Ezra Klein’s coverage of the NCSE stepping into the climate change battleground is very timely, and asks many very relevant questions.
One revelation from the recent Heartland Institute document leak is that the group is crafting a K-12 curriculum to teach kids that global warming is “controversial.” Heartland officials have confirmed this. So is climate change set to join evolution as the next big classroom controversy?
But could Heartland actually spread its views? Rosenau says that Heartland could do what creationist groups like the Discovery Institute have been doing for years and simply mail out supplemental materials to educators far and wide. “There will be teachers who are sympathetic to the skeptic view or who think the material looks useful, and they’ll say to themselves, okay, I’ll bring this into the classroom,” he explains. It’s worth noting that the Heartland Institute had already developed a video along these lines — titled “Unstoppable Solar Cycles,” which laid out the long-debunked theory that the sun is driving recent warming — and shipped it off to teachers. (These earlier efforts, according to one Heartland document, met with “only limited success.”)
Even if these materials turn out to be wildly inaccurate or out of sync with a state’s science-education standards, keeping tabs on their use would be quite difficult. “In almost all cases,” Rosenau says, “there are no policies that would prevent a teacher from using such material.” Quite the opposite: A few states, such as Louisiana, have non-binding laws that urge teachers to embrace “supplemental” material on heated topics like evolution and climate change.
Because all you have to do is have enough people believe strongly enough that science is wrong about something, and you can stop it being taught in classrooms. Who knows, maybe in the future some religion will make a tenet of faith out of the flatness of the Earth and yet another chunk of science will become “heated” enough that it can be chucked out of the state-sanctioned curriculum. Maybe the Hare Krishna will come to power or become the dominant religion of the US, and the whole moon landing will be declared apocrypha. Make no mistake that the pushback against climate change comes from one form of magical thinking or another, whether it’s the belief that capitalism and rampant consumption of planetary resources without regard for sustainability is its own virtue, or the belief that humans can’t possibly destroy the planet given to us by God before it’s time for His final judgment anyway.
If you venture too far into the land of plurality, though it is a virtue otherwise, you risk compromising that which is true — e.g., that which is demonstrable by science — for the sake of mollycoddling people’s personal and unscientific beliefs. No matter how good pluralism is for society, the line must absolutely be drawn at the border of scientific knowledge. The fact that our scientific knowledge of the universe is ever expanding, of course, means that line must move with it. If there are belief systems that become casualties of science’s expanding grasp of this universe, too bad.