Environmentalism without science

Schoolchildren have embraced environmentalism with much enthusiasm but little knowledge, writes Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, in Forbes.

For last year’s Earth Day, for example, sixth-grade students at a tony private school near San Francisco were given this bizarre assignment: Make a list of ways Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates’ fortune could be spent on environmentally friendly projects. There was no hint that systematic market-based incentives for people and businesses could protect the environment–merely that it is OK to appropriate wealth from someone as long as it’s for a good cause.

At a public school north of San Francisco, fifth-graders studied the disappearance of honeybees: U.S. colonies have declined by two-thirds. “They made graphs and charts, created pamphlets in English and Spanish and wrote letters to dozens of local and national politicians.”

The kids became particularly concerned about the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the technical name for the bees’ wholesale disappearance from hives, a subject that would have created an excellent teaching opportunity about biology, agriculture and logic — if only they had been given sufficient and accurate information. “Nobody’s sure what’s killing them,” summed up one of the students. “Mites, pesticides, radiation from cellphones, humans, global warming and not enough wildflowers. We’re not sure. There’s a lot of probable causes.”

In fact, the student’s “probable” causes aren’t probable at all, Miller writes. No scientific evidence  supports mites, pesticides, cellphones, etc. CCD is associated with an infectious fungus called Nosema ceranae. Students could have discussed correlation and causation and learned how scientists designed experiments to figure out if the fungus was destroying hives and what to do about it.

Too often the objective of student projects seems to be “empowering” the kids and giving them a feeling of accomplishment instead of getting the right answer and learning scientific principles.

How many elementary teachers know enough about science to teach scientific principles? I’m leaning more and more toward training math-science specialists for upper-elementary grades.

In other news, an Iranian cleric says that women dressed in sexy clothing cause extramarital sex, which causes earthquakes.

About Joanne


  1. Not that I’m an expert on the matter of honeybees, but a close friend–and Ph.D.-level environmental scientist–explained that pesticides could in fact make honeybees more susceptible to the fungus. He was not dogmatic about the theory, but he acknowledged it as a theory…. Has that theory been discredited? Was my friend mistaken?

  2. The concept of correlation vs. causation is too advanced for the brain of an elementary school child.

    I’m all for high standards, much higher ones than we have now, but there are stages in brain development that have their own timetable.

    To answer your question, I don’t think a teacher needs to know very much science in order to teach scientific principles.

    For example, teaching a unit on propaganda in a language arts setting is very good for teaching many key scientific principles.

    There are elementary school teachers who spend time teaching science by having students howl like wolves. We don’t have to stoop that low, but expecting a grasp of correlation vs. causation runs contrary to the scientific results of brain research.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    …but expecting a grasp of correlation vs. causation runs contrary to the scientific results of brain research.

    I disagree.

    The two examples that Joanne quoted were for 5th (oh, dear, there go the honey bees) and 6th (how do we spend Bill Gates’ money) grade students.

    I’m fairly certain that kids this age can understand that, stealing an example from here, ice cream sales do not cause drowning deaths.

    I’m willing to believe that some of the mathematical subtleties (did I spell that correctly?) won’t be understood by many/most kids this age, but the basic idea is easily within the grasp of 10-12 year olds.

    -Mark Roulo

  4. I don’t think it’s beyond the reach of most twelve year-olds to understand that a rooster crowing doesn’t cause the sun to rise.

  5. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    There’s way too much focus on process in science education.

    Isaac Newton was among the greatest of scientists and yet he believed in alchemy. Was this because a) he lacked knowledge about the atomic and nuclear structure of matter because such knowledge did not exist during his lifetime or b) because Isaac Newton did not understand the scientific method.

    Try this as a thought experiment: Tell some science teachers you know that some kid believes in alchemy. Some of them at least will likely tell you that the kid needs to learn what a hypothesis means.

    During one of our big meetings last year it was “Science Day” for the entire faculty to witness. A “real” science experiment was performed — live — for all to behold. Three faculty members were chosen (not too randomly): An ex football player in his twenties, a guy near retirement, and the Science AP I’ve bitched about in this forum. A hypothesis as to the relative grip-strength of the three was produced: the 200+ lb dude who played football for Penn State will win. An experiment was designed: a high-tech grip-o-meter was connected to a laptop with graphing software. The experiment was performed: the three guinea pigs took turns squeezing the grip-o-meter as the software recorded and displayed the maximum force exerted by each. Guess what? The ex-football player had the strongest hands. Hypothesis confirmed.

    This is pretty much what passes for “real science” in schools.

    I can easily think of several people — including my parents and in-laws — who never finished high school, and likely never heard the word “hypothesis”, and who would be able to do exactly the same thing — with no formal “scientific” training.

    Oh, and nowhere during this experiment did anyone offer an explanation as to what force means, or in what units it’s measured.

    I believe that one of the reasons we see stuff like this is due to the fact that many teachers and nearly all administrator types have little or no experience outside classrooms. If you spend your entire career teaching science in a classroom then you likely will not know much beyond what a high school age person knows, and, you’ll be used to performing school-appropriate experiments, which, of course, are easy, safe, been performed hundreds of thousands of times, and haven’t yielded any new knowledge for a hundred years.

  6. We were involved with an Earth Day contest last year as well. We were giving away $422 dollars for the best entry into ways to recycle and help protect the planet. We asked entries to input what they would do with the money to help recycle more in their local communities. However, like this post mentioned, it didn’t certain around any of the facts or science behind Earth Day, but rather some good ideas to help recycle more. It would have been good to tie the entries to some sort of education process where people not only submit ideas, but those ideas are discussed and reviewed by others to see how effective they would be and what impact they would have.

  7. Mark, true, most young students will know that ice cream sales will not cause drowning deaths (unless they think you’re trying to spur their imagination) and most will know that summer is an ideal time for both swimming and eating ice cream.

    But most will have no idea what you’re getting at if you attempt to use this as an illustration.

    For you and me, it couldn’t be more clear. For the typical 5th grader, they won’t have a clue.

    Are you against ice cream? Are you against swimming? Do you want me to know what I like best? My cat died last year but she didn’t drown. She was run over by a car. But if you don’t want to know what I like, or what happened to me, or my cat, what are you asking me? You are not asking me anything yet, but you are telling me stuff now because you are going to then ask me about it. Are you going to ask me to repeat back what you told me? Or are you going to ask me a question to see if I can give you the right answer? If I give you the wrong answer, can I try again and give you another answer until I get it right?

    I’m not a 5th grade teacher and I’m not an expert on Piaget, but I’ve taught the concept of correlation vs. causality to 7th graders and I can tell you it’s a rather challenging experience.

    Allen, I think you’re right. I think even a five year old will understand the mistake the rooster makes. The next time I attempt to teach the concept, I’ll remember to use that story as an example.

    Yes, the rooster. My students will understand that. Why they have a lot of difficulty going beyond that has me stumped.

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    “But most will have no idea what you’re getting at if you attempt to use this as an illustration.”

    They don’t/won’t/can’t understand that the heat of summer causes *both* (a) ice cream sales to increase, and (b) people to go swimming and thus we get more drowning deaths?

    Wow …

    And your seventh graders also have trouble with this? Double wow …

    -Mark Roulo

  9. BunnyMomRocks says:

    As a previous high school science teacher and now a college professor I have real issues with the lack of quality science education in elementary schools. I have spent a great deal of time ‘un-teaching’ ideas that students learned in elementary school. Speaking with other science educators it became clear that many would rather that students learned no science at all before reaching highs school so that we wouldn’t have to spend so much time un-teaching the false/wrong concepts presented by their elementary teachers. Throw around a few science ideas and that should explain it! Forget the whole notion of teaching/showing students where to get the correct information (their textbook is not the answer). In the Internet age finding the information they need is easy but the teacher has to also want the correct information and not just the easy answer. I’ve always been an advocate of more partnering between high school science teachers and their colleagues in middle and elementary school. School districts hate these kinds of ideas but a girl can dream!

  10. SuperSub says:

    Mark and Robert-
    I think the problem with the correlation vs causation with elementary students debate is that you are discussing two things.
    One on hand, you are discussing the abstract yet applicable concept.
    On the other, you are discussing concrete examples such as ice cream and roosters.
    It is very possible for students to understand the concrete example without being able to apply the concept to new situations or to explain the concept themselves.
    In some student populations, the concept will be teachable in 5th grade. In others, you’ll have to wait until 8th, 9th, or even later grades. It depends not necessarily on the age or grade, but instead the exposure and experience the students have with logic and the specific content.

  11. Mark, yes, what is obvious to us, very obvious, is often complete gibberish for minds that haven’t left concrete operations and entered into the ability to think with abstractions.

    In 7th grade, about half the typical class has made the transition.

    That makes teaching this particular age group an interesting challenge.

    Those who are at the level of concrete operations don’t necessarily have low IQ’s.

    What you need to teach half the class, the other half just won’t get–and it’s no fault of their own.

    Consider this story:

    “Sally is 17 years old. Her younger brother, John, has a friend named Mildred who he met at a dance in 2009. He’s a little older than “Millie,” but she’s so smart that she skipped 4th grade. Who is older? Mildred or Sally?”

    30 to 40 percent of entering 7th graders will not know, but ask them how old Sally is or what grade Mildred skipped and these are answers that they will be able to find. About half of the 30-40 percent reflects the fact they have poor reading skills. But the other half can’t for the life of them make a logical, objective abstraction. But by the 8th grade, it will be a piece of cake.

    Now take this statement. “All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles.” What percentage of midyear 7th graders will understand the point? About half. If you explain it and provide some illustrations, maybe 80%. But 20%, no matter what you say or do, the poor little devils, their brains won’t be able to make any sense out of that until the 8th grade.

    Ah, the mind of the 7th grader.

    Ask a math teacher what happens when he presents a word problem that mentions the Oakland Raiders.

    The answers tend not to be numbers.

  12. SuperSub says:

    Bunny Mom-
    I’ve long felt that the best way for a district to design a curriculum was to have each grade dictate the standards for the previous grade.
    Not only would it bring up the standards imo but I also think it would eliminate much of the redundancy in science curricula. If you were to look at NYS’s 8th grade science assessment and the Living Environment and Earth Science Regents Exams (commonly given in 9th and 10th grades) you would see an amazing amount of overlap. Last year when comparing the 8th grade assessment with the LE Regents we even found a few questions that were almost word-for-word identical.

  13. At my daughter’s progressive middle school in Pasadena (home to CalTech and near JPL), a teacher tried to tell the kids that “Native American” science was as legit as plain old Western science ( myths about creation, seasons,etc.) Cranky PhD parents intervened.

  14. Fascinating discussion. I don’t know anything about the teaching of science in elementary school, though I have just a bit of experience teaching science at the high school level. It certainly makes sense that asking kids to do what their brains have not developed enough to do is to invite failure. However it is not at all clear whether that’s a matter of brain maturation or previous learning.

    I’ve got a question. At what grade level do students learn the following:

    – mammals give birth to live young, birds, reptiles, and fish lay eggs, mammals and birds are warm blooded, reptiles and fish are cold blooded,

    – the earth goes around the sun in one year, the moon goes around the earth in one month, the week doesn’t come from astronomy

    – germs cause disease, but many germs do not cause disease

    – the stars are very far away, the moon is relatively very close

    – the skeleton gives shape to your body, but a skeleton can’t move by itself, muscles move bones, nerves carry messages, blood carries nourishment

    – air is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, that we need oxygen to breath, plants need carbon dioxide, water exists in the air in the form of vapor.

    – rocks are very old, there are three basic types of rocks,

    – metals conduct electric city, metals are malleable, metals melt when hot enough, rocks are not metals, mercury is a metal that is liquid at room temperature

    – floating and sinking are determined by relative density

    – air exerts pressure, air has weight, that’s why it exerts pressure

    Reviewing this list it seems that just about all of it could be called descriptive science. Causation is certainly involved in places, but in relatively simple and understandable ways. A lot of elementary science learning, it seems to me would consist of learning facts. Of course that invites the criticism that I advocate teaching by rote memorization. But facts must be organized into coherent structures of knowledge. Facts in isolation are very difficult to remember, but facts organized in coherent structures are comparatively easy to remember.

    And reviewing this list it would seem to me that learning most of this requires very little of the scientific method of contrived experimentation. Some of it, such as understanding eclipses, requires figuring out spatial relations. Causation is important in some of this, such as germs causing disease, but peripheral in much of it, such as the difference between birds and mammals.

    I guess my point is that learning high school science would seem to depend on a broad base of descriptive science in elementary school. Much can be learned without complex thinking, and much should be learned that way.

    Learning about global warming and environmentalism, it seems to me, is not a matter of science. Not even close. That’s social studies.

  15. What is really being taught in these classes is that one doesn’t have to know any scientific facts, the scientific method, or basic economics in order to devise schemes to save the world. If the kids are too young to understand basic scientific concepts, they are too young to be turned on the world as little saviours. If they are taught that they have sufficient knowledge at age 10 to recommend policy, why should they feel the need to pay attention to math and science when they reach high school.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Learning the correlation/causation thing solidly might cause a revolt against environmentalism.
    Can’t have that.
    Besides, there’s not supposed to be religion taught in public schools.
    Had a greenie–professional, exec with the Land Conservancy–tell me I wasn’t going to convert her away from AGW. She had the science. Now she doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean she lost the religion. I noted “convert”. She didn’t see the significance.

  17. I don’t know what’s going on in the teaching of high school science now days, but I find it very easy to believe that we focus way too much on process, as Ex-Physics Teacher charges in his post above. Years ago I gave some thought about the role of experiments in the teaching of science, and wrote an article about it, “The Rationale Of Laboratory Exercises In The Teaching Of Science”. It’s at http://www.brianrude.com/ratlab.htm. And another article on the broader question of science itself is “Rules And Methods Of Science” at http://www.brianrude.com/sci-mt.htm.

  18. Robert, there’s a sad irony in a science teacher who abhors the scientific method but also a certain inevitability. After all, you don’t have any responsibility, beyond pride, to do any “authentic” teaching because you can live in a world of unchallenged, and unchallengeable, truths.

    The entire teaching profession is shot through with nonsense, what I’ve come to call “edu-crap”, which has no connection to reality and doesn’t require any proof. So you can, with bland satisfaction and imperturbable condescension, convert my observation about roosters and the sun, to which you have no substantive reply, to a question more to your liking.

    There are a million similarly self-evident situations which any seven year-old can easily discriminate between correlation and causation.

    Does the weather man cause rain by predicting rain? Do squirrels burying acorns cause winter? Does having a picnic cause thunderstorms? Does the dog barking cause the mailman to appear?

    Of course kids seven and younger, understand the difference between cause and effect. Heck, even the barking dog understands cause and effect.

    But purveyors and students of edu-crap are indifferent to cause and effect in the sense scientists understand the relationship. The necessary truth is determined ahead of any pretense of experimentation and if experiment doesn’t produce the desired results then the concept of ascertaining the validity of a hypothesis via experimentation is dispensed with and up grow schools of thought which are devoid of even the pretense of science.

  19. Robert Wright says:

    Allen, I didn’t dismiss your point about the rooster story.

    I thought it was a good point and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

    Kids do seem to understand that story and I can’t, as yet, explain it away.

    I have some theories, but for now I confess it has me stumped.

  20. And, we’re surprised that schoolchildren have embraced environmentalism with enthusiasm but little knowledge because…..?

  21. I remember being angry, as a student, when I descovered that what we had been taught in elementary school was demonstrably incorrect, and as an Ed student I’be had rousing arguements with classmates over this.

    Case-in-point: Primary colours of matter. High school physics we had to unlearn ‘red, blue, yellow,’ drilled into us since kindergarden or earlier, and learn ‘magenta, cyan, and yellow.’ (Don’t believe me? Check your printer cartridge.) My classmates say that kids can’t understand ‘magenta’ or ‘cyan’, but it’s no more difficult than ‘red’. All that time wasted. Let’s teach them either right or not at all.

    @Brian, at what point do that learn that your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th points are not the full story? That some snakes give live birth, some mammals lay eggs, and endo- and ectothermic are better descriptions? That a solar year is slightly longer than a calander year? That disease can be cause by things other than bacteria and viruses? That some rocks are brand new? (There are some less than a day old in Iceland.)


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