If you teach science to American schoolchildren, there's a good chance that you might open your mailbox soon and find a package containing a free, unsolicited 135-page book and 11-minute DVD, plus a cover letter from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based free-market “think tank.”
“How do you teach global warming?” the letter begins. “I am writing to ask you to consider the possibility that the science in fact is not 'settled.' If that's the case, then students would be better served by letting them know a vibrant debate is taking place among scientists on how big the human impact on climate is and whether or not we should be worried about it.”
The climate “educational” supplies have already been mailed out to tens of thousands of science teachers — with 25,000 more planned every two weeks, the institute's CEO told PBS in March.
The mailings prompted a backlash from a group of federal lawmakers including Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, and Brian Schatz, who warned that teachers should treat the free literature skeptically.
“The Heartland Institute has disseminated ‘alternative facts’ and fake science at the behest of its industry funders for decades,” the four senators wrote in a June 7 letter to Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's recently appointed Secretary of Education.
“In the 1990s, it teamed up with Phillip Morris to challenge facts about the health risks of tobacco,” they wrote. “The tobacco industry’s conduct was found to be fraudulent. Using the same strategies, with funding from the Koch family foundations, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel interests, the Heartland Institute now seeks to undermine the scientific consensus about climate change.” (The Heartland Institute's CEO denied that the think tank received recent gifts from the Koch family or ExxonMobil, though the organization does not make its funders public. SourceWatch provides a detailed look at the Heartland Institute's funding).
Alternative Facts in Science Class
The mailers were recieved positively by some science teachers, a Heartland spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, adding that they'd been invited to give classroom presentations by some educators. But many science teachers smelled something off about the book's arguments on climate science.
“It’s just loaded with citations,” Cheryl Manning, a Colorado science teacher at Evergreen High School who received the mailing told Buzzfeed. “But it’s circular. It’s all self-citations. Citing their own stuff instead of citing other people’s work.”
Another Georgia science teacher gave the book a close read — and penned a detailed open letter to her colleagues after concluding it was riddled with superficially plausible but misleading arguments and logical fallacies.
“As someone who has taught college-level (Advanced Placement) environmental science for nine years, served on the Board for the Georgia Science Teachers Association, and has inspired dozens of my students to pursue scientific careers,” she wrote, “I do not take the condition of our planet, the tremendous importance of science education, or the accuracy of the information I purvey in my classroom lightly.”
Over 200,000 kindergarten through grade 12 teachers are targeted by the campaign, the senators wrote. (That figure was also challenged by the Heartland Institute's Joseph Bast, who claimed that that the number wasn't credible because there are “considerably less than 200,000” public school science teachers in the U.S. “Didn’t anyone on your staffs fact-check this letter before it was circulated?” Bast wrote. According to the National Science Teachers' Association, which counts roughly 300,000 “science educators” on its mailing lists, the U.S. has over 150,000 high school and middle school science teachers — plus about 1.6 million elementary school teachers who teach science as well as other topics.)
When it comes to climate science, multiple independent studies have reached a noticeably consistent conclusion: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing because of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. That figure comes from studies conducted between 2004 through 2013 and is cited by NASA. It's rejected by the Heartland Institute, however.
Climate science deniers usually point to a few studies that they say demonstrates a lack of scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, including the “Oregon Petition,” which DeSmog has debunked, and a 2015 survey by Norwegian researchers, covered by Breitbart and cited by former Senator Rick Santorum on Bill Maher's HBO show — leading to this takedown by Factcheck.org and a separate one by Politifact (“'This is like something out of that book, How to Lie With Statistics,' said Stephen Farnsworth, who studies climate change and political communication at the University of Mary Washington. 'What we’re talking about here is extraordinary cherry-picking.'”)
Science Teachers on a Learning Curve Too
More Americans than ever are concerned about climate change, recent polling shows. “Record percentages of Americans are concerned about global warming, believe it is occurring, consider it a serious threat and say it is caused by human activity,” Gallup reported in March. “All of these perceptions are up significantly from 2015.”
But Americans still see a lot of uncertainty on the details of climate change. And school science teachers can be just as susceptible to climate misinformation as the general public, a University of Missouri study published this month concluded.
“Because of existing misconceptions and misinformation regarding climate change, science teachers have a crucial professional and ethical responsibility to accurately convey to their students how climate change is studied and why scientists believe the climate is changing,” said Benjamin Herman, assistant professor in the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum. “Teachers want and need support to keep them abreast of scientific discoveries and developments and how scientists come to their well-established claims regarding climate change.”
DeVos and Heartland?
After Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris accord, his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave an ambiguous answer when asked whether she believes in climate change. “Certainly the climate changes. Yes,” she said. But she also praised the withdrawal, writing that “President Trump is making good on his promise to put America and American workers first.”
The group of senators now want DeVos to answer detailed questions about her contacts with the Heartland Institute. “It is our sincere hope that neither White House staff nor Department of Education officials have turned to the Heartland Institute on the issues of climate change and climate science, or had any role in this mailing to educators,” they wrote.
The letter goes on to ask:
1. Have any staff members at the Department of Education had contact with individuals associated with the Heartland Institute on climate, science, or science education issues? If so, on what dates did these consultations occur and who did they involve?
2. If the answer to the previous question is yes, please provide copies of all relevant correspondence between you and any Department of Education staff and representatives of the Heartland Institute.
3. Are you or any members of your staff aware of discussions between White House staff members and individuals associated with the Heartland Institute? If so, what were the dates and topics of these conversations and who did they involve?
4. Are any informational resources currently provided through Department of Education (e.g. What Works Clearing House, Teaching Resources page, etc.) created in collaboration with, or reviewed by, anyone associated with the Heartland Institute?
“We agree that ‘great science’ and critical thinking are cornerstones of a high-quality education,” the senators added in their letter to DeVos, referencing her testimony during her Senate confirmation hearings, “but that is not achieved with Heartland’s industry-funded and possibly fraudulent materials.”