The revelation last month that the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group based in Chicago, is trying to teach climate skepticism in schools has sparked a flurry of criticism and debate over the entry of global warming doubt into the classroom.
But how easy is it, really, for a group with an ideological mission to influence science curricula?
While it is hard to judge how Heartland will fare, climate denial materials have already begun to creep into public schools, said O. Roger Anderson, chair of the math and science department at Teachers College of Columbia University, in an interview. That's what Anderson says concerns him.
Anderson said that generally, it is atypical in the sciences for social or political organizations to get a place in the classroom, because their lesson plans tend to contradict the process of creating curricula, which involves vetting by scientists and education experts over several years. "We want students to look at scientific data like researchers do, critically, but only as long as it is driven by sound scientific logic—not tainted by ideological or philosophical positions."
But the consensus of man-made global warming isn't required study by most school districts, and there are still no national standards for how, or if, it should be taught. That leaves many science educators free to include climate change in courses however they want—by, for instance, teaching the scientific consensus on climate change, or explicitly advocating skepticism as a valid scientific proposition as Heartland does.
Politically conservative educators who reject evidence for global warming are increasingly seeking out supplemental materials that present the skeptical view, said Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a science advocacy group. He believes that is why Heartland, known for its work with the tobacco industry and its annual climate skeptic conference, has ramped up its efforts.
Last month, leaked strategy documents revealed that Heartland aims to spend $200,000 over an estimated two years to sow doubts about the consensus on human-induced climate change in K-12 classrooms.
The group hired David Wojick, a consultant who has authored dozens of articles, editorials and reports that promote skepticism about global warming, to develop the curriculum. The modules for grades 10-12, for example, would challenge the view that earth is warming and humans are to blame. They would also question the reliability of climate models and the belief that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that scientists say is the biggest contributor to climate change, is a pollutant, the documents showed.
"[They] will be a nice counterweight to the many, many materials distributed that present an overtly political and alarmist message in regards to climate change unfortunately being used in school systems," James M. Taylor, environmental policy fellow at Heartland, told InsideClimate News. "By contrast, our materials would be based on sound science and fact."
McCaffrey said the problem is that the curriculum creates debate where there isn't one. "A curriculum based on teaching both sides of the issue doesn't accurately reflect the current science." A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that about 98 percent of active climate scientists are convinced that human activities are hastening climate change.
NCSE often calls attention to curriculum that's "inaccurate or misleading," McCaffrey said. "From the sounds of it, this fits into both categories."
Who Is David Wojick?
Related to concerns about the content of Heartland's curriculum, McCaffrey said he is troubled by who is preparing it.
"I've been immersed in climate education for over a decade and never heard of [Wojick] until recent news," McCaffrey said.
"From what I've read of the modules he proposed writing, they seem designed to foster confusion rather than promote deeper understanding of the current science ... and they certainly wouldn't fit with the science education standards framework that the National Research Council plans to release," he said, referring to the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which is slated to release a draft of new national science standards next month that are expected to include climate change.
Wojick isn't a scientist. He describes himself as a consultant, columnist and researcher and is currently listed as a senior consultant for innovation at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI). Since 2007, Wojick has received nearly $1.1 million from DOE to develop "science education content" and communication tools, according to government records.