Climate Change, the weather and the madness of denial

Image of the day: It’s global warming stupid

The debate just shifted profoundly:

A storm of stupidity? Sandy, evidence and climate chang

“It’s global warming, stupid” – Bloomberg’s Businessweek cover last week left little doubt about their opinion concerning “Frankenstorm” Sandy. The accompanying tweet anticipated that the cover might “generate controversy, but only among the stupid.” These frank words about the Frankenstorm are perhaps…


  1. Stephan Lewandowsky

    Australian Professorial Fellow, Cognitive Science Laboratories at University of Western Australia

    “It’s global warming, stupid” – Bloomberg’s Businessweek cover last week left little doubt about their opinion concerning “Frankenstorm” Sandy. The accompanying tweet anticipated that the cover might “generate controversy, but only among the stupid.”

These frank words about the Frankenstorm are perhaps long overdue in light of the general failure of American politicians to show leadership on this issue.

But is it really a matter of mere “stupidity” to deny the link between climate change and Sandy’s fury — a link that has been drawn carefully but quite explicitly by scientists around the world, including in Australia?

No, it is not a matter of stupidity.

On the contrary, it takes considerable, if ethically disembodied, intelligence to mislead the public about the link between climate change and Sandy as thoroughly as our national “news”paper has done for the umpteenth time.

It is not a matter of stupidity. It is a matter of ideology.

People who subscribe to a fundamentalist conception of the free market will deny climate change irrespective of the overwhelming strength of the scientific evidence. They will deny any link between climate change and events such as the unprecedented Frankenstorm Sandy, or the unprecedented Texas drought, or the unprecedented series of Derechos, or the unprecedented flooding in Tennessee, or the unprecedented Arctic melt, or the unprecedented retreat of Alpine glaciers, or the unprecedented tripling of extreme weather events during the last 30 years.

There is no longer any reasonable doubt that climate change is happening all around us. There is also no doubt that ideology is the principal driver of climate denial.

So what effect will Sandy have on public opinion?

On the one hand, the deniers will likely double down and their claims will become ever more discordant with the reality on this planet. Their denial will continue even if palm trees grow in Alaska and if storms such as Sandy — or far worse — have become commonplace.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people who are not in the clutches of a self-destructive ideology will likely wake up and smell the science. Even before Sandy, a recent Pew poll (PDF) revealed that acceptance of climate change among the American public rebounded by 10 percentage points in the last few years. There is every reason to expect that Sandy will accelerate this trend towards acceptance of the dramatic changes our planet is undergoing.

Much research has shown that people’s attitude towards climate change depends on specific events and anecdotal evidence. For example, people are more likely to endorse the science on a hot day than on a cool day, all other things being equal. Even a seemingly trivial stimulus such as a dead plant in an office can enhance people’s acceptance of the science (three dead plants are even better). This human tendency to focus on scientifically irrelevant anecdotes rather than on data can be unfortunate, especially because it lends itself to exploitation by propagandists who haul out every cool day in Wagga Wagga as “evidence” that climate change is a hoax.

However, people’s propensity to learn from specific events rather than scientific data and graphs can also be beneficial. For example, a national survey in the UK revealed that people who personally experienced flooding expressed more concern over climate change and, importantly, felt more confident that their actions will have an effect on climate change. Similar data have been reported in Australia. Respondents who attributed salient events to climate change were found to be better adapted to climate change, they reported greater self-efficacy, and they were more concerned with climate change.

There is little doubt that Americans, too, will connect the dots between Frankenstorm Sandy and the reality of climate change. They will also likely recognise how drastically wrong the deniers were when they shrugged off sea level rise and how it might contribute to a flooding of New York City.

The moment the public recognises the link between climate change and Sandy, they will clamor for action. Just like New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when he endorsed President Obama for re-election because he was more likely to address climate change.

Salient events carry a message.

People understand that message.

After all, it’s global warming, stupid.

(from ‘Watching the Deniers’ February 07 2012)

Embracing idiocy: creationism, climate change denial and birthers

Beyond help?

Not doubt the idea that a conservative world view often equates with lower “intelligence” is going to court controversy.

Calling climate change deniers, creationists and birthers ”idiots” is not going to advance the debate.


Coming via George Monbiot’s blog we have a recent study that shows a correlation between “lower” intelligence and conservatism.

“…drawing on a sample size of several thousand, correcting for both education and socioeconomic status, the new study looks embarrassingly robust. Importantly, it shows that prejudice tends not to arise directly from low intelligence, but from the conservative ideologies to which people of low intelligence are drawn. Conservative ideology is the “critical pathway” from low intelligence to racism. Those with low cognitive abilities are attracted to “right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order” and “emphasize the maintenance of the status quo”(5). Even for someone not yet renowned for liberal reticence, this feels hard to write.

This is not to suggest that all conservatives are stupid. There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running think-tank’s, writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies.”

The end result is the creation of a counter-factual reality where the world is 5000 years old, evolution is a lie and climate change a conspiracy:

“….Don ‘t take my word for it. Listen to what two former Republican ideologues, David Frum and Mike Lofgren, have been saying. Frum warns that “conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”(6) The result is a “shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology” which has “ominous real-world consequences for American society.”

Lofgren complains that “the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today”(7). The Republican party, with its “prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science” is appealing to what he calls the “low-information voter” or the “misinformation voter.” While most office holders probably don’t believe the “reactionary and paranoid claptrap” they peddle, “they cynically feed the worst instincts of their fearful and angry low-information political base”.

I do believe there is truth to the last assertion. Most of the material produced by the think tanks and deniers is propaganda cynically designed to deceive and to appeal to the prejudices of a conservative audience.

The original paper can be found here, titled “Bright minds and dark attitudes“.

It does note that there are many factors producing a conservative worldview:

“…Of course, prejudice cannot be explained solely by intelligence, ideology, or intergroup contact. Prejudice has complex origins, including personal factors, such as ignorance and a lack of empathy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008), and social factors, such as resource competition and intergroup hierarchies (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Simply perusing the reader’s comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog tends to support the view that prejudice and a lack of empathy are characteristics Bolt and his readers…

The authors conclude:

“….our investigation establishes that cognitive ability is a reliable predictor of prejudice. Understanding the causes of intergroup bias is the first step toward ultimately addressing social inequalities and negativity toward outgroups. Exposing right-wing conservative ideology and intergroup contact as mechanisms through which personal intelligence may influence prejudice represents a fundamental advance in developing such an understanding.”

However, Monbiot is perhaps more scathing of “liberals” for being, well… too nice:

“…But when I survey this wreckage I wonder who the real idiots are. Confronted with mass discontent, the once-progressive major parties, as Thomas Frank laments in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate, muzzled by what he calls “terminal niceness”(9). They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation. The conceptual stupidities of conservatism are matched by the strategic stupidities of liberalism.”

Intelligence by no means equates with political effectiveness, or with being “right”.

Sure, I’m comfortable calling out the idea that climate change is a socialist conspiracy as a ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy.

However I think idiocy is a universal trait that transcends politics.

Just the facts ain’t enough, ma’am

Wednesday, 18 July 2012
Three monkeys

Simply presenting people with evidence does not alter beliefs, especially those that are deeply held. But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate quackery.

Credit: iStockphoto

~ Wilson da Silva

FACTS DON’T WIN. Ideas are more powerful than facts, especially ideas that conform to your world view.

Deep down, I guess I’ve always suspected this. You cannot engage in debate with climate change contrarians, creationists or anti-vaccination proponents without encountering a dogged intransigence to logical arguments backed by overwhelming data.

No amount of devastating ripostes, or unlimited armory of crushing evidence, seems to have any effect. As each fallacy, misconception, inconsistency and even brazen falsehood – as each of them is decapitated by evidence and lucid reasoning, another specious argument arises. It’s like battling the Hydra, the mythical serpent with 100 heads which, when any was severed, another would grow in its place.

My fear was confirmed at Science Writing in an Age of Denial , a gathering of science journalists and social researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where over two days in April 2012, the issue was dissected in great detail. I’d been invited to speak on two panels, but I spent most of the time listening to the excellent talent the organisers had brought to bear, and delighted in the insights they offered.

Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the university, listed the six steps used by all denialists in discussion:

1. Doubt the science.
2. Question scientists’ motives and interests.
3. Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.
4. Exaggerate the potential harm of believing the science (and scare people).
5. Appeal to personal liberty and freedom (no government official should tell me what vaccinations I need).
6. Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a cherished common philosophy or worldview held by most people.

Carroll actually gained this insight from reading a scholarly paper on the history of chiropractors and their long antipathy to vaccination. The paper found that this stems from the founding philosophy of chiropractic, which eschews the germ theory of infectious disease and considers almost all ailments to be the result of spinal nerve dysfunction caused by misplaced vertebrae.

Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies how people make decisions, said educating people about divisive issues never works. And it’s not because people are stupid or don’t have enough information. “The problem isn’t the audience, the problem is us [the communicators]. We have unrealistic expectations.” Simply presenting facts does not alter beliefs.

My fellow panelist Christie Aschwanden, a distinguished science writer, noted that people don’t assimilate facts in a vacuum, they filter them through their pre-existing belief system. Psychologists call this ‘motivated reasoning’: the tendency to seek out evidence that conforms to our views. “We seek facts that confirm what we already believe, and reject the ones that contradict our worldview.”

Lupia argued that to make a dent against such odds, you need credibility to help carry the day, and this is only is bestowed by the audience: it’s about how the audience perceives you. He defined credibility as being “perceived common interests” multiplied by “perceived expertise”.

When you convey facts to an audience that doesn’t want to hear them, you reach an impasse. The stronger the pre-existing belief, the stronger the motivation to dismiss the contrary evidence and the people conveying it. As one journalist noted, “People will run away from you cognitively if you pull the rug out from under their feet.”

Is the answer to be respectful of people’s deep beliefs when challenging them? As I told the audience in one panel discussion, I’m not convinced this is a solution: it can easily sounds like dishonest pandering, and quickly drift into the mollycoddling of defective reasoning.

Yes, you must always be respectful of your audience, and engage them in an exchange of ideas. But you must defend evidence forcefully, and take a firm stand against quackery.

This doesn’t mean you bludgeon people with evidence and statistics, but you use cogent argument and – well, good old fashioned debating skills like reason, evidence, clarity, confidence, tone, pace, gestures and eye contact. Also helpful is engagement, conviction and likeability, as well as body language, use of pronouns, rhetorical questions, emotion, dramatic flourishes and analogy.

Essential, I think, is humour; just because a topic is serious doesn’t mean you can’t make a funny aside, especially one that gently ridicules your opponent, or smites a central thesis of the opposing argument. As the audience laughs, you have subtly pulled them closer to your camp.

It also helps to make analogies, and break arguments out of the regimented boxes that often bind them. For example: we demand solid evidence from a physician, an accountant or a mechanic before making decisions – why accept any less when considering climate change, genetically modified food, stem cells, biodiversity, nanotechnology or evolution?

It’s not that these issues are necessarily complex: it’s just that they can’t be reduced to a sound bite. Complex ideas require timely consideration, an exposition of the evidence and, yes, an effort to understand.

But I think people will genuinely try to understand if you connect with them and present evidence in a lively manner, than pander to their prejudices.

You can read blog reports of the Science Writing in an Age of Denial conference, or watch selected highlights on video. For more information, visit the Science Writing in an Age of Denial website.


Faith in schools: The dismantling of Australia’s secular public education system

Chrys Stevenson ABC Religion and Ethics 22 Oct 2012

The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It should concern Christians, members of minority faiths and those of no faith.

The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It should concern Christians, members of minority faiths and those of no faith.


The Separation of Church and State Schools was the theme of a conference hosted in Brisbane by the Humanist Society of Queensland on the weekend of 13-14 October 2012.

With conference speakers including academics and representatives of teacher and parent groups, the conference focused on four key areas of concern:

  1. Religious instruction classes conducted during school hours
  2. Chaplains in state schools
  3. State funding for religious schools
  4. The teaching of creationism and/or intelligent design as “science” in the science classroom

As Hugh Wilson from the Australian Secular Lobby noted, “Queensland’s 1875 Education Act brought us “free, compulsory and secular” public education, of which only the compulsory element survives.” The dismantling of Australia’s secular public education system is a nationwide phenomenon. Although, as Catherine Byrne from Macquarie University said:

“Queensland has ended up with the least secular system in the country. It discriminates against those who do not want state schools to be centres of protestant conversion. It is undemocratic in that it supports particular denominations and blocks others; it is unsound in that it instils in children the idea of religious autocracy; and it is unwise because the division that it once aimed to alleviate it is now ensuring.”

Religious instruction

Religious instruction (RI) was a particular concern for both conference speakers and attendees. An important distinction was made between children being educated about religion by trained professionals, and indoctrinated into religious beliefs by evangelical volunteers.

Many parents feel pressured to give permission for their children to attend RI. Schools complain they have insufficient staff to provide adequate supervision and, despite Education Department policies, children who opt-out often find themselves in the “naughty seat” outside the principal’s office, put out into hallways or onto verandas, or else included in the RI class against their parents’ wishes.

“My daughter was made to sit out on the steps, in the sun,” said one indignant member of the Queensland Humanists. Adding insult to injury, the child was warned to stay away from other kids’ bags because, “things have been stolen lately” – the implication, drawn by the child, was that those who did not attend religious classes were particularly suspect.

“The schools will tell you RI is ‘opt in’,” said one parent, “but it’s a lie.” During a break he explained that his child was put into an RI class without his permission. In response to his frequent complaints, she was variously sat at the back of the class, then just outside the door, in the library and then ended up back in the class again. “And it’s not just us,” he said. “I’ve been told similar stories by parents from half a dozen schools!”

These parents’ concerns were all too familiar for Peter Harrison, a speaker representing the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH). NZARH launched a Keep Religion Out Of School campaign after receiving several letters from angry and frustrated parents who felt their concerns were not being heard.

“Many of the stories,” said Harrison, “involved confused young children upset about why they were being excluded, bullied, given rubbish duty by teachers, or at best left alone in libraries. Many parents reported not being told about religious instruction, only to have children coming home asking questions about God and saying dinosaurs didn’t really exist.”

Greg Purches, Deputy General-Secretary of the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU), confirmed that teachers are concerned that an increased focus on religion and religious instruction in schools is paralleled by campaigns to introduce creationism into schools. But the conference was to hear other troubling stories about the content of RI classes.

One parent said that, having opted her son out of RI, his seat, directly outside the open door of the classroom, put him in the ideal position to overhear a conversation between one of his class mates and the RI teacher.

“My parents are divorced. Does that mean they’ll go to hell?” asked the child.

“Well … yes,” the volunteer teacher replied matter-of-factly. “The Bible says that God hates divorce.”

Seeing the child’s distress, the teacher sought to justify the parents’ fate. “People take these vows before God, and then they just don’t stick to them.”

For Catherine Byrne, whose post-doctoral research focuses on religion in education, such horror stories are not uncommon. She spoke of RI students in state schools being shown “graphic crucifixion material” and children being told they would “burn in hell” if they failed to adhere to particular tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. One parent told Byrne that, after being shown the movie The Prince of Egypt (an animated adaptation of the Book of Exodus), their seven year old child was told, “The Jews had it coming.”

It is not only the children of non-believers who suffer from this ill-advised and discriminatory program. As one parent wrote to Byrne:

“My school has children from families that speak 42 different languages. There are Muslim, Hindu, Orthodox and secular perspectives – but we have only Christian RI.”

Representing the parents of two million state school students, Peter Garrigan, president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO), shared this parent’s concern. Religious families, particularly those from minority religions, he said, “should have confidence that their children will not be indoctrinated in the classroom with alternative beliefs … For those of us whose families left countries where people kill each other in the name of religion, secularism in education and government is highly prized.”

Greg Purches, from QTU, provided a teacher’s perspective on religious instruction in state schools. Chief among his union’s concerns is that RI is conducted by largely unqualified, inexpert volunteers, with few skills in engaging children or controlling classroom behaviour. As a result, said Purches, children often return to their classrooms angry and disruptive. For teachers (as well as for parents and students), he confided, having RI in schools “can be an absolute pain.”

The conference revealed that RI in schools is poorly administered, dominated by a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians and disruptive for both teachers and students. Catherine Byrne, who has undertaken extensive research in this area, ventured that the only reason more parents aren’t up in arms about religious “education” classes is that they are generally not aware of what is going on.

School chaplaincy

As bad as they are, the problems associated with RI pale in comparison to successive Federal governments committing nearly half a billion dollars towards the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP).

“The problem for teachers,” said Greg Purches, “is that chaplains are being asked to take on roles for which they are untrained. Unskilled people doing highly specialized jobs are the problem – even if they are well-meaning. Properly trained guidance counsellors and psychologists are the people who should be providing support for kids. Simply, we don’t need chaplains to do that.”

“We are told chaplains aren’t counsellors,” Purches conceded, “but [we know] they spend a lot of time counselling. It’s well-meaning, but covert; talking quietly with students away from supervision.”

Indeed, it is the kind of behaviour the Australian Psychology Society identified as “dangerous” in their 2010 submission on school chaplaincy. “The problem is cost – and governments at both the state and federal levels thinking they can do it on the cheap,” said Purches, whose 44,000 members have to deal with the consequences. This, he explained, is a bigger issue for teachers than the religious aspect of the debate.

Peter Garrigan reminded the audience that, while the LNP stripped $5 million from the Queensland Education budget in 2012, they found an extra $1 million to top up Federal funding for school chaplaincy. Garrigan said his organisation is “appalled” by the National School Chaplaincy program.

“With the rising incidence of youth suicide and the increasing diagnosis of mental health issues, our young people require professionals who are equipped with the required psychological training to work with them around such sensitive issues. Yet governments continue with the cheaper, softer option that appears to be vote attracting and appease the religious lobby.”

Garrigan said “one of the biggest issues” for his organisation is that, despite DEEWR’s guidelines, religious proselytising by chaplains within the school gates “abounds.”

Speaking from the audience, a former Pentecostal lay pastor said that, when the local school chaplain addressed his church’s pastoral team, the chaplain spoke for an hour about “sharing the love of Jesus” and seeking out opportunities for “witnessing and converting,” but never once mentioned dealing with children’s issues.

It is anecdotal, of course, but his testimony suggests that what is said candidly about chaplaincy to an audience of believers is rather different to the public relations spin. As Evonne Paddison, CEO of Access Ministries, Victoria’s largest chaplaincy funding recipient, told a conference of evangelical Anglicans in 2008, “We must go and make disciples … What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.”

School chaplaincy is often defended with the claim that students’ participation in the program is voluntary. In practice, the conference heard, chaplains are ubiquitous within the school community. As one very cranky parent interjected:

“It’s not voluntary if the chaplain is the groundsman, the teacher’s aide and says prayers on assembly! It’s a logistical nightmare to withdraw my child from assembly, speech nights and all the activities in which the chaplain’s involved!”

In practice, Hugh Wilson explained, chaplains have open access to all students with no permission required, except for ‘one on one’ formal meetings. And the introduction of “secular” welfare workers to the program is cold comfort, said Wilson:

“The jobs are identical. Most of the employers appear to be Christian organisations. The job advertisements we see for ‘student welfare workers’ make no mention of any ‘secular’ requirement. In fact, you have to be a Christian and supply a pastor’s signature to get the gig.”

Peter Garrigan noted that the Australian Council of State School Organisations’ dim view of school chaplaincy was not shared by one of their member groups, the Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens’ Associations (QCPCA). Hugh Wilson pointed out that, while there is clearly a conflict between secular education and school chaplaincy, the QCPCA claims to support both. Garrigan would not comment on the reason for the Queensland association’s conflicting views.

I mentioned that some parents have complained to the Australian Secular Lobby that their P&C groups have been infiltrated by fundamentalist Christians. Garrigan said he could not comment on this. The practice was familiar, though, to the former lay pastor in the audience. He confirmed that, in his Pentecostal church, at least, stacking P&Cs in order to gain a “godly influence” over the local state school was “highly encouraged.” Another parent confirmed she had observed religious “branch stacking” in the P&C at her children’s school. When “religious” issues are on the agenda she noted, the P&C is inundated with “one-off” voters who never seem to take the same interest in more secular concerns.

Chaplaincy, said Peter Garrigan, “is probably one of the most blatant cases of government funding furthering the aims of religious organisations under the guise of a ‘support’ for students.”

State funding for religious schools

The issue of state funding for religious schools was discussed only briefly during the conference. But, there was certainly some nostalgia expressed for the pre-Whitlam era when religious schools were substantially self-funded.

Creationism in the science classroom

In 1983, Queensland Education Minister Lin Powell expressed the view that both evolution and creationism should be given equal time in high school science classes. In response to this threat to science education, Martin Bridgstock completed a careful analysis of a number of “creation science” tracts, only to reveal that 90% of their scientific references were “gravely inaccurate.” The ambitions of Queensland’s evangelical creationists were quietly put to bed.

Since then, a landmark case in the United States, Kitzmiller v the Dover Board of Education (2005), established that neither creationism nor intelligent design are “science” and as such, are not suitable subjects to be taught in a high school science class.

This should have settled the matter. But conference attendees were left speechless when Ron Williams introduced an “unscheduled speaker” – a high school teacher from a large, urban state school in south-east Queensland – who told us that at their school (and almost certainly in others), creationism is being taught “as science” to Year 11 and 12 biology students. Using only documents freely available in the public domain, the teacher talked us through the ingenious subterfuge which has turned teachers into preachers, ostensibly with the “blessing” of the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA).

The teacher explained that all secondary schools are required to submit a Biology Work Program to the QSA, setting out how their school intends to teach the required biology syllabus. A one-word reference to creationism in this school’s work program either escaped the QSA’s notice or was considered inconsequential. Regardless, the program was approved.

The imprimatur of the QSA emboldened an evangelical head of department to develop a six week senior biology course pitting creationism against evolution, on equal terms. In an apparent attempt to escape full scrutiny, however, the assessment tasks are ordered so that the fifth and final assignment – the only one not routinely monitored by the QSA – explicitly requires the students to write a paper giving equal weight to the science of evolutionary theory and the pseudo-science of creationism.

Unsurprisingly, the course-work supplied to students for this ill-advised course derives, in part, from Answers in Genesis, a group which has been criticised by America’s National Center for Science Education for its promotion of “non-science.”

Of particular concern is that, while creationist publications adopt the appearance of scientific documents, they are also laden with proselytising. To demonstrate the invidious position in which this material places science teachers, our “unscheduled speaker” read from one of the prescribed texts, Casebook: the Case Against Evolution, The Case For Creation, published in 1984:

“The controversy over creation and evolution then is really a battle between two religions. You must choose the chance, randomness, no-God evolutionary philosophy which provides the basis for the religion of humanism in which ‘anything goes’: homosexuality, nudity, abortion, incest etc. cannot be evil, for evil does not exist. Or you must choose the absolutes of the Creator God who made everything and therefore has the authority to dictate what is right or wrong for His creation. The choice, therefore, is between the religion of Christianity with the basis of its Gospel in a literal creation, or the religion of humanism with its basis of evolution.”

As the clearly incensed teacher pointed out, this is what the school’s biology teachers are required to teach to a highly diverse, multicultural class of students whose parents (of many faiths and none) have no idea that evangelical, fundamentalist Christian tracts are being taught ‘as science’ in their children’s classroom.

Asked why teaching staff did not refuse to teach the subject, the teacher replied, “Teachers who won’t teach it don’t teach biology the next year.” Pressed on why the matter had not been taken to the QSA for investigation, the teacher alluded to a “culture of fear” in which teachers feel their concerns would be, at best, ignored and, at worst, penalised with a forced transfer.

Without a formal investigation, no one will know the extent to which creationism is being taught as science in Queensland biology classes.

A great leap backwards

The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It is an issue which should concern mainstream Christians, members of minority faiths and those who follow no religious doctrine.

No particular political party is being singled out on this issue – both Liberal and Labor governments are equally complicit in dismantling Australia’s secular public education system. Nor is this just about religion. Australia’s economic future depends on our kids being able to work with people of all faiths and none. “They are going to have to go into place like China and Indonesia and work in harmony with people with fundamentally different world views,” said Peter Garrigan. A secular education system promotes equity, harmony and tolerance. Hugh Wilson agreed:

“We cannot have it both ways: being a twenty-first st century state in a middle-power nation-state, vying with our Asian neighbours for economic survival and claiming to be a multi-cultural country, whilst also gifting one religion a virtual monopoly on the hearts and souls of our children … Our schools, or at least our public schools, must better reflect our changing community.”

While they pay “lip service” to secularism, governments seem blind to its crucial role in uniting Australia’s highly diverse, multicultural, multi-faith population. Yet, its value was keenly understood in the 1870s – even when the vast majority of Australians were Christians. Indeed, Australia’s public education system was principally devised to overcome the rivalries between Catholic and Protestant faiths with the aim of forging a united nation. As secularism unravels in Australia, deep religious, cultural and social rifts are also developing.

Peter Garrigan said his organisation was extremely concerned by “the ‘non-secular push’ that is reshaping the nature of education in Australia and, by default, reshaping Australian society. One only needs to watch the 6 o’clock news of an evening to witness the underlying change occurring in Australian society.”

In fact, the faith-based task of dismantling Australia’s secular public education system is now so advanced that Professor Marion Maddox called for a “Great Leap Backwards” to the “golden age of secularism.” Maddox, an authority on the intersection of politics and religion in Australia, questioned the judgment of politicians who pander to an “imaginary Christian constituency.” She dismissed claims that Pentecostal mega-churches have the power to sway the vote in their electorates, noting that this “dubious” research is based on some “very strange assumptions.”

Hugh Wilson, Peter Harrison and Peter Garrigan, in particular, called for concerned parents to look more closely into what is happening in their local schools, engage with and interrogate their P&Cs and local chaplaincy committees, join or form action groups and lobby their state and federal members. It is only the voices of parents that will turn the tide. Currently, the voices of parents and teachers are being ignored.

If the welfare of our children doesn’t concern our governments, perhaps they should consider that parents and teachers can deliver far more votes than a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians.

Chrys Stevenson is a writer, historian and blogger.


Teaching of evolution and climate science in US schools

The National Center for Science Education tries to ensure evolution is taught in schools rather than creationism. Teachers are being pressured not to teach evolution and climate science and need help to deal with the pressure. Climate science is being caught up with domestic politics in the US, with very few Republicans accepting climate science.

Robyn Williams: This is The Science Show on RN, your Steve unfolding.

[Music: ‘The Steve Song’]

‘Steve’ is a name to conjure with for Eugenie Scott, as you’ll hear. She also likes ‘Stephanie’. She was at the AAAS in Vancouver, representing the National Centre for Science Education.

Eugenie Scott: The National Centre for Science Education for about 25 years now has tried to help teachers and scientists and parents and other people keep evolution in the public schools and see that it gets taught and not various kinds of creationism, or that evolution not be qualified or denigrated in some way, that it could just be taught as straight up science.

Robyn Williams: And the standards are scientific evidence?

Eugenie Scott: We go along with the consensus of the scientific community. And what kindergarten through 12th grade teachers should be teaching is what scientists agree with. K-12 teachers are not in the business of doing science themselves, they have to depend on what university and professional scientists conclude from the evidence from their research is the best explanation for the time. And right now the best explanation in biology is that living things have common ancestors. The best explanation from the physical sciences is that the planet is getting warmer and people have a lot to do with it.

Robyn Williams: Why have you now taken on climate science?

Eugenie Scott: We’ve been hearing more and more from teachers and people who work with teachers that just like they get pressure against the teaching of evolution, so also are they beginning to experience push-back on the teaching of global warming. So we’ve had a lot of experience helping teachers with this ‘controversial issue’ of evolution, controversial in the public if not in science. And we thought we could maybe use some of that expertise to help them with this other ‘controversial issue’.

Robyn Williams: You made this decision quite recently. How has it been going?

Eugenie Scott: We just announced it, as you say, less than a month ago. We’ve added a new member of our Board of Directors, a climate scientist named Peter Gleick who is a water resource specialist, and we’ve added a new staff member to NCSE, Mark McCaffrey who is a climate science educator with over a decade of experience. So we are gearing up. Mostly what we’re going to try to do is get the word out that if you are a teacher having problems teaching climate change, global warming, let us know, we can hopefully help you resolve these problems and get back to teaching good science.

Robyn Williams: Where is the pressure coming from on the schools and teachers?

Eugenie Scott: We began noticing about four or five years ago that state legislatures would be introducing legislation where the teaching of evolution was supposed to be qualified in some way, teaching all the evidence, which means teach creationism, right? And they were bundling evolution with global warming. So teachers were supposed to teach all evidence or treat evolution and global warming as controversial issues. And that got us interested in trying to keep our eyes and ears open for reports of teachers getting pushed back for the teaching of global warming.

The reports are coming in. We’ve already had three calls from school districts or individual teachers, one from a parent, one from a teacher, one from a school board, actually all three levels, where some advice on handling climate change was requested from us. So our staff are working with those people now.

Robyn Williams: How do you handle the fact that there is indeed a vast amount of information and, maybe on certain aspects of climate change, varied opinion?

Eugenie Scott: What you find if you look at the science literature and if you look at the survey research of the attitudes of scientists, you find that there is very, very high agreement among scientists, over 90% agreeing that, yes, the planet is getting warmer. There is comparably high agreement that, yes, human beings have had a lot to do with it, the increase of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution, et cetera. When you survey climate scientists, the ones who are actually doing research in these areas, you find that the percentages are in the high 90s, 96%, 97%. So I think that’s pretty good evidence that there is a scientific consensus out there.

All the details? Of course not. Science is all about refining your explanations. But those kinds of details about climate science are generally not what a high school or middle school teacher is going to be teaching. They’re going to be teaching the basics. But the basics—that the planet is getting warmer, CO2 is important, human generated CO2 is a biggie—those are the kinds of things that teachers are getting push-back on. And they need help in knowing how to deal with that kind of pressure, and we think we may be able to help them.

Robyn Williams: If I was at a school in the United States and put up my hand and I said, ‘Teacher, teacher, why is there no candidate on the Republican side who takes climate change seriously as an issue?’ What would your answer be?

Eugenie Scott: Well, there was one, there was Jon Huntsman who actually accepted evolution and accepted climate change. In all seriousness, we are trying very hard to help people understand that this is a matter of good science education, it is not a Democratic versus Republican thing. There is actually an organisation of Republicans for climate science. I mean, just as there are green Christians as well as Christians who oppose evolution, there are green Republicans as well as Republicans that oppose climate change.

The issue seems to be more conservative political ideology and conservative economic ideology as you find among the American libertarians, where the belief is that climate change can’t be happening because if it is happening then the consequences of that will require more centralised government control or economic control, there is a variety of beliefs out there.

So the tendency for people who are very much against centralised government or government control of the economy in various ways is to deny climate change. They will often frame the issue that ‘nobody is going to tell me what kind of car to drive’, so it gets all tied up with American individualism and all sorts of stuff.

Robyn Williams: I’m going to replay something that was put together by David Fisher, who is the producer of The Science Show, and his choral mates, and it is ‘The Steve Song’. I see you’ve still got a Steve t-shirt. Finally, would you explain what the Steve t-shirt is all about?

Eugenie Scott: I’m so pleased that you are going to reprise that fine performance. Project Steve, which is what generated that wonderful quartet, is an elbow in the ribs, so to speak, that we did a number of years ago when we got so annoyed at the creationists for coming up with lists of scientists doubting Darwin. And the intelligent design guys came up with 100 scientists doubting Darwin, and we thought that was really dumb. So we got 200 scientists to attest to a statement about evolution. And all of our scientists were named Steve. So Project Steve went on from there.

And I tell you, Robyn, this is the gift that keeps on giving. I mean, we had a lot of fun poking fun at the creationists…because we had twice as many scientists just with one name…I mean, everybody got the joke. But then word spread and Steves and Stephanies kept coming in over the transom. And pretty soon we had 400 Steves and we had to do a new t-shirt. Then we had 800 Steves and we had to do a new t-shirt. Now I’m very proud to say that a year or two ago we acquired the Kilo Steve. We now have over 1,000 Steves supporting evolution, and I must tell you that the 1,000th Steve is the distinguished botanist from the Tulane University Botanical Garden, Steve Darwin.

Robyn Williams: How appropriate. And you have no thoughts on the lists of other so-called scientists who think that climate change is crap?

Eugenie Scott: There is a list that keeps getting bandied about, it’s 30,000 scientists, collected by a group up in Oregon which basically is a guy and his son, it’s not exactly a real science institute, but the OSI, the Oregon Science Institute list of 30,000 scientists, when you examine that list, it becomes considerably less than promised. A ‘scientist’ is anybody who has a bachelor’s degree or higher in something related to science. So there is actually a rather tiny percentage of this 30,000 people who are actual real climate scientists. So it’s not a very impressive list.

Lists of scientists attesting to one or another scientific theory is kind of a dumb idea because that’s not how we do science anyway, that I’ve noticed. You know, you go out, you do the research, you test your explanation, the explanation works or it doesn’t, you reject it, you corroborate it, you build up your explanation. And that’s how we decide whether a scientific explanation works or not. We don’t do it by just attesting and who has the longer list of scientists supporting or not supporting an idea. These lists are silly.

Robyn Williams: Eugenie Scott, thank you very much.

Eugenie Scott: Thank you so much, it’s so good to see you again.

[Music: ‘The Steve Song’]

Robyn Williams: ‘The Steve Song’, with David Fisher and Geoff Sirmai. And I was talking to Eugenie Scott at the National Centre for Science Education in the USA. And did you notice the name she mentioned, Peter Gleick, now helping them at the Centre, is probably the same fellow who was involved with those papers from the Heartland Institute in the news last week. Eugenie will be here in Melbourne in a few weeks time.