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 Gores 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 earths slowly rising temperature as presented by our almost president have captivated people of all ages and backgrounds. And whats not to captivate? The likely consequences of this profound change in the earths 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 isnt 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 its 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 Associations (NSTA) decision to shy away from the film and its hot topic. In November 2006, the Association refused to help the films 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 supportersread 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 nations largest science teacher professional organization and certain multinational corporations. But theres 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 dont understand how it is that researchers figure out whats going on in the world. Its 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 scienceas an activity that is capable of producing verifiable knowledge by means of a carefully prescribed experimental methodits 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 hasnt been found to link human activity to global temperature increases, then we really dont know for sure whats going on, and, they argue with a wink, it clearly wouldnt be prudent to take any rash actions at this pointcertainly 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 questionsuch 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. Thats simply not how the science is done. But this doesnt mean that the knowledge generated about global warming is somehow suspect. Its as reliable as any knowledge can be about the phenomena in questionand its scientific through and through.
The problem is that the public doesnt have an adequate grasp of the wide range of methods that scientists use in exploring the different aspects of the world, and this isnt the first time weve seen the publics 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. Its 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 isnt 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 worldthat is, the process of knowledge construction as its 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.