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Nancy Boettger recently provided Iowans with a teachable moment about climate change and the nature of science in general, although not quite as she intended. A member of Iowa’s Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s three public universities, Boettger responded to the launch of a new bachelor of science in climate science degree at Iowa State University by offering to share what she described as “non-PC” materials about climate change, although she admitted that she hadn’t “studied them a lot.”
The materials proved to be two booklets published by the climate-change-denying Heartland Institute, notorious for its repeated campaigns trying to convince public school science teachers there isn’t a scientific consensus on climate change. These campaigns haven’t been successful, with the mailings deposited by savvy teachers in the nearest recycling bin. But Heartland evidently impressed Boettger, who described its booklets as “documented research” (though, puzzlingly, also as “opinions”).
Faced with a solid scientific consensus, whether on climate change, evolution, or the shape of the earth, science deniers such as the folks at Heartland have a limited repertoire of responses, helpfully described in a catalog compiled by John Cook, a researcher now at Monash University in Australia. In the present case, Boettger is invoking what Cook calls fake debate: “presenting science and pseudoscience in an adversarial format to give the false impression of an ongoing scientific debate.”
In fact, there is no ongoing scientific debate about human activities causing climate change. Over 97 percent of climate scientists agree about it, as multiple studies relying on independent lines of evidence have independently demonstrated. And the nation’s leading scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have assessed, reported, and endorsed the scientific consensus on climate change.
Administrators at Iowa State were understandably circumspect in their response to Boettger’s concerns about the new major, acknowledging that climate change is a politically polarizing issue and citing existing policies about freedom of expression. But crucially, they did not promise to treat the Heartland materials as possessing any scientific value. And in light of the overwhelming evidence underlying the scientific consensus on climate change, they would have been irresponsible to do so.
That’s not to say that climate change denial such as Heartland’s will be excluded altogether from Iowa State’s climate science classrooms. The new major will reportedly include the study of science communication as it pertains to climate change. And a vital part of climate change communication involves studying climate change denial campaigns and equipping the public with the wherewithal to resist their propaganda, so they won’t be fooled by it as Boettger unfortunately was.
“Iowa is already experiencing the effects of climate change,” as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources explains, with increased precipitation, higher temperatures, agricultural challenges, habitat changes, and public health effects all evident across the Hawkeye State. In helping to prepare Iowa’s students for the challenges of the warming world they will inhabit, it is imperative that Iowa State, and Iowans in general, rely on real, rather than fake, experts.
Glenn Branch is the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes and defends accurate and effective science education.