Where’s the science in environmental science?

Published August 1, 2000

Environmental science is a growth industry everywhere . . . and nowhere more than in America’s schools. The number of high school students taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science exam almost doubled between 1998 (the first year it was offered) and 1999; the number of testing students is expected to double again this year.

According to the National Science Teachers Association, some 26,000 high school teachers identify themselves as environmental science instructors, a larger number than chemistry or physics. The publishing industry is responding with thick and glossy textbooks, full of dazzling graphics.

There’s no question America needs more science education. It’s equally clear that, despite the popularity of environmental education in today’s schools, the country’s youth (and adults for that matter) know little about the environment.

Our illiteracy in science was recently documented by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which ranked American students mediocre at best in international comparisons. In some cases, our students rank well below those of such nations as the Slovak Republic.

A Roper survey of environmental knowledge found Americans give themselves high marks for environmental literacy: Some 70 percent of those polled said they know “a lot” or “a fair amount” about the environment. Yet only 24 percent of the poll’s respondents could identify the most common source of water pollution, only 28 percent knew the primary source of energy in the U.S., and just one in nine received a grade-inflated passing score of 60 percent.

Without a lifeline or help from the audience, self-esteem alone couldn’t save these sorry performers. (Think you’d score better than most? Test yourself with the sample questions in the accompanying sidebar.)

Environmental education in the classroom

Described by some critics as vocational education for political activists, environmental education programs across the country have come under fire for being more interested in persuading kids the planet is imperiled than in actually teaching them much about the trees, plants, and animals that are part of the environment. But environmental science is supposed to be distinctly different than environmental education, a point professionals in both fields are quick to point out.

Environmental science strives to be credited with the same rigor as the other hard sciences. Especially in high school, it competes for students with physics, chemistry, and biology. According to the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) course manual for environmental science teachers,

“Some [college-level environmental science courses] are rigorous science courses that stress scientific principles and analysis, and that often include a laboratory component; other courses emphasize the study of environmental issues from a sociological or political perspective rather than a scientific one. The AP Environmental Science course has been developed to be most like the former.”

The question is, how successful is that effort? How much of environmental science in our high schools is concerned with the scientific principles and analysis, and how much with the political agenda so often criticized in the field of environmental education?

The answer is that there is a struggle going on for the soul of environmental science, and it is not yet clear which direction this field will take.

Textbooks reveal more politics than science

A recent review of textbooks recommended by the College Board as appropriate for AP environmental science–all of them developed for the college market–reveals that teachers interested in the demanding AP path toward environmental literacy have, with a few exceptions, very little to work with.

The Environmental Literacy Council, a group of professional scientists, economists, and educators aimed at fostering hard science and rigorous economics in the study of the environment, recently reviewed five of the most widely used environmental science texts.

They report that the most widely used text, Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998, 10th edition) is also the worst.

Author G. Tyler Miller is a dedicated environmentalist who gave up his “research on corrosive metals to devote the rest of my life to research and education on environmental problems and solutions.” His academic credentials are listed nowhere in the book, although most texts provide detailed biographies of the authors.

Miller’s research appears to have led him to firm conclusions on how best to confront virtually every environmental question that now vexes research scientists. What vexes Miller is not science, but why people disagree with him. He notes in the textbook that he is especially irritated that some “in the media” are attempting to “debunk . . . the threat of global warming because it is only a scientific theory.” Miller would have none of that. “Chapter 14 gives an in-depth discussion of the threat from global warming and what we can do to slow down or prepare for its consequences.”

Miller does provide as nearly a comprehensive review of environment issues as one can imagine, which accounts to some extent for the book’s popularity. However, since he rarely provides source citations for his data (not a great example to set for young scientists), and since his politics overshadow his interest in real education, one can hardly take anything he says at face value.

Miller’s chapter on pest management, for example, takes such a strong stand against pesticides that students must wonder what evil forces are at work in the world compelling us to use chemicals to kill insects. Miller offers his own explanation later in the book, noting “leaders of some corporations and many people in positions of economic and political power understandably see environmental laws and regulations as threats to their wealth and power, and they vigorously oppose” efforts to improve environmental quality.

This, in a textbook being used in upper-level college science courses. Miller even identifies the tactics that have been employed by business leaders:

“If environmental activists become too effective, harass them with phone calls threatening their lives or the lives of their family members. Try to have them fired, kill their pets, trash their homes and offices, cut phone lines, slash tires, sabotage their cars, plant drugs in their cars and notify the police, burn their houses or businesses, assault them, fire warning shots into their houses or cars–all things that have happened to environmentalists in the United States in recent years.”

No other text reviewed by the Council even attempts to reach the level of anti-science attained by G. Tyler Miller.

Still, only a few texts received high grades for presenting basic science with all its complexities and uncertainties, or for including discussions of relative risks, costs, and benefits of action or inaction on environment problems. Textbooks from WCB/McGraw-Hill Publishers (William P. Cunningham and Barbara Woodworth Saigo, Environmental Science: A Global Concern, 3rd edition, 1999) and Wm. C. Brown Publishers (Eldon D. Enger and Bradley F. Smith, Environmental Science, A Study of Interrelationships, 5th edition, 1998) received generally poor reviews. While some topics were covered better than others in these books, overall the reviewers considered the books thin on hard science.

A diamond in the rough

The major bright spot revealed in the Council’s review was the text from John Wiley & Sons, Environment Science: Earth as a Living Planet (1998). Authors Daniel B. Botkin and Edward A. Keller state upfront their intention to “place the study of the environment on a sound scientific basis,” and they follow through with a thorough discussion of how science works, the role of uncertainty, and the limits of science in the policy process.

Although the Council found problems even in this text, the expert reviewers of its content rated it better, in some cases far better, than the others under review. But with the exception of the Botkin and Keller book, teachers will have to look beyond textbooks for serious classroom resources.

The College Board’s AP course aims “to provide students with the scientific principles, concepts, and methodologies required to understand the interrelationships” of the natural world. It is possible that even the Miller text could provide some of this to students; it is at least comprehensive, and a few of its chapters received fairly good grades. But why should teachers and students have to wade through a swamp of political bias to discover important facts and data? And why should anyone tolerate Miller’s textbook example of the politicization of science?

At least three things will need to happen if the teaching of environmental science in our schools is to be taken as seriously as biology and chemistry.

First, professionals in the field must condemn publicly textbooks that are little more than outlets for personal political prejudices.

Second, publishers must institute true peer review of their texts.

And third, environmental science teachers must organize and insist that publishers provide more substantive materials for their classrooms.

Jeffrey Salmon is senior fellow and member of the Executive Committee of the Environmental Literacy Council, and executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

For more information

see this issue’s “Summer Reading” feature for superior texts.

To learn more about the Environmental Literacy Council, or to read the full text of its most recent textbook review report, visit the group’s Web site at www.enviroliteracy.org.