Vulnerability of school systems to political pressure and misinformation

Howdy all.

Some of you may have seen in last Sunday's Denver Post John Aguilar's article about the Denver Public School system's hasty decision to deny school kids the opportunity to visit the Wildlife Refuge  [Full text available at https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/05/01/rocky-flats-school-field-trips-ban/ without a Post subscription.] Today I dispatched a letter about what's really going on.  The text follows, together with a graphic already familiar to those on the mailing list.

In an era when facts are casually labeled “fake news” it is depressing how easily science can be ignored if it disagrees with ones political beliefs, even on the left under the guise of activism. I am fascinated to hear that the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Peace&Justice Center has raised the issue of school visits to a wildlife refuge, since it's a clear example of the vulnerability of our system to manipulation by small, vocal groups, rather than a “very clear statement on the public’s concern about this issue.”

  • Not enough is known about whether the Wildlife Refuge is safe
  • There is no consensus about whether it is safe
  • The models are unreliable
  • Better safe than sorry

How would you feel if a small group of climate change deniers or anti-vaccine activists managed to persuade your school system not to discuss the data or the science, or did an end run around a school board about vaccination policies? If they implied that information from the state and local government is not reliable and it should not be trusted? This is precisely what the P&J center is doing with a wonderful resource for the entire metro area. Because the anti-use agitators are losing in the courts, they have chosen an alternate route. They are gaming the system: exploiting the vulnerability of liability-averse public servants to political pressure. It telegraphs the message that the ordinary functioning of our legal system cannot be relied on and undermines confidence in both state and federal entities. The points above are routinely used by activist groups in Europe and the US to delay when no evidence can be found to support a position.

Carl Spreng is too kind: these tactics go beyond scare tactics to deliberate misinformation. Nor is anti-Refuge use sentiment representative of our population. Of the signers of LeRoy Moore's ill-advised anti-use MoveOn.org petition launched in December 2016, 29% are from outside Colorado, 29% are from Boulder. Less than 20% of signers are even from municipalities bordering on the Refuge. As of mid-March 2018 no action could be taken on the petition because not enough people even signed it. LeRoysPetition

It's certainly true that no school kid will be injured by NOT visiting the Refuge, but it's also true that this decision is not based on science. Rather than a principled decision based at least on educating themselves, several local school systems—after visits from earnest and misinformed P&J people—took the easier, low-noise route. I would urge school boards and school administrations to request science faculty at junior high and high schools in each district to examine the issues for themselves and make recommendations to their school districts. A large, mostly nontechnical resource may be found at rockyflatsneighbors.org

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