Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An Inconvenient 'Moratorium'

The Federal Way School District - located about 20 miles south of Seattle - has put the viewing of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth on moratorium until the superintendent has an opportunity to review the district's regulations on biased materials in the class, per Seattle Times reporting.

I don't take issue with the policy per se, but rather, the assumption that Al Gore's film might be biased. First, I don't think that bias is that big a deal. It's impossible to avoid bias in one's writing, research, reporting, or rhetoric - everyone has normative values and assumptions that inform one's interpretation of data and events. What's important, however, is the identification of one's potential biases, and whether or not one's research methodologies take such potential biases into account. The scientific method has been developed in such a way as to mitigate one's bias as a potential variable which might effect the interpretation of possible outcomes. A district policy which attempts to preempt the politicization of youth by teachers by way of their instructional materials is certainly appropriate, as the goal of educational institutions is not to necessarily convince students of a point of view, but rather, to give them the skills to come to their own reasonable conclusions given evidence and theory.

The rub: One of the pertinent district policies

"states that, 'when it is necessary to use historical or literary works, periodicals, and technical journals which show bias, staff members have a responsibility to point out the biases, and present additional information and perspectives to balance those biases.' "

For those of you who have seen An Inconvenient Truth, it is pretty obvious that Al Gore isn't using a lot (if any) normative judgements. He cites firm scientific consensus, and builds his argument around firm statistics and data well within the constraints of the scientific method. Science, by definition, cannot be biased. Global warming isn't a liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, issue - it's a scientific issue. Data cannot be considered biased, it simply is what it is. Al Gore has a hypothesis - that human activity contributes to global warming, and that unless something is done about it soon, the effects might very well be unadaptable. He explores this hypothesis soundly, and uses theoretical frameworks which have been well accepted by the scientific community via study replication by numerous scholars and scholarly institutions. This documentary does not fall under the cited district policy. Assuming it does, then the district had better reconsider showing March of the Penguins or any number of Carl Sagan's Cal Tech astrophysics documentaries.

Given the negative reaction the district has received from the community at large, I'm sure that this controversy will end with the vindication of Gore's film. It's just unfortunate that the Federal Way School Board caved in so quickly to the demands of a vocal, and misinformed, minority.