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Science a la Joe Camel

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  • Mike Neuman
    Science a la Joe Camel By Laurie David Sunday, November 26, 2006; B01 At hundreds of screenings this year of An Inconvenient Truth, the first thing many
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2006
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      Science a la Joe Camel

      By Laurie David
      Sunday, November 26, 2006; B01

      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.

      The producers of former vice president Al Gore's film about global
      warming, myself included, certainly agreed. So the company that made
      the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National
      Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their
      classrooms. It seemed like a no-brainer.

      The teachers had a different idea: Thanks but no thanks, they said.

      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 NSTA or its members" in accepting the
      free DVDs.

      Gore, however, is not running for office, and the film's theatrical
      run is long since over. As for classroom benefits, the movie has been
      enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide,
      and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden.

      Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one
      more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote,
      would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] 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. 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.

      So much for special interests and implicit endorsements.

      In the past year alone, according to its Web site, Exxon Mobil's
      foundation gave $42 million to key organizations that influence the
      way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they
      graduate from high school.

      And Exxon Mobil isn't the only one getting in on the action. Through
      textbooks, classroom posters and teacher seminars, the oil industry,
      the coal industry and other corporate interests are exploiting
      shortfalls in education funding by using a small slice of their
      record profits to buy themselves a classroom soapbox.

      NSTA's list of corporate donors also includes Shell Oil and the
      American Petroleum Institute (API), which funds NSTA's Web site on
      the science of energy. There, students can find a section
      called "Running on Oil" and read a page that touts the industry's
      environmental track record -- citing improvements mostly attributable
      to laws that the companies fought tooth and nail, by the way -- but
      makes only vague references to spills or pollution. NSTA has
      distributed a video produced by API called "You Can't Be Cool Without
      Fuel," a shameless pitch for oil dependence.

      The education organization also hosts an annual convention -- which
      is described on Exxon Mobil's Web site as featuring "more than 450
      companies and organizations displaying the most current textbooks,
      lab equipment, computer hardware and software, and teaching
      enhancements." The company "regularly displays" its "many . . .
      education materials" at the exhibition. John Borowski, a science
      teacher at North Salem High School in Salem, Ore., was dismayed by
      NSTA's partnerships with industrial polluters when he attended the
      association's annual convention this year and witnessed hundreds of
      teachers and school administrators walk away with armloads of free
      corporate lesson plans.

      Along with propaganda challenging global warming from Exxon Mobil,
      the curricular offerings included lessons on forestry provided by
      Weyerhaeuser and International Paper, Borowski says, and the benefits
      of genetic engineering courtesy of biotech giant Monsanto.

      "The materials from the American Petroleum Institute and the other
      corporate interests are the worst form of a lie: omission," Borowski
      says. "The oil and coal guys won't address global warming, and the
      timber industry papers over clear-cuts."

      An API memo leaked to the media as long ago as 1998 succinctly
      explains why the association is angling to infiltrate the
      classroom: "Informing teachers/students about uncertainties in
      climate science will begin to erect barriers against further efforts
      to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future."

      So, how is any of this different from showing Gore's movie in the
      classroom? The answer is that neither Gore nor Participant
      Productions, which made the movie, stands to profit a nickel from
      giving away DVDs, and we aren't facing millions of dollars in lost
      business from limits on global-warming pollution and a shift to
      cleaner, renewable energy.

      It's hard to say whether NSTA is a bad guy here or just a sorry
      victim of tight education budgets. And we don't pretend that a two-
      hour movie is a substitute for a rigorous science curriculum.
      Students should expect, and parents should demand, that educators
      present an honest and unbiased look at the true state of knowledge
      about the challenges of the day.

      As for Exxon Mobil -- which just began a fuzzy advertising campaign
      that trumpets clean energy and low emissions -- this story shows that
      slapping green stripes on a corporate tiger doesn't change the beast
      within. The company is still playing the same cynical game it has for

      While NSTA and Exxon Mobil ponder the moral lesson they're teaching
      with all this, there are 50,000 DVDs sitting in a Los Angeles
      warehouse, waiting to be distributed. In the meantime, Mom and Dad
      may want to keep a sharp eye on their kids' science homework.


      Laurie David, a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," is a Natural
      Resources Defense Council trustee and founder of
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