Teaching climate change denial

Never Mind the Science

Climate deniers punked with this riff on the Sex Pistols' album Never Mind the Bollocks. Image: Watching The Deniers.

Why would an organization call itself  The Heartland Institute (HI)?

To me the heartland of America is our country’s center – the Midwest and the Great Plains. The stereotype of this region arouses pictures of farm country, where good, honest, hardworking folks lead sober, unsophisticated lives.

My suspicion is that the HI would like to piggyback on the values just described. This is, of course, a subliminal message which goes unstated on their website. There you’ll find them saying that the Institute exists

To discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.

Why would free-market solutions be more connected with America’s heartland than other parts of the country?

Beware of unsolicited emails

HI has been much in the news lately, because an unidentified associate of the organization sent an unsolicited document to Dr. Peter Gleick, President and Co-founder of The Pacific Institute.

HI and Gleick represent opposite points of view on the climate change spectrum, which makes you wonder why H.I. would send Gleick anything.

Gleick is, by the way, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award. And being a recognized “genius” should mean he’s too smart to call HI using an assumed name.  But that’s what he did.

Posing as an HI board member, he asked for more literature about the Institute. Upon receiving the requested information, he forwarded it to a select group of bloggers and journalists. (It may interest you to know that Heartland refers to this sequence of events as Fakegate on their website.)

If Gleick had obtained the information in an above-board manner, there would be no story. Just as HI had no obvious reason for sending Gleick information of any kind to begin with, Gleick should have been open about his own intentions. According to an National Public Radio story of February 22,

… this information is actually available through entirely appropriate means.

Four days and counting

So there you have it. One hundred pages, give or take, that, according to the St. Louis Dispatch, “describe an advocacy group going about the business of pushing its agenda and raising money to help it do so.”

Gleick apparently felt that knowing HI’s sources of income was important; its supporters include several politically conservative foundations. Two of the 100 pages are a subject of dispute, since HI contends it is unable to verify their origin.

After four days of investigation (the four days immediately following their release), Heartland’s general counsel was still unsure whether the two pages were altered, or fake, documents. Why would that take so long to substantiate?

Are all ideas created equal?

We haven’t addressed the crux of the matter yet, and that is HI’s 2012 Fundraising Plan, found amongst the 100 pages provided to Gleick. The Plan will allow Heartland to design a science curriculum heavily weighted toward the questioning of climate change.

Edward Markey, Congressman from Massachusetts and ranking Democratic member of the Committee on Natural Resources, takes exception to the Institute’s approach to science. In a letter dated February 24, 2012, addressed to Joseph Bast, president of HI, Markey states, in part:

These documents appear to indicate that The Heartland Institute is receiving large donations from corporations for the direct purpose of discrediting the mainstream science of climate change and has planned to engage in a campaign to undermine the teaching of well-established science at our public schools.

He then requests further information about the documents.

Ideology vs. science

In fact, surveys initiated by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in September of 2011 show that over half the teachers responding reported having to defend their teaching of climate change science to parents. Parents obviously feel very free to acquaint their children with their own biases, as well they should.

At the same time, The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has become so concerned about what it describes as an “ideological drive” to teach the controversy, rather than the science, that it hired an education expert whose job it will be to provide support to teachers by giving them tools with which to assert the facts. This is particularly important at this critical juncture, because science teachers’ budgets are being cut across the country.

If it walks like a duck

What does “teaching the controversy” sound like, you ask? We’ve all heard it, but it’s so nebulous, it’s hard to find the “there” there. Here’s my version of “teaching the controversy” – it should sound familiar.

Those who try to tell you that the climate has been changed by human activity know very well that climate change is an unproven theory. They can tell you from dawn to dusk that our weather is getting warmer – an assertion with which many scientists disagree – but they can’t tell you why. Yes, it’s very hot in some locations, but it’s also abnormally cold in others. How do they account for that? These climate changers will tell you Americans have to stop driving cars, growing food, building buildings. But they can’t tell you why.

Half truths and three-quarter lies

Go ahead, you can do it. Pick out the half-truths and the three-quarter lies. Then pay special attention to that last line. The one about not driving cars. That, of course, is what scares them to death.

Thank goodness, our children are neither fools nor cowards. Would you like to know what they think? Take a look at this video and find out. It will make you proud.

–Vicki Lipski, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    Robertson Davies once said that fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt, and these days climate change deniers are clinging onto their ideologies with the tenacity of starving hyenas pulling down a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti. The other day I was told by a denier that, by believing in climate change, I had been duped by those (Al Gore, Bill McKibbon, et al) who “stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars” out of climate change advocacy, never stopping to consider the possibility that it just might be THEM that are being duped, by companies that stand to make TENS OF BILLIONS of dollars from climate change denial.

  2. says

    Hi Chris –
    Nice metaphor – “starving hyenas pulling down a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti!” You know, this particular truth can be hard for people to handle, and that’s ok. What’s not ok is public servants (!) who refuse to recognize the truth because it might keep their obscenely rich friends from becoming even richer (and donating even more to the next campaign). I was intrigued to read recently that the EU is so frustrated with our failure to assume leadership in this arena that they’re close to calling out the Republicans. Gosh, I’d love to see that. I wonder if I’ll live that long …

    Thanks for writing,

  3. Auntiegrav says

    I have plenty of different points that stick out about all of the above: ‘non’-profit agencies, ‘education’ systems, and the mythical belief in human intentionality. When my first daughter was studying science in 6th grade or so, the teachers in her school were pushing the “save the rainforest because we need all of those trees to make oxygen” theory. I explained to her that most of the oxygen is produced in the oceans, so as much as we need to preserve rainforests for other reasons (diversity, erosion, weather effects, etc), the argument about oxygen is incomplete, if not wrong.
    Now, we are seeing the acidity level of the oceans rising, and the deniers are still running the show for the most part. It isn’t just because they are greedy and stubborn, but also because our lassaiz faire education System of Systems does not engage the reality of human stories very well. Facts alone are not enough. Teachers that are pushing the “educational advancement” agenda to kids (like recent talk about sending all kids to post-secondary schools) fails to address the American culture of buying education like we buy fast food: from whoever is willing to work the crappy hours and put up with our crappy kids and their annoying habits. The constant badgering about “choice” of “religious schools” (an oxymoron) and the obsession with growth, advertising and consumerism has created a country where only the fringe are interested in learning as a habit, and only the rich can afford to pay for quality instruction. The schools are geared for getting the least common denominator through the minimalist testing procedures, and science is not even close to being on par with mythical creatures (compare religious spending to public science spending). In order to get science done, the big projects are funded by war-mongering contractors and secret agents, and nobody really knows what true science might have been uncovered and then buried in black warehouses.
    Amid this climate, we are supposed to be surprised that so many people don’t trust teachers or scientists?
    I sure can’t blame them. I’ve been studying and doing research my whole life, and I don’t trust them. Most of the colleges seem to have one purpose: to build buildings and put names on them: especially sports stadiums.
    All of that said, I am encouraged by the new Institute for the Scientific Study of Origins at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. This type of cross-discipline philosophy might just be the story humanity needs to build a reality-based, secular future of learning. http://www.case.edu/origins/

    • says

      Ah, Auntie – I should have realized it was you! The part I don’t get is this: American scientists discovered or contributed to the enormous lengthening of life in the U.S., the cure for polio, sending men to the moon (and its attendant cornucopia of sub-discoveries), the computer, and the Internet. Where I come from, that’s considered a pretty good record! Why, then, do Americans insist that our climatologists are morons? That makes no sense.
      As for our crappy kids, recall that it was their crappy parents and grandparents who left the world in its current state.

  4. Bethany says

    I found this blog because I am trying to prepare myself for the arguments I am sure to encounter as I try to teach my somewhat conservative students about climate change. I am one of those “willing to work the crappy hours and put up with our crappy kids and their annoying habits” in order to open a few minds and inspire, as well as just get them through high school. It won’t be easy. I have already encountered resistance and I haven’t even started the unit yet. Thank you for the frank discussion and please wish me luck as I fill my toolbox with the kinds of compelling sound bites that my teenagers are accustomed to from the naysayers. They don’t want to hear about data, they believe it’s all fake, a giant conspiracy perpetrated by the left wing radicals. It appeals to their sense of the romantic and they are in love with the idea of being smart and informed about this and not being duped by the adults in their lives. Woe is me.

  5. stan says

    I assume you are all aware that NONE of this information from Heartland is actually theirs. Gleick fabricated all of it using their letterhead. The information he got from them didn’t contain the smoking gun he was looking for so he created one from thin air.

  6. says

    Hi Bethany –
    I’m sorry the task is so unpleasant. Your job is to teach, not convert, and your students’ dislike of accurate information does not excuse you from teaching it. They can like it, they can lump it, and God knows, they will be the ones to live it. Years from now, you don’t want to have to feel guilty about not providing them with the best information available. Maybe you could ask them why the Pentagon is preparing for climate change, if it’s not happening. The Navy has been in the lead for quite some time. In any event, good luck!

    Best, Vicki

  7. Bethany says

    I don’t find the task unpleasant. It’s simply that I am well aware of the import of what I do and teaching in such a politicized culture is a real challenge. And of course, not all my students will be skeptics, but I do dread the ones who will distract from the science.

  8. says

    Thanks for your very kind remarks. I feel so strongly about the subject; it’s gratifying to know readers allow me to contribute to the conversation. Keep reading and keep sharing!

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