US Department of Education/Flickr

Science Textbooks Are Teaching Kids That Climate Change Is Debatable

11 NOVEMBER 2015

There’s an awful lot of people out there who don’t believe in human-caused climate change. Even though studies show more and more people believe that global warming is happening, there’s still a huge number of skeptics who will tell you we’ve got it the wrong way around for x, y or z reasons.

 

And it seems textbook publishers haven’t been helping things. A new study of 6th-grade science textbooks in California has found that even the educational resources we use to teach kids science are divided on the subject. According to the study, the textbooks introduce climate change as more a matter of opinion than one of scientific fact, giving a disproportionate weighting to denial viewpoints.

"We found that climate change is presented as a controversial debate stemming from differing opinions,” said Diego Román, an assistant professor in education at Southern Methodist University. “Climate skeptics and climate deniers are given equal time and treated with equal weight as scientists and scientific facts — even though scientists who refute global warming total a minuscule number.”

The researchers looked at four different 6th-grade science textbooks published between 2007 and 2008 by different publishers, analysing some 279 separate clauses discussing the topic of climate change.

Their findings, published in Environmental Education Research, show a considerable degree of mixed messages on global warming: climate change may be happening, humans may or may not be responsible for it, and it’s not clear whether we need to take action to prevent or mitigate environmental changes getting worse.

According to the researchers, this skewed take on what an overwhelming majority of scientists have achieved consensus on mirrors the adult public’s lack of comprehension or belief in the reality of climate change. But, worse than that, it distorts what we know to be true (and are teaching to our children, no less).

“The primary purpose of science education is to represent the science accurately, but this analysis of textbooks shows this not to be the case for climate science,” the study authors write.

What’s encouraging is that US states are in the process of adopting new national standards on science education, the Next Generation Science Standards, which should help eliminate the distortions being included in textbooks published as recently as 2008.

“As the Next Generation Science Standards become adopted and implemented, publishers are writing new textbooks that include climate change,” the authors write. “This reworking of science textbooks provides a rare opportunity to reflect on how we can create texts that enhance science teaching and learning.”

But as to why current textbooks are so hopeless when it comes to accurately teaching climate change science, it’s not entirely clear. However, the researchers suggest book publishers are trying to have it both ways, tacitly appealing to camps on both sides of the debate in an attempt to maximise the commerciality of their products.

“It appears textbook publishers include discussion of climate change to appease one segment of their market,“ said Román, ”but then to appease another segment they suggest doubt, which doesn’t reflect the scientific reality.”