Teaching Both Sides of the Controversy in Science

What could be wrong with presenting in a science class “both sides” of controversial topics like evolution or climate change, or having students debate the topics, using argumentation to improve their critical thinking skills? In the case of evolution, presenting supposed alternatives, such as intelligent design or young-earth creationism, is not only considered bad practice, but also unconstitutional in public schools due to the separation of church and state. However, in the case of climate change, the practice of teaching it as controversial and presenting “both sides” as if they are equally valid, is a too common practice among science teachers. This paper examines the reasons why teachers may be encouraged or drawn to “teach the controversy” about climate change, why it is not an effective practice and leaves students more confused, and how the Next Generation Science Standards may help to transform how we teach about climate and global change science and solutions.

What paper you ask? This paper (Page 25 of this PDF download)!


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3 thoughts on “Teaching Both Sides of the Controversy in Science

  1. I am continually stunned at how those who think creationism is (worse than) nonsense–as I do–miss some interesting and I think important aspects of the debate on teaching of same.

    It seems to me that the idea of “teach both sides” offers (yet another) wonderful opportunity to debunk this nonsense–specifically, by showing students or onlookers how creationism is not science at all: no data, no studies, not falsifiable, etc.

  2. Howard, the problem is, in high school, you can’t do that, for several reasons. One is that there is not time. This would not be a one day lesson or even a week. As it is, life science teachers do not have time to cover the required standards or, say, the AP test contents, in most school districts. Adding a “teach the controversy” unit, that explicitly shows how science has progressed past the 18th century, is a vanity for you and me, an impossibility for the teachers.

    Another is this: Teachers are cattle. School administrators rarely respect them, school boards distrust them, parents dislike them, society disdains them. Well, not everybody, but enough. A teacher who “teaches the controversy” for the purpose of demolishing creationism will not be re-hired if they are not tenured, will not be promoted or given preferred classes after a long period of service, and may be fired even if tenured. There are of course exceptions to this, schools that are more nurturing, that have more resources, etc. and when that occurs, yes, this is a great idea. But for the vast majority of the many thousands of public high schools in this country, it simply isn’t a possibility, sadly.

    There is a third reason: It may be illegal. Probably is. Teaching a Christian (or any Xian) view of science is a violation of the establishment clause. Teaching that a particular view is wrong is as well.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I teach a university level introductory weather and climate class and when we get the part on climate change, I simply tell my students that I consider the topic to be settled to the point where presenting both sides is not only a waste of time, it’s borderline irresponsible. I do give them some guidance on where they can go to see out some of the better quality counter arguments, but with the caveat that even those better arguments have failed to hold up under scrutiny. I occasionally get a student who wants to argue, often using using standard talking points from Heartland or some other think tank. These are so easy to respond to (and produce such compellng counterarguments) that I’m almost happy to have them brought up in class.

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