Science Teachers under Siege


(This 1212th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 15, 2014.)


Award winner Cheryl Aldrich with former winner

 University at Buffalo Professor Rodney Doran


A few days ago Cheryl Aldrich of the Sweet Home Schools received an outstanding teacher award and I received a service award from the Western Section of the Science Teachers Association of New York. I reprise here my response to those honors.


Some time ago a Peanuts cartoon appeared in which Violet, looking at Charlie Brown's report card, says to him, "I don't understand why you are not doing better in science and math. They are very precise subjects." Charlie responds, "I guess I am at my best in subjects that are mostly a matter of opinion."


Although that response may be humorous, I also find it a sad characterization of our society today. Facts and evidence have too little role in this country.


And we don't even get to form our opinions first hand. We are told what to think by news analysts, half-time sports commentators and TV, book and movie reviewers. Our national level of discourse is more appropriate to the locker room or corner tavern.


One way you can witness this being played out is by looking at the comments posted on the internet that follow news articles about science. Here are a few I found among the hundreds that appeared after an article about climate change:


"I just don't believe it", "This is just a political issue", "Who cares about this nonsense", "It's snowing outside; so much for global warming", "These guys are just looking for grant money", and even "These are just the same nerds who gave us the Challenger accident".


The discussion soon descends into back-and-forth name calling: "You're an effing imbecile and dishonest as all hell", and "You're just a psychopath".


Then when I scroll down about a hundred comments, I find that the posters have completely lost sight of the subject and they end up with attacks on government in general and Obamacare in particular.


What has all that got to do with you? I suggest that it is what you fight every single day in your science classrooms. Each of you school teachers deserves the award with which you have honored me for you represent the front line in our society's defense against these alien hordes.


Still it is not enough. You know the statistics. Half of our public rejects evolution. Many don't believe that our climate is changing and, even among those who do, most of us believe that we bear no responsibility for causing it. Even more important, you would be hard put to find people really concerned about the many serious issues we face related to health, water and food. For every fellow citizen worried about those issues you can find a thousand angry about having to pay any taxes whatsoever.


And the stakes are high. Sir Martin Reese, the British royal astronomer, says that, with thousands of species going extinct today, there is a 50:50 chance we won't be around in 2100. That may be a worst-case scenario but other projections are almost as threatening.


I know how you must feel: that it is two steps forward, one step back with your students, but every one of those steps forward is important. And you can safely bet that none of those forward steps would be taken without your encouragement and those backward steps would accumulate.


Simply hanging in there is not always easy for you. Nationally we have far too many instances of parent and school board attacks on the science you present and, even worse, on you as individuals. I suspect that some of you have been exposed to such confrontations. In some states today the tenure that gives you at least some protection from such attacks is being withdrawn. And you have lily-livered textbook publishers whose toned down presentations pander to the worst of our society and offer you little support.


So I salute you for your work ethic, for the intelligence you bring to your task, for your commitment to the future of our world and for your willingness to do this for a society that is at best neutral to your efforts. You represent, I suggest, the best of us.


And I thank you for giving me this opportunity to stand on your side.-- Gerry Rising