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Science teachers’ association accused of oil company influence

Nov 27, 2006
Special to World Science  

Some sci­ence edu­ca­tors are ques­tion­ing wheth­er the lead­ing or­gan­i­za­tion of U.S. sci­ence teach­ers has acted as a shill for the oil in­dus­try.

The con­tro­ver­sy erup­ted af­ter the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Teach­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion re­jected an offer of 50,000 free cop­ies of “An In­con­ven­ient Truth,” the pop­u­lar film on glob­al warm­ing by erst­while pre­si­den­tial can­d­i­date Al Gore.

Glob­al warm­ing will take a dis­pro­por­tion­ate toll on Af­ri­ca, cre­at­ing a great­er risk of drought and fires, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the Nov. 24 is­sue of the Af­ri­can Jour­nal of Ecol­o­gy. Above, fire sweeps through dry Af­ri­can ter­rain. (Im­age cour­te­sy NASA)


A pro­duc­er of the mov­ie claimed that as one rea­son for re­ject­ing the DVDs, the teach­ers’ group stat­ed that ac­cept­ing them could hin­d­er its fundrais­ing. 

Writing in Sun­day’s Wash­ing­ton Post, a pro­duc­er for the mo­vie sug­gest­ed it may be no co­in­ci­dence that the group’s fun­ders in­clude Exxon-Mo­bil Corp. The com­pa­ny has for years tried to “sti­fle” ho­nest dis­cus­sion of glob­al warm­ing, the producer edi­t­or­i­al­ized.

Spokes­men for the as­so­ci­a­tion and Exxon-Mo­bil did not res­pond to re­quests for com­ment for this ar­t­i­cle.


Most sci­en­tists be­lieve in­dus­t­rial emis­sions are grad­u­al­ly warm­ing Earth’s cli­mate, kil­ling off a range of spe­cies and threat­en­ing pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­men­t­al ca­tas­tro­phe. The oil in­dus­try—which could suf­fer fi­nan­cial­ly from reg­u­la­tions de­signed to curb the prob­lem—has sought to play down or dismiss the fears.

The idea that the in­dus­try might in­flu­ence a group close­ly in­volved in ed­u­cat­ing Amer­i­can chil­dren sparked an out­cry across the bl­o­go­sphere this week, in­clud­ing from some sci­en­tists. 

The as­so­ci­a­tion “seem[s] in the pock­et of the oil in­dus­try,” wrote P. Z. My­ers, a bi­ol­o­gist and as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­ne­so­ta, Mor­ris, in his pop­u­lar blog “Pha­ryn­gula.”

The Arlington, Va.-based teach­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion, which de­s­cribes it­self as the world’s larg­est group of its kind, claims a mem­ber­ship of more than 55,000 sci­ence teach­ers. The group de­scribes its mis­sion as pro­mot­ing ex­cel­lence and in­no­va­tion in sci­ence teach­ing.

The Wash­ing­ton Post opin­ion piece was by Lau­rie Da­vid, a pro­duc­er of “An In­con­ven­ient Truth” and wife of come­di­an Lar­ry Da­vid, cre­a­tor of the tel­e­vi­sion shows “Se­in­feld” and “Curb Your En­thu­si­asm.”

She wrote: “At hun­dreds of screen­ings this year of ‘An In­con­ven­ient Truth,’ the first thing many view­ers said af­ter the lights came up was that eve­ry stu­dent in eve­ry school in the Unit­ed States needed to see this mov­ie.” Thus, “the com­pa­ny that made the doc­u­men­ta­ry de­cid­ed to of­fer 50,000 free DVDs to the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Teach­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion” for class­room use. But the teach­ers turned it down.

“In their e-mail re­jec­tion, they ex­pressed con­cern that oth­er ‘spe­cial in­ter­ests’ might ask to dis­trib­ute ma­te­ri­als, too; they said they did­n’t want to of­fer ‘po­lit­i­cal’ en­dorse­ment of the film; and they saw ‘lit­tle, if any, ben­e­fit’” to the group or its mem­bers in ac­cept­ing it.

How­ev­er, she wrote, “the mov­ie has been en­thu­si­as­ti­c­al­ly en­dorsed by lead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists world­wide, and is re­quired view­ing for all stu­dents in Nor­way and Swe­den.”

Al­so, she added, “there was one more cu­ri­ous ar­gu­ment in the e-mail: Ac­cept­ing the DVDs, they wrote, would place ‘un­nec­es­sary risk up­on the [group’s] cap­i­tal cam­paign, es­pe­cial­ly cer­tain tar­geted sup­port­ers.’ One of those sup­port­ers, it turns out, is the Exxon Mo­bil Cor­p. That’s the same Exxon Mo­bil that for more than a dec­ade has done eve­rything pos­si­ble to mud­dle pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of glob­al warm­ing and sti­fle any se­ri­ous ef­fort to solve it.”

The oil in­dust­ry as a whole, and with other corp­or­a­tions, have been si­mi­lar­ly in­fluenc­ing edu­ca­tion for years, she arg­ued.

Da­vid ab­stained from di­rect­ly ac­cus­ing the teach­ers’ group of bend­ing to oil com­pa­ny in­flu­ence. She al­so of­fered some words of sym­pa­thy for the or­gan­i­za­tion, sug­gest­ing it might have trouble rais­ing money. 

Some blog­gers were less gen­er­ous. 

“Memo to the Chris­tian Co­a­li­tion: The NSTA is for sale. For a mere mil­lion bucks a year, I’ll bet you could get them on board with In­tel­li­gent De­sign, too,” quipped Sara Rob­in­son, co-author of “Or­ci­nus,” a lib­er­al blog.

But the blog of the U.S. Na­tion­al As­so­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers sided with the teach­ers’ group, crit­i­ciz­ing the mov­ie as “pol­i­tics masked as sci­ence” and ac­cus­ing Da­vid of hy­poc­ri­sy. “We ap­plaud the move of the na­tion’s sci­ence teach­ers, who teach the sci­en­tif­ic meth­od eve­ry day, who hope­ful­ly are in­stil­ling in young minds some de­gree of cu­ri­os­i­ty, in­quis­i­tive­ness and yes, even skep­ti­cis­m,” the blog stat­ed.

* * *

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Some scientists are questioning whether the United States’ leading organization of science teachers acts as a shill for the oil industry, including companies such as Exxon-Mobil Corp. The controversy arose after the National Science Teachers’ Association rejected 50,000 free copies of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the popular Al Gore movie on global warming. in Sunday’s Washington Post, a producer of the movie claimed that as one reason for rejecting the DVDs, the teachers’ group stated that accepting them could hinder its fundraising. It may be no coincidence, the producer suggested, that one of the group’s funders is Exxon-Mobil, which has for years tried to stifle public education on global warming. Most scientists believe that a gradual global warming is occurring with potentially catastrophic results. The oil industry—which could suffer from environmental regulations designed to curb the problem—has tried to play down the fears. The idea that the oil industry might be influencing a group closely involved with educating American children sparked an outcry across the blogosphere this week, including some scientists. The association “seem[s] in the pocket of the oil industry,” wrote P.Z. Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, in his popular blog Pharyngula. The National Science Teachers’ Association, the world’s largest organization of science teachers, claims a membership of more than 55,000 science teachers. The group describes its mission as promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching. The Washington Post opinion piece was by Laurie David, a producer of An Inconvenient Truth and wife of comedian Larry David, creator of the television shows Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. She wrote: “At hundreds of screenings this year of ‘An Inconvenient Truth,” the first thing many viewers said after the lights came up was that every student in every school in the United States needed to see this movie.” Thus, “The company that made the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association” for educators to use in their classroom. But the teachers turned it down. “In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other ‘special interests’ might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn’t want to offer ‘political’ endorsement of the film; and they saw ‘little, if any, benefit’” to the group or its members in accepting it. However, she wrote, “the movie has been enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide, and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden.” Also, she added, “there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place ‘unnecessary risk upon the [group’s] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.’ One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.” “That’s the same Exxon Mobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it.” David abstained from directly accusing the group of bending to oil company influence. She also offered some words of sympathy for the organization, noting that it might have budget troubles. Some bloggers were less generous. “Memo to the Christian Coalition: The NSTA is for sale. For a mere million bucks a year, I’ll bet you could get them on board with Intelligent Design, too,” wrote Sara Robinson, co-author of the liberal blog Orcinus. But the blog of the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers took the organization’s side, criticizing the movie as “politics masked as science” and accusing David of hypocrisy. “We applaud the move of the nation’s science teachers, who teach the scientific method every day, who hopefully are instilling in young minds some degree of curiosity, inquisitiveness and yes, even skepticism,” the blog stated. Spokespersons for the National Science Teachers’ Association and Exxon-Mobil did not immediately available for comment.