Addressing science denial

#ClimateEdNowWe have an ethical responsibility to our students to teach climate change given the predictions of current climate models about the world they will inherit and the insufficient current efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. We obviously should teach about climate change, even though many states don’t. The more timely question is what we should teach about climate change. The answer to that question has to include teaching about science denial, its promoters, and their motivations.

As I have helped develop national and state science standards and model curricula, I have seen the rise of “nature of science” (NOS) standards. These are insightful but often convoluted. I have wondered in this era of state demands to “consider all sides of controversial topics” how a high school teacher assigned to a course outside of field addresses the NOS expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or similar state standards. More than a third of all high school biology and over three quarters of high school physics teachers teach in a field in which they lack a degree. How do they teach NGSS’s nature of science standard that “Science carefully considers and evaluates anomalies in data and evidence”?

In my college General Education (GenEd) courses, I expanded explanations of NOS. When I presented findings of current climate change journal articles not yet in introductory textbooks, I explained the peer review process and displayed the revision history of articles I cited. I displayed and explained the funding source, conflict of interest, acknowledgement, data accessibility, and author contact statements. I explained to my students the difference between a peer-reviewed journal article and an opinion piece, blog post, or text by someone, even the author of the journal article.

I have wondered why K–12 science content standards, including the NGSS, didn’t recommend the same approach. I have also been astonished to find that they sometimes undermine the approach. Are Milankovitch cycles anomalies? When I volunteered to review the treatment of climate change in state science standards for the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, I found that three states called for teaching about Milankovitch cycles. Those standards were not there to encourage students to consider, evaluate, and reject alternative hypotheses to explain climate change. Quite the contrary, I suspect. Milankovitch cycles correlate with ice-age-scale climate changes that might appear anomalous, especially to climate deniers, but they “can’t explain Earth’s current warming” (according to NASA). Standards should explain/encourage alternative hypotheses but also show how scientists evaluate and often reject them.

In our democracy, effective scientific literacy of graduates from our high schools and universities must include the ability to recognize the absence of objectivity and why it occurs.

As I reviewed state science standards, I realized how no state’s standards — nor the NGSS themselves — addressed today’s NOS challenges. For example, how do you respond to science denial about evolution, climate change, or vaccinations? We know just presenting the same ever more dire climate change graphics and predictions doesn’t change minds. No standard I reviewed, including my own state’s on which I had worked, addressed climate or any other science denial directly.

Then I reviewed Wisconsin’s standards. There, on the last page: “Ask questions to clarify an author’s motivation for promoting unscientific or falsified information on science topics (e.g. climate change, vaccines, GMOs, nuclear energy).”

That performance expectation appears unique among all state K–12 and NGSS standards. But what a great question! Why do some people, organizations, and policymakers promote “unscientific or falsified information on science topics”? Our students need a lot more of that NOS perspective in their K–12 and GenEd science courses.

Purists may complain such perspectives are not “real science.” But in our democracy, effective scientific literacy of graduates from our high schools and universities must include the ability to recognize the absence of objectivity and why it occurs.

A teacher presenting a course outside of field tasked with explaining anomalies needs to know that some climate denial organizations still cite Milankovitch cycles to distract from the fossil-fuel-use hypotheses, why they do that, and how to teach this information effectively while not generating complaints to administrators and school boards or running afoul of “gag order” legislation by state governments.

The NGSS and state science standards derived from them are outdated for current anti-science times when elected officials still call climate change a “hoax.” Their framework documents are elderly, with the primary framework over a decade old and some of its predecessors over a quarter century old. The pedagogical underpinnings for today’s standards and GenEd curricula antedate smartphones and most social media — and the mis- and disinformation they disseminate ever more rapidly and indiscriminately.

Our standards and GenEd curricula need updating to help teachers promote science literacy by helping students address science denial and why it occurs. People who promote “ unscientific or falsified information on science topics” will resist such efforts; they already do. But that’s all the more reason to pursue the effort vigorously. Our standards and college GenEd curricula must be retooled to meet the scientific literacy needs of today’s students in this era of science denial.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

Steve Rissing
Short Bio

Steve Rissing directed the Introductory Biology Program, one of the largest of its kind in the country, at The Ohio State University from 1999-2005. He studied the role of kin selection—and the lack thereof—in starting desert ant colonies. He assisted in development of the Next Generation Science Standards, and state K-12 science standards in Arizona and Ohio. He writes the Biology column for the Columbus Dispatch and is an emeritus professor in OSU’s Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology.