THE SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL REDUX?
THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION
AND THE FIGHT TO TEACH
CLIMATE SCIENCE IN OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS
The late Dr. Stephen Schneider, renowned climatologist and Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University gives an overview of the climate change debate
If you haven’t tuned in lately to the global warming debate, one of the most incendiary issues on the cyberwaves today is the intense pressure brought by global warming skeptics on science teachers who want to teach the science of climate change in our public school classrooms.
Make no mistake, this is no small time brouhaha. While world governments gear up to extend a commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, we, in this country, are in the midst of a full scale, hard ball battle driven by political and economic interests, to suppress the teaching of legitimate climate science in our schools. At a minimum, the outcome will have far reaching consequences for the integrity of science curricula and learning standards throughout our country, as well as for the substance of what we communicate to our children regarding their role as stewards of an increasingly fragile planet.
The controversy has generated such heat, that the popular blog, Think Progress, has compared it to a 21st century Scopes Monkey Trial.
Fortunately, there is help for school districts and teachers who find themselves under attack: The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a private not-for-profit organization founded in 1981, by scientists, educators, and others, to promote and support the teaching of the science of evolution in the schools. In the last few years, the NCSE mission has expanded to include support for the teaching of climate science and climate change as well.
Dr. Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist, has been the Executive Director at NCSE for over 25 years, and she and her staff have had legendary success in working with local communities – preparing them for court cases, working to revise state standards, and providing background materials to educators and parents who have an interest in preserving the teaching of evolution and now, climate science in the schools.
Scott is the subject of an enlightening interview and discussion below, but first, a bit of background on the essence of the controversy. (For those who want to skip directly to the interview, click here).
THE CLIMATE SCIENCE DEBATE: WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
The late Dr. Stephen Schneider, Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University explains the real world of climate change politics
The climate change maelstrom centers on whether global warming is real and occurring now; whether it is an imminent threat to mankind, and especially, whether it is caused by natural forces or by human activity, the latter of which can be controlled to mitigate or reverse a potential catastrophe.
The stakes in this discussion couldn’t be higher, as the outcome will influence our national policy on energy use, the fate of multi-billion dollar private interests representing oil and gas, coal and other carbon based energy resources — and ultimately, the future of our planet.
The essential argument hinges on interpretation of the data relevant to climate change and global warming. If you have viewed the clip above in which Dr. Stephen Schneider explains the debate, then you know that science is not absolute and that there are opinions of the data, along a continuum. In the case of climate change, there is a consensus within the scientific community that the planet is warming, and that the intensity of warming over the last few decades is due to human activity. Further, there are several possible outcome models within the consensus parameters (none of which are pleasant). What is uncertain within the science community is the absolute outcome of the warming effect.
Unfortunately, according to Dr. Schneider, it is the polar extremes at either end of the continuum that get the media attention–the doomsayers vs. the skeptics. In this case, they have distorted the facts of global warming to accommodate their own agendas, to present a scenario which is unsupported by the science.
It is one of these extremes – the skeptical extreme–that has picked up traction in the public debate, and that is most relevant for the challenge currently faced by climate science teachers in the public schools. For purposes of illustration, both extremes are outlined below:
♦ The Proponents have concluded that our extensive dependence on a carbon based fossil fuel economy is pushing the earth’s climate to the edge of a cliff, and that our mining, refining and use of fossil fuels has had significant impact on global warming and extreme weather patterns which have become more pronounced in the last few years.
They further believe that if we do not take immediate and resolute steps to reduce our use of fossil fuels, that the resulting intensified warming and extreme weather will have calamitous results for mankind and for the planet within the next few decades; and
♦ The Skeptics believe that global warming is a hoax; they deny that the earth has warmed in the last decade, or that if it has, it is the result of natural earth cycles over which we humans have no control. In general, this group feels that that the proponents of global warming theories are radical environmentalists and alarmists who are in cahoots with the government to justify chokehold regulations, and programmatic spending. Some lay skeptics also attribute a financial motivation to the proponents – that their position is necessary to ensure an ongoing supply of grant money for continuing climate change research. In the extreme, they feel that the climate change movement is a socialist plot to abolish capitalism.
Their bottom line is that there is no reason to interrupt business as usual, that our continued use of fossil fuels has no discernible impact on a warming or weather pattern effect.
SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS ON GLOBAL WARMING
Rapid loss of older, thicker Arctic sea ice, from 1980-2012
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA climate scientist Tom Wagner explains what the loss of thick Arctic ice means for our warming planet. This clip was produced in 2009.
The popular global warming fact check website, Skeptical Science, points out that 95% of active climate researchers, including qualified scientists, venerable scientific organizations as well as the scientific academies of 19 countries have reached a consensus on the Proponent side, while those who support the latter position are a much smaller group of scientists.
In fact, the validity of the evidence for human activity impact on global warming has so reached the mainstream scientific community that the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, C2ES (formerly named the Pew Center for Climate and Energy Solutions) states on its website:
“The scientific community has reached a strong consensus regarding the science of global climate change. The world is undoubtedly warming. This warming is largely the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities including industrial processes, fossil fuel combustion, and changes in land use, such as deforestation. “
The C2ES continues,
“…… This warming will have real consequences for the United States and the world, for with that warming will also come additional sea-level rise that will gradually inundate coastal areas and increase beach erosion and flooding from coastal storms, changes in precipitation patterns, increased risk of droughts and floods, threats to biodiversity, and a number of potential challenges for public health.”
CONFUSION WITHIN THE GENERAL POPULATION
It is within the general population, however, that there seems to be confusion as to whether global warming exists or if it is human caused. A Pew Center poll released in November, 2011, indicates that the acceptance of global warming and whether it is caused by human activity has become more widespread in the last two years (since 2009), and there is also a rebound since 2009, in the number of people who feel that global warming is a very serious problem.
But, remarkably, the number of people who believe that global warming is not too serious a problem or that it is not a problem at all, has risen steadily, from 20% in 2009 to 33% in 2011.
AN EXPLOSIVE SCANDAL REVEALS UNDERLYING INTENT TO DERAIL THE TEACHING OF CLIMATE SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
It seems to be this last group, the 30% of non-believers and private interests that are launching a frontal attack on the presentation of climate science and climate change in the public schools.
Last August, Think Progress described nothing less than a lynch mob style witch hunt taking place against science teachers who want to teach climate science in their classrooms. Admittedly, this seems like a shocking assertion, even for a progressive blog. But the article goes on to quote the respected Science magazine, which describes the scenario in which conservative voices have ramped up the vitriol with the claim that that climate science is a “monstrous hoax”, that “(climate science) is now joining evolution as an inviting target for those who accuse 'liberal’ teachers of forcing their ‘beliefs’ upon a captive audience of impressionable children.”
The real danger in presenting denial arguments, continues Think Progress, is that students are “being fed politicized misinformation”, and rather than being taught to think critically, and to reach conclusions based on scientific principles and evidence, they are taught to associate climate science with an ‘emotional, politicized reasoning process’”.
Just last month (February, 2012), the clash between the two sides reached an explosive climax, as Dr. Peter Gleick, well regarded climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute, put his career on the line to expose documents he received through admittedly deceptive means, from the arch-conservative Heartland Institute in Chicago – documents which detail a plan funded by powerful private interest based organizations to promote a climate denial curriculum in the public schools.
Though Heartland claims that one of the crucial documents exposed by Gleick was forged, its agenda has already effused into the stratosphere.
DR. EUGENIE SCOTT AND THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION (NCSE): THE BEGINNINGS
It is within this complex and combative environment, that the National Center for Science Education presents one of its greatest strengths: Executive Director, Dr. Eugenie Scott.
Scott is a scientist whose views are informed by a deep knowledge of the way science works, and a piercing sensitivity to the way conclusions are formed and framed.
What we focus on –our DNA– is person to person help for teachers, to give them the assistance they need to withstand the challenges from parents or administrators – we give them suggestions for framing and effectively presenting information.
Thirty odd years ago, she was a professor at the University of Kentucky, when the local Board of Education was approached by a citizens group to teach creation science along with evolution in the schools. The university science faculty and Lexington teachers immediately mounted a defense.
Scott, as it happened, had had a long standing interest in creation science, and had been collecting the literature on it since graduate school. She soon became the central resource for the local response. She formed a coalition of scientists, teachers, mainstream clergy and local parents, and after almost a full year of effort, the coalition defeated the policy. But the experience, she says, solidified her understanding that these ideas have profound consequences — for education, for religious liberty, and moreover, that these controversies can really polarize communities in very unpleasant ways.
Years later, as Executive Director at NCSE, Scott and her staff have built an organization that is a vital “go-to” resource for school districts, educators clergy, parents, students, and other groups interested in learning about the evolution and climate change controversies, and in supporting and preserving the teaching of the science in our schools.
We aren’t saying that ideologies are bad, here – everyone has ideologies that guide and shape their lives and they’re important. But when your ideology runs smack into a wall of empirical evidence that contradicts it – that’s when we have to consider an ideological modification.
What follows is an excerpt from our fascinating, and for me, highly informative conversation.
A.N.N.: What is the genesis of NCSE and what does it do?
E.S.: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a concern that laws promoting the teaching of creationism were being proposed in state legislatures all over the country, and it was clear that large science organizations like the National Academy of Sciences weren’t set up to deal with grass roots monitoring that was necessary to preserve the teaching of evolution science in the classrooms. So the raison d’être for the NCSE was to organize scientists, clergy, teachers, and civil libertarians at the grass roots level to respond effectively when state legislation proposed the teaching of creation science in the classroom. They have been doing this ever since.
A.N.N.: What is the NCSE approach to the current attacks against the science teachers who want to teach climate science and global warming in the schools?
E.S.: We’re taking the same approach that we’ve found helpful when we’ve worked to keep evolution in the classroom. Climate change has only recently been included in the science curriculum in districts and states. We direct teachers to what we feel are the best sources of information, and we work with other institutions to improve the information available to teachers.
What we focus on –our DNA– is person to person help for teachers, to give them the assistance they need to withstand the challenges from parents or administrators – we give them suggestions for framing and effectively presenting information. We also provide information on science or pedagogy that they need to effectively make their case.
A.N.N.: Global warming is a highly charged emotional issue….
E.S.: Yes, and it isn’t enough just to get the science right. Teachers do have to know why the claims are erroneous from a scientific standpoint. But to be effective, they also need to know why people embrace certain ideas so quickly – even when these views are contrary to observed science – and why they are so resistant to changing their minds.
The controversy over climate change education isn’t structurally different from the controversy over teaching evolution. The parallel is that anti-evolution is fueled by an ideological view – a religious ideology. Anti-global warming is fueled by political and economic ideologies. People who hold strong ideological views often have their fingers wedged in their ears – they don’t want to listen to science. We have to be able to approach them from a perspective that reaches them on an emotional/ideological level.
We aren’t saying that ideologies are bad – everyone has ideologies that guide and shape their lives, and they’re important. But when your ideology runs smack into a wall of empirical evidence that contradicts it — that's when we have to consider an ideological modification.
An example of an effective way to reach people through ideology is to appeal to religious views that embrace the environment. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (see clip below), for example, is a wonderful spokesperson for the conservative Christian response to climate change. She is an evangelical Christian who understands climate science. Others from her religious tradition will trust her, and then will be more open to listening to the science.
(In our work) we have to address the emotional-ideological barrier that keeps people from listening – so they can realize it’s not necessary to choose between faith and science.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and a powerful voice for the conservative Christian response to climate change
In many ways, climate change is where evolution was 25-30 years ago. We realize that this is a tough issue – it is driven by economics and politics and there are extremely powerful interests that have a stake in the question of climate change. People feel strongly about their economic survival, and there is an emotional push to buy into anti-global warming arguments.
There is another parallel between the global warming argument and evolution: the scientific consensus for both evolution and global warming is very strong. Because scientists accept both evolution and global warming, they should be taught by science educators. That’s the bottom line for us.
A.N.N.: The public is genuinely confused about climate change. On the one hand you have the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed signed by 16 scientists saying there is nothing to get excited about, and on the other hand, you have NASA climatologist Jim Hanson, who says that if we don't do something now, it will be too late.
How should teachers approach that dichotomy?
E.S.: Both teachers and the public need to understand that the way science works — the way we come to conclusions about explanations of the natural world – is not a crisp process where we name it and nail it. We don’t conduct one or two experiments and then conclude that we understand something – especially when it’s a complicated subject. Scientists evaluate each other’s work, criticizing it, suggesting new approaches, new tests, new observations, and finally after a period of time, a consensus grows among them, but sometimes it takes decades.
For example, there is a strong consensus that living things have common ancestors, that natural selection is a strong mechanism producing the common ancestry patterns that we call evolution. There is also, as a result of many decades of research, a strong consensus that the planet is getting warmer and that people’s actions have a lot to do with producing the change in temperature.
That said, you can find creation scientists, who will contend that the evidence for evolution is weak, about to crumble, and data don’t support it and therefore the issue is still unresolved. You can also find scientists who doubt that the Earth is getting warmer and/or that humans are the critical factor driving this change.
You can find small numbers of scientists who deny that evolution takes place, but if you go to science journals and meetings of scientific societies you won’t find anyone presenting papers, or publishing peer reviewed journal articles, or claiming that the evidence that living things have common ancestors is weak, and that we should challenge the idea of evolution. Similarly, although climate scientists differ on the details, at the conferences and in the journals, you don’t find denial that the planet is warming, nor that humans have a substantial role in this.
But because you can find a few scientists who think the evidence for evolution or climate change is weak, should teachers tell students that there is an active controversy within science over whether evolution took place, or whether the Earth is warming? That’s just wrong.
“the scientific consensus for both evolution and global warming is very strong. Because scientists accept both evolution and global warming, they should be taught by science educators. That’s the bottom line for us.”
With respect to global warming, the Wall Street Journal article was very disappointing because it was very authoritative (in tone), but it was structured like the arguments made by anti-evolutionists – that the evidence is weak – that we have scientists on our side, you have scientists on your side, the “jury is still out”, so it’s too early to make a decision yet, so let’s not do anything drastic.
Yet, when you look at the survey data on climate scientists, you get 97% saying that the earth is getting warmer and that people have a lot to do with it. If you survey all scientists, including those who are not climate scientists, there still are huge percentages – over 90% who say earth is getting warmer, and that people have a lot to do with it.
A.N.N.: But these 16 scientists signed on to the Wall Street Journal piece.
E.S.: There is a tremendous amount of cherry picking of data in claims like those made in the Journal article. They said (that warming hasn’t taken place over) ten years. But what if it had been 20 years? Well, of course the earth is getting warmer, but they just happened to start on a particularly warm year.
A.N.N.: The public also seems to be confused over the difference between global warming and climate change. Some people can look at six feet of snow in February and claim that the earth isn't warming. Can you explain what is happening in a way that is easy to understand?
E.S.: There is clearly a difference between climate and weather. I saw a wonderful video clip the other day that illustrates the difference beautifully.
Climate is the path of the dog walker, weather is the path of the dog.
A.N.N.: How does the NCSE make a difference?
E.S.: We are a small, underfunded, not-for profit and we wisely realize that (with climate change) there is a limited amount we can accomplish. But where we can make a difference is in helping teachers one-on-one to cope with push-back against the teaching of climate change. Some of these are issues arising from actions taken by State Boards of Education, or State legislatures, and some are local – from administrators, parents, and students.
We have made a difference in the teaching of evolution, by helping teachers defend good science teaching. For example, we have helped to ghost write substitute policies that respect the integrity of science, and countless times we have helped to defeat other policies by providing solid information to supporters who can testify at meetings.
The anti-global warming contingent claims that the consensus isn’t yet settled. In light of the survey data we have, that is a claim that is more and more difficult to make but they are making that claim at the public level and not at the scientific level.
We are dealing with issues that are important; we’ve helped teachers by providing information which clarify to concerned parents that when they teach evolution, they aren’t forcing the children to give up their faith. We can use those same lessons we’ve learned over the decades because the parallels are quite clear.
A.N.N.: What can you say to those who deny global warming — to the Heartland Institute, for example?
E.S.: Most NCSE members are scientists, and we want the consensus view of science to be transmitted to the new generation. If that consensus changes, then that’s fine. But the burden of proof lies with those outside of the consensus to demonstrate that the consensus is flawed.
The anti-global warming contingent claims that the scientific consensus isn’t yet determined. In light of the available survey data on scientists, that claim is more and more difficult to defend. And note that global warming deniers make that claim to the public rather than to the scientific community. We tell ….this group, if you have a better explanation, convince the scientific community first, and then these views will trickle down to the schools.
A.N.N.: What are the three important things the public should know about NCSE?
E.S.: First, NCSE is dependent upon the support of members and private foundations to keep doing what we do. Any donations are appreciated.
Second, we depend upon citizens in the states and communities to help us be effective. We work with local people to help them solve problems regarding teaching “controversial” issues.
Third, we have a lot of experience dealing with these scientifically controversial issues, and we are happy to share our experience with those who have problems. Our website is a good place to start, and our staff is on call.
A.N.N.: How can the public support your efforts?
E.S.: There are Citizens for Science groups that are independent of NCSE. We’re going to ask some of those groups if they would be willing to monitor challenges to climate change education much as they monitor challenges to evolution education. The important thing is that people know where to go for help – and that we know who we can go to for grass roots support– we can’t do it ourselves.
And second, because of ideological opposition, good science is being kept from our kids. Unless (everyone) can realize what a wonderful, exciting and adventurous phenomenon science is, they will be missing an important piece of their lives. So I encourage all of your readers to support science education, and an appreciation of science in the culture.
Dr. Eugenie C. Scott
National Center for Science Education