You shouldn’t ‘teach the controversy’ about something that shouldn’t be controversial
December 18, 2016 12:00 AM
By Jonathan Zimmerman
According to a 2014 survey, half of people in the world haven’t heard of the Holocaust. Among the other half, about one- third don’t believe it actually happened. They think it’s a lie or a hoax, spread by Jews and their allies to promote pro-Israel sentiment and other political agendas.
And since there’s such wide disagreement on whether there was a Holocaust, we should debate the question in our schools. Right?
Wrong. Although there are lots of Holocaust deniers out there, the best-informed people know that it happened. We shouldn’t pretend that there’s a real debate about it, which gives the deniers more credence than they deserve.
And that brings us to climate change and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. In an article published earlier this year, Mr. Pruitt maintained that human-made climate change should be presented as a question rather than a fact.
“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind,” Mr. Pruitt wrote. “That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.”
Mr. Pruitt is correct about the extent of climate change, which scientists continue to debate. But there is no debate about whether it’s connected to human behavior. Questioning that premise is akin to questioning whether the Holocaust happened, because almost all credible expertise lies on one side. It’s not — or shouldn’t be — a question at all.
As Mr. Pruitt surely knows, more than 97 percent of climate researchers agree that humans are causing a rapid escalation of global warming. They don’t understand every dimension of it, because that’s how knowledge works. There are lots of things we don’t know about the Holocaust, either.
But nearly every credentialed expert on Earth asserts that people have contributed to warming it. And that consensus is as strong as historians’ agreement that millions of Jews were systematically murdered during the Second World War.
I’m not suggesting that Mr. Pruitt is as odious as the bigots and anti-Semites who continue to deny the Holocaust. But he does have something in common with them: a willful confusion of fact and opinion. A fact is a settled matter, about which informed people agree; an opinion is a matter of judgment, about which informed people disagree.
The distinction lies at the heart of the recent movie “Denial,” starring Rachel Weisz as Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt. The movie focuses on Ms. Lipstadt’s battle to expose the lies of David Irving, the best-known Holocaust denier of our time. But as Ms. Lipstadt confirmed in a recent interview, it’s about much more than that.
“If it has a takeaway, I would say it is [that] there are not two sides to every issue,” Ms. Lipstadt said. “Certain things are facts not to be debated. Slavery happened. The Earth is round. The ice caps are melting.”
And the ice caps are melting, of course, because human beings have warmed the Earth. We can and must debate what to do about that. Should we reduce our carbon footprint? How? And who should absorb the costs of doing so? But we can’t address these urgent questions unless we accept the premise of human-made climate change itself.
Ditto for the Holocaust, which also has raised hugely important questions. Why did it occur? Who should be held responsible? What can we do to prevent other genocides? Reasonable people will disagree in their answers. But we can’t have an honest discussion about them unless we acknowledge that the Holocaust happened.
And if we sow doubt about it, especially in our schools, we assault the idea of truth itself. That’s what teachers in Rialto, Calif., did in 2014, when they gave students pages from a Holocaust denial website as one of three allegedly “credible sources” on the subject. Students were then instructed to write an essay evaluating whether the Holocaust “was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme to influence public emotion and gain.”
Not surprisingly, given the sources they received, some students concluded that it never occurred. “They would have had to have killed 187 people an hour in order to kill 6 million people,” one student wrote. “Therefore, it is impossible.” Even more alarmingly, another student described the Holocaust as “a profitable hoax made by the Jews to obtain land, money and power.”
The school district eventually apologized for the assignment, which gave authority to a lie by questioning a fact. And that’s precisely what Scott Pruitt, by asking whether humans contributed to climate change, wants our teachers to do.
He’s not alone, of course. Just as tobacco companies tried to undermine the scientific consensus on cigarettes and lung cancer with specious “debates” about it, so have Mr. Pruitt’s allies in the energy industry sponsored nationwide campaigns to challenge accepted science on human-made climate change. And it’s working. According to a survey of science teachers published in February, nearly one-third “teach the controversy” by telling students that the question remains open.
That’s a lie, too, and we do our students a huge disservice when we pretend otherwise.
As Deborah Lipstadt reminds us, there are not two sides to every issue. The Holocaust really happened. The Earth is round. And the icecaps are melting.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the co-author, with Emily Robertson, of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”