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Q&A: Eugenie Scott, Guardian of Climate Science in the Nation's Schools

In a broad interview, Eugenie Scott talks about the hurdles that still loom for climate education advocates and reveals what "really pisses" her off.

Jul 2, 2013
Eugenie Scott

As America's debate about global warming became politicized over the past half-decade, the controversy entered a new battleground: the nation's classrooms.

From coast to coast, school boards, teachers and parents became embroiled in disputes over whether or how to teach students about climate change. At the same time, dozens of "academic freedom bills" were filed in state legislatures mandating that equal time be given to teaching the belief that climate science isn't settled. And conservative organizations poured millions of dollars into developing educational materials and curricula to teach climate skepticism as a valid scientific proposition. 

Standing front and center in the fight against these efforts is the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based non-profit group that helps to keep politics, religion and ideology out of science classrooms. Leading the group's 4,500 members—which include scientists, teachers, clergy and citizens—is Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and author of the 2005 book Evolution vs. Creationism. 

Scott has served as NCSE's executive director since 1987, when the organization's main focus was fighting the rise of the creationist and intelligent design movements that sought to undermine the teaching of evolution. In recent years, however, she has led the NCSE's effort to keep global warming skepticism out of science classrooms. 

Scott, 67, recently announced that she'll step down from her position at the end of this year. In an interview with InsideClimate News she talked about how science education has changed during her tenure, why global warming is such a controversial topic, and what major hurdles still need to be overcome to get climate science into the nation's classrooms. 

InsideClimate News: You've been at the helm of NCSE for 26 years. What is the biggest change you've seen over that time? 

Eugenie Scott: The biggest change has been the evolution of the intelligent design movement. When I took over, the major player in the creation versus evolution issue was traditional young earth creationism—the organizations promoting it being a whole raft of smaller organizations. We began to notice in the late 1980s the development of a new kind of creationism called intelligent design that was much more clever than the young earth creationists. They had clearly learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. By the late 1990s, they had pretty much hit the notice of the general public and the press. The 2000s were a period when we spent a great amount of time dealing with intelligent design pressures. 

But in 2005, we had the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover trial [the first case to challenge the constitutionality of intelligent design]. It certainly did not stop the intelligent design movement, but it did put a real crimp in their willingness to push for the presentation of intelligent design in the public schools. 

Editor's note: The theory of young earth creationism argues that the universe, Earth and all life on Earth was created by God approximately 6,000 years ago. It is a literal interpretation of the Bible's Book of Genesis. The theory of intelligent design argues that all organisms were created in their present form by an "intelligent designer," who most adherents consider to be God. 

2. When did you start seeing climate change education becoming an issue? 

Scott: We started noticing around 2010 and 2011 that academic freedom bills [state-level bills that argue for the teaching of dissenting views of scientific concepts] were starting to bundle evolution with climate change. We also began to notice that there were occasional school board controversies. A teacher would, for example, show a film like The Inconvenient Truth, a parent would complain, and there would be controversy in the school or at the school board about whether there should be equal time given to climate denier information. We said, 'Wow, this is just like the creationism issue.'

So we hitched up our pants and decided okay, we need to tackle this.

ICN: How is the fight over climate change similar to the evolution and intelligent design fight? Are the same groups behind both? 

Scott: There is a tiny bit of overlap. It is clearly religious conservatives who are opposing the teaching of evolution. There is a slice of that group who also opposes the teaching of global warming from a "providential theology" standpoint: God would never let anything bad happen to the planet. But when you look at the profile of people who reject climate change, it is much bigger than religious conservatives.

The similarity for us is that you have topics understood by the scientific community as being very well supported by data. And you have opposition from the public that basically arises from ideology, not from science.

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