Stanford research shows that some California science textbooks by major publishers portray climate change as a debate over different opinions rather than as scientific fact.

study, climate change, textbooks, 6th graders, Diego Roman, SMU, Stanford

Stanford University issued a press release about new research co-authored by SMU teaching expert Diego Román.

The new study measured how four sixth-grade science textbooks adopted for use in California frame the subject of global warming. Sixth grade is the first time California state standards indicate students will encounter climate change in their formal science curriculum.

Co-author on the article is K.C. Busch, a Ph.D. candidate in science education in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

Studies estimate that only 3 percent of scientists who are experts in climate analysis disagree about the role of humans in the causes of climate change. And the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the evidence of 600 climate researchers in 32 countries reporting changes to Earth’s atmosphere, ice and seas — in 2013 stated “human influence on the climate system is clear.”

Yet only 54 percent of American teens believe climate change is happening, 43 percent don’t believe it’s caused by humans, and 57 percent aren’t concerned about it.

“We found that climate change is presented as a controversial debate stemming from differing opinions,” said Román, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the SMU Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. “Climate skeptics and climate deniers are given equal time and treated with equal weight as scientists and scientific facts — even though scientists who refute global warming total a miniscule number.”

The findings were reported in October 2015 at the 11th Conference of the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA), held in Helsinki, Finland.

The findings were also published in the Environmental Education Research journal in the article, “Textbooks of doubt: Using systemic functional analysis to explore the framing of climate change in middle-school science textbooks.”

The press release published Nov. 23, 2015.

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By Clifton B. Parker
Stanford University

Major California science textbooks may be misrepresenting the science behind climate change as much weaker than it actually is, new Stanford research shows.

In doing so, the textbooks more closely reflect the public debate about climate change rather than the scientific reality, according to the paper, which was published in the Environmental Education Research journal.

“We found that through language choices, the text portrayed climate change as uncertain along several lines, such as whether climate change was happening, whether humans were causing it and what the effects will be,” said K.C. Busch, a doctoral candidate in science education at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Busch is co-author of the article with Diego Román, assistant professor of education at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Classroom influence
Middle school students learn about climate change in large part through textbooks used in their classes, Busch and Román wrote. And what they learn during those formative years does matter, they wrote, noting a recent poll found that only 54 percent of American teens believe that climate change is actually happening, and 43 percent do not believe that it is caused by humans.

“What might be the sources of this erroneous belief among American youth? Some answers may be found in the students’ classrooms,” they wrote.

Their study measured how four sixth-grade science textbooks commonly used in California, which were published nearly 10 years ago, present the subject of climate change. The works studied were Focus on Earth Science (Prentice Hall, 2008), Focus on Earth Science (Glencoe-McGraw-Hill, 2007), Focus on Earth Science (CPO Science, 2007) and Earth Science (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2007).

Under California state standards, sixth grade is the first time that students learn about climate change in their formal science curriculum, the researchers said.

‘Uncertain’ climate change
In their research, Busch and Román analyzed each textbook’s section about climate change, comprising 279 clauses that contained 2,770 words. They found that the message communicated in the textbooks was that climate change might be happening and that humankind may or may not be causing it. Those works were unclear about the need for a human response and action against the threat of climate change, Busch and Román said.

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