A Well-Rounded Education

We don’t let flat-earthers influence our science curricula. So why should climate skeptics have a say?

Photo: NASAA view of Earth's horizon from the International Space Station

I have a serious question: Why aren’t more of our secondary-school science teachers presenting both sides of the argument when it comes to the ongoing debate over whether the earth is round or flat?

What? You’re not aware of any such debate? You say that five centuries’ worth of empirical evidence—beginning with Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, and continuing right on up to the innumerable photographs of an obviously spheroid planet taken from outer space over the past 70 years—has more or less settled the issue?

Well, if that’s the case, then I have another question for you: Aren’t you a little bit worried about coming across as anti-intellectual and ideologically rigid?

After all, smugly pointing out that “practically everyone” believes the earth is round serves only to remind us that there are some people out there who don’t. And to suggest that these people are all benighted or culturally isolated—living in remote corners of the world (Ha! See what I just did there?), without access to education or media—paints a misleading picture. In the 20th century, some of these people were community leaders from Illinois, or well-spoken airplane mechanics living in San Francisco. Today’s flat-earthers include American hip-hop stars and pleasant, perfectly reasonable-seeming Londoners. They’re organized, they’re out in the open, and they’re online, with websites and podcasts and Twitter feeds that have attracted thousands of followers.

And while they don’t accept the same science regarding the whole round-earth thing that 99.9 percent of their fellow human beings do, they’re not belligerent about it. They don’t make angry demands. They have but one simple request: that we not blindly accept the current orthodoxy without considering the counterarguments. In modern educational parlance, they’re asking for nothing more drastic than “teaching the controversy.”

I couldn’t help but think about the modern-day Flat Earth Society recently as I read “Climate Confusion Among U.S. Teachers,” a new report published in the journal Science. Put together by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), this survey of more than 1,500 middle-school and high-school science teachers is by turns heartening and disconcerting. It’s heartening because it confirms what most of us believe to be true: Our teachers, for the most part, are doing their absolute best to inform and educate American schoolchildren about the origins, nature, and implications of global climate change. But the report is also disconcerting, because it suggests that the agents of climate denial have largely succeeded in equating the spread of disinformation with “open debate”—and in convincing educators that to teach the uncontested truth about climate change is to violate the spirit of scientific inquiry.

First, the good news. Teachers are teaching climate change, and across the entire science curriculum at that. It’s being taught “not just in biology and earth science classes, where you might expect them to be doing it, but in chemistry and physics classes, too,” says NCSE’s Josh Rosenau, one of the authors of the report. “We weren’t expecting that.” In addition, he notes, three-quarters of middle-school science teachers reported covering the topic of climate change in their classrooms.

But as is almost always the case with surveys, the real story is in the internals. “The concern that we and others have is with how it’s being taught,” Rosenau adds. Respondents’ answers to specific questions reveal that America’s schoolteachers, by “teaching the controversy,” may be playing right into the hands of organized and industry-backed climate deniers. Their dwindling but still powerful movement seeks to stall progress on climate action by persuading the public that the science on the issue remains unsettled.

For example, Rosenau says, one-third of the teachers indicated that their lessons “emphasize that many scientists believe that recent increases in temperature are likely due to natural causes.” In fact, among actively publishing climate scientists—the ones who are specially trained to observe and analyze climate data, and who have dedicated their professional lives to doing so—there is near unanimity on the matter: 97 percent of them believe that climate change is real and that human activity is the cause.

But this fact, which climate deniers tirelessly assail, doesn’t appear to have fully embedded itself in the minds of teachers yet. When asked, “To the best of your knowledge, what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused by human activities?” fewer than half of them estimated the consensus at over 80 percent—and one in five simply (but sadly) answered, “I don’t know.”

Which leads one to wonder: Why don’t they know? Rosenau doesn’t ascribe the result to anything like bad faith, or even bad pedagogy. If we’re conferring the benefit of the doubt onto these teachers, he says, it’s worth noting that many of them learned about climate change when the science was still relatively new and subject to frequent updating—in other words, before consensus had been reached.

Operating on a more subconscious level may be an understandable and even admirable tropism toward ideals of evenhandedness. This could predispose some teachers—especially those who suspect their local communities to be denier heavy—to avoid appearing as though they’re taking sides on a “controversial” issue.

Alas, as I’ve written before, such equivocation on the part of educators constitutes a win for the climate-denial movement, which has largely moved beyond characterizing climate change as an elaborate worldwide hoax and is now willing to settle for convincing people—in perpetuity, apparently—that the jury is still out. One can only hope that the NCSE report’s ample press coverage will catch the attention of teachers, administrators, and school boards. They need to realize how far we still have to go in order to properly educate future generations about the single most important global issue that they face.

And by the way: I use the word global advisedly. I happen to have it on good authority that the world is, indeed, round.

How do I know? Despite the Flat Earth Society’s best efforts, my schoolteachers—every last one of them—felt comfortable giving me just one side of the story. And for that I sincerely thank them.

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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