Global Warming: It’s Only a Theory & Balanced Treatment in South Dakota Science Classrooms

Yesterday, I reported that the South Dakota state legislature moved a bill along that calls for a balanced teaching of global warming, “especially since global warming is a scientific theory and not a proven fact,” to quote HR1009.  This notion of using “theory” in science as not being viable, or as having not gone through a process of peer review, discussion, and exploration is a tactic that has been used by politicians and corporations to cast a pale over the nature of science, and play on the misconceptions that the public has about science.

The degree to which evolutionary theory is taught in American schools, C. 2002

For example, here is a map that was generated some years ago by Lawrence S. Lerner of California State University at Long Beach, and that was published in Scientific American (March, 2002).  The map his Lerner’s evaluation of how evolution theory is taught around the country, and here in the map you can see by means of his comments and colors how the theory of evolution is approached.  There has been a long history in this country of attempts to limit or to demand equal or balanced treatment of the teaching of evolution with the teaching of creation (often appearing as creation science or intelligent design).  Can intelligent design or creation science be taught alongside evolutionary theory?  That question was answered with a resounding NO by Judge John Jones, the Dover, Pennsylvania case in which the judge ruled as follows: We have concluded that it [intelligent design] is not [science], and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

The same logic that groups and individuals have used to try and force schools to teach according to religious view, or because they deny the facts that have been presented to support a particular theory, were used in the case in the South Dakota House.  Suggesting that global warming is only a theory, and therefore requires that it be taught in a balanced manner is a clever tactic being used by the 36 politicians that voted for HR1009.

Stephen H. Schneider, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author of Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate explores these tactics.  One of the tactics that he identifies is the “tactic of persistent distortion.”  He put it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is the perceived need for “balance” in journalism.  In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue.  Got the Democratic view?  Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different.  There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility.

If you read the HR1009 document (which is only a few paragraphs) you are left asking if you are going to teach global warming, what are you going to balance it with.  Well, the answer that comes to my mind is global warming is a hoax.  Another way of saying this, is that the proponents of balanced treatment assume that there is another credibly valid case.   And Schneider helps us distinguish between skeptics and deniers.

When I give a public talk on aspects of climate change, I always take the time to explain the difference between climate deniers and skeptics.  All good scientists are skeptics—we should challenge everything.  I was a big-time climate skeptic, changing from cooling to warming and nuclear winter to nuclear fall when that is where the preponderance of available evidence led.  As more solid evidence of anthropogenic global warming accumulates, the numbers of such legitimate climate skeptics are declining.  Climate deniers, however, are not true skeptics, but simply ignore the preponderance of evidence presented.  Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.  The latter is, at best, bad science, or, at worst, dishonesty.

The case in South Dakota, advocating balanced treatment of the teaching of global warming, will spread to other states, and will be supported by the same groups that supported intelligent design.

Perhaps there is some good news on the horizon.  The Carnegie Corporation of New York and the National Research Council, along with participation of other groups such as the National Science Teachers Association are working on a framework for the development of a new generation of science standards.  They probably will not insist on balanced treatment for the teaching of climate change and global warming theory.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.