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Thinking Critically about Opposition to Teaching the Controversy

Sarah Chaffee

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Solid reasoning is key to scientific inquiry. But Smithsonian Magazine‘s recent article, “See Where Climate Science Conflict Has Invaded U.S. Classroooms,” is filled with flawed logic and the same rhetorical tactics used to discount bills that permit teaching the controversy over evolution.

The article tries to connect teaching climate change disagreements to teaching both sides of evolution. Reporter Powell notes, “Conservative legislators with a history of targeting evolution education have begun to take aim at climate science as well, encouraging educators to ‘teach the controversy’ using some of the same tools and techniques that fuel continued support for intelligent design.”

As an aside, Smithsonian inaccurately says that we “developed the tactic of teaching the controversy to promote teaching intelligent design alongside Darwinian evolution.” We oppose mandating that intelligent design be taught in public schools, and academic freedom bills permitting teaching the controversy over evolution do not permit teaching intelligent design.

While some bills do couple evolution and climate change skepticism, this by no means indicates that doubting climate change necessitates doubting evolutionary theory. They are separate issues. Discovery Institute takes no position on climate change, though we do recognize that teaching scientific controversies is beneficial for students. In response to a similar New York Times article, Center for Science and Culture Senior Fellow Jay Richards pointed out some reasons why media opposed to dissent might want to link the two issues:

(1) Divide and conquer skeptics of global warming orthodoxy and Darwinism, by painting the latter as ignorant religious zealots, in hopes of starting a fight among conservatives. No doubt they’re hoping that, say, Richard Lindzen will have to explain why he agrees with those nefarious creationists on the global warming issue, and that he’ll have to spend his time issuing statements of agreement with evolution.

(2) Make it harder for official bodies to encourage critical thinking on global warming, since attempts to do the same with regard to evolution have, in recent years, met with fierce resistance and only modest success.”

These attempts are primarily driven by politics, not by the evidence or a reasonable consideration of the facts. Although the Smithsonian (unlike the New York Times) does not try to divide readers along religious lines, it doesn’t hesitate to make the issue political, noting that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to “share the opinion of the scientific majority.” What they don’t reveal, however, is that Democrats and Republicans both overwhelmingly support teaching students about the scientific controversy over Darwinian evolution.

Furthermore, the Smithsonian employs the same rhetorical strategies to discredit teaching both sides of climate change as are often used for teaching scientific evidence for and against evolution.

For example, the writer tries to shut down discussion by appealing to “consensus”:

“As a science teacher, she is teaching a mythology,” says Doug Lombardi, a science education researcher at Temple University who has been working with Hopkins [high school teacher who presented both sides of debate over whether global warming is due to human activity] to change her approach. “There isn’t a climate change controversy, not from a scientific perspective.”

We tend to be suspicious when “no controversy” or “consensus science” is used to shut down debate over a scientific theory, or used as support in place of evidence. Often, opponents attack academic freedom bills permitting teachers to discuss the controversy over evolution in the same way. In a 2014 resolution against academic freedom bills, the American Federation of teachers noted,

WHEREAS, biological evolution is a fundamental underpinning of modern biological thought and research and is not the subject of controversy among scientists;….RESOLVED, that the American Federation of Teachers encourages and expects science teachers, in presenting evolution and other topics, to understand, respect and communicate the consensus of the scientific community in order to present the science curriculum effectively to their students.

At least in the case of neo-Darwinism, there is a small but growing minority of dissenting scientists. To date, over 950 PhD scientists have signed the Dissent from Darwinism list. Moreover, the scientific literature and mainstream academic literature contains many critiques of neo-Darwinian theory.

But unfortunately, scientific skepticism about controversial theories usually does not make it into textbooks. Smithsonian‘s article highlights how textbooks are often one-sided.

“Evolution in our book is such a great big target that people almost overlook climate change,” says Ken Miller, a biologist at Brown University, who co-writes a popular high school biology textbook that includes a full page presenting a climate change case study. “Our editors asked us to be cautious about climate change, but we would never weaken the science,” he says.

The article also recounts instances of publisher Pearson removing information critical of climate change from social studies textbooks. Science textbooks that cover evolution typically do not present evidence for and against the theory. That was the impetus behind the textbook Explore Evolution, which lays out the strengths and weaknesses of homology, the fossil record, embryology, biogeography, and more, as evidence for neo-Darwinism.

The article presents no compelling reasons to reject legislation permitting teaching strengths and weaknesses of climate change. A serious examination of teaching the controversy, whether that of evolution or global warming, will engage the arguments for and against the theory in question.

And in doing so, we’ll be partaking in exactly what academic freedom bills permit – namely, critical inquiry into controversial theories.

Image Credit: Photograph by Mike Peel ( [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.