The debate on whether evolution should be taught in America's classrooms is as old as the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Recently, a similar effort has come under fire by education leaders and legislators: how to teach global warming.
A flurry of bills that critics say would allow climate change denial to be taught in public schools have been moving through state legislatures throughout the United States, with some success.
The legislation is promoted and often directly supported by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes "intelligent design research" as part of its "Academic Freedom" campaign. The organization aims to prod educators to "teach the controversy" on a number of contentious issues, including climate change.
Kansas H.B. 2306 states that "certain scientific topics, such as climate science, may be controversial. The legislature encourages the teaching of such scientific controversies to be made in an objective manner in which both the strengths and weaknesses of such scientific theory or hypothesis are covered."
The Kansas bill was defeated Friday, and two similar bills in the Arizona and Colorado legislatures died in February. But H.B. 1674 in Oklahoma is still active, and a similar pair of bills became law in Louisiana and Tennessee last year.
"This has been a busy year for Academic Freedom," said Joshua Youngkin, the Discovery Institute's program officer of public policy and legal affairs, who appeared to testify in support of H.B. 13-1089 in Colorado on Feb. 4.
Youngkin said the Discovery Institute was instrumental in passing the Louisiana and Tennessee bills, and stressed that the legislation would not remove climate science from school curriculums. Rather, he said, it would "give teachers the right to teach both sides of a scientific controversy," providing legal protection for educators who might want to introduce "other sides of the topic" to students.
Critics say the legislation is a step back for climate science in the classroom.
"The bottom line is that these type of bills provide cover -- a Trojan horse, if you will -- for teachers to act as if there is controversy when there isn't, to present both sides in a way that makes them look equal," said Mark McCaffrey of the National Center for Science Education, a California nonprofit that has fought against the bills.
"In our minds, it points to the ongoing challenge of having an informed discussion about climate change," McCaffrey said.
Helping teachers 'step up to the plate'
Oklahoma's H.B. 1674, named the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act" by its author, Rep. Gus Blackwell (R), states that school boards and administrators "shall not prohibit any teacher in a school district in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories."
Along with biological evolution, the chemical origins of life and human cloning, global warming is listed as one of the issues in question. The bill would also prevent students from being academically penalized for holding certain beliefs on these subjects.
"Let me be clear, this bill is not to introduce [creationism] or philosophical thought in science, but to stimulate students to explore, evaluate and understand different sides of peer-reviewed, scientific information," said Blackwell, adding that he believes this action will help "rejuvenate" students' interest in science.
Blackwell cited the Oregon Petition (disowned by the National Academy of Sciences in 1998) to support his belief that scientists have not yet agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.
"Obviously, there's a division," Blackwell said.
He acknowledged that he had met with Discovery Institute representatives on one occasion and that the organization had offered him further support.
Sen. Judy Burges (R), sponsor of Arizona S.B. 1213, declined to comment -- her press secretary said she was not granting interviews "this year." But Burges did speak to Arizona's Capitol Media Services recently, saying, "There should be an opportunity for teachers to step up to the plate and give their opinion -- if they have scientific proof that it isn't happening, that it's a natural phenomena -- without retribution."
Kansas H.B. 2306 is unique in that climate science is the only controversial scientific topic mentioned. Rep. Dennis Hedke (R), who sponsored the bill, said this was done for the sake of simplicity. Hedke denied any connection to the Discovery Institute, saying H.B. 2306 was inspired by earlier legislation.
Operation Academic Freedom
The Discovery Institute's pet issue is not climate change but evolution. According to its website, the organization "seeks to counter the materialistic interpretation of science by demonstrating that life and the universe are the products of intelligent design." The group, which reported more than $5 million in contributions in 2011, funds a projects in various areas, including research on intelligent design and the Academic Freedom campaign.
Earlier this month, Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll revealed documents showing that a group called Donors Trust, which has been in the news recently for funding a number of conservative causes including climate denial groups, gave $750,000 to the Discovery Institute (ClimateWire, Feb. 15).
Asked about this, John West, an associate director of the Discovery Institute, said funds were received through Donors Trust but used to finance other work and not the climate teaching legislation. "In the past, some of our donors have been targeted for harassment by Darwin-only activists," he explained, noting that the trust keeps the identities of its donors secret.
In 2007, the Discovery Institute released a model bill for legislators aimed at providing legal protection to educators and students presenting "scientific criticisms" of evolution. However, Youngkin said that he considers Tennessee H.B. 368, which was signed into law in April 2012, "gold standard now for language."
Like those introduced in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arizona, H.B. 368 names global warming as a scientific controversy and states that educators are permitted to introduce "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" on the subject.
Youngkin wrote a how-to guide for lawmakers on introducing "academic freedom legislation" on a Discovery Institute website in March 2012, providing examples on language that would avoid legal challenges.
Although Youngkin characterized the recent series of bills as "state-led, grass-roots" campaigns, he said the Discovery Institute will supply any assistance necessary for legislators, including providing public testimony, private consultations, and "expert help on drafting language and stating objections."
Youngkin said that although the Discovery Institute has no official position on climate change, "we definitely have a position on whether or not there should be investigation in schools on that subject."
"The textbook tends to present only the majority viewpoint of the topic, and that's to the detriment of the students," he said, adding that he believes there is a "good, safe debate" on whether human beings have an impact on climate change.
A 'huge deficit of knowledge'
A number of groups have been fighting the Discovery Institute's efforts. Most recently, a petition organized by 350.org, Forecast the Facts and SignOn.org garnered 10,000 signatures against Arizona's S.B. 1213, which died Feb. 22.
The National Center for Science Education acts as a watchdog on the status of bills like S.B. 1213. McCaffrey leads the center's climate change initiative and works to promote action against the legislation.
McCaffrey said American students are already woefully undereducated on the issue of climate change, citing a 2011 Yale report that showed that fewer than one in five teens felt "very well informed" on global warming, and that more than two-thirds think they have not learned a great deal about climate change in school.
The report, titled "American Teens' Knowledge of Climate Change," also found that "44 percent of teens believe that stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer would reduce global warming."
"There is this huge deficit of knowledge," McCaffrey said. "Students are just not learning what they need to learn to be informed citizens."
A new set of national science teaching standards known as the Next Generation Science Standards, to be completed this month, seeks to change this situation. According to earlier reports, middle and high school students would learn about the various ways humans have affected the climate.
"We anticipate in the coming months and maybe even years that there will be an effort -- some of it may be coordinated, some of it may be ad-hoc -- to try to scuttle, or delay or water down the Next Generation Science Standards," McCaffrey said.
On a Discovery Institute website, Youngkin has already written a post applauding Texas' reluctance to accept the standards, saying, "The Next Generation Science Standards would employ uniform standards to subtly impose on every state 'the one right way' for every teacher to teach about evolution and climate change."
McCaffrey, who is among those who say humans undoubtedly have an influence on the Earth's climate, calls such efforts by the Discovery Institute and others indicators of a "counter-movement, dedicated to fostering confusion and doubt and delay around having an adult conversation around climate change."
"We've heard stories of teachers showing a clip from 'An Inconvenient Truth' and a clip from 'The Great Global Warming Swindle,' and the students come away confused," McCaffrey said, referring to two documentary films that take completely opposite views on climate change. "That's not a good way to teach science."
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