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Evolving Strategy

NO BONES ABOUT IT Eugenie Scott makes sure classroom science isn’t compromised.
As anti-science forces challenge the teaching of climate change in the public schools, a scientist fights back

In 1971 Eugenie Scott was a graduate student in physical anthropology at the University of Missouri. One day her mentor handed her a stack of literature from an organization calling itself the Institute for Creation
Research. "Take a look at these," he said. "It's called 'creation science.'"

She started going through the pamphlets. "I was just hooked," she told me. "It was so fascinating. Here I was studying to be a scientist, and these people were claiming to be doing science -- but, boy, were we doing different stuff."

Scott soon realized that these so-called creation scientists were looking at much of the same data she was studying -- "the same fossils, the same stratigraphy, the same biological principles" -- but coming to dramatically different conclusions. At times they seemed to be inviting a debate over the scientific method itself, especially its ironclad tenet that evidence alone determines the worthiness of any hypothesis.

In her work ever since, including her 26 years as the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, Scott has tracked the shifting strategies of the creationist movement in an effort to arm educators not only with accurate data but also with a scientific framework for interpreting and conveying those data. In 2012, recognizing that familiar social controversies were beginning to cloud the "substantial scientific agreement about the occurrence, causes, and consequences of climate change," NCSE launched a new initiative to defend and support the teaching of the subject in public schools.

I had planned to travel to San Francisco to discuss this expansion -- but Scott, ever the instructor, insisted on communicating via Skype. "Why should somebody travel halfway across the country for an interview when they could do this electronically and save a huge carbon footprint?" she asked. And so we spoke, face-to-face, she from her office computer in the Bay Area and I from mine in Nebraska.

During your tenure, NCSE has been engaged in many high-profile battles over the teaching of creationism in public schools. Each new iteration -- starting with "creation science," then "intelligent design," and now "teaching the controversy" -- seems designed to further conceal any religious underpinnings to help it pass constitutional muster. How has the strategy changed?

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment provides that public schools and other governmental offices can neither advance nor impede, neither establish nor inhibit, religion. You have to be religiously neutral in the public schools. Courts have held that teaching any kind of creationism constitutes religious advocacy.

The creationist strategy du jour is to say that teachers should be able to teach evolution but that they should balance it by also teaching the evidence against evolution, its so-called weaknesses. There's a whole taxonomy of phrases creationists use to describe it, but basically they want teachers to have to make the same old arguments for intelligent design or creation science. Now, however, they're calling them arguments "against" evolution. By concealing religion even more, they're hoping to avoid that First Amendment challenge.

And now you've found that similar battles are brewing over the teaching of climate change in public schools. In response, NCSE has recently launched a climate change education initiative.

We added climate change to our portfolio, if you will, because we were getting a lot of reports from teachers around the country who were being leaned on for teaching climate science. A teacher might mention global warming, for example, and a kid would raise his hand and say, "My dad says that Fox News told him it's a hoax." That makes it harder for teachers to teach, and some teachers are intimidated.

It's in NCSE's particular DNA to help citizens, teachers, school boards, and concerned people at the grassroots level cope with these kinds of political pressures. Can we give information to a teacher, say, that will help her convince the principal why Johnny shouldn't be allowed to "opt out" whenever she talks about climate change? Can we help local citizens to craft an argument that would persuade their school board to avoid passing a wrongheaded policy?

How are the climate-change deniers organizing and operating? And how do you plan to counter their efforts?

A few years ago we began noticing that the anti‑evolution legislation that annually crops up in state legislatures was being bundled with legislation against the teaching of global warming. Christian fundamentalists were expanding their scope to include climate change, in an effort to broaden their coalition by bringing in members of the business community.

So we've expanded ours too. We've had to seek common ground with those business-minded Republicans and libertarians who accept the science on climate change. But that's what politics is all about. You go out and find, say, those conservative Christians who are willing to talk about why believing in evolution doesn't necessarily require you to give up your faith. And then you go out and find those Republican lawmakers or business leaders who are willing to make the case to their fellow Republicans that, yes, you can be a good Republican and still accept the reality of global warming.

In Nebraska, where I live, legislators may be perfectly happy to talk about scientific evidence when they're discussing something like agricultural policy, so long as the scientific consensus suits their purposes. But if science comes back to them and says, "We need to do things differently," in a way that runs contrary to how business or Big Agriculture prefers them, then their tone shifts. They might say: "Well, that's just one scientist's opinion. We still don't have enough data."

Science is a powerful cultural institution; it's easy to see why anyone would want to glom on to it to promote a particular position. When we announced that we were going to be taking on climate change, we got a number of letters from people saying, "How could you fall for that hoax? You guys do such good work on evolution!" But just as the scientific consensus is that evolution happened, the scientific consensus is also that global warming is happening. Why wouldn't you accept the scientific consensus for both?

The compromise that Nebraskans seem to have struck with regard to climate change in the classroom is that, for now at least, it's going to be taught as part of the social studies curriculum, where it will be mentioned as one of several challenges to agriculture. Doesn't placing it within social studies suggest that climate change is a debatable issue rather than an established fact?

The "fairness" meme is popular in the United States -- and by and large, it's a really good idea. Balance is important. I want to know other people's points of view.

But at the K–12 level, students shouldn't be debating whether living things have common ancestors. And they shouldn't be debating whether the earth is getting warmer. They can debate arguments within evolution or climate change. Were dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold-blooded? That's a great critical-thinking exercise for kids. With regard to climate change, is the sea level going to rise two inches or six? What are the data? That's a great exercise.

We want to teach our kids to be critical thinkers. But we want them to be critical thinkers about things that are actually in dispute.

image of Ted Genoways
Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at www.tedgenoways.com), an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fe... READ MORE >
As environmentalists and scientists, I think we need to be more precise with our arguments and be careful not to oversimplify the issues as this can erode our credibility. The following 2 questions from the article are not the same type of questions as inferred by Dr. Scott. "Were dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold-blooded? That's a great critical-thinking exercise for kids. With regard to climate change, is the sea level going to rise two inches or six? What are the data?" I agree that one needs to look at the data for each question, but dinosaurs are either warm-blooded or cold blooded while the rise of sea-level could be anywhere between (or outside) the 2 - 6 inch range. This is a critical distinction for these questions. The question by Dr. Genoways "Doesn't placing it within social studies suggest that climate change is a debatable issue rather than an established fact?" is also misleading in my opinion. While temperature rise can be established as a fact, climate change is a theory backed by a lot of scientific data. I believe that people are most concerned about the ramifications of climate change (social studies) which are issues that SHOULD be debated and researched - how much will temperature rise and how quickly, how much sea level rise, what effects on crops and animals, etc.