When Do Our Children Need to See Both Sides?

Today over at The Conscious Earth, there’s a post about Heather Stillwell, hyper-conservative rabble rouser:

As Conscious Earth visitors read last month, free copies of An Inconvenient Truth were made available to every high school in British Columbia thanks to the charitable contribution of the Tides Canada Foundation. Now, Surrey school trustee Heather Stilwell wants the widely discredited mockumentary The Great Global Warming Swindle to be shown alongside Al Gore’s global warming documentary.

If you read on in that post (or this one or this one), you’ll see that Ms. Stillwell fancies the contrarian limelight (would that be the lemon light?). And why do all the conservative nutters seem to live in Surrey? Hmm…in truth, I guess there are a few in my childhood home of West Vancouver, too.

I should clarify my ambiguity in that last paragraph. All conservatives are not nutters, nor are all Surreyites (Surreyans? Surreydanavians?). However, it seems like all the Lower Mainland nutters who are conservative come from Surrey. Onward.

In circumstances like this, the Heather Stillwells of the world appeal to our rationalism by calling for ‘both sides of the story’ to be told in schools. That theory has always appealed to me, but obviously isn’t practical on every single issue we teach. Is smoking really bad for you? Was Shakespare actually a nobleman? Do muons really exist? High school would stretch into our early thirties.

Really, it’s a question of scientific consensus. I think that if there’s an academic consensus on a subject (say, gravity), then we should just teach it. Teachers ought to be open to debate on the subject, but they law shouldn’t require them to cover the Holocaust and moon landing deniers for every fact.

Like evolution (but unlike, say, the creation of the universe), I believe there’s a scientific consensus on climate change. The dissenting minority is loud but shrinking. So, I think it’s germaine germane that we show students “An Inconvenient Truth” or a similar film, and not feel obligated to dedicate another ninety minutes to the opposing viewpoint. They should probably discuss the political and public relations debate being carried out in the offline and online media around the world, but in this case they don’t need to give opposing viewpoints equal weight.

Schools must foster debate, but they have to pick their spots. I remember in Geography 12, Ryan Jaye, Albert Kaan and I made a kick-ass video about nuclear power. I believe we came out in favour of it, and got an A. I don’t recall if there was much debate or not.

What was (or is) up for debate at your school?


  1. Part of the Christian Right has a very hard time with the global warming issue. They tend to downplay it and say it doesn’t exist. I think this is the same group that is out to ban Brown Dad, Blue Dad…also from Surrey.

  2. there’s nothing wrong with mentioning opposing views but, as you say, when there is a consensus, it makes sense to spend the majority of the time on the consensus. (of course we could go off now and read a bit of habermas about negotiating and manufacturing consensus … 🙂

    also, many people who cry for balance are looking for anything but balance – they’re just teed off that their side didn’t get as much airtime as they wanted – as i believe is the case in this situation.

  3. I guess it comes down to how much confidence we have in our teachers to teach critical thinking. Personally, I would love to teach these two movies back-to-back, to discuss the backgrounds of each movie, and review how the scientific community has responded. I think it would be a wonderful opportunity to discuss how propaganda works.

    But I don’t disagree with your comparison to evolution, and don’t see the need to teach dangerous nutbar nonsense in an attempt to please everyone — where does it end?

  4. There isn’t an other side to the global warming question anymore, to the same extent that there isn’t an other side on the ‘world goes around the sun’ question.

    More soberly, I think if views on the veracity of a subject break down along political lines, the debate has no place in a classroom under high school.

  5. Firstly, I completely agree with you.
    Secondly, what amazes me is that the Christian right seems to develop a tendency to back stupid causes just for the fun of it. Which, in turn, throws a bad light on the rest of the Christian communities, unfortunately.
    Thirdly, one of the goals of education should be to help pupils to develop a feeling for when it is sensible to look at “both sides” of a topic, and when it is obvious that an unreasonable pressure group really means “forget about everything you’ve heard before: WE are right” when they say “look at both sides”.

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