Civics in Science Class

There is a debate underway about how to get students interested in climate change. Should teachers stick to science evidence or expose how powerful vested interests are manipulating the story?

Some of the educators I talk with argue that demonstrating how wealthy interests are actively misleading the public helps students engage. They say the “How Dare They?!” reaction motivates students to learn. But other teachers want to keep the focus strictly on science evidence. They argue that pitting the “good guys” against the “bad guys” seems out of place in science classrooms.

Students should certainly learn what constitutes credible scientific evidence and analysis. An informed public should be able to do this. But how do you hold the attention of disinterested students?

This is as much an education question as a challenge for science communicators outside the classroom. In both cases, limiting the discussion to science evidence won’t get that job done.

The question I opened this post with is the subject of The Merchants of Doubt and articles about the Koch brothers by Jane Mayer, Greenpeace and others. The question might sound inflammatory, but it leads right to the intersection between science and policy, where the protagonists play by different sets of rules.

I think most people would agree that it is just as important to teach civics as science. In this context, insisting that teachers limit their lessons to the evidentiary standards for science, which is just one of the types of arguments in play, leaves students vulnerable.

I am not suggesting that an exposé be undertaken without rigor, in fact far from it. For example, climatologist Michael Wallace and moral philosopher Stephen Gardener (both at the University of Washington) have co-taught climate courses that bring science, law, pubic policy and moral philosophy together.

After all, we are citizens of an interdisciplinary society. In this context, with activists on every side of the issue, use of the terms “good guys” and “bad guys” deserves to be nuanced.

Consider that the attacks on climate science stemmed from a conscious decision to misrepresent science evidence in order to keep public opinion from solidifying (the Luntz memo). The literature documents two underlying rationales for this deception strategy:

  • A free market ideology that abhors government regulation of business and
  • Financial self-interest in the fossil fuel industry.

As Jane Mayer’s piece in the New Yorker makes clear, close friends of the libertarian Koch brothers say that they seem to have lost the distinction between their anti-socialist ideology and furthering their own financial goals.

At the very least, this conflation reveals a central challenge for democratic societies: that we are all capable of self-deception. Checks and balances, muckraking and whistle-blowing really matter.

But there is more to it than simply “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” or “original sin,” or whatever you want to call this basic human weakness. This is where I think the evidence-only-please position falls short.

Actual crimes, threats of crimes and abuses of power have been committed in an effort to discredit climate science results and destroy the careers and reputations of scientists. “Climategate” was, essentially, a criminal act. We don’t know who committed it, but the timing, and the dissemination of cherry-picked phrases suggest that the motive was to prevent an international agreement on climate change from moving forward.

Climate scientists, such as Ben Santor and Michael Mann, have received death threats. Mann even received an envelope containing a white powder in his office mail. The Virginia Attorney General’s efforts to gain access to all of Dr. Mann’s correspondence, plus those of his co-authors, have been repudiated by politicians on both sides of the aisle as an abuse of power and a threat to both free speech and academic freedom.

All of this is appropriate material for education exercises focusing on how we use science evidence to make decisions. If not in science classrooms, where will these exercises occur?

Some important legal and philosophical principles come into play as well. One idea is the “precautionary principal,” which is a pillar of international environmental law. It says that if a policy or an act carries the risk of harming the public or the environment, then in the absence of scientific consensus the burden of proof falls on those who want to take the action. In other words, where this is both risk and doubt, it is better not to act.

According to this principle, scientific community need not prove that burning fossil fuels will lead to harm beyond any shadow of a doubt. Where there is uncertainty, plus the risk of serious harm, the burden falls on those who want to burn more fossil fuels. The burden is to prove that doing so will not cause harm.

The underlying moral idea is that we have an obligation to protect the public. This idea is a regulatory requirement in many medical and environmental situations (analogous to the Hippocratic Oath).

It’s a moral principle, of course, and it must be weighed against other obligations and rights. There is, in fact, an active discussion about balancing the risk of inaction against the risk of acting too quickly. Where there is uncertainty, we often find competing priorities. Honest people can disagree.

But what language should we use to describe people who deliberately interfere with the public’s ability to make informed choices about the risks they are willing to take? What should we call the crimes and threats against scientists? Should we interpret these actions differently if they are committed for ideological reasons vs. financial self-interest, or are the motives irrelevant?

Many people have called tobacco executives evil—or called their behavior evil—because they misled the public when they knew their products could cause harm and death. We know that climate change is costing lives today too, and so do the vested interests behind the denial campaign.

We also know that the climate deniers are using the anti-regulation playbook from the tobacco wars. Duplicity has been documented as well. For example, ExxonMobil provided financial support to the Heartland Foundation, the Cato Institute, and ALEC, even after announcing that greenhouse gas emissions are a public threat.

Is this evil? Are they “the bad guys?” Should we give students the lay of the land, help them learn to assess arguments of various types and learn how politics works? Would this help students learn to reach their own conclusions?

Would it help them learn to distinguish between science and advocacy?

How we are helping students and other Americans unpack these messages, messengers, and motives that surround them? How are people learning to be citizens?

I would suggest that these questions belong in every age-appropriate classroom and on every front page. Whether they belong in science or civics-oriented classrooms is a tough choice. Ideally, the two subjects should come together.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.