Commentary and Criticism about the National Education Association
We have absolutely no affiliation with the National Education Association and do not represent its views in any way, shape or form.
Will science teachers tell the truth on Earth Day (or will they just promote the NEA approved version)?
THESIS OF THIS BLOG POST – Climate change is not “settled” science.
The NEA has provided a list of resources on its website to help science teachers celebrate Earth Day. Unfortunately, those resources assume that climate change is “settled” science. It presents “facts” which it wants students to “learn” rather than expecting them to use critical reasoning to understand the potentially important issues facing our planet.
Most likely teachers will simply have their students make a colored poster about pollution - on recycled paper of course ...
EARTH DAY ACCORDING TO THE NEA
Earth Day 2018 is fast approaching (its April 22 for the science-challenged out there).
If you are a science teacher like me, you kind of feel an obligation to do something to recognize it. If you don’t, at least one of your students will inevitably ask why you forgot to mention it.
My guess is that kids probably see some advertisement on their phones or on TV which reminds them that this great day is approaching and that they should celebrate it in some way. And, I have to admit, I sometimes feel a little guilty if I don’t do at least a little something to recognize it.
Its not hard to find resources on-line to help with lesson planning for Earth Day. In fact, the NEA has a whole bunch of links on its website - and they are even broken down by general grade level.
There are lesson plans dealing with pollution, endangered species, green energy, climate change, conservation – its all there …
Or is it?
When I clicked on most of those links, I was struck, not so much by the great variety of choices to pick from, but by what was missing. Everything that the NEA provided was from one particular point of view.
EARTH DAY – WHAT THE NEA MISSES
So you thought that Earth Day was a done deal?
You assumed that this day would be celebrated by all?
You never considered that there might be another point of view on the matter?
Before I start the criticism, please understand that I can certainly relate to the standard environmental call to arms which tells us to:
“Reduce, reuse and recycle.”
And as for green energy, who in their right mind would be opposed to burning less oil? In fact, I have solar panels on my rooftop because I seriously believe that this will be helpful.
No rational person actually likes pollution.
But the problem that some people have with Earth Day has nothing to do with these feel-good-easy-to-explain-in-a-sound-bite issues.
What is missing from the NEA’s long list of Earth Day resources can be broken down into two general categories:
Teachers who celebrate Earth Day without also discussing the above two points are not fulfilling their obligations to their students.
Worse, if they don’t acknowledge where the Earth Day founders went wrong and how current Earth Day supporters misunderstand the practice of science, they are not being intellectually honest with themselves.
Students deserve a balanced approach when it comes to “celebrating” earth day. They should be shown the evidence and encouraged to use their critical thinking skills to come to their own conclusions.
Unfortunately (and sadly), most teachers won’t present both points of view. Instead, they will force feed the standard viewpoint to their captive audiences. This is especially true if they only rely on the NEA’s lesson plans.
So if you are considering actually using the NEA lesson plans, please consider what I have to say in the rest of this blog post.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERN VS ENVIRONMENTALISM
Before I provide some details about the two points that the NEA has neglected to consider, let me make a distinction here between people who are concerned about the environment and people who are environmentalists.
While the original Earth Day might have been initiated for some legitimate reasons, there is more about its birth than meets the eye at first glance.
First of all, the founders were not just your typical environmentalists - they were quite radical. While you may not agree completely with Michael Berliner’s statement about environmentalism quoted below, the argument he makes in his article called The Scourge of Earth Day is worth thinking about:
"The expressed goal of environmentalism is to prevent man from changing his environment, from intruding on nature. That is why environmentalism is fundamentally anti-man. “
From the same article, biologist David Graber has this to say about the perspective of the environmentalists:
"Human happiness [is] not as important as a wild and healthy planet…. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along."
Finally, also from the article referenced above, the writer Michael Crichton describes environmentalism as
“one of the most powerful religions in the Western World … facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them."
Clearly environmentalists are not your run of the mill lovers of the cute Polar Bears.
They have ulterior motives …
HISTORY LESSON – Radical (and wrong) Predictions from the First Earth Day Celebration
The NEA doesn’t provide much historical context on the founding of Earth Day. The one link they do provide is to Earthday.org.
But this barely touches on that first celebration in 1970. Here is all they really had to say:
“Close to 48 years ago, on 22 April 1970, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of 150 years of industrial development … smog was becoming deadly and evidence was growing that pollution led to developmental delays in children. Biodiversity was in decline as a result of the heavy use of pesticides and other pollutants.”
This sounds pretty reasonable, but how about the rest of the story?
The NEA certainly doesn’t mention anything about the many silly predictions that were made during that first celebration in 1970 – predictions that were so far removed from reality that they didn’t come close to coming true.
There is a great web page called 13 Worst Predictions Made on Earth Day, 1970 which lists (for the entertainment of its readers) the most outrageous (and wrong) predictions made by people associated with the environmental movement five decades ago.
Here are just a few to give you a taste:
End of Civilization: "Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind." — Harvard biologist George Wald
Starvation #1: "Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions."— Paul Ehrlich
Starvation #2: "It is already too late to avoid mass starvation," — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day
Gas Masks for All: "In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half." — Life magazine
Global Cooling on the Way: "The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age." — Kenneth Watt
The last one is my favorite. The original belief was that Global Cooling was the problem. When this didn’t pan out, the environmentalists turned to Global Warming and then just Climate Change.
THE NATURE OF SCIENCE – There is no such thing as “settled” science.
Most students think that science provides them with facts that they need to learn and/or memorize.
In a Psychology Today article, Common misconceptions about science I: “Scientific proof” we discover that this simply is not the case:
“… all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final. There is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science.”
So even if a teacher wants to assume that, for example, man-made climate change is real, he is required to let students know that:
“The currently accepted theory of a phenomenon is simply the best explanation for it among all available alternatives. Its status as the accepted theory is contingent on what other theories are available and might suddenly change tomorrow if there appears a better theory or new evidence that might challenge the accepted theory.”
But are teachers doing this?
Does the NEA provide resources to make sure that teachers are letting their students know this?
To the question at hand, when it comes to the environment, are teachers letting students know that man-made Climate Change is an open question and not “settled” science?
THE NATURE OF SCIENCE – It’s not about a search for ultimate “truth”
Every grade-schooler knows that scientists follow a special method. They test possibilities, gather evidence and then arrive at logical conclusion which can be shared with others in their profession.
But is it really that simple?
Leaving aside the ideological predilections of scientists and how these tendencies can lead them off the path of objectivity (i.e. progressive leaning scientists arrive at conclusions that support progressive points of view and vice versa), are they really immune from bias?
Actually it has nothing to do with objectivity in the normal sense at all. Its about paradigms.
According to Thomas Kuhn, scientists don’t necessarily realize that they are operating within an understanding of the nature of the world that shapes the conclusions that they eventually arrive at. In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he calls these frameworks of understanding paradigms.
A great example of this (familiar to most people) would be the difference between Ptolemy’s paradigm of the solar system (earth centered) vs. Galileo’s (sun centered).
Both of these men were obviously living in the same world, but they interpreted what they experienced differently because they understood the world through different paradigms.
In other words, they came to different conclusions (“facts”) because they operated under different paradigms.
The Guardian website has a great summary of what this all means.
Contrary to the way most people see it, scientists are not actually engaged …
“… in a long march … towards greater and greater understanding of the natural world.”
Let that one sink in for a bit.
This means that, despite what your teacher probably told you, science is not necessarily marching toward truth.
There is no “steady, cumulative ‘progress.” In science. Instead there are ...
"... discontinuities – a set of alternating ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst.”
THOSE CRAZY EARTH DAY PREDICTIONS – The Smithsonian Magazine weighs in.
If you are concerned that I have only referenced websites biased towards a conservative point of view when it comes to Earth Day, consider that even the Smithsonian Magazine acknowledges what I have stated.
Consider these two quotes from a recent Earth Day article:
“Half a century ago, scientists and activists predicted utter doom for the planet. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s nothing to cheer about …”
“Environmental scientists led the movement, predicting chilling futures—that overpopulation would cause worldwide famine; pollution would blanket cities and kill thousands; a mass extinction was upon us; oil and mineral reserves were about to run out. Nearly all of these predictions foresaw doom by the year 2000—which we’re now far past. While environmental concerns still reign, the extreme conditions predicted 46 years ago have, for the most part, not yet materialized.”
So I wonder how many science teachers will bother to talk about any of that. I wonder if they will expand their Earth Day discussions beyond the typical mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle.
My guess is not many will – and this is unfortunate.
Actually, maybe the better question to ask is how many are even aware of the issues that I have raised in this post about the true nature of science.
And even if they are aware, would it be possible that personal political considerations have blinded them to the real truth?
CONCLUSION - It’s so much easier to just let the kids make a colored poster
Teaching children about the true nature of science and Earth Day is difficult. It is much easier to just have the kids make a colorful poster about getting more people to recycle.
So we can probably look forward to some nicely colored pollution posters – on recycled cardboard, of course.
But while environmentalists, teachers and students are celebrating Earth Day this April 22, they may also want to reflect on the real truths revealed in this blog post:
And consider this: The predictions made by those early environmentalists on the first Earth Day in 1970 may very well be just as crazy as the claims of the modern climate change crowd in 2018.