Do you remember your first science lesson?
I don’t – but that’s because I was raised by scientists.
Besides my parental influences, though, I was also a public school student in a well-to-do New Jersey town full of doctors and lawyers from so many cultural and religious backgrounds that the one thing they agreed on was science. Namely, that it should be taught, with minimal fuss and next to no social agenda.
So I learned all the mechanics of why sex can lead to babies and memorized statistics on at least 10 different forms of birth control – including one that, at the time, was only available in Canada. I learned that no, humans don’t come from monkeys, but we sure do share a common evolutionary ancestor.
Our school system managed to walk the fine lines of various sociopolitical debates by realizing that, frankly, the line had no bearing on the teaching of scientific fact. Is abstinence the only 100-percent effective way to prevent pregnancy? Absolutely, and it was one of the birth control methods we were taught. Did Darwin’s religious views stall publication of On the Origin of Species for decades? Yes, and we learned the social context of the history of science then, just as we’d learned about the Church’s excommunication of Galileo. But the vast majority of class time was spent sifting through the scientific evidence that supported Darwin’s theory so clearly that, eventually, even the Catholic Church accepted the explanatory power of evolution.
While this system worked great for me, it clearly doesn’t for at least some Americans: The debate over the scientific content of public school educations still rages on in legislatures and classrooms across the country.
And now there’s a new topic to squabble over: climate change.
New K-12 nationwide science standards based on the National Research Council’s science education framework are due out this month, and they’ll call for the inclusion of climate change in the standard public school curriculum.
Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – and the companion issues of climate change and ocean acidification – are among the most important problems our generation (and our younger siblings and cousins) will face. Yet many of us have only a rough – or entirely absent – understanding of the links between fossil fuel-based energy production, carbon emissions, atmospheric chemistry and physics, and downstream environmental effects.
In theory, by making sure every child in America has a chance to gain the relevant scientific background, we can prime the next generation for the tough decisions and creative solutions they’ll need in the future. Meanwhile, the kids’ elementary school lessons will hopefully percolate up through the family tree, so we can kick some carbon-cutting solutions into action sooner rather than later.
But despite scientific near-consensus that humans are changing the climate system at an alarming rate, a robust climate-change-denial machine continues to churn out propaganda and legislation to the contrary. The Heartland Institute is working on an “alternative climate curriculum,” and legislation in several states encourages – and even mandates – climate-change-denial education.
Do these groups have a point? Sure, to a degree. No climate scientist worth his or her salt would say that science’s job is done. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about climate change without talking about uncertainty; the most basic model predictions come with caveats like “approximately” and “somewhere in the range of.”
And that’s what makes teaching the science behind climate change so exciting and engaging. Done right, it’s the perfect lesson on scientific inquiry – here’s what we don’t know, here’re our hypotheses, and this is how we test them – made more exciting by the fact that it’s still very much a work in progress.
What we don’t need is to pollute this atmosphere of learning with a political agenda. We don’t need the financial might of the oil and gas industry – which funds Heartland’s curriculum development and the campaigns of politicians who later introduce climate-change-denial legislation – bullying the public school system into producing a generation of mindless consumers. We don’t need to stifle the innovative potential of our youth by playing the ostrich, head buried in the sand.
Instead, let’s just teach the science: The chemical reactions of energy production. The physics of atmospheric circulation. The biological response of plants and animals. The mathematics of prediction and the statistics of uncertainty. And let’s trust our students to sift through the information like scientists and figure it out.
Holly welcomes reader questions, comments, and climate predictions (with sizeable errors only!) via email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.