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A startling number of high school teachers are misleading students on climate change

David McNew/Getty Images

A majority of science teachers across the country are teaching their students about climate change – but a significant number are teaching incorrect science, such as the notion that rising temperatures are attributable to "natural" causes.

That’s the conclusion of a major survey of US middle and high school science teachers, the results of which were published in the journal Science this week by Eric Plutzer of Penn State and collaborators from Wright State University and the National Center for Science Education.

The researchers mailed questionnaires to 1,500 science teachers, who taught disciplines ranging from biology, chemistry, physics, and earth sciences, since the study of climate change straddles fields and they weren’t sure which classes were paying the subject more attention.

The key finding: 30 percent of teachers reported they tell students that warming temperatures are "likely due to natural causes." Another 31 percent of teachers told students that climate change is fueled by human activity – the scientific consensus position – but they also mention the "natural causes" theory, thus teaching both sides to a controversy.

Even though scientists are extremely confident that humans are warming the planet, this teaching approach may lead students to believe otherwise, Plutzer said: "Students look up to science teachers, and when a science authority gives voice to a non-scientific view, it confers legitimacy on that view."

Teachers may be teaching "both sides" because they are not aware of the extent of the scientific consensus, the survey found. When asked what proportion of climate scientists think global warming is manmade, 45 percent of high school teachers picked the option "81 to 100 percent," which the researchers identify as the correct answer. Only 30 percent of middle school teachers answered correctly.

Many also include topics not relevant to climate science in their lesson plans. Nearly half said they included such off-topic items as "pesticides, ozone layer, or impacts of rocket launches."

Though the contents of their lesson plans may be suspect, the study contained a major silver lining. Only 4.4 percent of teachers said they felt pressure not to teach climate science, from parents, school officials or others.

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