched an initiative to support and defend the teaching of climate change science.

The “support” part has challenges all its own. Unlike evolution, which easily fits into biology and other life science courses, climate science spans multiple disciplines and can fall through disciplinary cracks in biology, chemistry and physics, or appear briefly in more specialized disciplines like ecology or Earth sciences. Moreover, climate science is complex and often non-intuitive, and students (and all too often teachers) stumble over misinformation and misconceptions that are hard to overcome. Many educational institutions are wrestling with how to support climate science in the K-12 curriculum.

But the “defend” part is where NCSE will make a unique contribution. Our experience over the decades helping teachers and school boards resolve the problems that have arisen over the teaching of evolution should stand us in good stead in helping them deal with this newer “controversial science”. Of course, there are many perspectives affecting the objections to climate science education, and each requires its own response.

Some of the denial is literal (It’s not happening! The science is bad!), some of it may be interpretive (it’s maybe happening but people aren’t to blame), and some of it stems more from the implications of climate change (it’s happening and maybe humans are responsible, but someone else is to blame and/or there’s nothing I can do about it). We’re going to help teachers understand where pressure against climate science education comes from, as the first step in helping them construct a response. From the evolution education controversy we learned long ago that one does not solve these problems merely by piling on more or better science: the underlying, motivating issues must be addressed. The science is essential, but not sufficient.

Climate change education should be an integral part of science education. Students should graduate from high school and certainly college with at least a basic understanding of the foundational concepts of climate science so they can understand human activities and how they are impacting climate and other aspects of the earth system.

This is no small task, and obviously NCSE as a relatively small non-profit can only do so much. We need your help.

We have been successful because we marshal allies, like scientists, teachers, parents, and other citizens, at the grassroots. NCSE’s success over recent decades in defending the teaching of evolution has been due in large measure to scientists and others who are willing to support good science education locally and at the state level. We also need scientists to provide us with their scientific expertise.

If you are a climate scientist, please give us your contact information so we can consult with you. Also, your contact information will be helpful to us if something occurs in your region or state where we need a scientist to write a letter, testify before a committee, support a teacher, or help in some other way.

Of course, an obvious way you can help is to join NCSE, but even if you don’t, your expertise will be helpful to us.

Visit our website, and contact our new Programs and Policy Director, Mark McCaffrey, who will be helping spearhead the new initiative, to let us know you support our effort. Teachers will thank you.

217 Responses to “So What’s A Teacher to Do?”

  1. 201
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Malcolm Kirkpatrick says: ” The bond between children and parents is crucial to the life prospects of each child. Tread carefully when you propose to fray that bond.”

    Uh, do you really mean to imply that filial piety can only survive if the children believe in the same lies and foolishness as their parents?

    And you cannot seriously mean to say that science can’t be true unless you can demonstrate it in a test tube, can you?

    And finally, I don’t think anyone has any problems with alternative scientific theories being taught to the consensus theory of Earth’s climate (of which anthropogenic warming is an inevitable prediction). Do you know of any? BecauseI really have a hard time understanding how “anything but CO2” passes muster as a scientific theory.

  2. 202
    Jim Eager says:

    “If you really want to teach science, present alternative theories without the ridicule.”

    Ah, but Malcolm, that’s just it, when it comes to earth’s energy budget, carbon cycle, climate and the greenhouse effect there are no coherent and internally consistent alternative theories that can explain the body of experimental and observational evidence without contradiction.

    At most all you can do is mention a list of individual and largely mutually contradictory objections with little or no evidence that supports them.

  3. 203
    Rodrigo says:

    To the question “So What’s A Teacher to Do?” the asnswer is very simple: do what teachers always do when a students says “Sir, my dad says that….”

    Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared, AND be respectful.
    If I teach evolution and I know there are people in my class who have religious problems with it ou talk with them and explain them that it’s ok for them not to believe it, but that they should know the topic and understand it, in the same way that in History classes you learn about Buddhism without having to believe it. A variation of this has always worked.

    Never mock the parents and never make the kids feel stupid. They will forget 99% of the things of teach them, but they’ll never forget that you were a good person

  4. 204
    AIC says:

    Science communication: How do we do it better?

    “Science Is Not Enough”
    I recommend the video of the Webcast from the current AAAS conference, which is available from: Probably some of you were there in the audience.
    I’m not making any comments about the various speakers. I leave you to make your own evaluations.

    My question: Who are the current climate communicators who can grab and convince an audience?

  5. 205
    Douglas C says:

    If you don’t want your children lied to, put them in private schools.

  6. 206
    Hank Roberts says:

    Because as we all know, private schools are all alike and all teach only the one truth.

    Er, which truth?

    Never mind. I’ve got the feeling there’s a pattern with userids of the form firstname-initial. Somehow when I get into a conversation with that kind of userid, I start to doubt my Turing Test ability after a while, generally.

    Someone else may be able to help out here.

  7. 207
    dhogaza says:


    Er, which truth?

    The earth is only 6,000 years old truth????

  8. 208
    adelady says:

    “Teachers, your students are not your children. The bond between children and parents is crucial to the life prospects of each child. Tread carefully when you propose to fray that bond.”

    Any half competent teacher knows full well that they should avoid saying “Well, that’s stupid!” whether it’s a child’s own view or one they’re likely reciting as a family mantra.

    The only way to deal with correct curriculum versus child or family’s protestations is to be straightforward. In exactly the same way as we daily fend off the wails or mumbles of ‘But algebra’s useless.’

    This is the curriculum.
    This is what you’ll be tested on.
    This is what you need to know to progress in this subject.
    If you want to work on something else, do it on your own time.

    There are polite ways to convey this message. If that doesn’t have the desired result, more direct ways must be used.

    As for teaching any controversy. Teenagers must be the worst people in the world for dealing with issues in a balanced way. They’re the most judgmental (and dictatorial) people you’re ever likely to deal with. If you want your science or maths lessons to be proxy personal development sessions, all well and good. But most teachers need to get through the curriculum, revise it, test it, do some of it over again. And there goes all the time available.

  9. 209

    #206–“Somehow when I get into a conversation with that kind of userid, I start to doubt my Turing Test ability after a while, generally.”

    Say it ain’t so, Hank!

    Seriously–though that’s an ironic word to apply!–LOL.

  10. 210
    William P says:

    Conservatives especially can make any subject “controversial” by saying it is a liberal idea. Then mainstream media hesitate to cover the subject at all, fearing to wade into a “controversial” area and get branded as supporting the liberal position (just by bringing it up). It is a tricky situation and conservatives, especially the big propaganda media of Fox and Limbaugh, know well how to play this game.

    In a different context, big tobacco make the link between tobacco and cancer “controversial”. And they constantly said there was doubt about the link. That was all it took for media to shy away from covering it, or suggesting there was a link. With the big consolidated media of today this is not hard to do. Especially for players with clout and money.

  11. 211

    “Teach the controversy” = “Cover the controversy” = “Puff the controversy?”

  12. 212

    I’m not as bothered by some of the “teach the alternative” legislation that gets considered (frequently) or passed (occasionally) for the schools. I think it presents a valuable opportunity to discuss the specific arguments on both sides, and also the overarching question as to how school curricula get determined and how “truth” is arrived at. A sharp student will be able to spot the weaker argument, simply on its merits. I think all of this can be a valuable contributor to students becoming truly educated, rather than simply indoctrinated.

    As to the specifics, if those of us who believe that climate change is real are right, exposure to news – even biased news – will, over time, show the more rational students (all of them, if the school is doing a good job) which of the alternatives is more likely to be correct. In the unlikely event that we’re wrong, the students will have been well served by being presented with the alternative.

  13. 213

    PS Respect, however, to the argument given at the end of #208.

  14. 214

    Relevant, though in the higher ed realm:

    (Also previously commented upon at RC.)

    What is interesting (apart from the number of folks who are willing–nay, eager–to characterize dishonest teaching as noble skepticism) is that the CASS report, referred to in the story linked, demonstrates the connections between the instructors and Heartland (and a couple of other denialist cabals, including the now-defunct ‘Friends of Science.’)

  15. 215
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Floyd Earl Smith,
    Well, except, climate denialism is not science. It is entirely predicated on logical fallacies:
    1)Ad hominem fallacy (e.g. assuming that all scientists are “lefties” or basing arguments on the “Al Gore is fat” motif)
    2)Argument from consequences fallacy (positing that addressing climate change means the end of capitalism, etc.)
    3)the only way to overturn their “hypothesis” of “anything but CO2” is to prove a negative

    Their arguments should be treated in logic class or in abnormal psych, not in earth or physical science.

  16. 216
    Snapple says:

    You know those fake “science” books called NIPCC that look just like the UN IPCC books? They are using those over at George Mason University, and not in a course on propaganda. I have shown these books to some teachers at my school, and they can see how deceptive this is, but we are not young college kids. I am going to show this to my administrators and tell the guidance department about it. This is sick. They are inculcating propaganda disguised as “science.”

    Here is a post from Deep Climate. Read starting here:

  17. 217
    dhogaza says:

    Floyd Earl Smith:

    In the unlikely event that we’re wrong, the students will have been well served by being presented with the alternative.

    Which alternative? In addition to Ray’s points, consider that there’s no coherent alternative argument being made by denialists. It’s cosmic rays. It’s natural variation. It’s the urban heat island effect – we’re not warming at all! It’s station drop-out – we’re not warming at all! It’s fraudulent data manipulation – we’re not warming at all! Of course we’re warming, and it’s partially due to CO2, but it’s not as big a factor as climate scientists believe. We are warming, and CO2’s a cause, but CO2’s plant food and warmth accelerates growth and it’s a good thing! It’s been constantly warming since the LIA.

    I could go on for a page or so.

    Which of these conflicting alternatives to you propose to be taught alongside the coherent picture of climate science that derives from well-understood physics?