13 February 2016

Climate Change and Teachers

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 9.30.33 PMThere is a very noteworthy paper out today in Science about the teaching of climate science in America’s classrooms, and it’s open source, so non-subscribers can read it. The piece is excellent, so if you know are (or know) a teacher, please share it with them. 

The short summary of the Science paper, is that some teachers are telling students things about science that the facts just do not support, chief among them that the warming we have seen is primarily natural. There may be tendency to decry teachers for teaching political belief disguised as science, but I think in most cases it’s not done on purpose, and is the result of not taking the time to look closely at the science. Yes, it’s difficult to find real science, without political overtones on the issue, and while high school science teachers should have the background to know where to get accurate information, grade school teachers likely have less training in this regard. That’s not a criticism by the way, it’s just that grade school teachers are not usually trained in a specific science like a high school physics teacher, etc. Here is a quote from the paper in Science:

FROM THE PAPER: Notably, 30% of teachers emphasize that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” and 12% do not emphasize human causes (half of whom do not emphasize any explanation and thereby avoid the topic altogether). Of teachers who teach climate change, 31% report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in temperature are due to natural causes (see the first chart). Why might this be the case? Some teachers may wish to teach “both sides” to accommodate values and perspectives that students bring to the classroom (6, 10). Beyond that, the survey data allow us to evaluate three explanations.

Science of course is not about teaching both sides, it’s about teaching what we know from observation and experiment, and I doubt there is any science that would be taught in high school that is uncertain enough that there is “another side” to it. Now, if you are teaching quantum dynamics and wish to cover the Copenhagen Interpretation vs the “Many Worlds” version, that makes sense. If you are telling students that the warming is natural, or that scientist are divided about it, there’s NO evidence to support that claim and overwhelming mountains of evidence that says it’s not true. You wouldn’t find anything from NASA/NOAA or IPCC reports making such a claim, and you’d not find any recently published paper in a science journal that substantiates such a claim.

The paper may very well have hit the nail on the head here:
…many teachers are unaware of the extent of scientific agreement. This is critical because we might expect that, with limited technical mastery, teachers may defer to scientific expertise. Yet, when asked “what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?”—only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school science teachers selected the correct option of “81 to 100%.” Even among teachers who agree that human activities are the main cause of global warming (a large majority of all science teachers), only 52% know the percentage of scientists who share their view. If a majority of science teachers believe that more than 20% of climate scientist disagree that human activities are the primary cause, it is understandable that many would teach “both sides,” by conveying to students that there is legitimate scientific debate instead of deep consensus.

This truly is the number one science myth in America, and it’s certainly true that many who believe it, do so because it fits their political worldview, and even though they’ve been shown factual evidence that it is not true, refuse to change their mind. So, how do we fix that? Here is what the authors say:

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 9.13.31 PMStudents in upper grades may question incorrect or biased information, because there are a lot of smart high school kids who know the basics of climate physics. There are a ton of good books out there that they can get if they suspect they are not getting the facts, and there has been much written about the peer reviewed studies that show that over 97% of scientists in the field agree that humans are mainly responsible for our changing climate. Educating teachers will not solve the problem entirely though as the authors state:

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The only way to correct that problem is for parents and students to insist that the teachers in their local school system teach science, and not politics. I imagine that some teachers may face the opposite problem with parents complaining that they are not “giving the other side”, but in that case every major science body on Earth and the top NOAA/NASA experts have your back, along with the published science. I’ll repeat Neil deGrasse Tyson once again: