The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

“Teach the Controversy” Argument Used by Climate Change Deniers

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 28, 2011

You may know that one of the most common arguments used by creationists as they attempt to push their fundamentalist religious beliefs in the public schools is the “teach the controversy” strategy.  In this argument, creationists claim there is some kind of scientific “controversy” about the theory of evolution, as if scientists are in disagreement about the theory when in fact quite the opposite is true – there is broad acceptance of evolution among biologists.  This style of argumentation is widely recognized for what it is: an attempt to delegitimize science in the public schools because of a rigidly held ideology.

Now it seems that recently there is another kind of anti-scientific ideology rearing its ugly head which is trying to use the same kind of “teach the controversy” approach: climate change denial.  And the use of “teach the controversy” in regards to climate change and global warming has now gone beyond mere rhetoric, because the climate change denialists are now pushing this tactic in public schools in the United States…

US school board teaches ‘the controversy’ on global warming

A school board in California has attracted headlines over the past few days for voting unanimously that a new environmental science class starting this autumn must include “multiple perspectives” on the science of global warming.

Four board members of the Los Alamitos Unified School District voted to list the class – which was taught to 15,000 public school students across California in 2008-09 (pdf of class description) – as a “controversial topic”, meaning the teacher must explain to the board annually how opposing views are to be taught.

Echoing similar efforts at school boards in other US states, the move has been criticised by some commentators. One parent of a pupil at Los Alamitos Unified School told the Orange County Register: “There is consensus in the field that we have global warming happening, it is getting warmer and it is related to what we are doing to the planet. That is not in dispute in the scientific community. It is in dispute in the political community. This is a science class. Teach science.” …

The writer of this article sat down to interview the architect of this anti-scientific move, Dr. Jeffrey Barke, and the conversation is very revealing.  I’ll include key excerpts below (the interviewer’s questions & comments are bolded and Dr. Barke’s follow) and follow them up with my comments.

What’s been the feedback since this news was first reported?

The feedback has been primarily from left-wing blogs and zealots who believe that to suggest there is a point of view to be discussed that is different to the dogma of global warming is, in and of itself, controversial. Our perspective simply was we had asked the teachers to present a balanced perspective to the children as it relates to a new course that we brought forward called Advanced Placement in Environmental Science. And this class is one that is most commonly offered at the universities, but some high schools offer it as well.
So, after reviewing the syllabus, we found a lot of information about global warming and man-caused effects on the environment etc. Our worry was the kids would be presented simply with one perspective and we wanted to make sure they had a balanced view so we simply updated a policy we already have on the books regarding controversial issues. It simply asks that when a class is taught containing potentially controversial issues that we ask the teacher not to get the kids to believe in a particular perspective or point of view, but simply that the teachers present both sides of the equation in a fair-and-balanced manner.

Ah, the “teach all views” argument.  The problem is that, in science, not all views are equal.  Science is not a process driven by simply expressing your point of view and then arguing over it, like in a high school debate.  In science, the most accepted views are those which are supported by experimental and observational evidence which can be explained by well-understood theories.  The opinion of the scientist (or in this case, the school board member) doesn’t really matter.  For example, read more here about how the climate science community is strongly in support of the consensus that global warming is happening and is heavily influenced by human activity.  When so many climate science experts are in such strong agreement, then it is a pretty fair bet the science is settled and there is no “alternate viewpoint” with any validity to present.

You could probably count on one hand the serious, respected scientists who hold an alternative view on this. Surely, the vast majority of scientists would agree with points one and two…

With all respect, I don’t agree with that. I think that is what is presented by the media, most of whom are left of centre. I think there are almost an equal number of reputable scientists who would disagree with many of the tenets that say global warming is unarguably happening, whether it’s caused by man, and whether it will have devastating consequences. Ian Plimer from Australia through to Bjorn Lomborg primarily argue against the third point. There’s hundreds of them. The IPCC is held up to be the global consensus but, in my opinion, it is a political rather than scientific body. But I’m not here to argue about the merits of global warming. Our desire was to have the kids get a balanced perspective.

So Dr. Barke goes on and on about how “there’s hundreds of them” – “them” being scientists who disagree with the consensus on climate change.  However, what he doesn’t tell you is that there are far, far more scientists – specifically climate scientists – who do agree with the climate change consensus.  For example, see here how 97% of the climate experts in the world accept the fact that global warming is real and heavily influenced by human activity.

In addition, note how Dr. Barke does some name dropping in the interview – specifically, he mentions Ian Plimer and Bjorn Lomborg.  But what he doesn’t say is that neither of these gentlemen are climate scientists.  In fact, Ian Plimer is a geologist and Bjorn Lomborg is an economist, and the fact that this information isn’t presented is rather telling.  Folks, if I had a question on rock formations I’d talk to Ian Plimer; if I had a question on economics and financial markets, I would speak with Bjorn Lomborg; but, despite their opinions, neither of these gentlemen is an expert in climate science, so why would I want to talk with them about that particular subject?

You mentioned Plimer and Lomborg, who are both very controversial figures who have been widely challenged and – certainly in Plimer’s case – have been debunked by some people. Who else have you read?

The reality is that anybody who challenges global warming comes under a firestorm of criticism and demagoguery from those who are true zealots. So it’s almost impossible for a scientist to come out with facts and evidence against global warming without being personally attacked and demagogued. Plimer and Lomborg are just two examples of very prominent, reputable scientists who are unfortunately just getting hammered by the media and quite personally at times. I’m not good at remembering names and details, but those two stand out because they are in the media and I’ve read some of their work. I read through the literature all the time – both from those on the right and the left – and, to me at least, it’s fairly clear that the science is not settled. And the fact that I’m being attacked personally for my beliefs is really kind of sad.

Ah yes, this old canard once again.  The argument goes like this: anyone who dares to speak out against the big, bad (in this case, apparently, leftist) scientific community can expect to be squashed.  In fact, the conspiracy theory goes, the fact that people who deny global warming are told by the climate science community that they don’t know what they’re talking about is evidence that they (the deniers) really do know what they’re talking about!

Confused?  So am I… basically, this line of argumentation boils down to one thing:

Any evidence presented against the arguments of the climate change deniers can be easily dismissed or explained away by invoking the Conspiracy of Evil Scientists (cue spooky music).  The possibility that these deniers could be dead wrong, deluding themselves, or pushing their own particular ideology never seems to occur to them.  And that last point, that climate change deniers are pushing an ideological agenda – while at the same time they claim the real scientists are pushing an ideological agenda – is very revealing.  It’s almost as if, somewhere deep down in their brains, the deniers rationalize that that’s all that science is: simply various groups pushing agendas, so the fact that they’re pushing their own agenda is then acceptable.  The notion that there is an objective reality that is revealed by the scientific process seems to escape them.

Well, now that you know this bogus “teach the controversy” tactic is being used not only to thwart the teaching of evolutionary science but now climate change science as well, I suggest you keep your eyes on your local school boards (the Skeptical Science website is a good resource to use in case you need it).  We must be vigilant, because it is obvious that the more and more these tactics are used, if they go unchallenged, the less and less effective will be our science education in the public schools.  If we allow the anti-science ideologues to succeed, we have only ourselves to blame.

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5 Responses to ““Teach the Controversy” Argument Used by Climate Change Deniers”

  1. David Brotman said

    Thanks for the post and the heads up. If any kind of anti-science curriculum tries to make its way into the San Juan school district up here in Northern California, I will raise a loud fuss.

  2. [...] it’s merely been about keeping it out of the sphere of consensus. That’s what “teach the controversy” is all [...]

  3. [...] about disproving it, it's merely been about keeping it out of the sphere of consensus. That's what "teach the controversy" is all [...]

  4. [...] it’s merely been about keeping it out of the sphere of consensus. That’s what “teach the controversy” is all [...]

  5. […] it’s merely been about keeping it out of the sphere of consensus. That’s what “teach the controversy” is all […]

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