Framing Science

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In case you missed it, ScienceBlogs lit up last week with news that Federal Way school district in Seattle has banned Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, in part because the presentation conflicts with creationist views and does not depict a fiery End Times for the earth. (Go here, here, here, and here, to name just a few posts.)

The deeply distressing news from Federal Way is yet another sign that at the local level, elements of the conservative movement are broadening their attacks on the cultural authority of science by challenging not only the consensus on evolutionary science, but also in areas of global warming and stem cell research.

However, I have to admit, though I am a major fan of Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, I never really thought it was an appropriate film to show in a science class.


Certainly the film is an incredible exposition and popularization of major areas of climate science, with many experts giving the technical areas of his film positive reviews. And if you are looking for a motivational tool to turn students on to the global warming problem, few media forms beat Gore’s documentary. Still, as much as the film is about science, it’s also a very strong personal, political, and moral narrative.

The film is by no means a stand-alone product, instead serving as the spearhead for a growing social movement of science and environmental advocates, and a major platform for Gore’s much-talked-about presidential aspirations. As much as I might think a Gore presidency could put this country on the right track domestically and internationally, the fact that the film remains deeply embedded within a larger activist movement makes it inappropriate for science class.

The last thing we want to do is give students the impression that global warming is a partisan issue. Among adults, given that citizens often use their partisanship as an information short-cut, polls unsurprisingly show that Democrats are significantly more worried about global warming than their Republican counterparts. With Gore as the narrator and presenter, and the comments of angry Republican parents inevitable, partisan perception is exactly what is likely to happen if you screen the film in science class.

Moreover, in an era where even the teaching of evolutionary science is under attack, there is no reason to intentionally interject politically-laden material into the science curriculum. As good as Gore’s film is, given the former vice president’s leading role, Inconvenient Truth is about as political as it gets.

So keep Gore out of science class. Instead, show the film on Earth Day or in American history, politics, or global studies courses. It’s a question of what is appropriate for science class versus another instructional setting. Assign quality news articles, reviews, and commentaries and lead discussions about the scientific, personal, and political dimensions of the documentary. Outline for students how the film is a product of a larger social struggle over the very pressing problem of global warming. Ultimately, the film can be used as an exercise in evidence-based thinking, examining how dimensions of society interact with scientific uncertainty and claims of expertise.

Comments

  1. #1 Sarah Dasher
    January 16, 2007

    I typically have such a knee-jerk response to anti-environmentalism, that I hadn’t looked at the issue in this way. I think you’re right: if our goal is to keep science classrooms “pure”–that is, relatively free of moral (and religious) messages–this film is inappropriate. Much more suited to history and politics classes, which no longer even carry the conceit of objectivity.

  2. #2 mgr
    January 16, 2007

    “The film is by no means a stand-alone product, instead serving as the spearhead for a growing social movement of science and environmental advocates, and a major platform for Gore’s much-talked-about presidential aspirations.”

    Since when?

    Please back up this assertion. Saying it is so, does not make it so.

    Mike

    Mike

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    January 16, 2007

    I think it’s true. I learned an awful lot about Al Gore while watching the movie — enough that I’d really like him to run for president again, only this time while showing the passion he expressed in the movie.

    It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that the focus on Al does make it a little problematic as a classroom tool.

  4. #5 Steve Jenkins
    January 16, 2007

    Dr Nisbet:

    Your argument is superficially persuasive, but falls apart in your final sentence: “Ultimately, the film can be used as an exercise in evidence-based thinking, examining how dimensions of society interact with scientific uncertainty and claims of expertise”. Isn’t evidence-based thinking what science classes are fundamentally about? Should science teachers restrict themselves to dry, historical examples of evidence-based thinking, like the refutation of spontaneous generation, to avoid controversy? Is this the best way to get students excited about science?

  5. #6 dogscratcher
    January 16, 2007

    I for one concur with you. The problem with the Federal Way incident is that the wingnut actually came to the correct conclusion, just for the wrong reasons. Though his premises don’t actually support his conclusion (and make him and the school board appear “wacko”) there are in my opinion good reasons to not show the film in school science classes.

  6. #7 James Hrynyshyn
    January 17, 2007

    Bottom line: a good teacher will have prepared his/her students to approach the film with a critical eye. Sometimes I think we don’t give kids enough credit.

  7. #8 James Hrynyshyn
    January 17, 2007

    And I second Mike’ comment. I’d like to know on what the following statement is based:

    “The film is by no means a stand-alone product, instead serving as the spearhead for a growing social movement of science and environmental advocates, and a major platform for Gore’s much-talked-about presidential aspirations.”

  8. #9 Brad S
    December 26, 2007

    Thank goodness for the timeline.

    Gore’s thinly veiled presidential aspirations? Well THAT really panned out. Nisbet, you are foolish.

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