Only a couple of days later, though, I was rather startled to read a The New York Times story that began: "Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools."
"The linkage of evolution and global warming," the article explains, "is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general."
In other words, they are using skepticism of the vast body of science that says that climate change is real to create a legal reason to allow teachers to poke holes in other long-settled scientific truths.
In other, other words, they're encouraging students to engage in willful ignorance. I don't want to be controversial or anything, but that strikes me as not what our schools should be doing.
The Times article listed Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and South Dakota as states where either the legislature or the state board of education have recently introduced requirements that would, in the words of the Kentucky legislation, encourage teachers to discuss "'the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories," including "evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning."
The South Dakota measure, a resolution that passed its legislature on March 1 by a vote of 37 to 33, calls for the "balanced teaching of global warming in public schools," adding that "the earth has been cooling for the last eight years despite small increases in anthropogenic carbon dioxide, ...there is no evidence of atmospheric warming in the troposphere where the majority of warming would be taking place" and that "carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life. Many scientists refer to carbon dioxide as 'the gas of life.'"
For good measure, the South Dakota resolution asserts that "the debate on global warming has subsumed political and philosophical viewpoints which have complicated and prejudiced the scientific investigation of global warming phenomena." That's a lot like Fox News' famous claim to being the "fair and balanced" alternative to the rest of American journalism, when, of course, it is, as everyone understands, just the opposite.
The advocates of willful ignorance seize on a widespread misunderstanding of the word "theory." “Our kids are being presented theories as though they are facts,” Kentucky State Representative Tim Moore who introduce the the bill in his legislature, said to the Times. “And with global warming especially, there has become a politically correct viewpoint among educational elites that is very different from sound science.”
That's not too dissimilar from what Joe Barton, a Texas Republican in the U.S. House, said just a few days ago to a reporter at Christian News Service. "This whole theory of global warming is just that: It’s a theory. It’s based on models. Models are based on variables, and conditions that the modelers that develop the models put into them. And the models don’t replicate what’s happened. So (scientists) need to go back to square one, look at the empirical data, look at alternative theories, and see if they can find a theory that actually fits the facts.”
Both Moore and Barton, are, of course, playing semantic games. Ask any scientist what the word "theory" means in science -- particularly in areas of settled science, such as evolution -- and they will use a definition much like this one: "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity." In other words, unchallengeable truth.
Either out of conscious deceit or unfortunate unawareness, people like Moore and Barton are referring to this definition of the word, as it is often appears in more popular, non-scientific usage: "a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact."
And then there are people such as Republican U.S. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is proud of saying, "The threat of catastrophic global warming is greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Why would anyone want to go to so much trouble to turn his or her back on the truth? To be fair, it's not necessarily for expressly mendacious reasons, though I suspect many of those who challenge the climate change science are doing it out of dislike of "liberals" and a desire to disable the Democratic Party. And it's something we from people at every point alongthe ideological spectrum.
A recent NPR story explored about the social science behind such self-deception: "'Basically the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values,' says Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of The Cultural Cognition Project [a group of scholars who study how cultural values shape public perceptions and policy beliefs]. Kahan says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work."'If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way,' he says. "And if the information doesn't, you tend to reject it."
That makes sense. But this explanation suggests once again that we are living in a society where significant proportions of the public are operating from profoundly divergent, and often conflicting, core values. The gulf between, or among, these groups feels to me to be getting wider every day, and there appear to be few, if any, ways of changing or bridging that. So much for a unified set of nationally shared values.
Not even a figure like Barack Obama, who held out the promise of being post-partisan and transformational unlike anyone else, has been the antidote to this troubling trend. On the contrary, critics from the right are rejecting his efforts to reach out to them, but using him as an object lesson of the "politically correct viewpoint among educational elites" that they so revile.
As the song goes, "You've got to be carefully taught."