Study: Science Teachers Giving Unbalanced Education on Climate Change

Published March 25, 2016

A nationwide survey of 1,500 U.S. middle and high school science teachers, conducted by the National Center for Science Education and published in the February 12 issue of Science, found half of the teachers who discuss climate change in the classroom ignore evidence of the role of natural factors.

The survey found approximately 70 percent of middle school and 87 percent of high school science teachers discuss global warming in the classroom, spending an average of less than two hours over the course of an entire academic year on the topic.

More than half of the middle and high school science teachers discussing climate change teach humans’ use of fossil fuels is mostly responsible for recent global climate changes. About 30 percent of science teachers discuss human actions and natural processes as potential causes of climate change, and 12 percent of science teachers addressing climate change do not emphasize possible human causes.

The study’s lead author, Eric Plutzer, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, told National Public Radio teachers who “are sending clear messages that human consumption of fossil fuels is the major cause of recent warming” are right. He said the 30 percent of teachers telling students natural factors have a role in climate change are creating a problem because their teaching sends “mixed messages” about whether the causes of climate change are still up for debate.

‘Suppressing Controversy’

Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars, says the suppression of hypotheses in the name of promoting favored narratives contradicts the scientific process, which is based on questioning theories and examining evidence.

“Suppressing controversy is the real tragedy in the classroom,” Peterson said. “The idea the climate changes in only one way due to only one cause is reductionist.”

Peterson says teachers should teach the controversy, instead of favoring one hypothesis over another.

“Teachers who acknowledge the ongoing debates in climate science do their students a service and should be applauded,” Peterson said. “To claim teachers must validate the theory of global warming and cast 100 percent of the blame on human actions is to demand teachers adopt and pass on to their students a simplistic and counterproductive view of science.”

Although nearly 68 percent of those surveyed said they personally believed humans were causing global warming, many left their personal opinions out of the classroom, choosing to teach the controversy by presenting a balanced view of the evidence.

‘Horrifying’ Truth Suppression

Jane Shaw, former president and current board member of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, says the study’s authors are the ones getting the science wrong.

“The survey’s authors assume humans ‘are causing’ climate change, as though that were the only cause,” said Shaw. “That assumption is not scientific at all. Humans may be contributing, but [they are] exclusively causing it? That’s ridiculous.”

Shaw says teachers should teach the truth, not worry about sending mixed messages.

“Equally bad is the claim teachers should shave the truth in order to avoid sending ‘mixed messages’ to middle school and high school students,” said Shaw. “Telling the truth is bad because it sends ‘mixed messages?’ That’s a horrifying claim.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.