Science a la Joe Camel
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.