An Inconvenient Clash Of Science And Marketing
Out from under their hoodies they came, awkward Eagle Rock High School intellects eager to weigh in on a controversy that has been oozing like an oil slick across the online environment: Al Gore — self-promoting propagandist or lonesome crusader for planet Earth?
More precisely, the question being yakked out on education and political websites nationwide goes more like this: Was the National Science Teachers Assn. behaving as immorally as one Hollywood activist claims when it rejected an offer of 50,000 free DVDs of "An Inconvenient Truth," the former vice president's global warning alarum?
Listen to Laurie David — a producer of the Gore documentary, environmentalist and wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David — and it's easy to believe that the 57,000-member science teachers association turned down her generous offer because it had already sold its soul to the pro-greenhouse gas forces of Big Oil.
It's also easy to suspect that writing on this subject means I've been suckered into providing publicity for the recently released DVD or Gore's undeclared but inevitable presidential run.
But what the heck. The question of whether science instruction can be kept pure is just too interesting not to poke at.
The brouhaha began with an e-mail from Paramount Pictures to the science teachers group. It asked if the organization would distribute donated DVDs to its members.
In the ensuing exchange, forwarded around by the Natural Resources Defense Council — for which Laurie David serves as a trustee — the teachers explained: "There is strong consensus that we should pass on this."
The group's members, the e-mail explained, might perceive the distribution as a political endorsement and it could open the door for all sorts of other distributions.
What really set David off, though, was the association's concern that handing out the DVD would place "unnecessary risk upon the capital campaign, especially with certain targeted supporters."
Could free-spending oil companies be among those "targeted supporters?" David publicly wondered.
In a Washington Post op-ed piece, she noted that whenever she screened the film, admiring viewers clamored that "every student in every school in the United States needed to see this movie." So how could a teachers' group turn down her generous offer while scooping up millions of dollars of oil company dough — including $6 million from Exxon Mobil since 1996?
"These companies have spent years misinforming the public about global warming … lying to the public about global warming!" David railed in a phone conversation that singed my right ear. If Big Oil really had students' best interests in mind, they could build playgrounds, she said, rather than trying to spin curriculum. "They're trying to infiltrate the schools."
Bill Aldridge, who served 16 years as executive director of the science teachers association, has followed the controversy and is appalled at his former organization's decision. "They don't want to offend oil companies and American Petroleum Institute," he said.
Linda Froschauer, president of the group, confirms that it has accepted money from corporations, including those in the oil business. Much of that Exxon Mobil money went to distributing the national science standards materials published by the uncontroversial National Academy of Sciences, and Shell sponsors a speaker at the group's annual conference. It's all in the open and does not affect the message, she says.
Froschauer, an eighth-grade science teacher, gives the Gore movie a wobbly thumbs up. "A great deal of the science was very good," she says — although she would fail students for turning in projects with graphs that present information without the full context, as some in the documentary do, she added.
The "supporters" her group doesn't want to offend, she says, are all those who would bridle at the way "Inconvenient Truth" presents its information or at any hint that science teaching is being politicized.
The problem is that educators need money and taxpayers aren't going to be endlessly generous. Last week, for example, Los Angeles City Hall announced that Verizon had kicked in $1 million for after-school programs. Will that money influence what's taught? Probably not. But the purity of any teaching or scholarship can be subtly or overtly twisted by an underwriter's preoccupation with profit or ideology.
To which many teachers I talked to say: "So?"
Kurt Holland, a science teacher at Santa Monica Alternative School and member of the science teacher's group, independently ordered five copies of the DVD without knowing about the flap. Hearing about it doesn't bother him.
"I see controversy," he says, "as a complete and total learning opportunity."
Across town, those Eagle Rock ninth-graders possess more healthy skepticism than many adults.
They'd read the book "An Inconvenient Truth" for an English class. They were eager to opinionate.
Danny Leventon: "I didn't like the parts where Al Gore talked about his family and himself. I didn't really care about his family."
Camilla Manciati: "It had a lot of pictures, and the pictures affected me emotionally. When they talked about the family, it made you realize this man cares about family and the environment."
Gerry Zhang: "I'm in the Academic Decathlon, and we're studying climate change. The decathlon coaches challenged what Al Gore says…. They say scientists are very careful about predicting what will happen."
Jake Goranson: "I felt the book was often misleading in the language that Al Gore used. He used loaded language instead of giving us straight facts."
Moises Escamilla: "I liked it. They gave you helpful tips to avoid global warming. You know, the 'Three Rs' — reduce, reuse, recycle."
That about nails it. The book is a remarkable echo of the film, and the inconvenient truth about the film is that it's peculiar, as much a hagiographic biopic as a science documentary. I watched the closing credits with almost as much concern for Gore's ego as for those sweltering polar bears.
That said, "An Inconvenient Truth" is also a powerful, emotion-engaging primer on the potentially devastating impact of global warming.
David says Paramount is going to give the DVDs to teachers without the association's help. If I were a science teacher, I'd jump at the offer. I'd use the DVD to spur discussion of science in all its sometimes-tainted complexity. I'd talk to students about corporate shortsightedness, conflicts of interest and disinformation campaigns. I'd tell them about zealotry and the temptation to propagandize.
I'd remind them that scientific inquiry requires testing and proof. I'd trust them to sort out the truth.
Free copies of "An Inconvenient Truth" for educators htt.boingbo
The giveaway ends January 18, or when the DVDs run out. The website is the social activism arm of Participant Productions, the company behind this film and others including Good Night, and Good Luck, North Country, and Syriana. Teachers can request a copy at this link.
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