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The Right-Wing Plot to Undermine Science in Public Schools

Leaked documents reveal a right-wing think-tank's plans to undermine the teaching of climate science -- and defund public education in the process.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Szasz-Fabian Ilka Erika via Shutterstock.com
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

 

Last week, climate science watchers confirmed what they already knew about the climate science “skepticism” of the Heartland Institute – a “free-market” think-tank previously known for taking money from tobacco companies to question the health risks of second-hand smoke. 

As leaked documents now make clear, some of the Institute’s most prominent donors have a strong financial interest in sowing doubts about climate science. These documents also show that providing critical insight on humanity’s scientific knowledge matters far less to the group than running a lobbying and communications business aimed at undermining public confidence in science. (Although the details concerning the circumstances of the leak are the subject of much ongoing debate, the substance of the information revealed is not in dispute.) 
 
Yet the most interesting revelation from the leaks may actually be the Heartland Institute’s intention to inflict its views on America’s public school students. According to the same internal documents, the Institute is currently investing in developing a curriculum for public school students beginning in Grade 6 – the principal aim of which is to create the illusion that “there is major controversy over whether or not humans are changing the weather.” 
 
The Heartland Institute’s methods will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the ongoing efforts to burden the teaching of biology with creationism (or what is now called intelligent design). In both cases, the phrases “teach the controversy,” and “encourage critical thinking” serve as cover for initiatives whose real purpose is to discredit the science in favor of a “theory” that has nothing to do with science. 
 
As a matter of principle, of course, there is no necessary or logical connection between promoting creationism in public schools and doing the same for climate science skepticism. As a matter of practice, however, it turns out that the two projects have much more in common than their rhetoric. 
 
Right now, in the first two months of 2012, there are seven bills before state legislatures aimed at undermining the teaching of science in public schools: two each in Missouri and New Hampshire, and one each in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Indiana. Three of these bills are just as keen to sow doubts about “global warming” as they are about “biological evolution,” and one does not bother to specify which “scientific controversies” it wishes to teach. In addition, there is also one law already on the books (the Louisiana Science Education Act), which, although sophisticated enough to avoid endorsing creationism or climate science denial, opens the door to “critical thinking” on both topics.  
 
There is no mystery to why creationism and global warming skepticism keep appearing on the same pieces of legislation across this country. It happens because, as it turns out, the same powerful people are keen to pursue both ends. 
 
So who, aside from the Heartland Institute and its petroleum-friendly sponsors, is so keen to disinform America’s students? A good place to start would be with the signers of the so-called “ Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation,” whose “Declaration on Environmental Stewardship” includes a theological pronouncement that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.” 
 
The signers of this declaration are nothing short of a Who’s Who of the religious right: Tony Perkins (president of the Family Research Council), David Barton (pseudo-historian and Wallbuilders founder and president), talk radio host Dennis Prager, Marvin Olasky (editor-in-chief of World magazine), and Charles W. Colson (chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries), among many others. And tellingly, the founder and national spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance, E. Calvin Beisner, is not just “convinced that policies meant to reduce alleged carbon dioxide-induced global warming will be destructive,” he is also convinced that court rulings prohibiting the teaching of creationism—such as the federal court decision that took intelligent design out of the classrooms of the Dover (PA) Area School District in 2005—represent an “aggressive extreme secularism that would reject all reference in biology studies to intelligent design.” 
 
The Cornwall Alliance is, of course, just an organization of words and pronouncements, but a close inspection of its list of supporters shows that it packs substantial legal firepower. Among the most powerful signers are the individuals behind the Alliance Defense Fund, the Liberty Counsel, and other legal advocacy groups of the Christian right. The declared aim of these groups is to advance “religious liberty,” and it so happens that their idea of religious liberty includes both the teaching of creationism and the teaching of global warming skepticism to public school students. (For example, they have been instrumental in lobbying for and threatening litigation on behalf of the Louisiana Science Education Act and other legislation intended to make the classrooms friendly for the kind of programs that the Heartland Institute would like to offer.)
 
Still, one might ask, why the focus on public schools? Of course the climate skeptics want to change the culture—but wouldn’t it make sense to start with policy makers and voters? Once you understand that the Heartland Institute is part of a program that extends beyond climate science, however, it becomes clear that the Institute and its allies have one other critical thing in common – a belief  summed up by Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance with the following words: “Public schools are the enemy.”
 
As it turns out, like many of its allies, the Heartland Institute has a wing aimed at education “reform.” The Discovery Institute—a center for the promotion of the theory of intelligent design, which also happens to share at least one of its contributors with Heartland—also boasts a “reform” arm, as do the Alliance Defense Fund and their fellow legal groups. Though the various “reform” proposals these groups support typically involve rhetoric about “choice” and “markets” and “accountability,” when you boil off the vapors what you are left with is nothing more than a plan to take money away from public schools and hand it over to religious academies in the form of vouchers. 
 
The Heartland Institute will continue to claim that its efforts are motivated by a desire to bring critical thinking to the schools. But the real problem it has with public schools is the fear that those schools will provide the kind of education that enables children to distinguish science from propaganda.

Katherine Stewart is the author of "The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children" (Public Affairs). Visit her Web site or follow her on Twitter @kathsstewart.