04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Aug 10, 2012

Denying Science, Legislating Reality

Last week, the South Dakota House of Representatives passed HCR 1009, a resolution calling for the "balanced teaching of global warming in the public schools of South Dakota."

HCR 1009 is so egregiously inaccurate, so appalling wrong in its contemptuous dismissal of established science, so mind-numbing in its appeals to long-debunked pseudoscience, that it is hard not to entertain the thought that perhaps it was meant as an elaborate parody. However, HCR 1009 was not a jest, but rather a serious attempt to influence the science South Dakota students learn. It is the latest volley in a broader assault on science itself.

HCR 1009's "balanced teaching" phrase is familiar to veterans of the wars over teaching "creation science" in schools. A Louisiana law called the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public Schools Instruction Act" was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1987. HCR 1009 follows the tactics of the Louisiana law by attempting to insert non-scientific claims into science curriculum in the name of "balance," bypassing the normal fact-checking mechanisms of scientific peer-review and ignoring the near-unanimity of qualified climate scientists about global warming and its causes.

Just as creationists fundamentally misunderstand how evolution works, those who attack climate science often reveal a startling lack of knowledge about the particulars of climate science and how science works.

HCR 1009 offers as evidence against global warming the assertion that in the past "climate was much warmer than in our present age." Climate has been warmer -- and colder, too. That has no bearing on the unprecedented changes humans are now creating. Global warming deniers seem to think that if they can just prove the planet was once warmer, then that somehow means the recent rise in carbon dioxide -- which we know through carbon isotopes to be man-made -- will somehow cease to be a danger.

Earth's climate has indeed varied greatly over time. Geologists know from high-resolution ice cores that this variation has been rapid, and at times dramatic. Geology also tells us of the Cryogenian Period, when glaciers encased the entire planet, and the fact that during the Mesozoic Era, the time of the dinosaurs, climate was perhaps as much as ten degrees Celsius warmer than present. During the Mesozoic, however, this warmer climate raised sea level to the point where South Dakota sat hundreds of feet under water. Climate has varied in the past -- but that in no way affects what is happening today.

Instead of taking the time to understand the science, South Dakota legislators submit as proof against climate change this remarkable list: "[T]here are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics..."

No, that isn't a misprint. South Dakota legislators actually proposed astrology as evidence against climate change. Do they think glaciers melt slower when Virgo is ascending?

South Dakota legislators probably meant to say "astronomical," but that also makes no sense. The astronomical influences on climate are well-understood by scientists. Recent climate changes are occurring independently of astronomical influences.

HCR 1009 parrots a common misconception about science: "That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact." Evolution, too, is frequently disparaged as "only a theory," when the word theory really means, according to UC Berkeley's Understanding Science website, a "powerful explanation for a broad set of observations."

Many people confuse the word theory with "guess." Some people think a hypothesis becomes a theory, then graduates into a fact or becomes a scientific law. These are all common mistakes. They are so common, in fact, that South Dakota science standards require 8th graders to "differentiate among facts, predictions, theory, and law/principles." Perhaps South Dakota 8th graders can help their representatives with this concept.

Even more disturbing than these errors is the underlying premise of HCR 1009: the assumption that political bodies, rather than scientists, should have the final say over scientific issues. We have recently seen this kind of thinking in Louisiana, where a 2008 law opened the door to non-scientific attacks on evolution and climate change. Last year, the Texas State Board of Education rewrote science standards to remove the age of the universe, mandate "different views" on global warming, and include standard creationist talking points against evolution.

Science cannot be legislated. Science is not determined by opinion polls and petitions. South Dakota can outlaw global warming if it wishes, but such decisions mean as much to science as arguments among ornithologists mean to birds.

This political interference in science education is a problem that extends beyond merely getting the facts wrong. Students deserve better than to be pawns of science denialists.