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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

AN INCONVENIENT CONTROVERSY

Air Date: Week of December 8, 2006

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(Courtesy of Climatecrisis.net)

The National Science Teachers Association, made up of 53,000 educators, declined an offer of 50,000 free DVD copies of Al Gore’s film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth." NSTA Director Dr. Gerry Wheeler says the organization doesn't distribute third party materials, but environmentalist Laurie David, who produced the film, sees something more sinister at play. Host Bruce Gellerman hears from both sides of the science education debate.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

[MUSIC FROM MOVIE]

GELLERMAN: The film, “An Inconvenient Truth” is the third largest grossing documentary of all time right behind “Fahrenheit 911” and “March of the Penguins.”
The movie, featuring former Vice President Al Gore, warns that we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb that scientists believe we have just 10 years to prevent global warming and planetary disaster.

GORE: It’s our only home, and that is what’s stake: our ability to live on planet earth, to have a future as a civilization.

  


(Courtesy of Climatecrisis.net)

GELLERMAN: “An Inconvenient Truth” is now out on DVD and for the National Science Teachers Association it’s become an inconvenient controversy. The NSTA is the world’s largest professional organization dedicated to promoting excellence in science teaching and learning.

Recently, Laurie David, executive producer of the film, offered free copies of “An Inconvenient Truth” to the science teachers association but it refused her offer. Laurie David wrote a scalding Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post criticizing the group and she joins me on the line. Hi, Ms. David.

DAVID: Hi how are you?

GELLERMAN: I’m fine, thank you very much. You know you offered 50,000 free copies of the DVD “An Inconvenient Truth” to the National Science Teachers Association. What were you hoping to accomplish?

DAVID: Well, what I was hoping to accomplish is to get this movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, which is you know the definitive story about how the globe is warming and that humans are causing it into schools so school kids can see the truth about what’s happening with this issue.

Laurie David, executive producer of “An Inconvenient Truth” (Courtesy of LaurieDavid.com)

  

GELLERMAN: And they said well, thanks but no thanks.

DAVID: Well, I was quite shocked actually. You know we had a series of e-mail exchanges with NSTA and they seemed very interested at first and we went back and forth and the next thing we know they said no thank you. And I have to tell you I have been deluged with e-mails from teachers all over the country, every single state in the country saying this is outrageous. I mean they are running 99 to 1 outraged at the fact that the NSTA did not accept these free DVDs.

GELLERMAN: And you wrote about this in the Op-Ed column in the Washington Post.

DAVID: Right it ran in the Washington Post and I just could not believe the response from teachers. And by the way from other associations who are e-mailing us saying, well we’ll help you distribute this and people really are not understanding why wouldn’t NSTA accept this? And I said in the op-ed, I think, there’s one reason and it has to do with the oil industry, that they accept money from Exxon-Mobile. Exxon-Mobile has spent millions of dollars over the last decade trying to confuse the public on global warming. And now they’re infiltrating our schools. I mean really, this less about a DVD and more about the fact that school science seems to be up for sale here.

GELLERMAN: Well, I spoke with Dr. Jared Wheeler who is the executive director of the National Science Foundation. He says he just saw the film just a few days ago.

DAVID: That says something doesn’t it? I mean this guy is the head of the NSTA and he just saw the film a couple days ago. It’s been out for months. I don’t understand that right there.

GELLERMAN: Well, let’s listen to my conversation with Dr. Wheeler about the film and the controversy.

WHEELER: I thought it’s a compelling story. I’ve seen Vice President Gore give this talk a number of times fifteen years ago and he tells a compelling story.

GELLERMAN: Why did you turn it down when they were giving you an offer of 50,000 free copies of it?

WHEELER: The reason we turned it down is because of our endorsement policy or our non-endorsement policy. The National Science Teachers Association does not endorse any materials produced by any group outside of NSTA.

  


Dr. Gerald Wheeler is the executive director of the National Science Teacher’s Association.(Courtesy of NSTA)

GELLERMAN: But you have done that in the past. I mean Conoco-Phillips produced a video called “A Search for Solutions”, a giant oil company, you distributed 20,000 of the videos.

WHEELER: Ah, no actually we didn’t. We didn’t mass distribute those. And the difference between that, Bruce is that it wasn’t a Conoco-Phillips production it was a National Teachers Association Production. Conoco-Phillips came to me in 2001 and said they’d like to have us reproduce or recreate their classic Search for Solutions.

I’ve identified the research scientists, the science educators, convened an advisory group. I chaired it. The advisory group chose the content, chose the sites to visit, passed on all the rough cuts and passed on the final production. So it’s an NSTA project. Phillips, it was just Phillips at the time, but Conoco-Phillips now, Phillips paid for the production, but it was entirely an NSTA production.

GELLERMAN: Well, I’m looking at an episode right now and it raises quite a lot of uncertainties. One of the lines in this is really eye opening. It says quote, “Some scientists believe that the high level of present day CO2 will soon be, if not already, on the decrease” end quote. It suggests that there’s an entirely different body of science there that says we don’t have any problems. It’s going to get better.

WHEELER: And it was correct in 2001 that some scientists did say that. It is not a biased production. It is trying to get children to look for evidence and to have discussions, honest discussions in their classrooms with their science teachers and sort of, if you will, unpack the nature of science.

GELLERMAN: Is it still available?

WHEELER: Yes it is.

GELLERMAN: But I could get a copy of this if I wanted to. Because when I went to your site I can’t get a copy. But when I go to a site that’s linked to Conoco-Phillips I can.

WHEELER: Right they actually own the DVD and they are the ones that distribute it, not us.

GELLERMAN: You currently receive funding from the Exxon-Mobile corporation which has a

WHEELER: That is correct.

GELLERMAN: They have a person that sits on your corporate advisory board.

WHEELER: No, it’s our corporate advisory group. It’s a group that just advises me on the logistics of running operations. I’m a physicist and our organization is composed completely of science teachers. So I joined NSTA, when I joined NSTA I thought we need to get a lot smarter about how we run our business, how to run our IT group, how to run our e-commerce as the internet group.

So, I asked about eight industrial leaders to sit with me twice a year on my senior staff to talk about issues, business issues. And half, not half, well almost half of them are projects that we’re currently running and half are not. Some haven’t given us any money at all. And some have given us some money for a breakfast at a conference. And some have been major partners like Exxon-Mobile in that network that we have.

GELLERMAN: Well, one of your critics says that you have corporate propaganda masquerading as environmental education. That’s a serious charge.

WHEELER: Sure. It is a serious charge and we take it very seriously. But I think where that’s coming from, Bruce; but I can’t get into the mind of this person. But I think where that’s coming from is at our conferences a variety of organizations, and corporations rent space, rent exhibit space. We say yes to that because we want science teachers to have the opportunity to go up to these people and talk to them and decide for themselves what works for their classroom, their students, their community and their state science standards. I don’t judge that message. I’m only careful that in fact NSTA is not seen as giving that message. We are providing the information. It is the science teacher who is the professional who has to decide if it works for him or her.

GELLERMAN: So if Laurie David wanted to sell her video at your conference, that would be ok?

WHEELER: You bet. In fact my letter back to her said global warming is so important NSTA will do this, this, and this, and I’ll be glad to outline those for you.

GELLERMAN: What would you do for her?

WHEELER: Well, we suggested a number of things that she rejected. We said that we would put the availability of that site on the front page of our website. We get about 200, excuse me, 2 million paid views a month. And we would allow teachers, we would facilitate teachers clicking through to their site to pick up the video. She wasn’t interested in that. We said that we would sell her a membership list, it’s a special membership list, of people who have already told us that it’s ok to send things to them it’s not all of our members, that we would sell her that at a very low price. And we would, and we did, invite Vice President Gore to our upcoming annual convention in St. Louis at the end of March.

GELLERMAN: What happens now?

WHEELER: Ah, I don’t know Bruce. I’m not sure what else to do. I offered to Ms. David a variety of ways to get this very important subject over. I just would not violate NSTA’s policy about endorsement. We had nothing to do with that video. I didn’t see it before I made my decision. It had nothing to do with my decision. We just do not endorse outside productions.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Wheeler, I want to thank you very much for your time.

WHEELER: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

GELLERMAN: Ms. David, you’re the executive producer of the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, why not take Dr. Wheeler of the NSTA up on one of his offers?

DAVID: Well, first of all I need to respond just generally from all his comments. As a parent I’m totally outraged, as a parent that has kids in schools. And as a citizen I’m outraged by what he said. And by the way I never rejected anything. He never offered me anything. He had a phone conversation with me 24 hours after the op-ed ran in which he said, “Lori, I want to make this right. I didn’t give this the full attention I should have when it came across my desk. And we’re going to have a conference call in two days after I talk to my board and we’re going to figure out how to handle this.” And I never heard from him again. Ok? So there was no opportunity for me to reject anything.

And we talked about a long list of things that they could possibly do. And one of the suggestions, by the way, was to have the NSTA send out the DVD without an endorsement. How about distribute it with a note saying, “Consider this for your classrooms. We’re not endorsing this. It has been given to us and we want to make it available to you. You decide.” And he seemed to think that was a great idea but I never heard back from him. So, nothing was ever rejected.

And by the way why is Exxon-Mobile advising the head of the National Science Teachers Association? I find that outrageous. They have spent millions of dollars misinforming the public on global warming, causing doubt and confusion. This has been well documented by newspapers and magazines. And here we have the head of NSTA taking advice from them. And by the way another question: why are mailing lists of teachers up for sale? Why are those up for sale? So if I can buy them then any chemical company can buy them, any coal company can buy them. I find that totally outrageous also.

GELLERMAN: Well, would you buy his mailing list? He’s offering it.

DAVID: You know, here’s the thing, I do not want to send a DVD out as junk mail because that’s what mailing list sales end up being. And how much junk mail on mailing lists do you get that ends up right from your mail box into your garbage can? And these DVDs cost money. I mean we’re providing them, we want to provide them to the teachers for free but I have to find funders to pay for that. So I don’t want this thing going out on a general mailing list where it’s going to end up in a garbage can.

GELLERMAN: What do you want to happen now, or what are you going to do now?

DAVID: Well, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to raise money independently and we’re going to make those 50,000 DVDs available to the first 50,000 accredited teachers that want them. We’ve received hundreds of e-mails so anyone who’s already e-mailed us and said they’d like the DVD for their classroom, we will be providing it to them. And I’m hoping by the first of the year we’re going to be able to make an announcement that we’re going to do this and how we’re going to do it.

GELLERMAN: Ms. David, thank you very much.

DAVID: Thanks so much for having me on.

GELLERMAN: Laurie David is the executive producer of the documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth”.

 

Links

“An Inconvenient Truth” DVD website

National Science Teachers' Association

Laurie David's op-ed from The Washington Post: “Science a la Joe Camel”

Laurie David’s website

ConocoPhilips’ “Teaching Tools” website. The lesson plan "Searching for Solutions" was developed by NSTA.

American Petroleum Institute's “Classroom Energy’ website. The website highlights classroom resources developed by NSTA.

 

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