Monday, June 26, 2017

Teaching Controversies: Global Warming

            An energetically polemical editorial in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel on "Global warming in the classroom" asserts that "Indiana" — presumably the Indiana General Assembly — erred in passing "an 'academic freedom resolution giving teachers great latitude in how they help students 'analyze and critique scientific theories,'" finding that resolution "almost an invitation to teach flat-Earth-theory mumbo jumbo and Earth-is-the center-of–the-universe nonsense" (22 June 2017).

            I taught a course in rhetoric and composition on "The Literature of the Life Sciences" where students analyzed and wrote about scientific controversies, including the "nonsense" of the theory of spontaneous generation: that under the proper conditions, life nowadays can arise and develop: e.g."if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog," as Hamlet puts it, or later when what we'd call bacteria arise in a suitable medium exposed to air.

            Spontaneous generation theory went against the Book of Genesis and its assertion that creatures were, well, created and since then reproduce "each after its kind" — but it was widely accepted until effectively exploded by elegant experiments, notably by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s.
            Studying that debate teaches science as a method — not a body of facts that dispel nonsense — but a method and as a human activity with social, political, philosophical, theological, and historical contexts. (Why wasn't there religious opposition to spontaneous generation theory the way there was to evolution?)

            Similarly, why did educated Europeans and others from ancient Greece on deny the evidence of their senses and come to believe the Earth wasn't flat, if lumpy, but a sphere? And how can we know that they knew? (Hint: Check the "ball and scepter" motif with kings: they don't hold a plate to signal power on our planet.)

            And, of course, it took a long time for the theory of a sun-centered universe to be accepted, and long time after that before the universe expanded to the universe or multiverse of today. (And I've got $100 for the favorite charity of the writers of "Classroom" if any one of them can write out from memory the main evidence for why common sense is wrong and the sun does not revolve around the Earth.)

            A tough job for teachers is getting kids interested, and those kids should at least be curious why their elders are so exercised over whether and how the Earth is warming and what, if anything we can and should do about it if it is.

            There's a great teaching opportunity there, not preaching some truth or other. It's just that teaching controversies requires broadly-educated teachers perhaps team teaching, and literate people reading essays of analysis, not giving multiple-choice tests.

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