Why is teaching environmental science so controversial?

Environmental science is about as politically charged a discipline you might find, stem cells GMOs, vaccines, and nuclear energy notwithstanding. In some circles, particularly certain sectors of academia and the media, environmental discussions are synonymous with controversial debates.

So, asks environmental scientist, Chyrisse Tabone of Argosy University in Pittsburgh, USA, how can educators teach students about the science without diluting the issues, dumbing down the curriculum, or being accused of politicizing their lectures? She emphasises that students need a safe environment in which they can weigh up compelling arguments, deal with the complex scientific and value-laden issues and develop their own critical thinking skills to wade through the political quagmire of misinformation and insubstantial evidence weighing heavily on both sides of any environmental issue.

Tabone and many scientists like her with many years, if not decades, of experience “in the field” have recently begun to recognise that theirs is a “controversial science”. In the 1970s, environmental science was not yet an umbrella term for the mix of biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, and meteorology we know today. At the time, it was semantically nothing more than a component of the overall remit of the earth science faculty. Although there were public health implications, perhaps sparked by the (in)famous Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the subject itself was not burdened with the baggage with which it is associated today viz. the climate change (so-called) debate and other hot global issues.

The advent of mass media and its apparently insatiable appetite for environmental stories has led us to a state of affairs in which every climatic phenomenon, every aspect of oil drilling or pollution targets is fair game for pundits the world over. Lay people, including political commentators now think of themselves as “experts” in the science, and there are no end of books from political pundits, statisticians, self-described environmentalists and scientists outside the “field” who have waxed lyrical on diverse environmental topics in occasionally best-selling books and movies.

“The morphing of environmental science to a ‘religion’ known as ‘environmentalism’ shows the distorted misinterpretation of science and the desperate means to communicate a fallacy,” says Tabone. She suggests that the same drivers underpin the attack and distortion of science in general particularly by conservative America. This is a nation she suggests that has seeded intelligent design as a pseudoscientific disguise for creationism and during the Bush era stifled on ludicrous religious and misguided moral grounds perhaps one of the most important areas of medicine – stem cell research.

This is heavy baggage for any educator to bring to the lecture theatre indeed.

“By today’s standards, simply teaching the environmental science textbook with sub-chapter titles such as ‘Oil dependence, terrorism, and global climate change’ would be frowned upon by [faculty management],” Tabone says. “Then, what topics are considered permissible and non-controversial? Must college instructors water down the curriculum and tip-toe through the textbook with fear of offending a student? Is ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’ fair to students who expect an enriched academic experience from lectures by field experts?”

Tabone told Sciencebase that, “Instructors live in fear of retribution from conservative-leaning students. It is like ‘walking on eggshells’ when discussing so-called controversial topics,” she says, “most instructors just avoid the whole area.” She adds that “Academic Freedom Bills” in the US might make it possible to punish instructors through legal measures. “It is ludicrous!” she says. “I have been teaching for the last six years and have ‘gotten away’ with discussing so-called controversial issues. I tell the students ‘nothing is taboo or off the table’ in my classroom. We are in academia,” she emphasises.

“Environmental science, formerly deemed as an ‘earth science’ with public health implications has evolved into a politically charged science branded as ‘controversial’ in some academic circles,” Tabone concludes. Much of the controversy lies in a lack of understanding of the scientific evidence on various sides of any debate, the nature of scientific discovery, which is not a bipolar, right-wrong endeavour, and the interventions of groups and organisations, activist, political and corporate, with a multitude of hidden agendas. But, there really isn’t anything controversial about environmental science, if the topics are taught with honesty, citing respectable sources and allowing probing questions, then the benefits of educating in this area far outweigh the risks of ignoring that environmental elephant.

Research Blogging IconChyrisse P. Tabone (2011). Environmental education under assault: can instructors teach environmental science without fear? Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, 12 (2), 146-153