Is No Place Safe? Climate Change Denialists Seek to Sway Science Teachers

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Is No Place Safe? Climate Change Denialists Seek to Sway Science Teachers

"Science teachers know better—and science students deserve better," the authors write of Heartland's propaganda. (Photo: UCS Blog)

A few weeks ago, science teachers across the country began to find strange packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” (sic), a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to “read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom.”

Heartland Institute Report Cover Spring 2017 with "Not Science" stamp

The packets were sent by the Heartland Institute, which in the 1990s specialized in arguing that second-hand smoke does not cause cancer. Even though its indefensible defense of the tobacco industry failed, Heartland now uses the same pro-tobacco playbook—touting alleged “experts” to question established science—to argue that climate change is not real.

At the National Center for Science Education, we have almost three decades of experience helping teachers, parents, and students facing creationism in the classroom. A few years ago, we added climate change to our docket. So teachers know that when issues regarding evolution or climate change come up, NCSE is there to help.

This wasn’t Heartland’s first unsolicited mailing of climate change denial material to science teachers, and judging from the reactions we’ve seen, teachers haven’t been fooled by this outing. But here is how we’re advising science teachers to explain why using these materials in any science classroom would be a terrible idea.

1. Virtually every assertion is false, controversial, or at best unclear.

That’s a judgment that might seem to call for a point-by-point rebuttal. But I’m not going to offer such a rebuttal, both because every substantive point in the Heartland mailing is a long-ago-debunked canard (see Skeptical Science passim) and because there is already a place where responsible scientists discuss the evidence for climate change: the peer-reviewed scientific research literature.

If Heartland has such a good case to make, why is it spending thousands of dollars on direct-mailing a self-published report to teachers, instead of trying to convince the relevant scientific community?

2. Heartland represents what is, at best, a fringe position in science.

Of course, Heartland isn’t willing to admit its fringiness, devoting considerable effort to trying to dispute the widely reported fact that the degree of scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is about 97 percent. It’s a wasted effort.

Multiple independent studies, using different sources, methods, and questions, have arrived at the same conclusion. And the scientific consensus on climate change is not a mere reflection of popular sentiment or shared opinion among scientists. Rather, it is the product of evidence so abundant and diverse and robust as to compel agreement in the scientific community.

3. Heartland even disparages the well-respected, Nobel-Prize-winning, IPCC.

Not content to reject the extraordinary scientific consensus on climate change, the booklet downplays the process by which climate scientists regularly evaluate and report on the state of the evidence, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

Few areas of science undergo the kind of rigorous and comprehensive review that the climate science community carries out every five years. It is a reflection of the seriousness with which world leaders take the challenge of climate change that they support this process and accept the conclusions arrived at by hundreds of generous, dedicated, and meticulous scientists.

4. Heartland’s material contradicts standards, textbooks, and curricula.

K–12 teachers are expected to teach in accordance with state science standards, state- or district-approved textbooks, and district-approved curricula, all of which undergo review by competent scientists and teachers, and thus generally attempt to present climate change in accordance with the scientific consensus. Heartland’s materials have not undergone such a review. And teachers who misguidedly use them in the classroom will be, at best, presenting mixed messages, running the risk of confusing their students about the scientific standing of anthropogenic climate change.

5. Heartland’s citations are shoddy and its tactics dishonest.

Many of the references in “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” (sic) are to Heartland’s own publications, post on personal blogs, fake news sources, and low-quality journals—the sort of citations that a teacher wouldn’t accept on a science assignment.

The booklet itself is credited to the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, NIPCC—likely to be confused with the legitimate IPCC. And the envelope in which the mailing was sent reproduced a New York Times headline about “Climate Change Lies”—the same sort of lies, it turns out, that Heartland is concerned to promote.

In the end, the climate change deniers at the Heartland Institute have no scientifically credible evidence of their own, leaving them with no option but to lash out at the real scientific literature, contributing nothing except vitriol, achieving nothing except confusion. Science teachers know better—and science students deserve better.

Ann Reid

Ann Reid is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education.

Glenn Branch

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education.

Steven Newton

Steven Newton is Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education.

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