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An Inconvenient Truth About Science Education

by John L. Rudolph - February 09, 2007

The teaching of global warming is emerging as a hot-button issue in U.S. schools. One district has begun to treat the subject as something akin to evolutionary biology—a subject some feel is more conjecture than scientific fact. This raises important questions about how well science education in this country has prepared the public to deal with the science behind the leading socioscientific issues of our time. More content isn’t the answer. What’s needed is greater attention to how science is actually done in all its variety.

Al Gore’s movie on the dangers of global warming is the talk of the town these days. From cocktail parties to blogs, discussions about the effects of the earth’s slowly rising temperature as presented by our almost president have captivated people of all ages and backgrounds. And what’s not to captivate? The likely consequences of this profound change in the earth’s temperature are startling as well as unsettling. We can expect to see everything from droughts, to increased storm intensities, to dramatic inundations of key coastal areas sure to displace hundreds of thousands of people in the not too distant future. The economic and humanitarian costs to the United States and the world will be staggering.

The facts of global warming are well established (IPCC, 2001). The upward trend in temperature has been carefully tracked by climatologists and government agencies worldwide. But all this isn’t new. The idea that carbon dioxide could contribute to a global rise in temperature was voiced in the United States as early as the 1930s. Scientists in the 1960s and ’70s began actively exploring the phenomenon, and by 2001 they reached a consensus that humans were indeed responsible (Weart, 2003). On February 2, 2007, in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made up of scientists from over one hundred countries reconfirmed these facts in the much anticipated report Climate Change 2007. And yet for some reason controversy continues to surround this topic, especially in the United States.

The Associated Press reported recently that the school board of a Seattle suburb has restricted the showing of An Inconvenient Truth in classrooms unless it’s balanced with a “credible, legitimate opposing view” (McClure & Stiffler, 2007). This school board policy came in response to a complaint from parents who objected to what they felt was a politically biased viewpoint presented as fact. This follows on the heels of the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) decision to shy away from the film and its hot topic. In November 2006, the Association refused to help the film’s producer, Laurie David, distribute 50,000 copies of the DVD to schools nationwide. According to Ms. David, who offered the DVDs with no strings attached, the NSTA responded in an email message that active involvement with the film might place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters”—read “business” interests like Exxon Mobil (David, 2005, p. B01).

What does all this tell us about the state of science education in this country? It says a great deal certainly about the cozy relationship between the nation’s largest science teacher professional organization and certain multinational corporations. But there’s a bigger issue here. Events like these are a ringing indictment of our national efforts to teach the public about science in its most meaningful sense. Too many of our citizens simply don’t understand how it is that researchers figure out what’s going on in the world. It’s this misunderstanding about how science is done that has been and continues to be exploited by various business and political interest groups.

The situation with global warming is a telling case in point. Given that the majority of the public hold an oversimplified view of science—as an activity that is capable of producing verifiable knowledge by means of a carefully prescribed experimental method—it’s not surprising that those who seek to undermine public faith in the claims made by climatologists have highlighted the uncertainties in their work. This is a not-so-subtle way of implying that scientists have yet to hit the nail on the head with respect to global warming, with the upshot being that, since definitive evidence hasn’t been found to link human activity to global temperature increases, then we really don’t know for sure what’s going on, and, they argue with a wink, it clearly wouldn’t be prudent to take any rash actions at this point—certainly not any that might put a cramp in American economic growth or corporate profits.

This is precisely the tack bureaucrats in the Bush administration have taken. The chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, for example, from 2001 to 2005 repeatedly altered official scientific reports on global climate change. Apart from deemphasizing the potential devastating effects of this phenomena, his primary work focused on changing wording in ways that increased perceptions of uncertainty in the various reports. Efforts to add statements about the uncertain status of climate knowledge into an Environmental Protection Agency document were also made in 2003 by administration officials, signaling a pattern of distortion and suppression of science for ideological purposes (Shulman, 2006; see also Mooney, 2005).

Now, of course, scientists and those who study science know that science and uncertainty go hand in hand. Moreover, the scientific truths that can be derived from direct evidence that tightly couples cause to effect in an unambiguous, repeatable way is limited, mostly to situations where researchers can actually put their hands on and manipulate the systems in question—such is the case in fields such as molecular biology or in certain areas of physics and chemistry, to name a few. There are other sciences, however, that, because they deal with phenomena that are not easily manipulated, rely on indirect evidence, statistical reasoning, or other less obviously experimental methods (Longino, 2001; Rudolph, 2001).

Climate science is one of those fields. Those who study global warming deal with extremely complex, probabilistic systems that change over periods of time that exceed the typical human life span. Researchers, thus, use a host of other scientific methods including tracking patterns of indirect evidence from widely disparate sources as well as using computer models to simulate global changes over time. There is no crucial experiment that can be done to “prove” that global warming is upon us. That’s simply not how the science is done. But this doesn’t mean that the knowledge generated about global warming is somehow suspect. It’s as reliable as any knowledge can be about the phenomena in question—and it’s “scientific” through and through.

The problem is that the public doesn’t have an adequate grasp of the wide range of methods that scientists use in exploring the different aspects of the world, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the public’s narrow view of science exploited. Time and again, big tobacco companies have argued over whether cigarettes have been “proven” to cause cancer. Opponents of teaching evolution have long thrived in this environment as well, asking biologists to “demonstrate conclusively” an instance of one species evolving into another. It’s not surprising perhaps that the parent who objected to the Gore film is a young-earth creationist, who insists that the information in the documentary is, in his words, “a very cockeyed view of what the truth is” (McClure & Stiffler, 2007).

What should be done? More science isn’t the answer, especially in the current climate of standardized testing, where additional facts will only exacerbate the problem, reinforcing in students’ minds the identification of science with certain knowledge. Neither is greater emphasis on the nature of science likely to help as long as such instruction remains limited to a monolithic picture of how science is done. The notion that there is a single “scientific method” or “nature of science” is simply wrong and does a disservice to a public seeking reliable knowledge to inform individual as well as public policy decisions related to the key socio-scientific issues of our time.

Should we teach the facts about global warming and other subjects like evolution? Absolutely. But we need to teach what we know about these subjects along with the various, specific ways these facts came to be. We need to help students understand the variety of methods and techniques that scientists use to explore the diverse phenomena in the world—that is, the process of knowledge construction as it’s actually practiced (in all its localized instances) rather than the facile stereotype of some non-existent, singular scientific method. This aspect of science education is one that has been and continues to be overlooked, and this “inconvenient truth” is sure to have grave consequences for the future.


David, L. (2006, November 26). Science a la Joe Camel. Washington Post, p. B01, accessed online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/24/AR2006112400789.html.

IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. (2001). Third assessment report, 2001 (vols. 1-4). available online at http://www.ipcc.ch/.

Longino, H. (2001). The fate of knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McClure, R., & Stiffler, L. (2007, January 11). Federal Way schools restrict Gore film. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, accessed online at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/299253_inconvenient11.html.

Mooney, C. C. (2005). The Republican war on science. New York: Basic Books.

Rudolph, J. L. (2000). Reconsidering the “nature of science” as a curriculum component. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32, 403-419.

Shulman, S. (2006). Undermining science: Suppression and distortion in the Bush administration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strauss, V. (2006, December 19). Global warming another emerging topic. Washington Post, p. A10, accessed online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/18/AR2006121800899.html.

Weart, S. R. (2003). The discovery of global warming. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 09, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13216, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 4:32:57 AM

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About the Author
  • John Rudolph
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    JOHN L. RUDOLPH is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and a faculty affiliate of the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His recent work includes “Epistemology for the Masses: The Origins of ‘the Scientific Method’ in American Schools” in History of Education Quarterly and Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). He is currently working on a book that examines the historical portrayal of scientific process in U.S. classrooms from the late 1800s through the 1980s.
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