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Battle of the books

Striking a blow for science in the classroom

Don Duggan-Hass and colleagues Ingrid Zabel and Robert Ross of Cornell University’s Paleontological Institute penned Teacher Friendly Guide to Climate Change, now being distributed to science teachers.


In only about half of our nation’s classrooms is climate change taught as accepted science, in a third it is represented as debatable, and, in one-tenth, it is rejected out of hand.


I was delighted to learn through a Frontline article that one of my local friends, Don Duggan-Hass, has coauthored a text that will soon be distributed to science classrooms across this nation. There is a story behind this accomplishment, and I share it with you here.


Last year, 200,000 United States science teachers received copies of a 135-page book prepared by the libertarian Heartland Institute titled Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming. This initiative dismisses the near unanimous agreement among scientists (46:1 in published research) that global warming is real. Most of them also believe that people are the major cause.


The tone of the book is suggested by excerpts from the foreword written by Marita Noon, executive director of a group that lobbies for fossil fuels: “President Barack Obama and his followers have repeatedly declared that climate change is ‘the greatest threat facing mankind.’ If it weren’t so scary, it would be laughable. [People] remember, even if journalists and politicians seem not to, that past sky-is-falling predictions failed to come true, and forecasts of a dire climate catastrophe are just as unlikely to come true.”


The response to the Heartland book from Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that monitors climate change education in classrooms, was straightforward: “It’s not science, but it’s dressed up to look like science. It’s clearly intended to confuse teachers.”


And indeed, whether or not teachers are confused, their students must be. In only about half of our nation’s classrooms is climate change taught as accepted science, in a third it is represented as debatable, and, in one-tenth, it is rejected out of hand.


Enter Duggan-Hass and his colleagues, Ingrid Zabel and Robert Ross, of Cornell University’s Paleontological Institute. The institute had already published Teacher Friendly Guides to various earth science topics and they raced to complete a project already underway of providing teachers with a Teacher Friendly Guide to Climate Change. Their 294-page book is now available and it, too, is being distributed to science teachers.


Their project does not enjoy the deep pockets of the industry-supported Heartland Institute so they had to seek grant and crowdsourcing funding for producing and distributing the book. Contributions have totaled over $72,000 so far, and teachers in some states, like New York, have already received copies.


Of course, this book was criticized by Jay Lahr, Heartland’s science director as “a blatant effort to convince teachers to instill in their students false premises of climate change alarmism. The authors offer the reader interesting knowledge before inserting inaccurate information on humanity’s impact on our current climate.”


I have read widely about climate change; that reading and my observations of our environment (especially the Arctic) have convinced me that climate change is real and that we should take action to address the accumulating problems. Thus, I am a strongly biased reviewer of these two books. Having identified that bias, I offer the following:


The appearance of the Teacher Friendly Guide at least levels the playing field, giving classroom teachers the positive side of the climate change argument where there was only the Heartland side until its publication.


The approaches of the two books are very different. Teacher Friendly Guide is a straightforward summary of both historic and contemporary information about weather and climate. It is, with the exception of a Q&A chapter, non-argumentative. Why Scientists Disagree, on the other hand, is a polemic, picking at the scientific evidence not only for climate change but also for the substantial plurality of scientists who agree that it is happening.


Despite my prior reading, I learned much from the Teacher Friendly Guide. The information is well-organized and presented in straightforward fashion. In contrast, Why Scientists Disagree raises questions, rejects arguments and creates confusion. Questioning is an honored scientific activity but, here, it seems to serve only as a debater’s tool.


After reading Why Scientists Disagree, you get the feeling that if a climatologist were to identify the day of the week, they would not only get an argument but a reprimand and condemnation as well. I do not believe that those who support climate change are bad people; rather, those I know are hardworking, intelligent, deeply committed to the truth, and fully prepared to retract any of their findings should they be proven wrong. That is far from the portrayal they receive in this book.


I find disingenuous the oft-repeated claims by Why Scientists Disagree that those who support climate change are politically motivated. While it is true that the issues are often, but not always, associated today with political parties, I am certain that climatologists would much prefer to have their issues played out in scientific publications. And coming from the Heartland Institute, whose funding comes from industries and politicians who are losers when measures to address climate change are instituted, speaks to this issue as well.


One of the most important things I took from my college education is the realization that it is much simpler to be critical than to be supportive. Benjamin Disraeli’s comment, “How much easier it is to be critical than correct,” applies to some of the arguments that appear in Why Scientists Disagree.


I doubt if either of these books will change the minds of those already committed, and I am left with a final observation: either climate change is real and poses a threat or it isn’t. If climate change is real and we do not address the problems that have been identified, the results may well be catastrophic. If climate change is not real and we address the problems, we still gain in such things as energy independence, ecological maintenance, and improved health.


Both books are available for free download from their respective institute sites as is the crowdsourcing page, if you wish to support our local author’s book. I commend Don Duggan-Hass for his representation of this community through his work.




n 1737, two books by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swede who had just completed his medical doctorate in Holland, were published. They would form the basis for modern taxonomy: Systema Naturae for animals and Genera Plantorum for plants. In them, Linnaeus not only established the kingdom, class, order, family, genus, and species subdivisions of living things, but also standardized the means of referring to individual species.


Before Linnaeus, it took a paragraph to describe a species. For example, our lawn-infesting common plantain had been called Plantago media incana virginiana ferrata foliis annua. Today, botanists know that species more simply as Plantago major Linnaeus, the first name indicating the genus, the second the species, and the third the person who first described it. As given here, the Latin binomial is usually in italics, the author in standard Roman; often the author is omitted and the name reduced to the binomial.


Most of us know a few scientific names—Homo sapiens for us and Tyrannosaurus Rex for that ferocious dinosaur—but we leave the formal classification of the huge number of life forms to professional systematists. Their task is frightening: already, for example, entomologists have named almost 300,000 beetles. The rest of us use common names like honey bee (the scientist’s Apis mellifera), house wren (Troglodytes aedon), red fox (Vulpes fulva) and common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).


The taxonomist’s task is important. It is difficult to imagine modern biology without Linnaeus’s tools. How, for example, could Darwin have written The Origin of Species without a means of referring to them? And so there are groups—the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature for animals and a similar organization for plants—that oversee the application of the accepted rules for establishing names and assigning priority. An example of the rules: you cannot have two genuses in the same kingdom with the same name. That rule was not compromised when a former bird genus (the European goldfinch) and a plant genus (marijuana) were both named Cannabis.


Many of us think of a taxonomist as a person who sits hunched over a microscope in the back room of a museum. That’s often reasonably accurate, but it does not mean that these people are humorless. Among the millions of names accepted, they have sneaked through a number that I find delightful.


One entomologist unobtrusively assigned a lengthy series of genus names: among them Ochisme, Polychisme, and Dolichisme. It took eight years for his peers to read those names aloud and scold him for frivolity. But it was soon found that his were among hundreds of additional less than serious scientific names.


There are citations to people: the spider Draculoides bramstokeri, the clothes moth genus that entomologist Clark named Petula to produce Petula Clark. More disguised is the midge Dicrotendipes thanatogratus; thanatogratus is Latin for Grateful Dead. One of the rules states that names should not “give offense on any grounds.” Surely it was broken when Henry Townes was honored with the wasp genus Townesilitus and, even worse, Harrison Dyar’s name was given to the moth genus Dyaria.


But my favorites are the puns: the beetles Agra vation and Agra phobia, the spider Apopyllus now, the wasps Heerz lukenatchaHeerz tooy, and Verae peculya. There are also the horseflies Tabanus nippontucki and Tabanus rhizonshine, the snails Ba humbugi and Abra cadabra, and the water beetle Ytu brutus. But best of class has to be the bird named by Linnaeus himself Upupa epops, which when read quickly sounds like “Up up he pops.” You can just see this bird appearing suddenly.


Then there is the fly genus named by McAlpine This. He posted an illustration of one on his office door with the note: “Look at this.” And perhaps the most succinct comment on all this is the wasp named in 1988 by Menke: Aha ha.


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