Climate Deniers Are Bullies, and Science Teachers Aren’t Going to Take It Anymore

Pressured for years to “teach the controversy,” educators have banded together to expel anti-science forces from their classrooms.

September 21, 2018
Teachers, scientists, and members of the public rally after New Mexico officials proposed school science standards that would delete any reference to global temperature rise.

Morgan Lee/AP

A classic trope of books and movies about schoolyard bullies is the comeuppance moment: that climactic chapter or scene when the bullied hero picks herself up, dusts herself off, and exacts her righteous vengeance. The payback can take different forms—a well-placed punch or a well-worded takedown—but it always results in the exposure of the bully, usually in front of the whole school, as nothing more than a blowhard and a coward. The tormentor is publicly shamed; the former victim is bathed in glory; moral order is restored.

America’s K-12 science teachers are having such a moment right now. For years they have withstood the bullying of an organized climate-denier movement that has successfully strong-armed administrators, parents, and school board officials into agreeing to frame climate change as an open question rather than a scientific fact. Its tactics most recently have included a mendacious mailer received last year by tens of thousands of teachers that falsely identified “a vibrant debate … taking place among scientists on how big the human impact on climate is, and whether or not we should be worried about it.” Just a few months earlier, Idaho lawmakers stripped the state’s proposed science standards of any language suggesting that human activity is causing global warming, with one representative complaining that the standards didn’t relay “both sides of the debate.”

When teachers have retaliated against such meddling, nervous administrators have too often asked them to quiet down and “teach the controversy,” lest they appear to be taking sides in a rancorous scientific debate with obvious political overtones. And when state legislatures get involved—as they have been doing, increasingly—the results can be downright dystopian. States like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Idaho have recently been pushing a slew of so-called “academic freedom” bills that are worded to sound like reasonable defenses of fair-mindedness and intellectual dissent. In fact, they exist to provide legal and political cover for a well-funded anti-science movement whose future depends on today’s schoolchildren ignoring the scientific method and growing up confused about what is and isn’t true.

But the time has finally come. America’s science educators are picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and fighting back.

Last week the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issued a firm position statement directed to its more than 50,000 members. In part it reads: “Given the solid scientific foundation on which climate change science rests. . . any controversies regarding climate change and human-caused contributions to climate change that are based on social, economic, or political arguments—rather than scientific arguments—should not be part of a science curriculum.”

It’s a tough, spirited document as far as official position statements go, definitely worth reading in its entirety. But one portion of the teachers’ manifesto stands out in particular as a clear warning to deniers to stop trying to infect our science with their cynical politics.

The appeal by some to “teach the controversy,” the statement asserts, is a tawdry rhetorical tactic not based on science. “Scientific explanations must be consistent with existing empirical evidence or stand up to empirical testing. Ideas based on political ideologies or pseudoscience that fail these empirical tests do not constitute science and should not be allowed to compromise the teaching of climate science.”

And then comes the righteous uppercut: “These tactics promote the teaching of non-scientific ideas that deliberately misinform students and increase confusion about climate science.” (Italics mine.)

The punch lands because the bullies on the receiving end no longer have any defense; socially, politically, and intellectually, they’ve become marginalized. As I wrote back in May, Americans who believe in climate change now outnumber deniers 5 to 1, and today there’s overwhelming nationwide support (across all political and regional lines) for teaching kids about global warming: why it’s happening, what it will do to their planet, and how the world can work together to stop it.

One of the most disgusting and insidious aspects of the climate-denial movement is its dependence on miseducation. Deniers know that their cause is doomed if they can’t continue to infiltrate our children’s schools and, in the damning words of the NSTA, “deliberately misinform students and increase confusion.”

But their cause is doomed—because they can’t get away with this anymore. America’s 50,000 K-12 science teachers have spoken as one, and there can be no misinterpreting their message: Hands off our kids.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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