A paucity of inconvenient proof

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Sandra Porter

Laurie David claims that National Science Teachers' Association (the NSTA) is inconveniently hooked up with big oil because they won't spend the money to send out 50,000 copies of the "An Inconvenient Truth" DVD.

If I do the math and estimate that it costs $4 to mail each DVD, that includes packaging, mailing, the costs of hiring a distribution center, I get $4 x 50,000 = $200,000. I think that's an expensive gift.

Is there really a smoking gun?

For the record, I saw the movie and personally, I would like a large number of teachers and students to see it, too. But, I'm bothered by Ms. David's tactics and I can't help feeling that her group is working a little too hard to make a case against the NSTA and make something out of nothing.

They were even so kind as to e-mail me today and point out a few things on Ms. David's new blog post.

What are these horrible crimes that they say have been committed by the NSTA?

1. The NSTA has been updating their website and some of the information that used to be there is gone.

Okay, that could make muckraking a bit harder. I'm not sure that updating your website is necessarily evidence of wrongdoing, but I can see how it might be frustrating if you want to quote information and it's disappeared.

2. The NSTA sells their mailing list!

This is news? Umm, that's why they give members the option to opt out.

From Ms. David's viewpoint:

More troubling is that their suggestions were nothing more than another set of 'For Sale' signs: Offers to sell their "commercially available member mailing list"; to sell us ads in their magazine and online newsletters; to sell us a booth at one of their conventions (hopefully not next to ExxonMobil). And as it turns out, all of these things are already for sale on the NSTA website to anyone who shows up with the cash.

By the way, why are science teachers' names for sale at all?

Oh! Oh! I can answer that question.

First, all kinds of non-profit and for-profit organizations routinely sell their mailing lists. We get mail from magazines, meeting organizers, and industry groups trying to sell these lists to us all time. For a non-profit organization, with members who are chronically are underpaid, selling mailing lists is a way of raising operating funds.

Second, publishers buy the mailing lists so they send science teachers information about new books, videos, magazines, etc. It's an odd thought, but how would teachers know about new science education materials if there weren't publishers sending them information?

3. 20,000 copies of a science education video, produced with funding from ConocoPhillips, were sent to teachers in 2003.

From Ms. David:

Now NSTA is arguing that distributing An Inconvenient Truth to teachers would violate their 2001 policy against endorsements. But that policy didn't stop them from shipping out 20,000 copies of a whopping 10-part video funded by ConocoPhillips in 2003.

This is interesting and would appear to contradict the NSTA's stated policy of not distributing materials for third party vendors.

Until you look at the NSTA web page that's referenced in Ms. David's blog.

From the NSTA page we get:

ConocoPhillips Brings Science to Life Apr 22 2003

Houston, Texas, April 22, 2003 - ConocoPhillips [NYSE:COP] is continuing a long tradition of promoting excellence in science learning through the newest release of its Search for Solutions video series.

Produced in conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the 10-part series explores the nature and process of science - creativity, modeling, application, theory and argument - and how these processes play out in science and technology. Designed to capture the attention and imagination of junior high and high school students, the video series is accompanied by online teaching guides that help reinforce concepts through discussion, hands-on exercises and experiments. To impart a global view of the practice and application of science, the series features distinguished scientists and research centers in the United States, Australia and Chile.

The Search for Solutions video series was distributed recently to more than 20,000 science teachers in the United States free of charge.

Notice, despite Ms. David's words to the contrary, the NSTA page doesn't say who paid to distribute the video series. She states that it was the NSTA.

Where's the proof?

I come from a world where saying something is true doesn't make it so. To me, the phrase "was distributed" doesn't say the same thing as "we distributed."

My suspicion is that the NSTA gave ConocoPhillips the same offer that it gave to Ms. David, that they (as in ConocoPhillips) could pay to distribute the materials. But, I admit, I don't have any more proof than Ms. David. And, I'm not comfortable making accusations without proof.

Ms. David also says:

We're working on better ways to get those 50,000 DVDs into the hands of teachers who want them.

This sounds nice, but I wrote to her contact address on her blog when I first saw the story and offered to publicize an address where teachers could get the DVD. Instead of mailing address, I received an e-mail telling me where I could buy the DVD and that I could get it to teachers by buying them copies.

Without seeing Ms. David offer to pay for the distribution costs (which I estimate to be upwards of $200,000 - that's $4 per DVD for shipping containers, postage, and mailing services, $4 x 50,000 = $200,000), or at least some more tangible evidence of wrongdoing, I have a hard time believing that her offer to the NSTA was anything more than a publicity stunt.

Related posts:
1. A generous offer from the NSTA. The NSTA made an offer. Ms. David turned it down.
here and here.
2. Jumping to conclusions about the NSTA. Anyone can donate money to teachers. Does that automatically mean that strings are attached?

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