controversy? or manufactroversy?

A few days ago, New Zealand’s Minister of Education announced the wider release of a resource on climate change, which was initially trialled at a Christchurch school during 2018. According to the Minister, children will learn about “the role science plays in understanding climate change, aids understanding of both the response to it and its impacts – globally, nationally and locally – and explores opportunities to contribute to reducing and adapting to its impact on everyday life”.

You’ll find Climate change: prepare today, live well tomorrow on the Te Kete Irirangi website, and it’s well worth a read. It looks like being a valuable classroom resource &, as an aside, would work well as a context for helping students to develop an understanding of the nature of science (something that the draft Science standards for Level 1 NCEA also aim to achieve). However, not everyone agrees – including the deputy leader of the National Party. During an interview, Paula Bennett commented that

“I think it’s important that our kids are encouraged to the discourse of all of the different sides of it so they can make up their own minds. It certainly seems to me there is some misinformation through it – there will be controversy and I think the controversy should be embraced and let our young people decide and debate it themselves in the classroom. Not just teach it from one angle and one side, which is what this looks like.”

I first heard that “teach the controversy” phrase in the context of teaching evolution (& it’s led to some amusing commentary – see here, for example). However, for both evolution and climate change, we’re really looking at a manufactroversy, and what Paula is asking for is an example of false balance; she really should have been called on it. I mean, would she have teachers present these papers as equivalent to the very large body of evidence for anthropogenic climate change¹? (At this point, it’s also worth noting that the Climate change materials definitely don’t close the the door to discussion of other viewpoints.) As Steven Novella has written,

With false balance journalists are often not reporting on rank pseudoscience, but simply elevating a minority or even fringe opinion as if it were equivalent to the mainstream consensus. This likely has the greatest potential to distort the public understanding of important science.

Alongside the desire for false balance is a straw man argument:

“It’s just feeding into the hype and hysteria without the research behind it. We all know we’ve got some of the best produce in the world – why on Earth wouldn’t we be encouraging our children to have a balanced diet, which is what they’re being taught in other aspects of the curriculum?”

Well, Paula, the Climate change resource isn’t suggesting that students (or anyone else) move away from a balanced diet. It’s simply saying that changing the nature of that diet – more plant-based foods, less meat – might be a good thing to do, for individuals and ecosystems both.

As for “hype & hysteria” – I’m not seeing it in that resource on TKI. It would be nice to hope that politicians could move beyond both hype & hysteria as well. (But then, I guess it’s an election year…)


¹ see here, for example.

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