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Science Talk

A Second Science Front: Evolution Champions Rise to Climate Science Defense

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, long the nation's leading defender of evolution education, discusses the NCSE's new initiative to help climate science education

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to the Scientific American podcast, Science Talk, posted on January 16th, 2012. I'm Steve Mirsky. The National Center for Science Education is the country's top resource for teachers, parents, students and clergy when the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms is threatened by religiously motivated ideologues. But evolution is no longer the only science under threat in schools, which is why the NCSE announced today that they're branching out. I called Executive Director Eugenie Scott on January 13th to find out about their new initiative.

Steve:          Dr. Scott, great to talk to you as always. I understand that you've decided to fight the war on two fronts.

Scott:          Yeah, but it's not like we're bored with creationism, right. I mean, you know, it's not even as we're talking, it's not even two weeks into 2012, and we already have five creationism pieces, antievolution, pieces of legislation submitted. So it's not like we're bored, but duty calls, what can I say.

Steve:          Well, we can come back to those and talk. I know that there have been a couple in Hampshire, but why don't we talk about what's this new front's going to be?

Scott:          Well, as you mentioned, our expertise, for the last over 20 years or so, NCSE has helped teachers out at the grassroots level in their classroom problems or school board­­-level problems or state legislation. When problems have arisen over the teaching of evolution, we provide them with advice and information and help and support, so that they can defend the integrity of science and teach good science and teach evolution. And it's become apparent over the last few years that teachers are experiencing more and more problems over the teaching of global warming and other climate science topics. And now we're seeing more newspaper accounts, we're seeing more legislation that bundles evolution and climate change as so-called controversial issues. So we thought about this very carefully actually. We didn't really rush into it. We spent about a year asking other organizations, Are you hearing that teachers are having problems?  Yes. Are you doing anything about it? No, we think you should, because you do a good job with evolution. And so we decided to take this on, and so as part of our climate change initiative, we have added a new climate scientist, Mark McCaffrey, to our staff. We've added a climate scientist to the board of directors of NCSE--we've added Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute. And we are as we, I guess, we could say, open for business for any teachers or parents or school board members or people who are concerned about this issue, who would like some help in coping with an attack on another science, shall we say, and how it's taught in the classroom.

Steve:          Can you talk a little bit about the kind of specific attacks that we've already seen related to climate change in education?

Scott:          Yes. A lot of it, it seems to fall under the category of a teacher trying to teach the consensus view of science, which is that the planet is getting warmer, and people have a big contribution to this warming; which is, you know, pretty much accepted anywhere you go on the scientific community. But when they try to teach that, they get pushback from students. We've had reports of students who've gotten up and walked out of class; students have raised their hand and said, "Teacher, my dad says global warming is a hoax"; or we've had teachers that have experienced pushback from parents, complaining about materials in textbooks which accept matter-of-factly the planet is getting warmer, and parents will complain about that. We've also seen school board level policies that attempt to compromise the teaching of climate science. So, a lot of the same sorts of things that teachers, over the decades, have experienced with the teaching of evolution.

Steve:          And what kind of services can you offer to anybody who does get in touch with you because they say they're having some issues at their particular institution?

Scott:          Of course, every situation is different. But as an example of one bit of assistance that we provided to a teacher, there was a teacher--and this is not a public controversy, but I can, you know, describe the particulars without identifying it--a teacher was accused of bias by a parent because she taught straight science. And the parent demanded that the administration require the teacher to have a debate between a climate scientist and a global warming denier. And they called us, you know, the teacher's representative called us and said, "Can you offer some suggestions?" So, you know, what we suggested was that the science class should be the place for the presentation of standard science, the consensus view of science as scientists understand it. And if you want to debate policy issues, you know--should we have a tax on carbon? Or, you know, should individuals stop driving cars, you know? If you want to have a debate on the policy issues, that should be over in the social studies class. And obviously we believe that the science should inform the positions of that debate but those kinds of issues, which really are the sorts of things that the parent wanted debated, those kinds of things are extra to the basic science. I mean, the basic science tells us that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, it is contributing to an increase in warming, warming is happening, the human generation of CO2 is a component of that warming. And this is the sort of thing that should be presented without compromise to students in the classroom.

Steve:          It cracks me up when I hear a lot of politicians say that CO2 is harmless, and I'll say, "Why don't you get in a room filled with it then?" I realize that's a different scientific mechanism, but it's always pretty funny to me. And then, of course, Speaker Boehner contended that CO2 was not a carcinogen, and nobody really said it was. But that's a whole different issue. What kind of things won't you be doing?

Scott:          We won't be dealing with policy issues. We won't be dealing with the question, What should we do about global warming? Because, a) that's out of our expertise; we're not a policy institute. And b) it just is not something that plays a big role in the middle school and high school teaching of climate science. Teachers need to be able to teach unfettered, shall we say, what the basic science is and what we know about it and not be distracted by these political issues. And unfortunately, just as with evolution, it's not the science that is the problem, it's the implications, shall we say, of the science that are really more of a controversial issue.

Steve:          The sources of pushback are very different between, there is some overlap, but there's a wide difference between who's against teaching evolution and who's against teaching climate science.

Scott:          This is true. You will tend to find however, that the anti-evolutionists also include antiglobal warming as part of their concerns, but it's generally done from a religious, you know, standpoint: God would not let anything happen to his creation kind of thing. The major push against the teaching of global warming and other climate science topics does come more from people of particular political and economic ideologies. You tend to find it, well just as evolution is falsely portrayed as requiring atheism, so global warming is falsely portrayed as requiring a growth of big government; or it's anti-capitalist. You find a lot of libertarians who will argue that climate science isn't real; it's going to require us to impose upon American individualism, and stuff like that. So it's really frustrating for teachers to have to be pressed to compromise the teaching of basic science because of political or social factors here.

Steve:          What's going on, I know we've talked in the past about problems that some astronomy teachers have had with pushback from parents or students because of the age-of-the-universe issue that some people don't accept. So, is there any thought to expanding it again into astronomy-cosmology?

Scott:          Only in the sense that the topic of evolution does impinge upon so many different scientific disciplines. We're not going to go after the geocentrists next. (laughs) It's true there is a geocentric movement out there, but fortunately they're not influencing the science classroom. So, that is our focus, it's what are teachers facing in terms of what society considers a controversial issue, even if the scientific community doesn't.

Steve:          That's really true. In case the term geocentric doesn't mean much to somebody listening, I've seen their brochures, there are groups who believe, despite the last 500 years that, the longer than that really, that the Earth is the center of the universe and the sun revolves around the Earth, as does everything else. And they would like that taught in science classes.

Scott:          Yeah. Interesting, since we're on this little footnote anyway, some of the creationist organizations are although not, you know, promoting a strict, you know, Copernican kind of (laughs)--it's sort of a neo-geocentrism, as it were. It's again trying to make science conform with their interpretation of the Bible. And since the Bible does argue that the Earth is the center of God's creation, they have to somehow work that out. So there's one creationist who's actually worked relativity theory into kind of a neo-geocentrism, which is fascinating to me. He's arguing that the Earth really is the center of the universe, because after all the universe expands in all directions, and that it's actually still a young Earth because outside of kind of the immediate sphere around Earth, time is slowed down. But, so right here, right here in our own Earth, it is really only 6,000 years old, even though the universe may seem like it's billions of years old. It's just wonderful stuff, really.

Steve:          That is great.

Scott:          I love it.

Steve:          That's great. Let's talk just briefly about those five evolution bills that are currently in state legislatures that you were talking about.

Scott:          Well perhaps the zaniest one is in Indiana. That is just a straight up schools-should-be-teaching-creation-science bill. And our jaws dropped when we saw that because, you know, God in heaven, (laughs) creation science?

Steve:          And also it's settled law that that is not legal.

Scott:          And not exactly day before yesterday either , we're talking Edward v. Aguillard, 1987--this has been around for a while. You know, the Supreme Court has said, "No, creation science is religious advocacy, you can't present it in, you know, you can't advocate it in the science class." But the Indiana bill bears watching because it has a bunch of co-sponsors, number one; but also the proportion of religious conservatives and tea party people in the Indiana legislature is monumental. And crazy as it sounds, it just might pass. I mean, one of the proponents of this bill has been saying things like, "Well we don't care what the Supreme Court says. We're going to do this anyway, because we're on the right side of God and the law, and we're just doing what is proper. Maybe we'll become the model for other states." And, of course, this is nullification, I guess? (laughs) I mean, this is the idea that a state can just completely thumb its nose at a major branch of our whole checks and balances system. I mean, you can't just dismiss the judiciary system--this is madness. So, that's an extremely interesting bill and by the way, your listeners can go to N-C-S-E-.com and click on the news button at the top, and they can get all of this stuff, and all of the various bills that are proposed. Perhaps the most surprising bills are the two New Hampshire bills. And generally speaking, we get very few pieces of legislation and actually not very many calls at all from the northeastern part of the country. The religious tradition there tends to be much more moderate--it's Catholic and moderate Protestant--and so we just don't seem to have the problems as we have with more conservative Christianity. And so finding an anti-evolution bill in New Hampshire raises eyebrows, just for its location. But it has cropped up again--two bills that have just been introduced within a week of each other in Missouri, which, the most recent one, echoes the Louisiana Science Education Act, which is one of these academic freedom bills. And again, it's bundling evolution and global warming. And because, there have been a number of bills since 2008 modeled on this, using the same kind of wording as the Louisiana bill. We've seen them cropping up, you know, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, all kinds of places. But we think that maybe this bill is getting passed around because it did pass in Louisiana, and people believe that, "Well if it passed here, it could pass in my state as well." So, we're getting clones of this Louisiana bill cropping up, such as this one in Missouri. So, you know, we shall see. Funny things, not ha ha funny, but peculiar things happen in states with legislation during election years, and clearly this is an election year--2012.

Steve:          And, of course, the last year of the Earth according to...

Scott:          Again, once more the Earth is going to end.

Steve:          Right. Well somebody should try teaching that in science class.

Scott:          (laughs) Well, but here at NCSE we always have a cake and a little celebration on the end-of-the-world day and, you know, it's actually just a, sort of, office culture here where we're usually looking for an opportunity to have a cake and some celebrations. (laughs) So this just gives us one more.

Steve:          Well, it's the last day of the world and you have the cake: Do you finish the cake or do you put some in the fridge for the next day?

Scott:          (laughs) Well, generally speaking, cake disappears pretty faster in our office, but any leftovers are in the refrigerator, and miraculously enough, they're available for lunch the next day for anyone who might not have been in.

Steve:          Fantastic. Well, good luck on this new front.

Scott:          Thanks very much for helping us get the word out that this is a new initiative. And we hope that anyone listening to this, who hears in their community or sees a newspaper article or hears a comment from a teacher about problems involved in teaching global warming or evolution, please get in touch with us and help that teacher getting in touch with us.

Steve:          And again they can get in touch through your Web site...

Scott:          N-C-S-E.com

Steve:          That's it for this episode. Go to http://www.ScientificAmerican.com for all your science news and check out Anna Kuchment's slide show on "The Secret Lives of Bats. Also if you're in New York City on Wednesday evening January 18th, join a lot of the Scientific American staff, along with researchers from the American Museum of Natural , at a tweetup at the museum. You have to be on Twitter, and you have to follow both Scientific American--our twitter name is @sciam S-C-I-A-M--and you have to follow the museum, which is @amnh A-M-N-H American Museum of Natural History. And at that point, you can register for the event, which is free. You can find sign-up info for the tweetup on our Web site, and when you follow SciAm on Twitter, you get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
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