If passed, a Kansas bill would have teachers provide students an objective view of climate change and other scientific controversies, covering the evidence for both sides of the scientific debates.
Introduced by the House Education Committee, House Bill 2306 says teachers will “provide information to students of scientific evidence which both supports and counters a scientific theory or hypothesis” and encourages the “teaching of such scientific controversies to be made in an objective manner.” It cites climate science as a specific example, but it does not limit scientific controversies to that subject.
“It is important that all students come out of the high school experience with the ability to understand scientific processes,” said state Rep. Ron Highland (R-Wamego), a member of the House Education Committee. “Everyone should be able to recognize the difference between a theory and fact. This requires critical thinking that will serve everyone well into whatever career they choose.”
Although media outlets construed the bill as “climate change denial,” it requires only an objective view of the topic, said Willie Soon, a Smithsonian Institute and Harvard University astrophysicist.
“I don’t know how anybody could contest this statement,” Soon said. “It’s asking us to be open-minded. There’s no absolute authority in science.”
Highland said many parents, teachers, and administrators have contacted him, “concerned with the science education our young people are receiving today.” This helped prompt the bill.
Controversial Topic, Not Bill
Government involvement has distracted attention from the science of climate change, said Chip Knappenberger, a climatologist and director of the Cato Institute’s science center.
“Climate change is controversial, probably more so because of the policy implications from it than perhaps even the science itself,” Knappenberger said. “Once government starts to get involved, then it can start steering the outcome of things, especially when money is being given out.… I don’t see anything that controversial in the bill. I’d be more concerned if it said the subjective study of science.”
Encouraging critical thinking in a science classroom by teaching both popular and alternative theories should already be normal, Soon said.
“Critical thinking is a whole lot more powerful than particular facts one needs to remember,” Soon said. “The primary problem is the great misunderstanding of science and the dominance of science being driven by popular media. There is all this political correctness which is really putting the whole situation in the wrong way.”
While climate science was the main reason legislators introduced the bill, the principles of critical thinking can and should be applied to all science problems, Highland notes.
“Because several people say something is true does not make it true,” he pointed out. “Remember, the world was once ‘flat.’ Fact must be backed with scientific evidence and then repeated by another scientist…. We would like for all students to ask, ‘Where is the scientific evidence for and against?’ and then for each to make up their own mind.”
Separating Science and Religion
On January 31, Kansas’ Joint Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy heard testimony about climate change, not on a specific bill but to inform the lawmakers. Witnesses, including Soon, described less popular but scientifically researched theories.
The legislative review coincides with the state board of education rethinking Kansas science standards, making it timely legislation. Tennessee and Louisiana recently passed similar legislation requiring objective study of scientific controversies, including human cloning and origins.
The Discovery Institute, an organization of scholars studying science and economics, offers a model bill for objective teaching and academic freedom in science. Emphasizing the separation of religion and science in the classroom is a key aspect of successful legislation, said Josh Youngkin, a Discovery Institute legal analyst.
“Bills like this are criticized as opening the door to religious instruction in school or to ideological promotion, anything but science or science education or critical thinking, which is contrary to both the intent behind the bills that I’m involved with and also the plain language of the bill,” he said. “There’s just no reasonable way that it could amount to a signal to people to introduce [religious] subject matter.”
‘Avoid Religious Language’
The Louisiana and Tennessee laws declare they do not intend or protect religious education, Youngkin noted, and “there have been no negative repercussions” in either state, he said.
He did recommend amending the bill to include more than climate change as an example of scientific controversies to present evidence both for and against, such as Darwinian evolution and cloning.
“It is not only legally prudent, but wise to avoid religious language in science class,” Youngkin said.
The Kansas legislature will not likely take action on the bill until next year after more thought and discussion, Highland said.
Climate an ‘Evolving Science’
Popular conceptions of climate change as “a greenhouse effect caused by CO2 alone is just a wrong picture” of the science, Soon said.
“Climate change is an evolving field of research, and so some things we may have known five years ago are changing over time,” Knappenberger said. “It’s an evolving science, not like the science of gravity.”
Soon says the best evidence shows recent global warming falls within the historic range of natural climate variability, but this is ignored in public school classrooms while government funding continues to support human-caused global warming theories.
“In a classroom, you should throw away your personal viewpoint,” Soon said.
Image by Wendy Smith.