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Commentary: Unsolicited and Unwelcome, Climate Denial Comes to Schools

Some political organizations are attempting to spread climate change denial in classrooms. Stephanie Keep from The National Center for Science Education discusses how science educators can fight back.

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Commentary: Unsolicited and Unwelcome, Climate Denial Comes to Schools

In mid-March of 2017, I saw the first indications of trouble. A teacher on the National Science Teachers Association listserve posted: “Just curious…Did many of you receive a publication entitled ‘Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,’ courtesy of the Heartland Institute (the same ‘experts’ who claimed second-hand smoke is harmless)?” I forwarded the message to my colleagues at the National Center for Science Education, and the Heartland file was opened—or, rather, re opened, for this was not the first time misleading information from the Heartland Institute had arrived, unwelcome, in American schools.

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Brandie Freeman, a teacher from Georgia, was not impressed by the Heartland materials. Her blog post in which she refutes it point-by-point is a great resource for teachers.

Back in 2013, the Heartland Institute had sent thousands of teachers a “report” entitled “Climate Change Reconsidered.” This was billed as the fourth report issued by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, or NIPCC. You might be wondering, do I mean the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a United Nations body that releases authoritative and peer-reviewed reports on climate change every few years? No, I don’t—but the similarity in names is intentional. Both the Heartland Institute and the NIPCC peddle in the denial of scientific consensus, with a stock in trade of confusion and doubt. Naming a fake science group in such a way as to make it easy to confuse with a top-notch scientific organization is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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The Heartland Institute, as the teacher who sent up the original flare back in March noted, earned its first science-denial stripes in the 1990s working with the Philip Morris company to push back against tobacco regulations. In the early 2000s, it repurposed that playbook to take on climate change. The basic strategy— as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway describe in both the book and documentary Merchants of Doubt —is to exploit the healthy human instinct toward skepticism by attacking the science and the scientists while promoting false information. The result? Confusion and distrust. The booklets sent to teachers are crafted to achieve these goals.

So far this year, tens of thousands of teachers (at both the K–12 and university levels) have received a packet from Heartland, and the institute has stated its intention to get one to every educator in the country. The envelopes feature an intentionally misleading headline from either The New York Times (“Exxon Mobil Investigated for Possible Climate Change Lies by New York Attorney General,” November 5, 2013) or Environment & Climate News (“Study: Science Teachers Giving Unbalanced Education on Climate Change,” May 2016). The headlines lend an authoritative air to the mailing, unless the recipient is aware that Environment & Climate News is a Heartland newsletter. In fact, the name “The Heartland Institute” does not appear anywhere on the envelopes that I have seen. Might a busy science teacher rip open a package from a reputable news organization thinking it could contain worthwhile materials? That presumably is the hope.

Inside, there is a cover letter (I’ve seen different versions signed by different Heartland staffers), a DVD containing a short video on the history of climate change in Greenland, a survey, a brochure entitled “Freedom Rising,” and a 135-page, full-color booklet entitled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus.” Everything about these components, from their professional design to extensive lists of citations, is designed to trick teachers into thinking the materials are legitimate and that their argument—that the cause of contemporary climate change is the subject of an active scientific debate—is sound. They aren’t, and it isn’t .

I don’t want to spend a lot of time debunking the Heartland materials in detail. For one thing, it’s been done already. Georgia science teacher Brandie Freeman took it apart piece-by-piece on her blog back in April. “The Heartland Institute sent their unabashedly biased propaganda to the wrong person,” she wrote. “Frankly, I mourn the trees used in this poorly executed effort to undermine quality science education.” Freeman goes chapter-by-chapter through the booklet pointing out its many misrepresentations and distortions (for example, “Many prominent experts and probably most working scientists disagree with … the IPCC”), exposing its blatant data manipulation (such as truncating climate trend graphs), and highlighting the fact that most of the citations in the booklet are to Heartland’s own publications, creating an “echo chamber.”

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Freeman begins her concluding paragraph by thanking her fellow teachers for Indeed, there is no more important community in the battle for scientific literacy than teachers, which is why Heartland’s tactic of sending materials to them unsolicited makes me irate. True, I feel confident that most teachers will not be swayed by Heartland. Across the country, teachers have been reporting that they and their colleagues have variously dismissed, ridiculed, and ignored the unsolicited and unwelcome misinformation. I myself got a copy of the packet from a teacher friend who had to fish it out of the recycling bin for me.

But some teachers are vulnerable. We know, thanks to a 2016 NCSE/Penn State study (the same one referenced in one of the envelope headlines), that about 30% of middle and high school science teachers tell their students—wrongly—that there is scientific debate about the causes of modern climate change. Now, surely most of them are well-intentioned, trying to emphasize critical thinking and scientific argument. Some may think that there is an active scientific debate—after all, climate science is a relatively new field, which many teachers will not have learned much about in their pre-service and in-service training. It is entirely possible that some teachers will be influenced by the Heartland materials. And if even a small fraction of the teachers are affected, tens of thousands of students every year could be misled as a result.

So what can we do about it?

First and foremost, we have to support our teachers. This is not their fault—they did not ask for an ideological political organization to send them anything. If a teacher in your community chose to use the Heartland material in his or her classroom, I suggest that you tactfully cite NCSE’s resources , the strong NSTA response , Freeman’s blog, or even the website created by a Texas high school senior devoted to debunking the Heartland claims. You might also ask the teacher why he or she opted to use the Heartland materials—was it in order to emphasize the role of argument in scientific practice, or because quality resources to teach climate change were lacking, or for some other reason? If you happen to uncover a true problem with local climate change education, get in touch with NCSE and we can help you come up with a reasoned approach and solution.

Well, recycling is always an option, and an environment-friendly one to boot. If you snap a photo of the booklet in the recycling bin and send it to NSTA , you’ll get access to the popular e-book Ocean’s Effect on Weather and Climate in return.

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In just the last fifty years, the climate and landscape around the Antarctic Peninsula has changed dramatically. This resource from NOVA’s “Mystery Beneath the Ice” explores how climate change has affected the Antarctic Peninsula.

Writing in the Washington Post , atmospheric scientist and weather editor Angela Fritz expressed her surprise “that political organizations are writing books that appear to be about science and sending them to science teachers.” Her surprise—and her outrage—was shared by her “very unscientific, unvetted poll of the people who follow me on Twitter and Facebook.” Those of us who are in the trenches were not surprised, but all of us who are concerned about the integrity of science education will share her outrage. We know that Heartland isn’t done. A June 2016 Heartland blog post entitled “Join the fight for skepticism in our schools” announced a new crowd-funded initiative to build a portal that “collects and distributes materials to teach about the climate debate.” The goal is to bring “balance” to the classroom by peddling the patent lie that “dangerous human influence on climate is completely unproven and the subject of intense scientific debate.” The group plans to target “not just teachers, but parents, friends of students and the students themselves” in an expressed attempt to get around “gatekeepers”—“doctrinaire people who make it hard to get balance into the classroom.“

Such blatant attempts to undermine science education should alarm us all. But remember, whether campaigns such as Heartland’s succeed is, ultimately, up to us. If they are to fail, as they deserve to, teachers, parents, and community members must form alliances to help ensure that science—and only science—is taught in science classes in our schools.

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