Eugenie Scott – Defending Climate Education

January 16, 2012

Eugenie Scott is no stranger to Point of Inquiry, or to the secular community. Her endless travails to defend the teaching of evolution have won her immense respect.

And that’s why, when Scott and her National Center for Science Education take on a new initiative, everybody listens. So for this Point of Inquiry episode, we invited Eugenie to break some news about why she is venturing into a very new and very challenging area—defending the teaching of accurate climate change science in schools from a mounting ideological assault—and how you can help her out.

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Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast. Dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, January 16th, 2012. 

Welcome to a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. At the outset of our show, I want to let you know that this episode of Point of Inquiry is sponsored by Audible. Audible is the Web’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. The site offers thousands of books for download to your computer, your iPod or a C.D. And today it’s willing to give you one of them for free to participate. All you have to do is go to the following Web site, audible podcast, dot com slash point. Let me say it again. That’s audible podcast, dot com slash point. And since we just had Brian Greene on the show, let me recommend two of his books that are available right now on Audible. The Elegant Universe and the Fabric of the Cosmos. Both are there. You can download one of them now for free. Eugenie Scott is no stranger to this program or to the secular community. Her endless travails to defend the teaching of evolution in public schools have won her immense respect. And that’s why when Eugenie and her National Center for Science Education take on a new initiative, everybody listens. Everybody pays attention. So for this point of inquiry episode, I wanted to have Eugenie on the break. Some news about why she’s venturing into a very new, different and challenging area and how you can help her out. 

Jeannie Scott, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you. Good to be back. 

I’m I’m thrilled to have you on. You’ve been a leader for such a long time in defending the teaching of good science in our schools focused on evolution. And now you’re extending your mandate. So can we break some news here? Tell us the new direction that you’re going in. 

Well, NSCLC is pretty well known for our efforts in the last 25 plus years in helping teachers to negotiate the problems involved with the teaching of evolution. As as you know, teachers are often hammered by parents or school boards or legislators for teaching evolution. And we work with our members and friends at the grassroots level to try to resolve these problems. And we’ve learned a lot of things over the years about how to negotiate these these controversies. And what we’re finding is that teachers are faced facing the same problems when they tried to teach about global warming and other climate change topics. So after thinking about this hearing more and more anecdotes about teachers having these difficulties, we decided that maybe our expertize in dealing with controversial issues in the classroom could be extended to climate change. So we’re letting teachers and parents and other people know that if difficulties arise, please let us help. So I appreciate you helping us to get out the word. 

Well, I. I think we all do a good job of that. 

So you would say then that the volume of contacts or the volumes of stories that you’re hearing about local level climate fights has just gone up lately? I mean, is it a pattern of the last couple years of bingo? This this issue’s been controversial for some time. 

Yes. And we we began noticing about five or six years ago that it the state legislation level evolution was being bundled with climate change and global warming and origin of life stem cells. There’s this whole laundry list of concepts that the religious right is nervous about. And we started, you know what? We’re used to having anti evolution legislation that obvious. And what we had about here is global warming is being bundled along with us. This is a new controversial issue and we’re receiving more. And unfortunately, the vast majority of the reports are only anecdotal. There hasn’t been a really good scientific survey of teachers as to what they’re experiencing in the classroom. But we’re we’re certainly advised that this is becoming a more serious problem. We’re starting to see newspaper accounts. We’re starting to get calls from teachers or school board members where this is becoming an issue at the local level. It seems to have started in one sense at the at the state level. And although, fortunately, the vast majority of these bills have have been fought and have not passed. But, you know, there’s this trickle down effect. Even if the bill doesn’t get passed, there’s still this chilling effect of, oh, I guess I better watch out for this topic as well. So we’re hoping that we can, as I say, use our expertize that we’ve developed over the years and helping people cope with pressures against teaching evolution. And there are, of course, many parallels in the anti evolution fight in the anti climate change fight. 

And we think that there’s similar enough, at least in structure, if not in content, that we might be able to to lend a hand. 

I want to tease out some of those parallels in a moment. 

But first, I just got to ask you this. One of the my favorite things you do and you do all kinds of great things, but what you know, conservatives would put out all these lists, religious conservatives, about all the scientists who deny evolution. And so you came up with something called Project Steve, which was the list of scientists who were named Steve who support evolution and who got at least 10000. So we have scientist named Steve who support global warming. 

No, as as it says on our Web site, on the page describing projects, Steve, it’s only funny ones who feel better. 

Now, Project LaNeve has just been great fun. 

We had no idea that this would just tickle people so much. I mean, we thought it was fun to know and we were generally a pretty serious organization. You know, we we we work hard. We have good materials on our site. But every once in a while, you know, you get you got to wear that. 

H.L. Mencken said one horse laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms. So Project Steve was our horse laugh. I contend. Yeah, it’s you know, it started off with just 200 scientists and then they just keep coming in over the transom. So, you know, as as you mentioned, we have we had the kilo’s, Steve, the 1000, Steve, a couple of years ago. And it continues to go. It’s. 

Fun, we’ll just think about something like that for global warming, because, boy, we could excuse it, but let’s get it more serious. 

What one of the differences is what schools actually teach to begin with. Right. 

Evolution is a required part of the curriculum. Mostly, if I’m correct, correctable warming is not. It’s more elective. Or how does it work? 

Oh, global warming. The instruction on global warming tends to be much spottier in the curriculum. It is it is often a component of middle school earth science classes or physical science classes. It usually appears in high school biology and then the ecology unit of some sort. Rarely you might find it in some chemistry classes because, you know, there’s a lot of chemistry involved in global climate science. But, yeah, you’re right. It is not as specific as as evolution in terms of of its location. We’ve done a brief survey of science education standards in regard to climate change. And there’s a couple dozen states that do require the teaching of of climate change concepts. But it’s very spotty. It’s you are absolutely right. It’s not as routine as the teaching of evolution. The issue is that I mean, we believe that it’s an important topic and we certainly will encourage it increase in the curriculum. But our major concern is that when it is taught that it is taught in a way that respects the integrity of science, that it is not compromised by bringing in denial arguments and that teachers be supported for teaching good science and not attacked for political and ideological reasons for for doing so. 

What a kids know about global warming. I mean, I’ve read somewhere of some kind of report that they are just as confused as average Americans. They think it has something do with the ozone hole. 

Right? I mean, that’s the name. Number one, global warming misconception out there. Do you have any sense of that? 

I am a as as as our you have only a very small amount of research on what Americans know about education. I think of the folks it was the folks at late Yale Zera, which is people did a survey on high school students fairly recently. I think we might have a link to it on our Web site. And yeah, he found a pretty mediocre level of knowledge among high school kids. And of course, school is one place where people, young people especially get their science knowledge, but they also pick up science knowledge from the general public, from news reports, from television, nature shows or other shows. And, you know, one thing that we were contemplating when we were deciding whether or not to add global warming to evolution of our in our portfolio is, you know, the A.I. global warming people have a great deal more access to popular media than do the anti evolutionists. Probably Fox News three or four times a week make some disparaging comment about global warming, whereas you don’t find that kind of of repetition against evolution. And and indeed, the the forces that are promoting the global warming denial position are much more numerous, much better funded and have more access to mainstream media. So it’s gonna be a tougher fight for us. 

How do they get into the classroom? What is the vehicle? I mean, I’ve read there was all this scandal about the educational publisher Scholastic. 

And I think that this has died down now, but they had teamed up with. I can’t remember who it is now, but at but an industry organization that was putting out curricula and people were saying that this was pro industry and it was an environmental curriculum. Is that the kind of thing that you’re going to have to counter or is it going to be some other kind of vehicle? 

No, that is exactly what we are. 

What I’m talking about, you know, schools don’t have many resources these days, so teachers are generally happy to accept free materials. 

And some of these industry related, an industry supported non-profits are producing instructional materials, videotapes and pamphlets and articles and things which they’re giving to the teachers and encouraging them to use. And some of this stuff is a little dodgy when it comes to the basic science. I’m reminded of a coal industry sponsored pamphlet that we encountered. My colleague Josh Rosenow encountered where there was some phrasing in there like, you know, well, some scientists believe that CO2 is a increases global warming. 

We now know that some scientists is like 97 percent of them, just basics. So, you know, casting doubt on the science is is a classic anti evolution position. 

That’s a classic anti global warming position. 

So you’ll monitor classroom materials, at least if someone lets you know, try. Hey, yeah, this is this is showed up in my school or something like that. What other kinds of of encounters are there in factories? 

That would be very helpful if if anybody, any teacher or parent listening to this program encounters some of this material that shows up. Please send it to us. So we have an idea of what’s reaching the classroom and we will get scientists to evaluate it and determine whether or not this is good science or whether it is. 

I’m not. I’m sorry. What was your question? 

No, no, that was that was the question. I have I have others. In some ways, you know, evolution and climate differ. 

I mean, some ways lot of ways in some ways they actually don’t in terms of who you’re up against. I’m just saying come across polling data saying that if you look at the Tea Party, the denial of global warming, the denial of evolution, go right hand and end there about the same levels. There are very strong levels of denial. I mean, to what extent are you facing the same people? 

There is an overlap, certainly, if you look at the anti-gay evolution organizations like Answers in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research and the like. They tend to be pretty reliably also anti global warming. They think that all of this is, you know, not true. But the A.I. global warming component is much larger. It goes beyond just the religious conservatives. You also get political conservatives who are not necessarily religiously conservative. You also get libertarians who are anti global warming, and they may be perfectly fine with evolution. So it’s a bigger set, so to speak, that overlaps with the anti evolutionists. And really, the anti evolution is, of course, based on an ideological position. And that ideology is conservative Christianity anti. Global warming is also based on an ideology, but that ideology is different. It’s a A.I. It’s a political and an economic ideology, an anti big government ideology or global warming, as is often framed as a as a politically liberal effort to try to increase the power of the government or to attack capitalism or some sort of nonsense like that. But it’s also framed by libertarians as an anti individualism, anti American exceptionalism type of ideology, where people are going to be, you know, you’re going to tell me that I can’t drive a big gas guzzler. 

You’re going gonna tell me what kind of light bulbs to use that that sort of thing. And so and that’s pretty independent of conservative Christianity. That’s not really a religious position, although it is certainly an ideological position. 

And as you and I have talked about and many of your writings have made very clear, when you’re dealing with a proposition that fundamentally is ideologically based near empirical data is not going to necessarily make much of a dent in that. 

I mean, obviously, we like to think the science is necessary, but clearly it is not sufficient. Sometimes it makes it worse. The utterly dismal theorem here. 

All right. So let’s let’s go back to this scenario. There’s a there’s, you know, some kind of misleading material in the school that a teacher’s teaching. The teacher has gone from idle nowhere something and some other teacher objects or some student objects somebody calls you. What do you have at your disposal? Because after all, with evolution, you have this incredibly wonderful thing called the First Amendment. 

And, you know, you don’t have that here. Right. So you’re absolutely right. This is going to end up in the Supreme Court. 

No, no, you’re we we. You are. You hit the nail on the head. 

This is going to be a much tougher fight on a number of levels for for teachers and for our effort to help them. Really? Yes. There’s no establishment clause. There’s there’s no constitutional protection against bad science. We don’t have that wonderful big backstop of the First Amendment. Well, we do have is, generally speaking, a shared concern for let’s give the kids a good education. And so a good deal of our effort is going to have to be directed toward really educating people and helping them understand, you know, look, this is the scientific consensus. If somebody is telling you that there is a big debate going on within the scientific community over whether the planet is getting warmer and whether people have a lot to do with it, they are mistaken that this is pretty much a done deal when it comes to the scientific community, that there is not a big debate going on within the pages of the scientific journals. So, you know, let’s let’s do the best we can for our kids education. Let’s be sure that our kids get an education for the 21st century, to use a phrase. And that really at the K-12 level is to give them the scientific consensus. Now, it’s different at a university level. You’re gonna be debating more of the issues that are controversial within science. But people often don’t realize that the goal of K-12 or an eight through 12 teacher is to give kids the basic science. You’re really not dealing with, you know, string theory in physics class. You’re dealing with optics and math and the basic concepts. So that should reflect the scientific consensus. And the other thing that we can point to in in general is the science standards for the. Most of which are a large percentage of states do require teaching of climate change concepts in some fashion or another, and so the teachers certainly can address. No kid can stand behind the state standards, so to speak, of, say, a challenge by a parent. But, yeah, it’s gonna be it’s gonna be a tougher, tougher struggle. We basically have exhortation for doing the best for the kids. And, you know, it’s it’s gonna be gonna be much more of an argument. 

In, you know, Kansas, Texas, where we’ve gotten really heated evolution battles, one thing you get almost as sort of you know, you look at the state board of Education and what they’re doing to standards. I mean, have we seen the educational standards pertaining to global warming actually being altered in some way so as to make them misleading? Yeah. 

In Texas, a couple of years ago, when the science education standards were being finalized, the board members did put it what we would consider qualifying language into the earth and earth and space science framework. And I think, well, certainly in the biology framework, there was qualifying language for evolution, but also for climate change and this other and this other field. Yeah, it’s this certainly can happen. Now, one thing that’s going on that your listeners might be interested in is just as with math and with English language disciplines, the science discipline is being reviewed at the national level. 

There are a national science education standards being prepared that I think something like 22 states have already agreed to adopt. And that, of course, would be hugely valuable in terms of getting some kind of continuity from state to state. In terms of the content of science instruction. The National Science Education Standards Blueprint, or outline, was developed initially by the National Academy of Sciences. And it’s very solid. It includes evolution. It includes climate change in several places. And then this document has been given to a nonprofit organization called Achieve, which as we speak now in January of 2012, is in the process of actually writing the standards themselves, putting pen to paper, so to speak. The standards written by Achieve will go back to the academy for review and also after public review, and then they will be adopted by however many states have agreed to do so. It’s interesting that the math standards a few years ago were signed on to by 45 48 states and some huge number of states. Fewer states have agreed in advance to adopt the national standards. And I think it’s because of evolution and it’s because of climate change, because there are lots of pressures at the state level against the incorporation of these, quote, controversial issues into their kids education. 

There’s no revolt against PI yet. That’s how far we all know it equals 3.0. Just so much easier for the kids to calculate. 

So is there anybody that you’re going to be up against? I mean, with with evolution, it was clear it was the Discovery Institute. I mean, it wasn’t always. It it became the Discovery Institute wants the battle shifted towards intelligent design. 

Is there anyone concertedly working at the local level to change the teaching of global warming? 

Not in quite the same fashion. 

There certainly are a large number of national nonprofits. Some would refer to them as Astroturf fake green organizations that sound very green but actually are promoting anti global warming and anti ecological kinds of topics. We don’t know. Well, except for the production of these instructional materials that are, you know, regularly, we believe, distributed to teachers, we’ve we I would not be surprised to see some of these groups exhibiting at the Science Teacher Association conventions and trying to reach teachers. But in general, I think just like with the with the anti evolution movement or groups like the ICR and AIG and the Discovery Institute, they produce the materials. But it’s really the people who are inspired at the grassroots who who take these materials to the teachers or to the state legislature or to the local school board. You know, evolution is a quintessential grassroots movement. You don’t have a lot of people pulling strings at the top. And I you know, my gut feeling is probably climate change is going to be the same way because education is so decentralized in the United States and so many of those decisions are made at those, you know, 15000 plus or minus individual school districts in this country. So it has to be a very granular it has to be a very grassroots kind of effort. If you’re going to succeed, just like we can’t be on every 15000 school district, but we work with people in the States and try to provide them with the information and the advice. 

I mean, how is he is that just our evil twin fringe? 

They’re also providing information and advice, but they generally are not there on the ground themselves anymore than most of the time. We aren’t. Way at the Discovery Institute gets more credit than than than they should have a, you know, plain old garden variety, younger of creationism has not gone away. I mean, we’re we’re talking here in early January. The year is not even two weeks out. And we’ve just posted our fifth anti evolution legislation piece. That’s that’s just popped up. And there’ll be many more to come. These guys have not gone away. 

That’s that’s important to bear in mind. 

I asked who your foes will be, who are your allies be one of the things that NSCLC has gotten criticism for and I don’t think it’s fair criticism, but you certainly got it was this sort of sense that, hey, we should work with the religious community on these local evolution battles. 

They they help rather than hurt. Is that the kind of allies you need in climate battles? 

Well, you mean the definition of an of an ally is somebody who’s who shares your goals and is working incompatible ways with you to achieve them. Will take all allies. The green Christians are our allies in the encouragement of people accepting the fact of that the planet is getting warmer and people have something to do with it. The environmentalists are our allies. If they’re concerned about climate change, education, the science teacher organizations and the scientist organizations like the Academy Interplays and National Association of Science Teachers, all of these groups are our allies and we will continue to work with anybody who shares our goals. That’s just plain common sense. 

Well, you know, I think it’s really important that you’re, you know, going into this breach. 

And so we want to help support that in any way possible. That’s why I’m devoting a whole show to it. 

So and the skeptics organizations, obviously. 

Well, so the question is, I mean, and we’ll wrap up here just to two final questions. We can zoom in either order. How are you going to know progress is going to be is being made? And what can our listeners do to help you make that progress? 

You can just tackle that any way you’d like. 

In the case of evolution, it’s it’s very difficult to know. Are we making progress or not? What we do know is that we have made a big difference because an awful lot of laws have not been passed. A lot of school board policies have been modified so that they respect the integrity of science. And a lot of teachers have been helped because we hear from them. We hear their gratitude a lot. Most of this never makes the newspaper, obviously, but it’s a huge nation. It’s very decentralized when it comes to education. Information is difficult to come by as to. It’s not like we can say we have placed 42 orphans this month in new homes. I mean, that’s you know, we’re not like other nonprofits that can take actual counts of of accomplishments. I suspect the situation with climate change education will be quite similar. Our goal will be to help teachers. We have a very limited you know, we’re small. We have a lot of expertize in kind of handling the social and political aspects of of these local controversies. And we will try to apply that expertize to the climate change situation. And certainly what your listeners can do is keep their ears open. If you hear of a teacher who is having problems with the teaching of climate change or evolution. Let us know. Let the teacher know where they can go for help. Our Web site has a lot of information. One of the best things, just as a footnote here that that we hear is people a teacher will write a saying, oh, I went to your Web site and got this great information and I took care of this problem that I had with a parent. Thanks a lot. Well, you know, great. We didn’t even have to help you. You got what you needed from our Web site. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes we need to to counsel individually. And that’s great. But your listeners should watch their newspapers, listen to the radio. Other sources of news that they might have if something is going on. Let us know. We we monitor the creation and evolution controversy. We will be monitoring the global climate change controversy as it’s played out at the school level. 

And you know where this is an exciting new area. A little scary for us, a little scary. 

Certainly, the opponents are much better funded and much more powerful than the anti evolutionists are. But, you know, we’ll do what we can to help. 

And do your listeners check out our Web site. We will be expanding our Web site to include climate change materials and we will be adding to it over the months and years. 

Well, Jeannie, I think the world glad that we have your expertize and your experience entering this area where we really need you. So I want to thank you for coming on point of inquiry. Thanks so much. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about this show, please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Of Inquiry is produced by Atomizing and Ember’s New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Weyman. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney