Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

There are two discussions which are going on in the ScienceBlog-osphere about Al Gore, brought to the table by my esteemed co-bloggers Framing Science and Stoat. The first is whether or not Gore’s opus “An Inconvenient Truth” belongs in a science class (Framing Science argues compellingly that it doesn’t). The second is whether, as Stoat argues, Al Gore is a hypocrite for ‘jet-setting’ across the world to preach his message of global warming, thereby increasing the pollution through air-travel which, in turn, actually exacerbates the causes of global warming. While both bloggers have made good points, I disagree with them both. I’m going to talk about Framing Science’s argument today, and Stoat’s argument tomorrow,

I’ll explain why I think “An Inconvenient Truth” does belong in a science classroom. Framing Science’s (FS)point of view is this:

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.

Being a personal, political, moral narrative does not in my mind disqualify it from being presented, as long as the information is backed up by scientific fact (or prevailing consensus). FS notes that multiple experts in the field have backed up the technical and scientific points in the movie. That it is also a plea for action, in much the same way that the “Just Say No” campaign was championed by Nancy Reagan, does not detract from its worthiness as a teaching tool. The Just Say No campaign was also a personal, political, moral campaign with the idea of effecting change through knowledge dissemination and proactive education. (Hopefully this campaign will be more successful than Just Say No.) The precedent exists.

FS goes on:

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.

What’s so bad about presenting global warming as a partisan issue? It certainly isn’t dishonest to do so. I understand what FS is getting at here: make both parties equally culpable in their response and actions. However, in reality, Democrats are much, much more likely to effect change in this realm. Doesn’t that make it a partisan issue? Engendering the idea that both parties are equally accepting and equally willing to do something about global warming is merely wishful thinking. Until the Republicans step up to the plate, and stop flailing in denial, it will remain a partisan issue. Hopefully, for those that care about global warming, this will affect the way that people vote come election time. Therefore, I believe that the responsible thing to do is not to hide that politics is embroiled in global warming. The last thing we want is a bunch of global warming-concerned people electing Republicans who will stifle the science, who have buyers’ remorse because they didn’t consider it a partisan issue.

So keep Gore out of science class, but show the film on Earth Day or in American history, politics, or global studies courses. Ultimately, it’s a question of what is appropriate for science class versus another instructional setting.

I certainly agree that the movie would also be appropriate for a history or global studies class, but as the movie is inherently about the science and impact of global warming (and what might be done about it) I see no reason to ban it from a science class. The “its political” argument is moot as long as one basis premise is resolved: is the movie’s science accurate, or inaccurate? Evolution and intelligent design is also very “political,” however the reason we keep ID out of the classroom is because the science is flawed to non-existent. Should a controversial subject be kept out of the classroom *just* because its controversial? Or *just* because its political? As long as all the evidence lies with Gore, and his statements are accurate, can he be (or the movie) blamed that the science of global warming has been politicized? I say no, and on these grounds the movie would seem to fit into a science classroom just fine. All this, of course, hinges on his premises being accurate.


  1. #1 Karl
    January 16, 2007

    I think that it would be an excellent tool for a science class – for several reasons beyond its intended message. For example, whether you agree with it or not, it can be used to introduce/illustrate the use of statistics in coming to conclusions, how to gather statistics, what different kinds of models there are for assessing statistics, etc. In addition it satisfies the need that the Iders always try to introduce into Ev vs ID, there is a controversy, even among scientists, about some of the conclusions. You can “teach the controversy”: why are some people reaching one conclusion or the other. It presents a good illustration of the process of science.

  2. #2 romunov
    January 16, 2007

    “The second is whether, as Stoat argues, Al Gore is a hypocrite for ‘jet-setting’ across the world to preach his message of global warming, thereby increasing the pollution through air-travel which, in turn, actually exacerbates the causes of global warming.”

    You gotta spend the proverbial money to make the proverbial money.

  3. #3 dogscratcher
    January 16, 2007

    “What’s so bad about presenting global warming as a partisan issue?”

    Simply put, it automatically alienates a large segment of the populace. If it is presented in partisan terms, conservatives, without researching the issue will presume that it isn’t an objectively verifiable claim, that it is in fact just partisan rhetoric. If it is presented as “this is just the way it is,” without regard to ideologies, it is much more likely to persuade. And isn’t that the real goal?

  4. #4 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 16, 2007

    Um, Shelley, would you present the “Just Say No” campaign as science? Does Gore’s apparently heartfelt belief (except perhaps not; as I recall he wasn’t all that interested in the topic when the Clinton Administration refused to submit the Kyoto Treaty to the Senate) and his polemic add anything to the scientific validity of anothropogenic global warming? Does the movie present the opposing viewpoint (eg, Pielke per et fils, much less McIntyre and McKittrick) in a fair fashion?

    Maybe I’m a stodgy old fart (maybe?), but I’ve been doing science long enough to remember several times in my own lifetime that “the consensus” turned out to be false. I’d rather see science classes get a presentation of the whole story.

  5. #5 MattXIV
    January 16, 2007

    I think part of FS’s point is that the science of global warming can be presented without wading into the policy issues surrounding it, just as evolution can be presented without wading into the political controversies over what should be taught in science classes, so there is no reason to present it using materials that get into the policy aspects as well.

    Gore’s movie contains policy advocacy in addition to science, and when policy advocacy is introduced into the classroom, it should only be within the context of a civics-type class and it is important that both pro and con cases be presented, if for no other reason than to keep the schools from becoming a propaganda machine for whoever is in control of the cirriculum. Given that global warming policy analysis centers around some relatively complicated concepts that involve intergenerational distributive justice and legitimate points of controversy (see for example, the controversy over discount rates in the Stern report), a science class seems to be an inappropriate place to deal with the topic. This is especially true given the tendency of political forces to conflate scientific and policy controversies in order to cast doubts on science they don’t like or give their policy advocacy the appearance of scientific truth.

  6. #6 dukkillr
    January 16, 2007

    The movie features Al Gore who, as a politician, is inherently political. I agree with dogscratcher, the message is marginalized because it is presented by a political figure in this era of polarizing politics. I’d keep it out of science classes, and presenting it in such an environment may do more harm than good.

  7. #7 James Hrynyshyn
    January 16, 2007

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Way to go, Shelley.

  8. #8 bob koepp
    January 16, 2007

    “What’s so bad about presenting global warming as a partisan issue?”

    In line with several other comments, I’d say that a _science_ class is the wrong place for partisanship.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    January 16, 2007

    What is so bad about presenting Global Warming as a partisan issue? If this means that we must endure another decade of political paralysis in relation to climate change, that would be bad.

    There are certainly politics involved and that is interesting and worthy of attention. But at some point, in the educational process, we need to also deal with the issues that are critical to the kids that are growing up in this world that we’ve made. This is simply a pragmatic issue.

    Anyway, the situation in Federal Way is interesting, strange, and a little complex. I’ve compiled (on my web site) some of the comments and documents that may put it in some perspective. Feel free to have a look.

    By the way, love your site.


  10. #10 Shelley
    January 16, 2007

    If it is presented in partisan terms, conservatives, without researching the issue will presume that it isn’t an objectively verifiable claim, that it is in fact just partisan rhetoric.

    AIT may certainly have an agenda, but that doesn’t make it rhetoric. Just because a topic has become politicized doesn’t mean that there isn’t a scientific answer, and that one party isn’t correct in that answer.

    If it is presented as “this is just the way it is,” without regard to ideologies, it is much more likely to persuade.

    Problem is, that can’t be done until the political cloud surrounding it clears. Should we wait until the next administration, and hope for a more sympathetic ear?

    Um, Shelley, would you present the “Just Say No” campaign as science?

    Absolutely not. So AIT should be a welcome change. If Just Say No can be presented to kids, the bar must be set pretty low, eh? As for “the other side of the debate,” I have this argument with my Dad as to whether there even is one, or just flat-out denial. I say denial, but perhaps you can point the way to some legitimate, non-interested-party (no Exxon funded studies, please) science for the nay-sayers. Should kids get “the whole story” as to why some crackpot scientists think HIV doesn’t cause AIDS or that the Holocaust didn’t happen? Aren’t we “denying” them those perspectives? No, because sometimes there is a right and a wrong answer, and the manufactured controversy is just to breed inaction.

    Science class isn’t the place for partisanship? Where were these sentiments when it was decided abortion and birth control wouldn’t be taught in sex ed? Or when “evolution disclaimer” stickers made appearances on some textbooks? How about when I had to sit through a military recruitment “pep rally” under the guise of some legitimate school function?

    Partisanship is all around us, hopefully some of it can be used to affect positive change. Its never been more important to create an interest in this planet’s future. AIT does that, it makes its case. Like Greg said, we made this world for them, we polluted its air and water they’ll have to drink and breathe. No sense in sugar-coating it now.

  11. #11 joltvolta
    January 17, 2007

    I’m more concerned not with what educational context it would fit into, or how it could be used. Or even if it shown in classrooms or not. I’m concerned with if the average public school student has enough education on the various subjects that the movie touches on for a student to approach it with anything more than bias and opinion.

  12. #12 Shelley
    January 17, 2007

    18 is the legal voting age, same age as the high school senior. If we’ve deemed them ready and mature enough to weigh every political option at that point, surely they can weigh this one.

    And if needing education to decipher the movie is what you’re concerned about, doesn’t that make a stronger case for being presented in a science class? Which would (hopefully) be under the direction of an expert and can be debated? That is a unique oppertunity TO understand it without bias; watching it in history class or at home would not provie that.

  13. #13 dogscratcher
    January 17, 2007

    I thought “science” strove for objectivity, which is antithetical to partisanship.

  14. #14 Lab Lemming
    January 17, 2007

    Global warming is not a partisan issue. The conservative areas of the globe are no remaining suspiciously cool while the hotbeds of liberalism melt under blankets of CO2.

    Radiative physics is not partisan.

    What to do about global warming is of course a political issue.

    Climate change is a sufficiently important concept that it really ought to be taught in schools. If an apolitical teaching tool with the same impact and accesability exists, then it would better for teaching just science. Alternatively, science teachers could get their hand on Gore’s slideshow, and leave out the bits that aren’t about science. However, to the best of my knowledge, the anti-Gore crowd has not produced a neutral global warming primer that would be superior (scientifically) to AIT. So they really ought to either put up or shut up. If somebody posts a policy-neutral edit of AIT on youtube, then the thousands of CD’s become moot.

  15. #15 Christopher Haase
    January 17, 2007

    The Environment needs a stronger voice than Bush, Gore or Arnold… YOU!

    With all due respect Stop the blame & political battle game. YOU and your
    children’s choices have always decided our future …

    ‘Change’ is an evitable succession, but WE decide if this change will be better
    or for the worse….

    Example-Where are the hippies now? Sadly most join these campaigns for the ‘warm
    fuzzy’ feeling it gives them and because it is ‘in style’ to be ‘green’. Many
    lose interest and abandon their commitment to protect others and the environment
    very soon after.
    In the 60’s & 70′ baby boomers went ‘green’ and then lost interest, bought 5,000
    square foot homes out in the burbs and 5,000 lbs SUV’s to take them there.

    Regardless of the pseudo science surrounding current ‘green’ issues, the reality
    is that thousands die every day of poor air & water quality retailed deaths
    every year making ANY and all efforts to protect air & water quality imperative
    to our survival.

    We need to learn from our past that short lived ‘green’ campaigns are
    worthwhile, but long-term structured sustainable programs are the solution.

    We need to look and listen to real EHS professionals that have ‘viable’ programs
    that have proven for ‘decades’ to work. These programs are currently being
    ignored by the ‘mass media’ for 1000’s short term pseudo fixes and ‘free energy’
    programs are blinding society into more ‘purchasing’ & ‘consumerism’ further
    pushing our hopes for a ‘sustainable’ future beyond the point of no return.
    Completely ignoring the 4-R’s..

    Read more if you care…
    Enjoy! As I’m dumping this blog in the
    next month

    THANK YOU all for drawing in readers on this important topic.

    Christopher Haase

  16. #16 Kagehi
    January 17, 2007

    Actually, its worse than just hippies selling out. At some point they realized they didn’t have much choice, because the world wasn’t really listening (at least not the people running the show) and that it wasn’t actually economically, socially or educationally viable to *be* green at the time. Now… You can build a 5,000 sqaure foot home that operates like a 20 square foot apartment, *if you can afford it*, but only if you can afford it, because 90% of the country is still using lumber to build 5,000 square foot fire traps, which are maybe 50% more efficient than the fire traps made 50 years ago. You don’t have to sell out anymore, if you have the cash. The problem is, you still have to sell out to “get” that cash.

    The buying of SUVs though really bugs the hell out of me.

    Now… The much *bigger* problem is that corporations and threatened businesses have gotten into the green scene too. Not as advocates of greener technology, not a people suggesting better ways, but as people *attacking* large companies that are producing new technologies, where ever its not immediately obvious that the benefit “is” green. Examples – The campaign against drought resistent crops in Africa appeared on the surface to be enviro groups, but the funding for their ralies came from businesses whose own finances might have been threatened by people selling better grain to other countries. And that you see a lot now. Anti-globalization, not because they globalization is “always” bad, but because some companies that will lose money if it keeps happening *want* it to always be bad.

    Environmentalism has become a confusing mix of science, psuedoscience, facts, lies, political campaigning for environmental issues and political rhetoric by which ever companies profit margins are threatened by some new trend this week to imply that some issue is a *major* issue, which must be challenged (based on lots of half truths, bad science and outright lies). Its impossible to be a hippie today without being either called a hypocrit for not falling for *all* of the BS in the movement, or being a complete idiot that doesn’t understand any of the science at all, and is just as likely to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide as one promoting better water reclaimation systems. In too much of the current movement its follow the leader, where even the leader doesn’t know what is going on, other than they read something posted annonomously on the internet or through some pamphlet, which is just as likely to be posted by either a) a company trying to *use* the movement, b) some complete nut, like the one posted about on Pharyngula today, who thinks we should move Greenwich time to Mecca, because Mecca has some perfect electromagnetic field properties, or what ever the hell he is babbling about, or c) someone with legitimate science to back them. And just between you and me, the number of (b)s are higher than either (a) or (c) in the movement, while its a toss up as to *which*, between (a) and (c), have the most influence right now, but I am not betting on (c).

    Cynical? Hell yes. But I am, at least, right about the prevalence of pseudoscience and outright batshit crazy stuff from crystal healing, to magnetic therapy, to pet psychics you will find hanging around the environmental rallies. It doesn’t help your cause when 50% of the attendies *maybe* qualify for psychiatric treatment. And some would be or ex hippies figured that out 20 years ago.

  17. #17 JanieBelle
    January 18, 2007

    Well said, Shelley.

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