High-school senior calls textbook publisher on climate denial

AP Photo/Mike Derer
Matthew LaClair holds his American Government textbook at his home in Kearny, N.J., Tuesday.

A New Jersey high-schooler has raised questions about politically motivated scientific inaccuracies about global warming in a popular U.S. government textbook, a charge that has been backed up by top climate scientists.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Matthew LaClair, a high school senior in Kearny, N.J., took issue with statements in his AP Government textbook, "American Government," published by Houghton Mifflin. The book, written by James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio, presents established scientific facts, such as the existence of the greenhouse effect, as up for debate. The authors falsely claim that “the scientific community is divided" over the existence of global warming, and that "scientists do not know how large the greenhouse effect is, whether it will lead to a harmful amount of global warming, or (if it will) what should be done about it."

Mr. Wilson is the Ronald Reagan Professor for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the chairman of the Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that has received $1,870,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998. Mr. DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the first head of the Bush White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is affiliated with the Manhattan Institute, which has received $205,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998.

Mr. LaClair brought these inaccuracies, along with his concerns about the book's statements about school prayer and same-sex marriage, to the attention of The Center for Inquiry, an Amherst, N.Y., think tank that sees to debunk fringe science claims. In a blistering report, the Center concluded that the textbook could actually make students dumber:

The presence of these errors and omissions seriously risks undermining the student reader’s understanding of basic facts and principles relevant to the study of American government. In the interests of serving the educational needs of American government students and sparing the authors and publishers needless embarrassment, the errors and omissions should be corrected immediately.

These concerns also came to the attention of James Hansen, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world's top climatologists. In a letter to Houghton Mifflin (PDF), he blasted the publisher's lax scientific standards.

I find it alarming that a widely-used textbook from a respected publisher would contain so many gross errors. I strongly urge that you update the textbook to reflect the broad consensus of the scientific community. Failure to correct the book's errors will leave students gravely misinformed about the facts and science of global warming, one of the most serious problems that we as a society and a species face.

A campaign by Friends of the Earth, a confederation of environmentalist groups, is also pressuring Houghton to correct the textbook. According to the Associated Press, Houghton will review the book, as will the College Board, which oversees AP textbooks.

This is not the first time LaClair has made headlines. In 2006, he secretly tape-recorded his public high-school teacher telling the class that those who did not accept Jesus would go to hell. (The class was on the US Constitution.) After handing the recordings to school officials, he received an anonymous death threat and an award from the ACLU.

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