Science Teachers Fight Back Against Climate Disinformation Campaign
In late March, high school science teacher Brandie Freeman received a book in her school mailbox titled Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming. Wrapped in an envelope that looked like a headline story from The New York Times, it appeared legitimate at a quick glance. Freeman opened it and skimmed the first chapter. Then, she says, she gave it an F.
Freeman is a diligent teacher who checks her sources. But the Heartland Institute, a fossil-fuel front group that calls itself a conservative think tank, is betting that many science teachers won’t be as careful. The institute’s campaign to misinform teachers has been on its agenda since 2012, part of an overarching strategy to sow doubt on climate science publicly where there is none. To that end, the Heartland Institute has sent this book to 25,000 teachers already. According to a report by Frontline and the Groundtruth Project, it plans to reach 200,000 teachers nationwide with its propaganda.
The book contains 110 pages of disproven and debunked arguments that the science on global warming is unresolved, that atmospheric carbon increases in “natural” cycles—and even that global warming isn’t so bad, “because many areas of the world would benefit from or adjust to climate change.” It’s accompanied by a DVD and a letter from a director within the institute, asking science teachers to read the “remarkable” book and consider that there is a “vibrant” debate on climate science. Dynamic and spirited debates are certainly underway among scientists, economists, and engineers trying to figure out how best to preserve coastal cities from catastrophic flooding, among other climate impacts. But the science of global warming is settled.
Why target science teachers? According to the Heartland Institute, it’d be helpful if they could stop teaching so much…science. In a leaked planning memo from 2012, which can be read in full on the DeSmog Blog, the institute proposed funding a curriculum that would attempt to demonstrate:
…that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain—two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.
“This is just the latest unsavory tactic from an organization that is infamous for its rejection of climate science,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In addition to denying the risks of anthropogenic global warming, the Heartland Institute has taken up other corporate-funded causes, such as denying that cigarette smoke is as harmful as public health experts say it is. Perhaps its best known stunt until now was a billboard that stated ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski believes in climate change—implying that those who do must be equally disturbed. The Institute doubled down on this campaign in a 2012 press release:
The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.
With that kind of track record, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Heartland Institute’s latest publication is a shoddy piece of work—citing discredited sources and debunked research, says science teacher Brandie Freeman.
Freeman, who is not a murderer, tyrant, or madman, has taught science to middle and high schoolers in Cartersville, Georgia, for 11 years, and was recognized as Georgia Science Teacher of the Year in 2015. She says she was frustrated when she received the book, not only for its junk science and disingenuous premise, but its bad writing.
“They used really well-known refutable sources. I saw red flag after red flag—it wasn’t even that convincing. They just did a terrible job,” she says.
When she saw how flawed the book was, Freeman was motivated to write a rebuttal, chapter by chapter. As a teacher with a busy family life, she knew that other teachers who received the mailing would benefit from having someone else do the legwork for them to refute its arguments.
In her rebuttal, she says, she cited all her sources and thoroughly read every scientific article. “It took time,” she says, “But I wanted teachers to have something they could get to their students in response.”
While Freeman isn’t worried about her own classroom, or those of the teachers who’ve reached out to thank her for her point-by-point takedown, she knows that some science teachers won’t bother to question the book. In fact, in a study published last year in Science, researchers from Penn State University, Wright State University, and the nonprofit National Center for Science Education found that only half of all teachers who cover climate change in US public middle and high schools correctly explain that it is caused by humans. Even fewer are aware of the scientific consensus on climate change—a reality that makes them more vulnerable to Heartland’s targeted misinformation.
“If a teacher already didn’t want to teach climate change or they already had their own bias, they could read into it and instead of seeing red flags, they could have confirmation,” says Freeman. And that, she says, is a shame.
“The tax dollars that I have spent on oil company subsidies that have somehow indirectly filtered down through the Heartland Institute to send me this misinformation,” she says, “I wish that money would be invested in public education instead so that we could stop this cycle of ignorance.”