How Oil Money is Corrupting Our Children's Education

Clinton Steed/CC BY 2.0

As mysteriously similar anti-science education bills crop up in statehouses across the country, a money trail begins to emerge that leads back to the same old culprits—the oil, gas and fossil fuel industries and their cozy ties with politicians.

A Conspiracy of Scientists?
When I wrote on Parentables about science educators defending themselves from politically motivated attacks, I immediately received tweets asking "whose interests" our science teachers serve. The implication, of course, was that they were working for a shady conspiracy pushing the man-made Global Warming agenda.

Science is Not a Popularity Contest

I followed up that piece with another, this time here on TreeHugger, explaining why the battle over climate science was not about climate, but the notion of science education itself. We cannot, I suggested, allow our science curriculum to be shaped by who shouts the loudest, or reduce science to the simplicities of a high school debating contest. But it's not just about the volume of the shouting or the rhetorical manouvering—it's about who has the money and the access to the corridors of power.

Steve Horn has a fascinating piece over at DeSmogBlog explaining how similarly-worded anti-science legislation cropping up around the country has not just been influenced by oil interests, but actually written by them. Through the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose efforts to undermine Kyoto, promote tobacco interests and generally mess with the democratic process Mat has written about before, state legislators and oil industry insiders worked side-by-side to craft a "model bill" for "environmental literacy" that is being used around the country to prevent teachers from accurately teaching the current state of climate science.

Hourann Bosci/CC BY-SA 2.0

False Balance Becomes Enshrined in Law
Among the stipulations in that bill are that educators should provide "a range of perspectives presented in a balanced manner" and "instruction in critical thinking so that students will be able to fairly and objectively evaluate scientific and economic controversies". All well and good, of course, except that science is not an exercise in two-sided, balanced debate, and controversy on this issue is largely a political construct. In a world where there is an unusually high level of consensus among climate scientists, it is absurd to ask teachers to frame this as a debate between opposing sides. (Just about as absurd as it would be to decide on the current state of climate science through the inevitable trade in pro- and anti-climate change links that get bandied about by us laymen in the comments after a post like this.)

But how does ALEC's model bill become introduced around the country? Following ALEC's modus operandi, it has been modified and introduced in statehouses from New Mexico to Kentucky to Oklahoma by state legislators, usually without the disclosure that it was written in cahoots with oil and gas interests. Take the case of Louisiana, for example, where a bill remarkably similar to the ALEC model has been passed:

In 2008, the Louisiana state legislature introduced and eventually passed S.B. 733, the Louisiana Science and Education Act. The bill was originally sponsored by four members of the Senate, three of whom are current dues paying members of ALEC: Sen. Ben Wayne Nevers, Sr. (D-12); Sen. Neil Riser (R-32); and Sen. Francis Thompson (D-34). The three ALEC members received a total of $9,514 from the oil and gas industry in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles in campaign money combined, and the four of them together received $13,814 in campaign cash from the oil and gas industry,

Danny K Boyd via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Confusion is the Name of the Game
As usual, when we write about such efforts to muddy the scientific waters, there will be those who argue that we are "stifling debate" or silencing critics. We are not. We are asking that science education be based on an understanding of the science, not a reading of the latest opinion polls or the hyper-partisan political debates of the day. We don't teach our kids "two sides" of the debate on whether tobacco causes cancer (despite a long history of corporate efforts to sew doubt and encourage "debate" on that issue), so why would we kowtow to corporate misinformation on climate change too? Even the oil industry is planning for dangerous climate change. These backroom dealings are just attempts to delay the inevitable.

Let's demand better from our elected representatives.

Tags: Activism | Education | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science | Oil | United States