22 May 2016

Where The Fault Lies

Posted by Dan Satterfield

natgeoRural students in America who want a good education have a steep mountain to climb. Rural areas are generally poor, conservative, and tend toward fundamental religious beliefs, and this is turning out to be a real issue when it comes to teaching science. If you don’t believe me, ask a Biology teacher in rural Alabama, or almost anywhere in Texas. Too often, it’s not just angry parents they have to contend with, but the very school board itself. This is not new, but in the past it was mainly biology teachers covering natural selection who faced difficulties, but it seems to be spreading to all of science in general.

Science teachers are facing resistance by not just parents, but by their administration and school board! Many of these teachers have stood up to these attacks, and told their students (and the school board) that the Earth is indeed over 4,000 million years old and it’s not an opinion, but a scientific fact. Others have found it difficult to wade through the mountain of myths to find accurate information (See this in Science). The war on science is adding to the already existing problems, and the losers are of course the students, who have a right to learn science without the slant of politics, or someone’s religious belief. PRI’s (Public Radio International) Living on Earth has a good report on this, along with the on air report.

Here is a quote from the PRI Report:

Just last month, members of the Quakertown area school board, north of Philadelphia, refused to order the environmental science and oceanography books requested by the district’s administration. They didn’t like that students would be taught climate change as a scientific fact. Quakertown Board members declined to talk with us for this story.

But something similar happened in the Saucon Valley School District, south of Allentown. Bryan Eichfeld, a school board member there, calls climate change a hoax, and a political issue. He wants textbooks that provide competing views.

A rally for climate education (Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

EICHFELD: That’s not what’s happening with climate change. They are taking everything that they can to prove that there’s climate change and ignoring the data that disproves it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 4.33.30 PM

Cards being handed out at Shepherd Mall in Okla. City Saturday. Other cards called into question that the Earth was round and not flat.

Consider how ludicrous school board member Bryan Eichfield’s comments are, he thinks every major science body on Earth, including NASA/NOAA, and National Academies of Science are all wrong, and that climate change is a hoax. Is it possible to find a more disqualifying statement for serving on a school board than that? Yet he’ll almost certainly get re-elected, because the voters there will vote for someone who tells them what they want to be true, rather than a scientific reality that is discomfiting to their worldview, and here is where the fault lies.

I’m reminded of what Benjamin Franklin told a woman as he left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. She asked him what kind of government they’d been given, and he replied ” A republic madam, if you can keep it!”. Franklin was known far and wide for the wisdom of his statements, but perhaps never more than this one. A democracy cannot survive unless the majority of those who are voting are educated, and have the critical thinking skills to ascertain what is real and what is not.

While there is a long history of these religious battles over evolution, the education battles over climate science (and what we know about the Earth and it’s place in the Universe) are rather recent, and it’s getting worse, not better. This weekend in Oklahoma, a group of people were handing out cards claiming the Earth is flat, and that the Moon landing was a hoax (see the image). Obviously the schools that these folks attended, failed to teach them even the most basic tenants of science and critical thinking.

The education failures in places like rural Pennsylvania are a real catch 22, since some of these students will eventually be the teachers and school board members in these very places, or nearby, and will pass on the poisonous cocktail of science, myth and political bias they were taught to a new generation. Fortunately many students are standing up and saying no, and are demanding to be taught fact-based science. Do not make the mistake of placing the blame for these issues on school board’s and state politicians though, because that’s not where the blame lies. Look at places like West Virginia, where voters have continuously elected politicians who tell them that coal is a great energy source, or Oklahoma, where fracking has made the state the most earthquake prone spot in the U.S. These places have economies that are highly dependent on a dying energy source, and are doing very little to prepare for the changes that must come. The voters there will not elect anyone who tells them the hard truth, and that’s where the blame lies.

In the coming decades, the office holders in these places will get the brunt of the criticism for the economic woes of their region, but the real blame lies with the voters that elected these people over the past 25 years. Franklin’s fear that the common man would fail to act, and vote, based on reason and evidence seems to be omniscient 225 years later. Thus, I end my blog post for the first time with a quote from Shakespeare:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)


Update May 23 2016: I think this story pretty much sums up the problem. It’s a real adventure in woo-woo land.

*Note to students: If you find yourself in a classroom where science is being replaced by belief vs. experiment, you might contact the National Center for Science Education. They fight to make sure that students are taught accurate science about climate, biological evolution etc.