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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Climate Education

Last week, on May 23, the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a provocative op-ed piece by Kentucky state Senator Mike Wilson, identified as the chair of "both the Senate Education Committee and the General Assembly’s Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee."

In the piece, Wilson quotes from the Next Generation Science Standards, which were released in April and apparently based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education, developed by the National Research Council. As Wilson rightfully says:
Standards should encourage teachers to create and foster an environment that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of multiple theories.
That's all great, right? Scientists, whether in the social or natural sciences, are in favor of critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of various theories. Of course, I hope that everyone would agree that some theories are better supported by the available evidence and should be emphasized when teaching youngsters the state of current scientific knowledge. Right?

Wilson notes that the new standards emphasize climate change, something of great interest to me (often on this blog):
The standards place substantial emphasis on teaching climate change and there is considerable discussion describing human activities as major factors in global warming....The National Research Council appears to be carving out positions and expressing the beliefs of U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
To support his point, Wilson quotes directly from the NGSS. The first claim is from the middle school section on "Weather and Climate": 
Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature
The second quote is from the high school section on "Human Sustainability"
 ...outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year...
Note: The C-J online version has "depend of" (sic) rather than "depend on." 

So far, so good, right? A state political leader on education is quoting directly from national science standards that clearly recognize the latest information on climate change, the human role in global warming, and the importance of scientific models.

But Wilson (did I mention that he is a Republican?) is apparently a climate skeptic. He lives in a coal state and does not even make much attempt to argue against the standards. He seemingly presumes that he can challenge the standards merely by pointing out that they support teaching about climate change.

Specifically, in his analytic section, Wilson makes just two arguments against climate change. I'll address each in turn. First:
There are those in the scientific field who question the beliefs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A statement signed by 16 scientists listed several stubborn scientific facts contradicting the Intergovernmental Panel’s beliefs. 
Wow, 16 scientists doubt the IPCC. While Wilson refers to their findings as "beliefs," which is odd for someone interested in science, he didn't mention the fact that "Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC." Nor does Wilson note that the overwhelming majority of scientists (a clear "consensus") agree about the core science behind climate change. A recent survey of peer-reviewed journal articles found that of 4000 that took a position on the cause of ongoing climate change,  97.2% "endorsed human-caused global warming."

Second, Wilson writes:
Perhaps the most inconvenient fact is the lack of global warming for well over a decade and the smaller-than-predicted amount of warming over the 22 years since the Intergovernmental Panel began issuing projections.
These claims are often repeated by climate skeptics, but they are false. As NASA recently reported, "January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record." NASA and NOAA also found that "2012 was among the 10 warmest years on record, rising above the long-term average for the 36th year in a row." Any lower than expected warming is readily explained by recent volcanic eruptions, which temporarily cools surface temperatures. Look at the long-term data and the trends are clear:

Source: NASA

There is some year-to-year natural variation, but the long-term trend is obvious -- even in the last 22 years. Indeed, before closing, I should note that Wilson omitted a second clause in the second quote above (highlighted here). It is directly pertinent to the natural variation point:
...outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere
Wilson also criticizes the NGSS for its section on evolution. I won't bother to contest this section extensively since this is the entirety of his critique: "There is no factual evidence that this has ever occurred and to suppose that it happens is counter to the beliefs of many Kentuckians."

As for the evidence for evolution, start on the Smithsonian Institute's page. Then, visit a good university library.

When it comes down to it, the education and science senator apparently  wants to challenge evolution and climate change because these are not ideas that people in Kentucky believe.

Isn't science education meant to challenge false beliefs? What happened to Wilson's concerns for critical thinking, objectivity, and logic?

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