This story has gone back and forth, and quite honestly, so have I. I was outraged, then relieved, then confused, then lost. I'm back to outraged.
After about 6 hours more reading about the National Science Teachers of America than I ever cared to do, please allow me to be very blunt.
The NSTA is selling a pound of digital bologna, but I'm not buying it.
They have been doing the deceitful tapdance of the publicly convicted criminal who's looking for a technicality to get off. They are playing semantic games and they are doing their level best to deflect the spotlight from shining on them, because they understand completely that it does not show them in a very favorable light.
Before I continue, let me back up.
An Inconvenient Truth
Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world's scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.
Thus opens the About page at the film's website.
An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary film featuring former Vice President Al Gore discussing the impact of human society on the environment. (You can also view the trailer here.) The film looks at Mr. Gore's traveling exhibit on global warming, and at the man himself. By all accounts, this is a well presented film.
An Uncomfortable Science
While there are still doubters amongst the scientific community, the ever-growing consensus on the topic within that community is that global temperatures are rising, and human activity is partially to blame. According to The Earth Institute at Columbia University,
2005 was the warmest year ever recorded, beating the previous record high set in 1998 and continue a general trend of rising temperatures dating back to 1980.
In May 2005, scientists concluded the Earth is absorbing more of the sun's energy than is being emitted back into space, disrupting the planet's energy balance and resulting in global warming.
Scientists agree the Earth's climate is being directly affected by human activity, and for many people around the world, these changes are having negative effects. Carbon dioxide levels today are nearly 30 percent higher than they were prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution, based on records extending back 650,000 years.
According to NASA, the polar ice cap is now melting at the rate of 9 percent per decade. Arctic ice thickness has decreased 40 percent since the 1960s. The current pace of sea-level rise is three times the historical rate and appears to be accelerating.
The science is strong. The earth is getting warmer, and we as a species are contributing to our own demise.
An Unselfish Offer
On September 30th of this year, Lynn Hirshfield sent an EMail to Gerry Wheeler of the NSTA in which she offered free DVDs of the film to the NSTA for distribution to their members. 50,000 of them.
-----Original Message-----From: lynn hirshfield [mailto: "Lynn Hirshfield"]
Sent: Saturday, September 30, 2006 12:49 PM To: Gerry Wheeler Subject:
Al Gore/An Inconvenient Truth
Dear Dr. Wheeler,
I work for Paramount Pictures and we have received donations to provide free DVDS of the film "An Inconvenient Truth" for sciences teachers and students across the country. We would like to know if we could work with your organization to distribute these DVDs in a systematic manner. I've attached some information about our program. Please call me if you have suggestions or questions. Lynn Hirshfield 310-4XX-XX80 Thank you!
An Unsettling Answer
The NSTA refused. In an October 12th EMail to Ms. David, David Beacom of the NSTA responded that they did not wish to be put in a position where they would be obligated to distribute materials for other special interest groups. That sounds reasonable on its face. He and the people with whom he consulted also mentioned that they didn't want to be drug into the political arena. Huh? That's an odd statement to make. Mr. Gore doesn't seem to be running for any office. Neither are any of the producers, as far as I can determine. Science certainly shouldn't be considered political, although the current administration seems to feel otherwise.
They also stated that they see little benefit in distributing the science video to their science teacher members. That just doesn't seem to make sense.
But then they make a most unsettling statement. They tell Ms. David that by accepting this free DVD and distributing it to their members, it would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters."
I'm sorry. What was that? The National Science Teachers of America is concerned about accepting and distributing a science DVD because it might upset their benefactors? What sort of benefactors to an organization of science teachers might be upset by the distribution of a science DVD?
Turns out, Exxon. ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips and the American Petroleum Institute are all donors to the NSTA. While supporting science teachers is commendable, the idea that those science teachers should feel pressured to suppress science in deference to that support is deplorable. The Catholic Church supported science this way during the middle ages. It was all peaches and cream until Galileo started spouting off about the earth not being the center of the universe.
Now there's nothing wrong with large corporations, even oil companies, donating large sums of money to support science teachers as long as there are no strings attached. The second those donations influence the science, the science becomes tainted, worthless.
This is exactly what's happening here. As soon as the NSTA begins making science education decisions based on whether or not the large oil companies will continue their support, it calls into question the integrity of the organization and the education for which it is supposed to advocate.
An Unfavorable Opinion Piece
On Sunday, November 26th, Laurie David wrote a derisive opinion of the NSTA's decision and the reasoning behind it in the Washington Post. The piece is entitled Science a la Joe Camel.
I got wind of it via Coturnix, and blogged about it two days later, on the 28th.
In it, Ms. David describes the offer, the EMail response, the connection to big oil companies, and the implications of the decision making criteria on the education of our students.
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. It has run ads in leading newspapers (including this one) questioning the role of manmade emissions in global warming, and financed the work of a small band of scientific skeptics who have tried to challenge the consensus that heat-trapping pollution is drastically altering our atmosphere. The company spends millions to support groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute that aggressively pressure lawmakers to oppose emission limits.
It's bad enough when a company tries to sell junk science to a bunch of grown-ups. But, like a tobacco company using cartoons to peddle cigarettes, Exxon Mobil is going after our kids, too.
And it has been doing so for longer than you may think. NSTA says it has received $6 million from the company since 1996, mostly for the association's "Building a Presence for Science" program, an electronic networking initiative intended to "bring standards-based teaching and learning" into schools, according to the NSTA Web site. Exxon Mobil has a representative on the group's corporate advisory board. And in 2003, NSTA gave the company an award for its commitment to science education.
Let me point out again that the NSTA's EMail response to Ms. David gave as its reasons for denial -
1. The wish to not be beholden to "special interests".
2. A possible conflict with major donors.
3. Little benefit to its members in distribution of a film about the fossil fuel industry's role in global warming.
This is not the way I expect science teachers to educate. Even if this is completely innocent, it looks bad, smells funny, and tastes like crap. This is an organization that should at all times be above reproach, avoiding even the appearance of unseemly influence.
An Unequivocal Denial
That afternoon, an anonymous commenter pointed me in the direction of the response by the NSTA. A quick glance at the blogometer told me that this commenter popped in from TX, and was behind the NSTA firewall. Not surprising, given the topic, and I was both happy for the information, and very relieved that things were not so bad after all. I edited my post to include the entire NSTA response, and I do so again here.
NSTA Press Release
NSTA Statement on November 26 Washington Post Op-ed "Science à la Joe Camel"
Nov 28 2006
On November 26, the Washington Post printed an opinion piece from environmental activist Laurie David, a producer of the film "An Inconvenient Truth." In her op-ed Ms. David reports that NSTA rejected the opportunity to distribute 50,000 copies of the DVD to NSTA members.
NSTA policy states that the association cannot endorse any outside organization's products and/or messages to its members. Therefore, we do not send any such products and/or messages directly to our members, regardless of the source.
What was not mentioned in the op-ed is the fact that during conversations with Ms. David's representative we suggested making the DVD available via alternative means of distribution (e.g. by providing a mailing list of our members to producers, announcing its availability in our publications, etc.). It appears that these alternative distribution mechanisms were unsatisfactory.
It was not the intent of the NSTA to restrict "An Inconvenient Truth" from its members and we are currently pursuing options to make the DVD available to teachers.
In the op-ed Ms. David goes on to characterize NSTA as a willing corporate America partner that eagerly pushes corporate messages about the environment.
This is not true.
The perception created by the op-ed that NSTA has a conflict of interest in dealing with corporate America is misleading. This is a very serious issue to NSTA and science education. Like many organizations, NSTA does receive support from corporate America and other organizations (in FY06 total corporate support received by NSTA was 16.4% and total support from energy companies was 3.77%). Before we accept any funds from outside groups (corporate or otherwise), and as a condition of any support, we make it clear that NSTA is solely responsible for developing, directing, and implementing the programs we offer to teachers.
Let me specifically address the programs outlined in the op-ed: ExxonMobil has been a long-time sponsor of the national network we call Building a Presence for Science. In this project we have identified a "point of contact" for science in over 40,000 school buildings. Originally conceived to provide a copy of the National Science Education Standards to each school, NSTA now regularly sends these points of contact useful information on science education that they share with teachers in their buildings. Not once has ExxonMobil asked to use this network for their own purposes.
The Shell Oil Company funds national research science experts to present at our national conference, where they speak directly to science teachers about their field of research. NSTA chooses the scientists, invites the scientists, and hosts the scientists at these conferences. In addition, the Shell Oil Company sponsors the Shell Science Teaching award for K-12 science teachers who have had a positive impact on his or her students, school, and community through exemplary classroom teaching. This award program is administered by NSTA and the recipients are chosen by science teachers selected by NSTA.
The partnership with API, which ended 5 years ago, led to the creation of a simulation, done entirely by NSTA, on energy usage. The video in question, "You Can't Be Cool Without Fuel" was not on our website. The only record of NSTA distributing it to members we found was from 1999, prior to the current endorsement policy.
Global warming is a very important science/societal issue. NSTA has always supported sound environmental science education. We regret this current controversy surrounding our decision not to mass distribute the DVD to our members, and we are working to promote the availability of the film.
In response to an October 2005 report titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a strong consensus is emerging in the business, education, and scientific communities that our nation's future competitiveness in the global marketplace is directly tied to the ability of our schools to better prepare children in mathematics and the sciences. We should be discussing positive ways of how we can work together to strengthen the science education we provide to our nation's students.
The mission of the NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all, and for over 50 years NSTA has been a staunch supporter of quality science education. We are very proud of the work we do on behalf of science education.
Dr. Gerald Wheeler
National Science Teachers Association
An Unexplainable Alteration
Then something sort of strange happened. The next day, a second anonymous commenter mentioned that part of the response quoted in my post no longer appeared on the NSTA press release. I did a line by line check, and there were actually two portions of the NSTA response missing.
Here are the missing portions....
"NSTA policy states that the association cannot endorse any outside organization's products and/or messages to its members. Therefore, we do not send any such products and/or messages directly to our members, regardless of the source."
"The only record of NSTA distributing it to members we found was from 1999, prior to the current endorsement policy."
Those were both very strong statements, both very reassuring. They didn't just accidentally fall off the servers. Somebody erased those two specific passages, and for a reason. What reason could they have? I've been turning it over in my little brain for a while now, and quite honestly, the only reason I can come up with is that they must be demonstrably untrue.
So, if those passages have been removed because they are untrue, what would that mean? It could mean a few things.
First, it could mean that someone misunderstood NSTA policy, and that it says no such thing as the first missing passage. Second, it could mean that the NSTA does indeed send such products and/or messages directly to its members. The third sentence is very interesting. "The only record of NSTA distributing it to members we found was from 1999, prior to the current endorsement policy." It would seem somebody found another record that directly contradicts this statement.
On December 3rd, I came across the Science article on the topic, and blogged about it briefly.
From the article in Science, written by Jeffrey Mervis on November 30th
Not surprisingly, NSTA sees things differently. "We don't do mass distributions for anybody; we don't send our members material that they haven't asked for," says NSTA's executive director, Gerald Wheeler. As for the association's corporate ties, Wheeler freely acknowledges that 16% of NSTA's $23 million a year budget comes from businesses, including 3.7% from the oil and gas industry. "We're working hard to get corporate America engaged in reforming STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education," he says. "And in no case has anybody asked us to say anything [on their behalf], which we would never agree to do, anyway."
Wheeler says NSTA has no desire to suppress information about global warming. Just last month, for example, NSTA's newsletter for middle school teachers ran a five-page article on the topic and mentioned Gore's movie in the first paragraph. He says NSTA has also offered to post a link to the movie on its Web site and to announce the availability of the DVD in a weekly e-mail letter and a monthly publication. In addition, David could put the DVD directly in teachers' hands by buying NSTA's mailing list, at $130 per 1000 names.
David says NSTA's imprimatur was essential and that buying a mailing list is a nonstarter. "You don't want to send out a cold letter, and it costs a lot of money," she says. "There are a thousand reasons why that wouldn't work."
At this point, there was quite a bit of back and forth to sort through.
An Unflattering Interview
Last night I received an email from Jon Coifman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the EMail, Mr. Coifman alerted me to two new rebuttals by Ms. David concerning this situation. I immediately posted his EMail to this blog, as I felt the information was crucial to understanding the debate, but withheld commentary about it until I could get a chance to go over this again, and research Ms. David's latest statements.
I also sent him a thank you note, though I felt it was probably an automated form letter. Mr. Coifman replied to me almost immediately, indicating that this was not, in fact, a form letter and was not automated.
Thank you again to Mr. Coifman.
Besides the honest disclosure of his affiliation with the NRDC and the two links, the heart of his note is this:
Among other things, it now turns out that although NSTA cited a no-endorsements policy for the global warming film, had no problem shipping at least 20,000 copies of a ConocoPhillips video series. It also looks like some of the things they said in their own defense aren’t adding up.
After reading the transcript of Ms. David's interview on Living On Earth (my browser is having audio plug-in issues) and her article at the Huffington Post, I must say that I agree with you, Mr. Coifman. Something is definitely not adding up.
An Inconvenient Truth
Among the first things Ms. David does in her latest article is link to a .pdf of the EMail conversation between herself and the board members of the NSTA.
The meat and potatoes of their answer:
--------------Original message -------------From: "David Beacom"
Well, bad news. For the reasons briefly summarized below, thoughtful folk here have decided that we should turn down your generous offer. I'm sure, when you review their reasoning, you'll understand their thinking--even if you don't quite agree. We recognize that you are trying to get important content into the hands of as many science teachers as possible. It's just that we turn out not to be the right channel for that distribution.
-----Original Message-----From: Ken French Sent: Thursday,
October 12, 2006 10:03 AM To: David Beacom Cc: Howard
Wahlberg; Larry Rzepka Subject: Al Gore/An Inconvenient Truth
Howard, Larry, and I met this morning to discuss this opportunity and no longer need the Friday 3:00PM meeting. There is strong consensus that we should pass of this opportunity for a variety of reasons:
* There is little if any, benefit to NSTA or its membership
* There is risk of a possible implicit endorsement of NSTA
* They could buy our mailing list, or buy a more complete list of science teachers from QED, which leads us to believe there may be an unstated interest in ?endorsement by association?
* It may be perceived as a political endorsement by our membership
* It places unnecessary risk upon the capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters
* May set a precedence for distributing free materials for other special interest groups
Larry has agreed to draft our response in a more formal fashion, if necessary. Please let us know of steps taken, or steps that need to be taken.
Ms. David goes on to show how the NSTA distributed 20,000 copies of a ConocoPhillips 10 part video in 2003, two years after they claim current policy went into effect.
Now NSTA is arguing that distributing An Inconvenient Truth to teachers would violate their 2001 policy against endorsements. But that policy didn't stop them from shipping out 20,000 copies of a whopping 10-part video funded by ConocoPhillips in 2003.
In fact, Gerry Wheeler himself is listed as executive producer of the film series, alongside a ConocoPhillips corporate PR man named Ron Stanley. His interest in cinema apparently didn't extend to An Inconvenient Truth, however. At least not until it landed him in the paper.
Wheeler says this is OK because NSTA had editorial control of the project. If that's true, then maybe he can explain why the only scientist cited in the largely dismissive global warming section appearing in chapters six, nine and ten of the teaching guides is Dr. Robert Balling - a well known global warming skeptic who has acknowledged taking more than $400,000 from the fossil fuel industry (others say the figure is higher).
To make things even worse, they began covering their tracks by deleting and changing web pages.
We also discovered that somebody somewhere is meticulously shredding the online evidence of NSTA's cozy corporate partnerships.
NSTA now says it is no longer partners with the American Petroleum Institute, asserting that the project ended five years ago. Yet it looks as if the curriculum was alive and well until reporters started asking about it these past few weeks.
As of November 26 - the day the Post article appeared - both NSTA and API were promoting the course materials they produced together on their web sites. Immediately after the article appeared, however, we noticed that references to the joint "Science of Energy" program were quickly disappearing from the web.
The 'Science of Energy' website itself is now gone altogether, and API has rewritten language touting their relationship with the science educators. But we captured some telling links before they started vanishing.
Fortunately for all of us, Ms. David caught them red-handed.
Well, the NSTA leadership can't claim they don't distribute videos from interested parties, and they certainly can't cry "Too expensive" to distribute. They sure as hell can't claim they have the best interests of science or the kids at heart.
What they can do is own up to the fact that they are bought and paid for by the oil industry. And then they can resign.