A Colorado high school science teacher offers a poignant definition of ‘theory’ as seen differently  by the scientific and popular cultures and rebuffs some parents’ complaints about her reliance on NASA and NOAA data sets as being tantamount to ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ of a liberal conspiracy.

A May 2 Public Broadcasting Service/NewsHour segment provides an informative look at climate science education in secondary schools.

Narrated by Hari Sreenivassan, the segment opens with Evergreen, Colorado, high school science teacher Cheryl Manning explaining why she starts her climate change lessons by asking students what they’ve heard, and what they think about climate change.

“So many students today enter the classroom with preconceived notions” from media coverage and from their parents, Sreenivassan transitions. “There’s all sorts of things that the kids hear. They want clarification,” Manning says.

She explains that after having some of her advanced students checking online NOAA and NASA data sets, some parents complained to her during teacher/parent conferences that she was teaching “‘Kool-Aid’ of the left-wing liberal conspiracy.” Manning says she was supported in her teachings by the school’s superintendent, “but the experience was exhausting.”

In Science Community, ‘Theory’ = ‘Survivor’

“In the popular culture, the word theory is a weak concept,” Manning says on air. “It’s an idea. In the scientific culture, the word is equivalent to survivor. It is the idea that best explains a phenomenon and has had lines and lines of evidence supporting it, and it has been tested and tested and tested. And it has survived all those tests.”

Roberta Johnson, head of the National Earth Sciences Teachers Association (see Yale Forum article on a survey), says in the eight-minute and 41-seconds segment that high school science education is “about using fundamental principles of science and our ability to look at evidence and analyze it, and draw evidence-based conclusions. It’s not about policy debates or whether something is socially acceptable. It’s evidence.”

About six minutes and 15 seconds into the story, Sreenivassan turns to what he calls “persistent skeptics” and spends 53 seconds getting the views of Heartland Institute senior fellow James Taylor, who, among other things, contests much of the science and argues that warming historically has been good for humans and their societies.

“These are views challenged by scientific evidence,” Sreenivassan says in making his transition, though some purists may still see the nod to Heartland as an example of media’s giving some impression of a “false balance.”

Manning concludes the segment saying she wants her students to “walk away with a clear understanding that there’s a difference between the scientific understanding of the processes and the political conversation that’s going on.” She says she doesn’t want her students to confuse the scientific and the economic and political aspects of climate change.

The segment is a component of the PBS NewsHour’s ongoing “Coping with Climate Change” series.