Monday, March 8, 2010

Teach the actual controversy

The story of silliness from the South Dakota legislature has grown a bit. Representative Don Kopp was clueless as to the language of his resolution, attributing it to the Legislative Research Council and Governor Mike Rounds has expressed his desire for ""balanced"" teaching. (The double double quotes are to denote my quoting of Rounds oddly using quoting on the word in his form response letter.)

So the SD politicians want to advocate the old "teach the controversy" canard. Okay, let's play that game for a bit.

The first question is, who gets to decide whether there is a controversy? Apparently election to office in South Dakota at worst gives you inside track to that power.

Then, what are the standards for determining if indeed there is a controversy to be taught? Does anyone (self-)annointed to do the determining get to simply channel an inner Potter Stewart? One of Governor Pounds key criteria is that it be a subject "where the available information is conflicting and confusing." The easy way out would be to critique the ability of Pounds to distinguish good science from junk and to question what other sorts of things confuse Pounds. But let's explore this and the idea of disagreement on theories Pounds claims for climate science.

Of course the most well-known supposed controversy certain people have been trying to inject into the classroom involves evolution. Where else is there disagreement that would be good for trying to mislead, er, teach the kids? You can cruise the internet and easily find all kinds of things, and there is no reason to limit it to science either. For example, social studies or history classes could provide presentation of "different theories" about whether the Holocaust actually occurred or if 9/11 was an inside job.

Of course what the "teach the controversy" crowd really want is to undermine well-established understanding to artificially create room for their preferred beliefs and wants. If Kopp, Pounds, and the rest were interested in teaching about where regarding climate the scientists and experts disagree and have different theories they would not be talking about climate science the way Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks about the Holocaust.

Instead of trying to pick at the firmly established and accepted understanding of how greenhouse gases from human activities are having a warming effect, why not ask real cutting edge questions? Get into the debate of whether climate change will only be a bad as the conservative IPCC says (at least through the 21st century on which the IPCC reports focus) or whether it will be worse and faster.

But if the actual debate among actual scientists is not good enough, and there needs to be controversy where the non-expert ideologues are involved, then we can try to teach why politicians like Don Kopp are trying to shape curriculum.

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