Thursday, 30 November 2006

I've got an agenda.

Quite a plethora of interesting studies came down the wire today. Studies included a 2000 year old computer recently discovered and that sitting up straight is bad for your back. Success is linked to genetics, although the authors of the study equate success in general with money. (Considering my heritage, this doesn't bode well for me.) And our DNA may be able to tell us the likelihood that a wife will cheat on her husband. My particularly favorite quote from the last one: In oth­er words, if the man and woman had half the genes in com­mon, the woman would have on av­er­age near­ly half a lov­er on the side. Ah, yes. Half a lover. Those were the days.

But today we'll look at the accusation that the NSTA, the National Science Teacher's Association, refused to accept free copies of An Inconvenient Truth because of oil influence. I find this article interesting because just last night, before I'd read the download, I saw Jay Leno joking with Al Gore about this very issue on the NSTA. Secondly, the NSTA has been a very valuable organization, one that I actually consulted last year when looking for guidance as a science teacher. And lastly I find the inverse of such accusations now made against me.

The basic story is the producers of An Inconvenient Truth offered 50,000 free copies to science classrooms around the nation, through the NSTA. If you haven't seen this movie, you should. It is truly one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. It isn't the most well-made, but it lays out the facts neatly and cleanly, in a format more clear than I've ever seen it, so that all can understand what's going on. After watching it many have suggested it should be shown in science classrooms. So for no charge, Gore offered the movie so students could learn about this. He is even doing something unheard of in the film industry- the movie producer is encouraging people to buy the movie and then give it away to a friend, so that as many as possible can view it, though with reduced proceeds for the movie.

The NSTA turned down the offer. They said that they were concerned about political endorsement or encouraging special interests to also request film distribution. And they also said that it would cause risk for certain supporters and make it harder for them to raise funds. One of their supporters is Exxon-Mobil.

The thing is many climatologists have endorsed the movie. There is no longer any scientific disagreement that global warming is occurring, or any real disagreement that it's cause is the Greenhouse Effect via human actions. Even the Pentagon has come out in support of this- not an institution known for it's sterling environmental record. But there is one group that has consistently come out against global warming: the oil industry, lead by Exxon-Mobil. This doesn't bode well for the purity of the NSTA.

It is disappointing to hear about this. Their political or special interest arguments are stronger, but still- there's a difference between politics and issues. Al Gore was once a candidate and politician, but he's not running for anything any more, and not at this time. Unless working to build houses for the poor is a political issue, because Jimmy Carter does it? Politics is the attempt to raise oneself or lower another, to gain influence- but it's about issues. Global Warming is an issue that politicians take a stand on, but it's a serious issue that needs addressing.

But the greater concern is of course the oil influence. Here it appears that the NSTA is taking a political stance, in the true sense of politics- looking for influence and the money that breeds influence. To accept the DVDs would not have been political; to refuse them was.

This has hit home because I have recently been obliquely accused by some of having an agenda when teaching at my old school- specifically supporting evolution and environmentalism. Basically it's been said that I'm making science political. There has been an expressed desire by some at my old school to make sure future biology teachers don't have these biases. I find this ironic since teachers there were repeatedly encouraged to ingrain positive civic values in our students.

I had to leave the position over the issue of teaching evolution as the backbone construct of all biology- what all scientific publications agree with. But of all the moral issues out there, the one that comes closest to the heart of the biologist is naturally environmentalism. We don't get to really discuss social issues like racism or treatment of women or caring for the poor. Those are important, but they just don't easily fit into the scientific curriculum. The environment does. If it ceases to exist, I'm out of a job. I'd be hard pressed to conceive of a biology teacher who wasn't an environmentalist. It'd be like being a vet who hated animals, or a car repairman who insisted that the only way to get around was by bike.

It is personal for me, too. I wouldn't teach this in the classroom because it's religion, and my own beliefs, but my feelings on the environment aren't merely that life is wonderful and amazing, and should continue. It's not simply that I want to continue to have life. It's that I believe God commanded it, in the garden, when he called us, as the very first command, to care for it. The Psalmists repeatedly cry out at the beauty of this creation, to give honor to God. Biology is wonderful because it reveals some of the Creator.

Environmentalism is the ethic of trying to preserve the environment- the ecosystem. I want to help keep it around so we can discover new medicines. I want to make sure the food web continues so we can survive as a species. I want to enjoy studying it. I want to help preserve it because God made it. But most of all, I want to keep it around because it is worship, to study it, and see the unique ways God put it together, the myriad evolutionary interlocking paths in the ecology revealed to us. It is a way to glorify God.

But I wouldn't teach all that. I separate my personal views from the classroom, from science, and responsible ethics. A student needs to learn how biology happens. I would hope they develop an ethic to care for the planet. How they arrive at that ethic is their own concern.

As teachers we walk a find road. We don't want to unduly influence, and we certainly don't want to teach religion. And yet civic values are also taught in school- indeed, it is often the primary medium. It might be an ethic of sharing in preschool, or learning to not cheat in junior high- but it's taught. And make no mistake- those are values- ones that many culture, most cultures, agree to, but not all. How we come to those values being positive varies among individuals and cultures.

We all have an agenda. Every moment of our lives, we walk with agendas and beliefs. What is in contention at my old school, or with the NSTA, is rather the nature of the agenda: which agenda is positive, and which is negative; which should science support, and which should it deny. The issue before me and the NSTA is the agenda of the environment. Is it the natural stance when teaching about biology to support the environment, and work to preserve it, and encourage that preservation ethic in the students. A biology teacher, or association like the NSTA, is at fault when they do not pursue these ethics.

I've shared a number of practical and more ethereal reasons why this ethic is important. Global Warming in particular is going to have disastrous effects on our people, increasing extinction, raising water levels, increasing storms, killing thousands of people, and leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees (in the most conservative of estimates). I could go on, and others have. This is the single greatest environmental catastrophe we have ever faced as a species- greater than those comparatively slow-moving ice ages that came and went. And therefore it is the single greatest application of the importance of teaching an environmental ethic.

But let me leave you with one final example of why it should be taught. Shortly after coming into office, George Bush met with "an unnamed expert", and decided to withdraw from the Kyoto Accords. It is rumored that this same expert is the one he met with in 2005, one Michael Crichton, who wrote a fictional piece called State of Fear, which suggests that Global Warming is false, but that the effects are being caused by a mass conspiracy of scientists. The only problem is that Michael Crichton has then repeatedly publicly said he believes much of this. And Bush stated he was much in agreement with Crichton's views. This, from an administration that has one of the worst environmental records in history, is close friends with Big Oil, and has done nothing to try to stop Global Warming. What might the world be like if Michael Crichton, or George Bush, had learned more science, or developed more of an environmental ethic, when they were in high school?

You better believe I have an agenda.


@bdul muHib said...

Quaintence said: Half a lover/ I agree, it seems, sometimes, better than what most of us get.

I'm not sure how I feel about the NSTA issue. Exxon/Mobil (and BP) both do a lot to support education, and I appreciate any monies I can get in that realm. HP and Intel have both helped equip my practice. I plan to purchase a copy of An Inconvenient Truth to show to my classes. Free would have been nice, but I don't think this thing with the NSTA is as big of a deal as folks are making it out to be.

There is no separation of church and state, of politics and public (or private) resources. To say there is so is an illusion, or a matter of scale. Decisions my district is forced to make are frequently bound by this or that Act, which sometimes hinders the decisions that seem like they could serve our school population. Life is an experiment.

I disagree about not getting to discuss real social issues . I do it all the time in my classroom.

My father does not accept Global Warming as a concern, but that is it just part of a cyclical pattern. Yes, cycles do exist, but the data I've seen suggests we are out of the range of normalcy. While it might be difficult to detect this spike in some of the paleodata we have, I still can't help but think humans are doing -something- to change our world. I would be more surprised if we were not . Law of parismony. BTW, Dad hasn't watched AIT and claims he wont, because it is propoganda. He says the whole global warming hypothesis is unscientific. He'd prefer to believe studies by his friends at Berkley. I want names, published articles, an overall review of the issue. I plan to bring over my DVD when I buy it and show him selected scenes. (BTW, readers, he's a physicist...)

@bdul muHib said...

@bdul muHib said:

May you and your husband never share the same MHC genes.

I'd say go for it- any money you can get. I'd just personally be wary of any educational material from certain places, like Exxon- I'd want to carefully review the data before presenting it.

I agree too, that social issues are presentable. I would spend a day on field trip picking up trash in poor neighborhoods, and tried to talk about how pollution hurts the poor, or what the students (who were wealthy) could do to assist the poor in biological terms. But my point is that it doesn't come up as naturally as the environment.

Quaintance said...

I make sure that my dates pass the MHC sniff test, to be sure. :)

This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.