The Election Aftermath and Science Education

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, NCSE can’t try to change the outcome of elections, which means we keep mum about candidates who attack climate science and evolution from the hustings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep watch: candidates become policymakers, and it’s valuable to know what our future leaders are saying.

Most of the election coverage and analysis I’ve seen so far has been focused on Congress and attempts to divine What It All Means for the Obama presidency and the 2016 presidential campaign. Fortunately, politics extends beyond presidential elections, and for the issues we track at NCSE, the important decisions are more likely to be made in state legislatures, state boards of education, and local school boards than at either end of Constitution Avenue in DC.

It appears that none of the state boards of education in battleground states saw substantial shifts. The Kansas board is unchanged; the changes to the Texas state board are unlikely to shift the balance of power. In South Carolina, one candidate in the Republican primary for state Superintendent of Public Instruction suggested “There is plenty of science and research behind the theory of intelligent design,” adding, “There is no reason why the scientific theory of intelligent design should not be taught in the classroom alongside the theory of evolution, and that way children would receive an objective education and they could also—for Christian children—could point to their God though the theory of intelligent design.” Luckily, that candidate didn’t survive the primary, and the victor yesterday, Molly Spearman, demonstrated that she understands how to separate science from religious instruction, having told The State: “As far as the state science standards, I believe that we have to teach accurate information to our students, and that involves factual texts, factual information…As a Christian, I have taken the responsibility to teach my own children at home about our special beliefs and the creation of the world, and I think that is the responsibility of parents to do that in their own home on religious beliefs.”

There was a larger shift in state legislatures. As the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures observes, this election expanded Republican control of state governments, leaving fewer Democrats in state legislatures than at any time in nearly a century. Party affiliation isn’t decisive in how states are likely to handle science education in general, or evolution and climate change in particular (and again, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, NCSE doesn’t favor either party). But that wave of new legislators may result in more attacks on science education. We saw that after the 2010 wave, which (amid the tea party outpouring) brought more Republicans into state legislatures than had been there since FDR’s election in 1932 realigned American politics. The new legislators didn’t always know what policies were constitutional, or which had been tried and failed. They hadn’t had as much time to work with teachers and education experts, and many had campaigned on the basis of their unwillingness to compromise or rely on accumulated experience and expertise. As a result, we saw some truly wacky legislation filed (including a bill reviving the “creation science” policies that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1987), and faced attacks on science education in states where such battles hadn’t been waged in decades.

In many ways, yesterday’s state legislative elections seem like an expansion of that same trend. I’m certainly hopeful that this new class of legislators will be more willing to listen to the voices of reason and experience, and will shy away from harmful and unconstitutional attacks on science education, evolution, and climate change. But I think that my colleagues and I will have to be especially vigilant, as will concerned citizens everywhere.

Cartoon taking politicians to task for saying "I'm not a scientist," as if they don't know any scientists, or know anyone who knows scientists.

The most disappointing trend in the election, though, was the rise of “I’m not a scientist” as an answer to questions about climate change. As Stanford’s Jon Krosnick told The New York Times, “To say, ‘I’m not a scientist’ is like saying, ‘I’m not a parakeet.’ Everyone knows that it just means, ‘I’m not going to talk about this.’” And many candidates this election got away with that, including Florida governor Rick Scott (re-elected), Kentucky senator (and soon Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, and Iowa’s newly-elected senator Joni Ernst. Candidates who were willing to scaremonger about Ebola without any knowledge of epidemiology, medicine, or sometimes geography suddenly fell silent when posed a question about a scientific topic that is well-understood and easy to learn about.

On top of that, unapologetic climate change deniers will now helm the Senate’s key committees on science, technology, energy, and the environment. Senator Inhofe, known for his repeated insistence that climate change is the “greatest hoax,” will chair the Environment and Public Welfare committee, while Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski will chair the committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Meanwhile, the committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology will be run by South Dakota’s Senator John Thune, who waffled when Politico asked his views on climate change in 2010: “I guess the answer to the question is I’m not sure. I think there’s a real mix of data on that. Obviously, I think the question you have to ask yourself, one, is it occurring? And even if you say ‘yes’ to that, two, is human activity contributing to it? And even if you say ‘yes’ to that, then three is what are we going to do about it and at what cost?”

Those sorts of comments don’t just bode ill for climate policy, they also set a dangerous tone for climate education. The implication is that scientists are the only people who need to know, or indeed can be expected to know, whether climate change is happening and caused by humans, that it’s a matter of scientific trivia restricted to a white-coated priesthood. This idea undercuts any science teacher whose students don’t think they’re destined for life in the lab, making it harder to show that everyone needs to understand climate change. And having the political leaders who ought to be best-briefed on the science unable to take a factually correct stance on the issue makes it that much harder for anyone, especially young students, to separate the well-demonstrated science from the legitimate and necessary debate over policy questions.

Luckily, the opportunities to oppose science denial in public policy don’t end with elections. These next few weeks, while a new set of policymakers are preparing to take office, is a perfect time to reach out to them and offer to help them understand topics like evolution and climate change that are scientifically straightforward but sometimes politically sticky, and just let them know that you care about science and science education.