Defending Climate Science's Place In The Classroom

The National Center for Science Education has long defended educators' right to teach evolution in public schools. Now climate science too is under attack. NCSE executive director Eugenie Scott talks about how teachers and parents can fight the push to get climate change denial into the classroom.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. 2011 was the ninth warmest year on records, according to a new NASA report, and those records stretch back into the 1880s. And nine of the ten warmest years have happened since the year 2000. In other words, it's hotter than ever in modern history, but no data is enough to convince some climate change deniers about global warming. Lawmakers in several states have already introduced laws to make sure the views of climate skeptics are represented in the classroom.

Louisiana has already passed one. And as the case with teaching evolution, rather than deal with complaints of parents, some teachers are just avoiding teaching climate change altogether saying it's more trouble than it's worth. That's where my next guest comes in. Her group, the National Center for Science Education, has defended evolution teaching for decades and now it's taking on this new challenge to keep good climate science in the classroom and bad science out.

Let me introduce her. Eugenie Scott is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

EUGENIE SCOTT: Thank you very much, Ira. It's great to be back.

FLATOW: How widespread is this phenomena?

SCOTT: We have noticed, of course, every year as you and I have discussed, there have been a batch of anti-evolution bills submitted to state legislatures, but over the years, we've noticed that many times these anti-evolution bills also bundle global warming along with evolution as allegedly controversial issues that teachers are supposed to give balance to. And we know what that means, you're supposed to teach standard science and then teach anti-science or anti that particular view.

In fact, one was just introduced. We don't even have it up on our website yet. One was just introduced yesterday in Oklahoma that would do this. But we're also hearing reports of school boards and, you know, local school districts discussing regulations or imposing some sort of restrictions on teachers to teach climate change and climate change denial, basically. And that's obviously something that has a chilling effect.

But I think the thing that really motivated us to get into this is the stories that we're hearing from individual teachers more and more frequently that they are receiving push back from either students or from parents and of course, the board of directors that pays their salary in the local school district. And we thought that maybe our experience in dealing with these - really they're political issues and not really scientific issues so much - on the local level might help teachers cope with these pressures just as we've attempted to help them over the years cope with pressures against teaching evolution.

So, yeah, it's out there, Ira, and it's a problem that we'd like to get ahead of. You know, sometimes I think that the climate change issue, climate change education issue, is sort of where evolution was 25 years ago or 25, 30 years ago. And it took us awhile to gear up to us being, you know, NCSE, but the science community as well. Maybe we can get ahead of this one and it won't be quite as big a problem.

FLATOW: But evolution was based, originally, as a religious point of view. You're saying that this is more a political point of view.

SCOTT: That's correct. The commonality is that with the anti-evolution problem that we have been dealing with, yes, you're right, the ideology that motivates it is religious ideology. There's some religious ideology that motivates the anti-global warming group, but it's not really predominant. I mean, there's, you know, God's providence would never let anything bad happen to the Earth is out there, but that's not really what's motivating and paying for the surge of anti-global warming and climate change that we've seen recently.

It's more a political ideology and/or an economic ideology. it's the idea that if the planet's getting warming - if the plant is truly getting warmer, then we're going to have to do something about this and this is going to require us to make compromises, perhaps in our standard of living. I might lose my job if I'm in a business that's - or an occupation that has to do with energy production based on carbon, you know, coal, oil, gas, et cetera.

And people really have sincere fears about what's going to happen and clearly, the easiest thing to do is just attack the science. Well, the science is invalid. It's not really getting warmer. This is just an effort by liberals to increase big government. You hear that kind of argument out there as well. And so, you know, yes, the science is necessary. Yes, we will have to deal with the claim it's just sun spots or it's just the sun or it's just normal cyclical kinds of things. It's the volcanoes, not human putting CO2 in the air. We're going to deal with that.

But fundamentally, we're going to have to deal with these underlying issues, just like with evolution you have to deal with the underlying religious issue and try to assuage some of those concerns. Because, you know, you can't solve this problem by just piling more science on it.

FLATOW: And science teachers are avoiding the whole thing altogether.

SCOTT: We have reason to believe, but it's only anecdotal. There hasn't been a really good survey, a good reliable, you know, standard survey of research...

FLATOW: Right.

SCOTT: ...type of survey of teachers as to what they know about climate change, climate science, and what they're actually teaching about it. But we have reason to believe anecdotally that many teachers are saying, whoa, this is another controversial issue. It's too much work to - you know, I don't want to put up with the crap. I'm just not going to teach it.

FLATOW: We have a lot of people who email us or blog us and say, if I want to answer climate change skeptics, where do I get information? What kind of hard data can I tell them why I'm convinced of it?

SCOTT: I think a website that I've found very useful and I recommend to people and will certainly link to it from the resources on NCSE's website is climatescience dot - excuse me, skepticalscience.com. It's a very useful site. It's written by scientists and knowledgeable people, engineers and the rest and they have very clear explanations with links, you know, documented scientific research supporting their views for the top 100 or so climate change denialist arguments.

So if you want to know whether sun spots are the cause of the global warming, well, they'll explain that very clearly to you and they actually have, for most of their refutations, they have more than one level. So, you know, here's the basic level and here's the more advanced level and you click on the advanced level and you get the 8X10 glossies and a lot more detail than probably most people actually need. But it's a very useful site.

And there are other sites also, De-Smog blog is another one that refutes many of the arguments. So the refutations are out there. It's not going to - NCSE is not going to have a lot of that information on our site. We'll have some of it, just, you know, basic stuff. But we will link - we will provide links to good scientific responses to the claims of the global warming deniers.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Scott, thank you, Eugenie, for coming on and talking with us.

SCOTT: More than happy to. Thanks so much for helping us get out the word that we're here to help on this topic as well as evolution.

FLATOW: Dr. Eugenie Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, that's based in Oakland, California.

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