Epic Climate Change Textbook #FAIL

Is our children learning science?pearson science

If those children are being taught about climate from Florida’s 5th grade science textbook from publisher Scott Foresman (Pearson), then those children are learning from a text so riddled with glaring and obvious errors that it’s hard to know how such a book could see the light of day, much less be adopted by Florida public schools.

NCSE recently heard that a Florida parent was concerned about this particular section of the Scott Foresman Science: See Learning in a Whole New Light book:

How Climates Change

There are many events that might cool a climate. The Little Ice Age may have occurred because the Sun produced less energy. Volcanic eruptions and asteroid or meteorite impacts may have quickly caused cooler climate in the distant past. They could have done this by putting dust and other materials into the upper atmosphere. These materials can cool the climate by blocking sunlight or reflecting sunlight back into space.

Carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor also can make climates warmer. They can be produced by human activities, such as burning coal and gasoline. These gases can also enter the atmosphere naturally, such as through decaying matter, forest fires, volcanoes, and the water cycle.

Many different events help to form a climate. Because of this, it is hard to determine why a climate has changed. Scientists have had debates on these changes and will probably have more in the future.

 

Wow. Let’s parse the blunders here:

1. “The Little Ice Age may have occurred because the Sun produced less energy.”

In a very basic sense, decreased solar energy was one of several factors causing the Little Ice Age (~1450-1850). But mentioning the Little Ice Age at all, without any other context, is problematic because of the way the Little Ice Age has been used by climate denialists. Their false claims about the Little Ice Age, dissected in devastating detail by SkepticalScience, argue that modern warming is simply “coming out” of the Little Ice Age, rather than a unique worldwide phenomenon caused by anthropogenic activities.

If the textbook never intended to explain that the Little Ice Age was caused by a combination of solar energy, ocean circulation, and increased volcanic activity, then why mention this climate denialist trope at all?

2. “Volcanic eruptions and asteroid or meteorite impacts may have quickly caused cooler climate in the distant past.”

I can hear the teeth gnashing of astronomers around the world, especially Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who explains it this way:

...while something is orbiting the sun it’s called an asteroid. As it’s entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the bit of it that’s actually solid—whatever it is, the rock, the metal—we call it a meteoroid. As it’s burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere and is very bright, we call it a meteor. And if it hits the ground, we call it a meteorite.

Given these definitions, “asteroid impact” doesn’t make a lot of sense. No wonder children don’t understand the proper terminology when their textbook gets it wrong.

Now, it is certainly true that volcanoes can affect climate. The 1815 eruption of Tambora, 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo all created measurable climate effects. But these are hardly “in the distant past,” and the textbook lost an opportunity here to convey to students the specifics of how volcanoes can temporarily influence worldwide climate. It is also a lost opportunity to clarify that what humans are doing to the atmosphere is much more significant and long-lasting.

3. “Carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor also can make climates warmer. They can be produced by human activities, such as burning coal and gasoline.”

Okay, let’s get something straight: water vapor is a greenhouse gas, but it’s not one humans produce directly. If a nefarious villain were to establish giant humidifier plants to increase the water vapor content and create runaway global warming (unless, of course, the government paid him one million dollars!), this evil plan would fail when that extra humidity immediately rained out of the atmosphere. If the villain decided to desiccate the atmosphere instead (where do all those silica gel packets go, anyway?), evaporation would quickly reestablish normal humidity. (“Curses! Foiled again!”)

Water vapor is a favorite dodge of climate denialists, who like to talk about it instead of the much more urgent issue: manmade carbon dioxide. Water vapor we can’t do anything about, carbon dioxide we can, so of course it is more comforting to assert that it’s all water vapor’s fault. So for this textbook to report that water vapor is “produced by human activities” and is just like other greenhouse gases is inaccurate and supports climate denialist claims.

4. “... it is hard to determine why a climate has changed. Scientists have had debates on these changes and will probably have more in the future.”

This is the worst of the lot. Fifth grade students reading this section in Scott Foresman’s Science are left with the impression that climate scientists are uncertain about their results, that they have “debates” about the issues, and that climate may just be too hard to understand fully. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a growing wealth of research supporting the reality of climate change. Because of the quality of this evidence, there is remarkable, overwhelming consensus about the reality of human-caused climate change; there is far more agreement among scientists that climate change is real and human-caused than there is agreement about the details of quantum mechanics or dark matter. 

The Florida edition of Scott Foresman’s Science textbook is not unique in being inaccurate and sloppily written. The truth is, subject experts rarely write textbooks—staff at educational publishing houses do most of that work to ensure the texts align with standards. Content accuracy and quality are further diminished by adjusting textbook language to fit the philosophy of whatever pedagogical fad currently reigns. Most textbooks are not written by single authors in a coherent, sustained narrative, but by non-expert committees attempting to meet the minimum requirements of flawed educational standards.

The poor quality of textbooks emphasizes the importance of teachers. A good teacher can draw on his or her education to recognize when the content of the textbook is inaccurate and bring to students a meaningful educational experience despite the book. A good teacher knows when to check off the required boxes, and then teach the kids what the subject is really about.

Great teachers know when to stand on the desk—like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society—and tell students which pages to rip out of their textbooks. For this textbook, I recommend giving the climate page the Dead Poets treatment. 

Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

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