North Carolina State University researchers have found that current editions of college textbooks provide less coverage of the climate crisis than previous editions did. The study found that biology textbooks describe the issue in fewer sentences and push the subject further back in the order of the books’ chapters than in previous decades, according to an article published by the Hechinger Report in December 2022.
The study, conducted by faculty and student researchers at North Carolina State, examined 57 college biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019. The amount of content devoted to climate change increased until the 2010s when it began to drop to an average of three pages per book. According to the study, “The number of research publications between 1970 and 2019 has grown exponentially, but the proportion of textbook coverage has decreased from one textbook sentence per 200 scientific publications to one textbook sentence per 1,100 scientific publications.”
One of the study’s authors, associate professor of biological sciences Rachel Landin, noted that textbooks ought to provide explanatory detail on topics such as the relationship between carbon and fossil fuels. But, despite the significance and nuance of climate change as a topic of scientific inquiry, biology textbooks’ coverage of climate change has diminished.
In the 1990s, fifteen percent of the books’ climate content focused on actionable solutions; recently that figure has shrunk to just three percent. The topic of climate change is increasingly left to textbooks’ final pages, which Landin described as “the most depressing” of the study’s findings. “If the instructors are going over the book in order,” Landin stated, there’s a good chance that the topic of climate change “gets dropped or glossed over.”
The coauthors considered some possible explanations for declining coverage of climate issues in biology textbooks. Textbooks adoptions for use in courses rely on the approval of education boards. If an education board deems that a text is controversial, they may choose another textbook in its place. Textbook publishers may seek to avoid controversy by having the politically contentious topic of climate change feature less prominently in their textbooks.
This story has received limited coverage by the corporate media. The Washington Post reprinted the Hechinger Report’s article on the same day it was published. Also in December 2022, Time published its own report on the NCSU study. However, the Time article left out significant details, including graphics and charts that provided clear visual representations of the original article’s findings. Furthermore, the Time article did not report as many of the study’s key findings and did not include as many comments from the researchers as the Hechinger Report’s original article.
Source: Caroline Preston, “Coverage of Climate Change In College Textbooks Is Headed In The Wrong Direction,” The Hechinger Report, December 21, 2022.
Student Researcher: Courtland Anderson (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)