When Did Teaching Science Become Political a Blood Sport?

Did you see what Scott Pruitt, the Chief Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said today?

Despite almost a century’s worth of scientific evidence, the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community, and the scientific opinion of national groups like NOAA and NASA, he made the argument that carbon dioxide ISN’T a primary contributor to global warming.

Pruitt’s argument aligns nicely with the argument of the fossil fuel industry — who he has a long history of supporting at all costs.  “I think that measuring with precision human activity on climate is something very challenging to do,” he said.  “And there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of the impact, so no, I would not agree that it is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Now, Pruitt is definitely in the minority here:  There’s NOT “tremendous disagreement” about the impact that carbon dioxide is having on our climate.

Need proof?  Then check out the Climate Change Consensus page on NASA’s website.  You’ll find that:

  • 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 18 scientific associations — people like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America — believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 11 international science academies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • US Governmental Agencies — INCLUDING Pruitt’s EPA — and other international governmental bodies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.

So you can either believe the guy who has taken thousands upon thousands of dollars in donations from energy companies and their Political Action Committees OR you can believe thousands upon thousands of scientists who have spent their entire careers researching this issue.

This should make for a PERFECT lesson in my sixth grade science classroom, y’all.  

My standards require that I teach the carbon cycle — which includes the impact that excess combustion (think burning coal to create electricity and oil and gas to power vehicles) has had on the balance of carbon in our atmosphere AND that I teach students how to “distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.”

Think about that for a minute.  Climate change is very public example of how an imbalance in the carbon cycle is having an impact on our day-to-day lives.  More importantly, Pruitt’s statements are a very public example of a place where students can distinguish between facts, reasoned judgment based on research and speculation.  I’d LOVE to let them decide whether or not Pruitt’s argument is believable.

Isn’t that EXACTLY the kind of lesson that today’s students need to learn if they are ever going to be scientifically literate?

After all, we live in a world where politicians let donations govern their decisions — and those decisions end up governing our lives.  We also live in a world where the value of scientific research is regularly denigrated if it stands in opposition to positions that are going to cost businesses money or politicians donations.  Lobbyists whisper in the ear of guys like Pruitt, making promises in order to gain influence.  If kids aren’t prepared to recognize those conflicts of interest and aren’t able to interpret the meaning of scientific findings when making personal decisions about who to support, our planet is screwed.

But here’s the thing:  I won’t mention Pruitt’s comments to my class at all.  

Why?  Because over the past decade — ever since Al Gore started talking about our world’s Inconvenient Truth — I’ve been buried time and again by complaints from angry parents who ALSO believe that there is “tremendous disagreement” over the role that carbon dioxide plays in our changing climate.

It’s the exact same criticism that I get when I talk about natural selection or evolution — topics that are ALSO in my required curriculum AND scientifically settled, but widely panned by a small handful of people in America.

Most of the complaints that I get parrot talking points that you hear on radio programs hosted by guys like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.  People suggest that “I’m teaching climate science as if it is fact instead of opinion.”  They argue that, like most public school teachers, I am a part of a “left-wing conspiracy to brainwash children.”  And they ask if I’m going to bother teaching both sides of the story, even when there really AREN’T two sides to any of these stories.

Think about how frightening this all is.  

Essentially, I’m admitting to you that I shy away from introducing my students to scientific fact simply because I know that there’s a good chance that I’ll be attacked when I do.  Maybe I should be ashamed of that.  Maybe I should teach controversial topics no matter how much flak I’m likely to take.  Maybe I’m failing my kids and my community by keeping silent even in a situation where silence isn’t warranted.

But it’s just not that easy.  

Somehow, teaching science became political blood sport — and sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to fight.   






7 thoughts on “When Did Teaching Science Become Political a Blood Sport?

  1. Joe Henderson

    Hey Bill, it’s been a while. Was just directed over here via an earth science listserv and it was like visiting an old blog friend. Just wanted to thank you for the post and to contextualize some of your experiences a bit in the literature. First, in complete agreement about your teaching approach here. Present the carbon cycle evidence, the various arguments and let the students wrestle with the implications. That’s what the NGSS argues for too. Most of the heat in this issue is about what to actually do about climate change, and science education isn’t really that good at making those value judgments (is vs. ought problem). Some writing on that here:


    As for political push-back, a recent research paper in Science found that teachers weren’t experiencing much political pushback:


    We’re finding similar phenomenon in our own studies (in publication preparation), which suggests that anecdotal reports of political controversy might be overblown. Perhaps this is to be expected given the widespread public agreement on climate change science, even among Republicans:


    That said, power matters, and the elite power to shape narratives matters a lot right now:


    I don’t have any easy answers here. Onward.


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks for all of these resources, Joe. I can’t wait to check them out!

      One that caught my eye was the study that found that teachers aren’t experiencing much political push back. That has definitely not been my experience! Literally every time that I mention the words “global warming” or “climate change” — going all the way back to Inconvenient Truth in 2006 — I get a handful of confrontational emails.

      Now, I know that a handful of emails may not be seen as “much political push back” given that I teach over 100 kids every year – but that handful is persistent, confrontational and loud. They don’t hesitate to go above my head to my school/district leadership.

      That gives me pause every time that I want to talk about climate science — and I think that’s worth knowing. If we let a handful of loud, aggressive parents bully (for lack of a better word) classroom teachers into silence, we’re screwed.

      Anyway — thanks for the shares. And for stopping by again! It was great to see you in my inbox this weekend, too.

      Rock on,

  2. Pingback: More on Teaching Science and Political Bloodsport. |

  3. Dave Truss

    It’s the loud and ‘righteous’ few vs the scientifically ‘biased’ many… and both sides somehow deserve equal time… as demanded by the loud few. If we were always like this, the world would still be flat & we wouldn’t need a basketball star to ‘confirm’ this for us.

    On a more serious note: The really scary thing here is that political agendas seem to be based on capitalist agendas, and I’m not sure that is going away any time soon. Pipelines both north & south of our shared (un-walled) border are perfect examples of that right now.

    I wish I could write something here that was neither sarcastic nor sad… That I could solve the challenges of public vs private interests in politics, or the challenges of opinions vs facts being measured based on private interests that are well backed financially. The reality is that I don’t have any answers except… be a teacher that helps students with their critical thinking skills and show them that they need to be active citizens with a voice that matters.

    Open to other suggestions if you have any?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks for stopping by, David.

      The tension that I can feel in your post is the tension that I feel in my heart. I know what the right thing to do is. That’s never been in doubt. It’s right for the kids AND it is supported by my required curriculum. This should be easy.

      But I’ve been burned a thousand times — particularly here in the conservative South where people have more skepticism for “progressives” than in other places in the country. That’s what has me second guessing.

      And it’s not even me that I’m all that worried about. I’m confident enough in myself that when I get attacked, I can back myself up. So if I want to fight this fight, I’ll win it.

      It’s the less confident teachers who worry me — the new teachers or the teachers who aren’t willing to push the envelope. My guess is that the feelings that I have are shared by more than a few of my colleagues. And that fact — that bullying by a small handful of parents can change the course of education — sucks.


  4. aubreydiorio

    I have to say I don’t envy you at all right now! So glad the kindergarten curriculum isn’t quite so controversial! I’ll try to teach kids to be critical thinkers so when they get to you they can decide for themselves based on family beliefs and scientific fact.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      And what worries me, Aubrey, is that some day, the Kindergarten curriculum WILL be political. That’s just the trajectory we are on in our world.


      Hope you are well, by the way. Been awhile!


Comments are closed.