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Shawn Vestal: Idaho schools should teach science, ignore legislators

In this April 3, 2014 file photo giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler in front of a smoking power plant near the city of Grevenbroich in western Germany. Anthropogenic climate change, a result of burning fossil fuels, is well-grounded in scientific fact, but that hasn’t stopped the Idaho House Education Committee from stripping it from state science standards. (Martin Meissner / AP)
In this April 3, 2014 file photo giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler in front of a smoking power plant near the city of Grevenbroich in western Germany. Anthropogenic climate change, a result of burning fossil fuels, is well-grounded in scientific fact, but that hasn’t stopped the Idaho House Education Committee from stripping it from state science standards. (Martin Meissner / AP)

I, too, believe that children in Idaho should be given the tools to make up their own minds about climate change.

In the service of that goal, they should be taught what virtually all the scientists say and why. They should be taught how to spot the simplistic logical tricksiness of deniers. And they should completely ignore the Idaho House Education Committee.

In doing so, they will develop a crucial skill for navigating our eroded factual landscape, which requires knowing how to spot the differences between well-established knowledge and overconfident ignorance.

For the second year in a row, the members of the Idaho House Education Committee have done their best to endumben the state’s children by stripping the truth about climate change from educational science standards. Their discussions of the matter have been such bloviating roundelays of nonsense that it makes you want to weep that they have any authority in the field of education.

On the battlefield of dumb politics versus real science, Idaho is winning her way to fame.

The committee last year stripped five standards regarding climate change from state educational standards. This year, the committee voted to eliminate standards dealing with climate change and air pollution, saying they feel the information went a little too far toward drawing “conclusions” that the planet is warming and that this is a troubling development.

They did so despite unanimous testimony against the idea from teachers, administrators, professors and students. A Monsanto lobbyist testified in favor of the standards, for heaven’s sake, noting that a student who didn’t learn about climate science wouldn’t be qualified for a job with the agrichemical behemoth.

But none of that swayed the independent thinkers on the House Education Committee, which voted for watered-down standards.

In defending his vote, Rep. Scott Syme, a Caldwell Republican, adopted the mantle of a flat-earther.

“I don’t care if the students come up with a conclusion that the earth is flat,” Syme said, “as long as it’s their conclusion, not something that’s told to them.”

One wonders if Syme, like the medieval villagers in the Monty Python sketch, thinks witches float because they’re made of wood. At least he understands what company he’s keeping – people who believe students should keep an open mind about whether the earth is round.

In a committee discussion earlier this month, Rep. Ron Mendive, a retired financial planner from Coeur d’Alene, provided a good example for how to deploy such simple-minded rejectionism in the face of knowledge.

When the state’s head of academics mentioned in passing that new species were forming and old ones were going extinct – a blandly factual comment – Mendive was taken aback.

“Have I missed something?” he asked.

Mendive said he was pretty sure there aren’t any new species being formed. Species are evolving and mutating, Mendive opined, but not actually becoming new species.

Told that new species do indeed arise from that mutation, Mendive wasn’t having it.

“I’m still not aware of anything along those lines,” Mendive said.

By the standards of the Idaho House Education Committee, this might be seen as simply a difference of equally valid opinions, neither of which should be crammed down the throat of students by teachers. If the schools were going to teach this question, by the lights of the committee, they would simply pair up these alternate points of view – carefully earned knowledge and casually flaunted ignorance – as more or less coequal positions.

The House vote may not be the last word on Idaho’s educational standards. A Senate committee has taken up the matter, and it could adopt the science standards with climate change sections intact.

Even so, the debate proves that Idaho continues to lead the nation in underfunding and overpoliticizing schools. As the son of a retired Idaho teacher, a product of the state’s public education system – K through college-dropout, anyway – and someone whose large extended family has relied upon Idaho schools for decades, I take it personally. What these legislators are doing, year after year, is a disservice to the state’s kids.

Fortunately, even if the stupidified standards of the House Education Committee pass, a lot of good teachers and school administrators will work around them. Against them.

They will do their best to teach science to children who need to know it, despite those working to keep children open to the possibility that the earth is flat.


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