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Teaching Climate Change in Schools

Posted on 17 August 2012 by monkeyorchid

Anyone familiar with the anti-science campaign by Creationists in America will recognise the phrase "Teach the Controversy".  This represents their attempt to get Creationisms, or its even uglier pseudoscientific spawn Intelligent Design, taught as science in schools, on an equal footing to evolution.  Like many damaging ideas, it can sound reasonable if phrased in the right way, e.g. "teach both, and let children decide for themselves which is correct."  The reality of course is that one is supported by mountains of hard evidence, and the other by precisely none, and that unless this is made plain in schools then children are being deceived.  

Climate change deniers are nothing if not adaptable, and will adopt any tactic that can help their goal of avoiding action on CO2 emissions.  Therefore, they too are now adopting the "teach the controversy" approach, although they are careful to avoid that particular phrase.  In America, Louisiana and Tenessee have already signed into law a bill that permits pseudoscience on both climate change and the origins of life to be taught alongside real science (see here and here).

The bill does not require the teaching of pseudoscience, but it ties the hands of school administrators, preventing any kind of censure of teachers who might want to tell their class that climate change is caused by the sun, cosmic rays or a lack of pirates.  In Australia, senator Cory Bernhardi complains that children are taught only "a single opinion about what is driving climate change", while serial denier Ian Plimer has written a book called "How to Get Expelled from School: A Guide to Climate Change for Pupils, Parents and Punters", and see a ridiculously uncritical review here (shame on you, Geological Society!).  In Britain the right-wing media are starting to call for a similar approach, with the Scottish Daily Mail proclaiming that "Leading UK Scientists" (in reality, two jokers from the Scientific Alliance) think that teaching climate science amounts to "brainwashing our children". The actual article is behind a paywall, but the gist can be found here, on an ongoing blog devoted to hiding the truth from children. 

As others have pointed out, the classroom is an obvious point of attack from climate deniers, having lost the scientific argument.  However, the success of these campaigns derives in part from uncertainty at various levels over how to teach climate change science to children.  Should "alternative" theories be avoided entirely, or is it better to run through at least the less ridiculous counter-arguments, and examine for each one why it doesn't hold?  Some supporters of the Tenessee bill appear to be worried that staying off the topic of alternative climate theories entirely is counterproductive, and feel that the bill removes this doubt.  It seems likely that similar doubts about the best approach are widespread, and worth addressing not only because they can be manipulated by denialists.

How best should teachers tackle climate change "controversy"?

At the simplest level, we could envision five different approaches to tackling climate change science in our schools, as follows:

A.  Avoid the topic entirely

B.  Teach simply that human carbon emissions are warming the planet, without going into the science.

C.  Teach the science underlying man-made climate change, but avoid going into alternative theories

D.  Teach the science of climate change, by critically examining the evidence (or lack of it) behind various proposed explanations for rising temperatures and CO2 levels, both those from scientists and those invented by deniers.

E.  Teach the science underlying man-made climate change, alongside alternative explanations, with no attempt to critically evaluate them.  

Without doubt, deniers like Plimer would happily settle for either A or E, and those pushing the climate teaching bills in America are no doubt aiming for E, while hoping to gather support from those who favour option D.  Sensible school curriculums would aim for C or D, but which of these is the better option?  Some clarity on the best approach would also make it harder for deniers to force their way into the classroom.  The question therefore comes down to this: should we be covering denialist claims in the classroom, and examining them on their merit?  I would argue that we should.  

Children encountering denial.

Children will encounter climate denial.  The phenomenon is so widespread that anyone at all interested in the topic of climate change will inevitably come across denialist claims and arguments; on the web, in the media or from family friends and relatives.  Given that even apparently highly educated adults can easily be taken in by denialism, any child who encounters denialist arguments for the first time outside school is likely to develop the idea that there is an establishment view and a subversive, "alternative" view, which could often appeal to teenage minds simply by dressing itself up as anti-establishment.  Therefore, option C, while appearing worthy, risks an outcome very similar to option E - leaving the impression that two equally valid viewpoints on the subject exist.

Tackling denial in the classroom.

The ideal situation, therefore, must be option D - to tackle denialist claims in the classroom.  While this represents a challenge for teachers, it also provides an opportunity to train children in critical thinking.  However much deniers like to claim otherwise, the theory of manmade climate change is far from complex: carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, we've pumped colossal amounts of it into the atmosphere, the amount in the atmosphere has steadily increased since we started, and based on that we would expect the earth to be steadily warming up - much as it is.  This much is easily covered by any competent science teacher.  Much of the perceived complexity of the topic stems from successful denialist tactics - convincing the public that the science is entirely reliant on complex simulations, and diverting attention from the above basics with irrelevancies like the MWP and melting ice caps of Mars.  This could leave teachers with the impression that the science of climate change is too complex even for a well-educated non-specialist to understand, leaving them unwilling to go into the topic in detail.  Creating this impression among teachers appears to be among the goals of the Heartland Institute.  In reality, however, any open-minded person is capable of grasping the key points of climate change science.

Tackling denial in the classroom does not need to be complex.  Teachers can deal with counter-arguments one by one, beginning with the simplest and building up.  Many of them provide opportunities to train and educate pupils in the process - covering areas like critical thinking, and the difference between science and politics, which is so vital to understanding the topic.  Critical thinking is arguably the single most important skill that any child can gain, in a world where information is now easy to obtain, and the challenge is to sort the facts from the fiction.  Once children grasp how little substance there is behind climate change denial, they are bound to start asking why people do it.  That too, is a question that teachers might attempt to answer, and perhaps is worth returning to in a subsequent post.

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. I've been a docent at Dinosaur Ridge, for nearly 15 years; even back when I started, there would be groups of tours, mainly children, that when I'd be talking about the signs of ancient life and geology so richly displayed there, almost inevitably there would be a 'creationist' kid who'd challenge my ancient Earth ideas. Needless to say, it would be an *uncomfortable* moment, and it remains so. I guess all we ("we" being those who believe in the scientific method, data, and facts, both professional and lay persons) can do is to continue to battle this ...scourge. Thanks for the article, monkeyorchild.
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  2. Also, isn't it *interesting* that such a bill would be introduced in Tennessee, where the Scopes trial took place?
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  3. Which is why the latest Texas republican party platform is against teaching critical thinking in schools.
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  4. I think it's important to ask people WHY they hold opinions at all, especially about esoteric scientific topics. Why hold an opinion on climate change and not the Higgs boson? Who told you it was 'really important' to prep yourself on THIS topic and not THAT topic. An American farmer was asked whether he thought their drought was climate change, and he said, "I don't know, I don't go in for politics.". 'Politics'? People need to be challenged about WHY they hold opinions. If more people were challenged in that way, they might understand that their 'scientific' understanding was foisted on them by political forces. These forces are telling them that they must hold an opinion, not for any scientific reason, but as part of their political identity. A few years ago, that farmer would have told you, flat out, "there is no such thing as global warming". It is only in the grip of a horrid drought that his POLITICAL identity has come under question, so the best he can muster in response is that he doesn't go in for 'politics'. Its peoples political identity that you are 'attacking' by publicly worrying about global warming. Asking them WHY they feel the need to hold an opinion on a scientific subject can perhaps get the ball rolling to peel back their programming.
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  5. Off Topic and Probably Naieve Is there any kind of an organized or informal effort to use these wonderful posts at Skeptical Science to refute denialist nonsense that is so common in Internet dscussion forums and news article comment sections? Is there an article somewhere on this site on that topic? Here are my latest postings (under rwmsrobertw) in a current article from CNN on Mississippi river low water levels (in relation to global warming, which always comes up in the comments on extreme weather related articles). CNN - Salt Creeping up the Mississippi River I'd love some company (besides some great posts I'm already seeing there) on this if anyone else wants to play. Thanks for the great articles that I have been reading here for years that have taught me enough to get involved.
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  6. I reckon C, teaching climate science in the science classroom, and then in another class (sociology or whatever) teaching about climate change denialism.
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  7. Note that Heartland has been trying Fakeducaiton for years, some with Australian connection, some with Canadian. Do watch a few minutes of the video.
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  8. Keep in mind that teachers in the USA are similar to run of the mill people. That means that a lot of them think that climate change might not be happening. Two years ago one of my students (I teach AP Chemistry) told me that the Physics teacher had proved that the greenhouse effect could not exist. He was a popular teacher and students were inclined to believe him. In the past I was very frustrated trying to discuss climate change because students who were deniers would say that scientists only argue in support of AGW to get grant money. I cannot respond to this argument reasonably. I address AGW by assigning a several reports where the students look up their own data and write reports on sea ice or global temperature. The data is so strong I do not even need to discuss it in class.
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  9. Answering the grant money question? Try Scott Mandia's pair of "Taking the money for granted" posts on the issue. Part 1 , Part 2
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  10. This could really bogged down in semantics. "Man doesn't drive climate change, we influence it. Nature drives the climate change bus" would be better written as Man can drive the climate change bus and Nature can drive climate change bus. And note we are talking about change. Manmade forcings over the last 200 years are as powerful as those found in nature over a similar period. That is an accurate statement that teachers should be teaching.
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  11. And to elaborate on that with a comment from a previous post.. The maximum milankovitch forcing that drives ice age is due to change in solar forcing that is about 0.25W/m2 per hundred years at 65N. Globally, its maybe a tenth of that. By comparison, anthropogenic GHG is about 3.7W/m2 over last 100 years on a GLOBAL scale. Think how much change is involved between glacial and interglacial for that small a forcing and then think about what 3.7W/m2 might do. In this respect, man is hardly insignificant compared to nature.
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  12. PZ Myers just recently linked to a cartoon in which someone questions a history teacher about revolution in the same way that biology instructors get questioned about evolution. The history prof relents and admits that teaching history is easier. I'm not sure that's always true, but I am frequently referencing the history of climate science and sending people to Spencer Weart's work. When we first take physics, we start with Newton. (Don't we? It has been a while for me.) Or in Chemistry, we go through a bunch of old models of the atom. It's useful to follow the historical intellectual development of how we have come to understand the world. Well, that's how I think climate change should be taught in school. Start with development of theory and how people tested it in the past. That's the curriculum in grade X. In grade X+1 more recent developments would be covered along evaluations of alternate 'theories'. What do these theories predict? Well, teach it when the kids are in grades 4-6, then don't worry about it. Teach them how to evaluate things in general after that. By the time these kids reach voting age, they'll be able to see if temperatures have dropped or sea ice has recovered. They should be able to look at the various predictions and figure out which are more useful.
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  13. 4. ubrew12, Very good comments - as I wrote this, I felt that bright kids would keep asking valid questions like these, forcing teachers to keep expanding on the topic. "Why do otherwise sensible people say it isn't happening?" is a very likely question. Hence it may be necessary to equip teachers with an understanding of the causes of denial. I tend to think that there are three basic causes: Fear, Ideology and Profit. The man on the street doesn't want something so scary to be real (who can blame him?!); a lot of right-wingers hate the political consequences of climate change being real, so they pretend it isn't; a small but hugely influential group of people spew out disinformation to earn money or protect their profits. To really understand climate change, possibly children need to understand these motivators, too. 6. calyptorhynchus True, though the topics overlap. Ideal would be if science and sociology teachers could teach classes on this together, or at least collaborate closely over lesson plans. At very least, the sociology teachers would need a decent grasp of the science to deal with any awkward questions coming along. Of course, really teacher of every subject should understand the science, in an ideal world! 8. michael sweet The grant money question is a popular denialist myth precisely because of the difficulty you mention, which stems from most folk knowing so little about how science and its funding operates. Perhaps classes on critical thinking need to expand to how research is funded? Of course, you can point to the massive amounts of money paid to people specifically to deny the reality of climate change, and to Richard Muller, whose BEST work was only funded because the funders expected the opposite result to what he provided. Perhaps a case study of BEST would help address these points? Also you might ask why, if it really were a myth, politicians would continue paying scientists to talk about a problem that politicians are abjectly failing to solve!
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  14. @ Steve L 12 Totally agree Steve. As an educator of 30 + years, teaching at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels the value of context is everything. When a subject is revealed as a process of the development of human understanding it gains relevance. In Physics, far better to start with the Ancient Greek world view, the questioning of Copernicus, and Galileo, etc.. (I'm missing out steps here - but I hope you get the drift.) Far too often a subject is presented as a unified whole - devoid of human spirit - here it is kids x, y z!) And we wonder why they are turned off - or fail to see the relevance! For instance, a few years back, my eldest daughter was beginning her degree in Chemistry, and the major topic of the year was oxidation, as one would probably expect. But no context, no hint of why this might be a relevant line of enquiry, nothing - just a whole bunch of "knowledge to be learnt". That's a big turn - off. Although a very competent A student, she decided Chemistry wasn't for her, and turned her attentions to other subjects that were presented in a more relevant way. I'm not saying she should have persisted with the subject - I'm simply saying that subjects need to be given relevance. The historical development of a subject as a process for revealing the emerging human understanding of the world around us, is a valid and useful pedagogical tool.
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  15. scaddenp@11 Do you have a reference to the Milankovitch-number? It would be a great asset to beat the people who refer to the magical cyclical nature of climate. TIA.
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  16. @ Steve L 12 & Macro 14 I also agree - and perhaps one could build up to climate change from multiple angles. First, we'd need to get to the properties of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, which could be covered by experiments on physical properties of different gases. If children *see* a container of C02 getting warmer than one of air, when both are exposed to re-radiated light, that's a big block of the science covered. This itself might be the culmination of gradual exploration of elements and compounds, with a constant eye on how they affect our lives. Indeed, CO2 and water are arguably the two compounds most relevant to life on earth and there is much that could be taught about them. Teaching the carbon cycle from the simple perspective of plants breath it in, animals breathe it out also kills off the absurd "humans only produce 3% of CO2" myth. A second angle might be the history of weather forecasting, which is full of exciting stories that could embellish the facts - for example Robert Fitzroy (captian of the Beagle) and his struggle to save sailors' lives by forecasting storms. Early heroes of climate science like Arrhenius and Keeling could then be brought in. Thirdly, aspects of the history of life could be covered - explaining how coal and oil formed, and how locking up of carbon cooled the planet. Timescale would need to be emphasised! I'm sure there are other angles too, but you're both right that just jumping straight in with climate change may not be the best approach. With building blocks of science i place beforehand, children will be able to work out for themselves that denialists myths are full of holes.
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  17. scaddenp@11 also, please provide the reference for your claim: "anthropogenic GHG is about 3.7W/m2". My reference: IPCC table, shows the anthropogenic GHG forcings as 3.0W/m2 (other forcings, mainly aerosols, are -1.4W/m2), so your number appears to be exagerated.
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  18. @ 16 monkeyorchid Exactly, "If children *see* a container of C02 getting warmer than one of air, when both are exposed to re-radiated light, that's a big block of the science covered." and an historical experiment to boot. Discovery is always exciting and captures the imagination, placing that discovery in a context ensures that its meaningfulness endures.
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  19. Monkeyorchid @13, another motive of some deniers is an unwillingness to accept the undermining of their life's narrative. These are people who have worked hard throughout their life trying to make the world a better place for their children. They are now being told that that hard work has polluted the atmosphere with CO2 in a way which may destroy their children's future. That is a bitter pill to swallow, and some simply will not accept it because it undermines their self narrative. I think this is a significant factor in the fact that so many deniers are fifty and over. Ironically, by not accepting it they are contributing towards turning a recoverable situation into one beyond recovery.
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  20. Tom Curtis @19, a very good point - one I need to start incorporating in my talks on the subject! I think that's exactly why good people like David Bellamy fall into denial. It's also a reason why people can be in denial about personal matters - like a failed marriage: the longer it goes on, the harder it is to admit that one has been flogging a dead horse and making oneself and others miserable. And again, the only way to move forward is to admit to oneself that the current course is wrong. So you're absolutely spot on, but it may be a tricky point to make with children. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try!
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  21. BTW, the National Science Foundations is giving 19 million in grants for climate change education:
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  22. Chrisoz - I am guilty of remembering/grabbing numbers from other arguments without thinking hard enough. The 3.7W/m2 is of course the forcing for doubling CO2 which hasnt happened. I definitely defer to IPCC for actual figures. Its still showing man able to produce forcings an order of magnitude higher than nature. Lanfear - the calculation is from difference in annual 65N insolation between min and max glacial divided by no. of centuries. I dont have the reference for that to hand, but probably on this site.
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  23. Michael Sweet @ 8: "I address AGW by assigning a several reports where the students look up their own data and write reports on sea ice or global temperature." Yes! Do it that way. What is your physics teacher's argument? Is he a "2nd law of thermo forbids downwelling radiation" type? Why on earth is it hard to address the "grant money" argument? That's about the trashyist argument there is, and an opportunity to explain what science and scientists are all about. Grants have been well addressed at RC sometime ago. Obvious factors start with: 1. The first criterion for getting a grant is that the proposed research will advance scientific knowledge. You don't get or need a grant to say what everyone else is saying, nor do you need to do all the work of research. 2. You don't get the money anyway. The money goes to the institution. First they take their "overhead" off the top. Then they disburse the remainder in bits as graduate student or postdoc stipends, or to suppliers for equipment, etc. When you get a grant, what you, the researcher, get is an obligation to do a lot of work. Why would you do that? see below. 3. If it is money you are after, and you are enough of a scientist to do original research in earth science, you can make much more money working for industry. which brings us to what scientists and science are all about: *** Finding things out is what it's all about *** That's the first realization your students need to start understanding scientific methods. Then you get into How to find things out. But you won't get far without a drive to find things out. Michael, learn to take that trash "grant money" argument as an opportunity. ... then finally point out that it is not a scientific argument - is it an implicit admission of not having one? If not, back to your Assign a report method. ======= Steve @ 12: "When we first take physics, we start with Newton. (Don't we?...." Well there's ======= @ 16 "If children *see* a container of C02 getting warmer than one of air, Linda's first co2 experiment ...." search on Linda's first CO2 experiment. As for wanting teachers to cover all those other things you mention, by and large they are struggling to cover what they have to (their state standards) while following the text and preparing the students for standardized tests - three sometimes contradictory aims.
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  24. Pete, The basic grant money argument is that thousands of scientists are all liars. This argument is made by people who do not listen to reason. What reasonable person would assert that thousands of people they have never met are all lying for money and keeping the conspiracy a complete perfect secret? These people can never be addressed with reason. It angers me that someone would say all scientists are no better than politicians or oil executives. They believe the oil executives at the same time. I have found it is a waste of my time to attempt to deal with this argument. In addition, I find that my students do not listen to someone they disagree with. They think everything is a political argument. They do not know what a fact is. 25% of people in the USA are unable to determine Obama was born in the USA. TV adds pelt them with "scientific" arguments for weight loss and other snake oil. They watch House solve "scientific" problems. Keep in mind that half of students in the USA do not believe in evolution (more people in the USA believe in ghosts than evolution). They are taught to question science by their pastors. We spend very little time in science classes teaching how scientists come to conclusions about new knowledge, most time is spent on material that is well known. My students are often impressed when they see the data. They seem to prefer little discussion so that they can reach their own conclusions. They usually tell me that they have never seen the data before, even though An Inconvenient Truth is shown in English. As any reader of SKS knows, the data speak very loudly. (An Inconvenient Truth is used as an example of how to make an argument). The Physics teacher no longer works at my school. I never found out exactly what his argument was. I think it was the "absorption is saturated" argument.
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  25. Michael, thanks for this additional information. Of course I don't know anything about your students. It is almost routine though that people who try to present reality to those who don't want to hear it become frustrated by the hardcases - the ones who just smart off against science. Remember they aren't the whole class. Anyone who might be going into science needs badly to be disabused of the vile "grant $" argument. For their sake and for the bystanders I think I would respond quite firmly to this argument, and brush off persistence as absurd. How can anyone believing that also think she or he is learning science, or indeed that there is any science to be learned? What was that Latin phrase? Don't let the hardcases get you down.
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  26. With regard to the Grant Money argument there are the following rebuttals (bear in mind this is written from a UK perspective and same may not be true elsewhere) 1. Grant Money does not pay the salary of the person applying. Typically an academic will be salaried by the institution at which they teach/lecture. A grant may allow them to employ post-doctoral or technical workers (for relatively short periods of time) but does not go to "line the pocket" of those applying. 2. How come this fraudulent activity is restricted to Climate science ? Or is the implication that all academic research (including that which medical treatments are based) is flawed due to this practise ? If that is so, why is it that grant awarding bodies have not "wised up" to this practise, why are there no whistleblowers from inside the grant awarding bodies complaining about the waste of tax-payers money ? 3. To claim that academics would deliberately fabricate research results for financial gain misunderstands the motivation for entering academic research in the first place. People are drawn to academia because they have a strong motivation to investigate and understand their subject - not to make money or build a research "empire". There are a few isolated cases of scientific fraud - Cyril Burt and Gregor Mendel spring to mind - but these seem to have been motivated by a desire to be bolster their particular theory, not to make money.
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  27. 26, Phil, I have noticed that there are certain people -- a fairly large population of them, in fact -- who view everything in terms of money and making money. This is their only motivation for doing things, and as such this is their main criteria for evaluating any scenario, no matter what its nature. Everything boils down to money. And for these people, they seem to be incapable of recognizing any other motivation or primary factor in others' decisions. Research is done for money, not the sake of research, interest in the work, or the reward of discovering something new. One gets into climate science and climbs on the AGW wagon to make an easy buck. The IPCC effort is done for money, not for the sake of helping to coordinate the efforts of world governments in addresses a common, scientific problem. It's a way for poor nations to squeeze money out of rich nations, or for scientists and rich green-energy investors to squeeze money out of world governments. Carbon taxes and funding for green-energy or promotion of reasons to pursue green-energy are done as a backhanded way to make money without doing any actual work (like those nose-to-the-grindstone Koch brothers). For those people everything in the world is viewed through the money lens, and there's no way to convince them otherwise, just as it is impossible to truly describe color to a person who has been blind from birth.
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