Teaching about climate change: how the sceptics see Gove as an ally

Last week, the Daily Mail gave substantial space to a report from Nigel Lawson’s “Global Warming Policy Foundation” that claimed to reveal how children are being indoctrinated by green propaganda in schools (http://www.thegwpf.org/new-report-reveals-green-brainwashing-in-uk-schools/).

The report asserts that “We find instances of eco-activism being given a free rein within schools…. In every case of concern, the slant is on scares, on raising fears, followed by the promotion of detailed guidance on how pupils should live, as well as on what they should think. In some instances, we find encouragement to create ‘little political activists’ in schools by creating a burden of responsibility for action on their part to ‘save the planet’, not least by putting pressure on their parents.”

The starting point of course is that the dangers of man-made climate change are matters about which there can be a legitimate scientific debate and that scepticism is a defensible position. The authors of the report accuse schools and teachers of teaching politics rather than science. As far as the science goes, there is of course no more legitimacy in the sceptics position than there is in the views of deniers of evolution. The reality is that recognition that climate change is significantly man-made and is a huge threat to our future represents an almost universal scientific consensus.

The report laboriously tracks how climate change is addressed in schools through the curriculum, exams, textbooks and wider activities. In their view it amounts to illegitimate and possibly illegal political indoctrination.

There are two fundamental responses to be made. One is that there can be no legitimate reason to give climate change deniers equal space. This is a trap that the BBC not uncommonly falls into. We are not dealing here with a matter of opinion or political judgement. The scientific consensus needs to be recognised and taught for what it is.

The second point is that teaching about values is an entirely proper aspect of education. We teach about democracy and about equality in all its aspects. No one now suggests that racism is an equally legitimate position that needs to be put forward as a viable alternative. We may not have got all the way to universal acceptance of all aspects of equalities but we’re well on the way. Maintaining a planet for our grandchildren to inherit is also a matter of morality. It can’t be something our society is neutral about.

We might just think that this is the Mail sounding off again and we don’t need to take much notice. However there is a more chilling bit. It tells us that “A spokesman for Mr Gove said: ‘The Secretary of State read this report with concern. Schools should not teach that a particular political or ideological point of view is right – indeed it is against the law for them to do so.”

Moreover the report itself spells out in some detail how Michael Gove’s new curriculum has watered down the coverage of climate science. It documents with approval the fact that the 2013 curriculum appeared to “try to restrict the teaching of climate change dogma”. Gove was forced retreat to some degree in the face of public pressure but this report still considers that “the new curriculum is a major improvement over the previous one. There is no mention of ‘sustainability’ anywhere in the document, and of the five mentions of climate, only two provide clear opportunities for the inclusion of illustrative materials and examples promoting alarm over anthropogenic climate change.”

Which leaves you wondering just what Gove is up to. Is he cosying up to the right wing press as one step in his personal leadership campaign? Or is it that he has a problem with anything that encourages young people to be politically aware and active. This would be a piece with the emasculation of the Citizenship curriculum which has lost everything about active participation by young people at school and in their community. All we’re left with is a dreary recital of the workings of the constitution detached from any personal engagement.

This is of course the Tory way – what they want is to see is young people who are compliant and unchallenging of the status quo. Whatever the reason, this is yet another clear example of how the personal prejudices and interests of ministers are being forced on schools and therefore why in future politicians should be kept away from the curriculum.

6 Comments on “Teaching about climate change: how the sceptics see Gove as an ally”

  1. In 2006, MPs were asked by Mark Ellingham how seriously they took climate change as politicians. Michael Gove replied: “How we deal with climate change is one of the principal challenges policy-makers face. We have a duty to the next generation to protect our planet.”

    Funny game, politics. Mind change on climate change?

  2. David Pavett says:

    I have no doubt about the reality of human induced impact on the planet leading to climate change. On the other hand I am doubtful about the case made above. What is at stake for me is the way things are taught as fact. I think that the suggestion that it is okay to teach something as fact because it has the weight of scientific consensus behind it is something we should question. There was a scientific consensus not so many years ago that children’s alleged different levels of intelligence required them to go to different types of school.

    J.S. Mill said in his On Liberty that if everyone becomes convinced of the heliocentric theory of the solar system then we should employ people to put the alternative case. His point was that the heliocentric theory is undoubtedly a great scientific breakthrough but if everyone repeats it without knowing the arguments for it then its scientific value is lost. It has become reduced to dogma: something believed because the teachers, or the “scientific consensus” said so.

    I’m with Mill on this. We do cannot understand a theory unless we can evaluate it against the alternatives. Science should be thought as evolving theories based on argument and debate not as repeating “facts”. Could it not just be that the failure to understand this is one reason why so many find science boring.

    It would be better, in my view, to accept the challenge from the evolution deniers and the climate change deniers head on. What are the alternatives to evolution and what is the data to support those alternatives? The great majority, once exposed to that, will appreciate the strength of evolutionary theory much more than if they are taught it simply as “scientific truth”. Same goes for climate change.

    Are all teachers and teaching materials dealing with climate change able to approach the topic in this sure-footed way. Clearly not and the Policy Foundation pamphlet manages without too much difficulty to find some examples of poor presentation in which questionable claims are treated as simple matter of fact.

    The pamphlet asks whether children are being taught how to think or what to think and while I reject their grounds for scepticism this is a legitimate question and one that science education is far from having fully faced up to. So, while rejecting the drift of the pamphlets arguments it would, in my view, be wrong to deny that it raises any significant points about climate change education.

    The purpose of science education should be to develop a critically aware understanding of scientific ideas about the world about us. If these are no seen in the context of alternative explanations then this cannot be achieved.

    I would therefore deal with the Policy foundation arguments by taking them on and not by passing over them in silence. It is not a matter of a BBC-like ‘here is one view and now here is the opposite view’ which is liable to generate confusion. It is a matter of setting up the material so that there is a genuine clash of opinion with a means of resolving it. That is what science education should be about: critically evaluating alternatives.

  3. Alan says:

    I find it very disturbing that you choose to equate climate change deniers with evolution deniers. The term “denier” has a very nasty connotation. No-one is described as a “flat earth denier”.
    As far as I can tell there is no basis in reality for creationism, and evolution is the only credible alternative.
    Climate change is not so clear cut. There are plenty of proper climate scientists who are doubtful that mankind has any significant effect on the climate. Reality is not affected by opinion, nor by what “the vast majority” believe.

    Let’s face it: do you really think anyone who visits this blog is in a position to make a judgement based on the evidence? Do you think anyone actually knows what the evidence is?

    The problem is that most people, in my experience, are not in the least interested in whether catastrophic man-made climate change is actually happening or not. It is a matter of political loyalty. You can’t be a decent civilised person unless you “believe in” catastrophic man-made climate change. Anything else is “right-wing” and, as everyone knows, “right-wing” is a euphemism for being an evil monster. You wouldn’t want to be one of them, would you?
    It’s a “no-brainer” isn’t it?
    Don’t believe me? I suggest you find out what “the precautionary principle” really means.

    The youngsters I teach (13 to 18) have no concept of what science is. They do not know the difference between evidence, proof or opinion. (Neither do many adults I have spoken to.)
    All of my pupils were taught that catastrophic man-made climate change is an indisputable fact, and it is only a matter of time before it will kill everything on Earth. They believe that CO2 is an artificial pollutant, and is the sole cause of global warming. They believe that public transport does not produce CO2. They believe that enough wind turbines can solve all our energy needs. They do not know what energy is (even at the most simple level).

    They have not been educated, they have been conditioned to accept a disturbingly nihilistic viewpoint.

    P.S. I have read every IPCC report. I am not a climate change denier. I, unlike the school teachers who “taught” my pupils, believe that children should never be used as propagandists for any cause.

    David Pavett:
    “BBC-like ‘here is one view and now here is the opposite view’ which is liable to generate confusion.”

    Confusion such as not coming to the desired conclusion? Anyway the BBC has decided that “deniers” are not to be given air time since “the science is settled”.
    I’d like to refer you to “Yes Minister” in which Anthony Jay provides us with the standard BBC “balanced interview” method. The producer, of course, gets to choose who to invite to the debate. He/she chooses one who is a quiet, polite, reasonable and persuasive speaker. The other one is a brash ill-mannered loud-mouthed idiot. Yet your debate has been balanced and no-one can possibly accuse you of bias.

    So there. I have dared to attack (some) teachers, I have attacked catastrophic man-made climate change AND the wonderful BBC.
    I’ll stop now. It’s time for me to make my daily sacrifice to the Horned One.

    • David Pavett says:

      I think that I was clear that clear that the “confusion” I referred to had nothing to do with not coming to a desired conclusion.