For decades objections to the theory of evolution have bedeviled individual teachers, school boards, state boards of education and state legislatures. Educators fought to keep evolution in science classes and creationism out. We resisted intelligent design, the notion that natural selection alone cannot explain the complexity of life-forms, which served as a way of getting creationism through the back door. We are now fighting legislation that encourages teachers to teach the “evidence against evolution”—facts found only in the creationist literature.
The consequences of antievolutionism are felt in many American schools: evolution is not taught or is taught poorly. Yet evolution is one of the most important ideas in human intellectual history, and students have a right to learn it. The common ancestry of living things and the mechanisms of inheritance explain why things are the way they are. Students and adults deprived of this knowledge are scientifically illiterate and ill prepared for life in a global, competitive world. Students given merely once-over or light instruction in evolution are woefully undereducated.
These “academic freedom” laws are not aimed solely at evolution. They often also take on climate change, another field of science with a body of evidence that is accepted by the scientific community. That the planet is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels over the past 150 years explains the current rapid rate of change are virtually indisputable in the scientific community. But public distrust means that the National Center for Science Education, which formed in the 1980s to contend with antievolutionists, now helps teachers cope with push back on climate, too.
Opposition to climate change stems less from religious ideology than from political and economic ideology. Some political conservatives claim that global warming is a liberal plot to increase the power of the federal government, which if it reduces our reliance on greenhouse gas–producing fossil fuels, will jeopardize national security and threaten our individual freedoms. Some libertarians believe that policies such as carbon taxes are a socialist plot intended to cripple capitalism. True, some political and economic views cannot accommodate policies associated with combating climate change, but we should not let the ideologies of some prevent or distort the education of the many.
The newly released Next Generation Science Standards, developed by a consortium that includes the National Academy of Sciences, 26 states and the nonprofit organization Achieve, will require teachers in states adopting them to teach both evolution and climate change. That does not mean that teachers will necessarily cover these subjects adequately, but in general, in states that adopt the standards students will receive more instruction in evolution and in climate change than they currently do.
The Next Generation Science Standards would deliver instruction that is head and shoulders above what would result from academic freedom acts, which allow for the use of information found only on creationist sites, many of which teach that the earth is not billions of years old, or from climate change contrarian think tanks, which attribute the recent trend in warming not to an increase in greenhouse gases but rather to unstoppable solar cycles. Students would also learn that the pre–industrial revolution Medieval Warming Period refutes anthropogenic global warming—even though it was merely a regional warming event. Scientists do not give these views credence, but that does not keep them from appearing in lesson plans to dispute the fact that human activity has affected the earth's climate.
Today's atmospheric warming rate is not regional; it is global. It affects land, sea and air. The scientific consensus is that humans are mostly responsible. Whatever our society decides to do about climate change, it must be based on solid science. We all will suffer if that science is compromised because of ideological opposition to its consequences. Beginning learners have a right to know what scientists have concluded. It is not right to allow religious, political or economic ideologies to trump instruction in science.
This article was originally published with the title Climate in the Classroom.