I caught notice of ExxonMobil’s “Let’s Solve This” TV ad campaign a few months ago. Its message is to “invest in teachers and inspire our students.” Indeed, ExxonMobil has been a supporter of science education for many years. After all, they need to stay competitive and find the best engineers, chemists and geologists.
The ads are terrific… and terrifying. In each iteration of the ad we’re told that, in a recent world ranking, the students in the United States scored 17th in science and 25th in math. It’s shameful.
But remember, we didn’t get nudged off the pinnacle; we can’t blame the countries that have overtaken us. This is a self-inflicted wound. We slid toward the bottom of the heap with creeping anti-intellectualism and cuts to education.
My admiration for ExxonMobil’s effort was spoiled, however, after reading an AP report on a speech delivered by the oil company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, to the Council on Foreign Relations. Though Mr. Tillerson broke with some industry colleagues and recognized that burning fossil fuels is warming our planet, he said, “we’ll adapt. It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”
He downplayed risks to the environment and agriculture, the threat of rising sea levels and the potential for contamination from drilling (by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) in oil shale formations. Quoting the AP report, he blamed “a public that is "illiterate" in science and math, a "lazy" press, and advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" for energy misconceptions.”
So, what is the oil industry’s biggest challenge? It’s not finding new sources of oil. It’s not a threat from wind or solar energy. Mr. Tillerson said it’s "taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks."
There you go; there’s the essence of the ExxonMobil CSR (corporate social responsibility) campaign. The Company’s logic is that a more scientifically literate public won’t believe climate scientists or environmental advocacy groups. They’ll question and challenge their data and they’ll come to accept the information provided by ExxonMobil.
It’s neither a surprise nor wrong that a corporation should seek some sort of gain from its CSR investment. I’ve been involved in plenty of socially responsible programming that reaped corporate benefits and am proud of the work. But the campaign in question raises cynicism to a new level.
One of the beneficiaries of ExxonMobil’s outreach is The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). They state that, “American students are falling behind in the essential subjects of math and science, putting our position in the global economy at risk. The mission of the National Math and Science Initiative is to help provide the ideas, inspiration, and resources to close the gap.”
We all recognize that our science and math rankings are competitiveness issues. But it goes beyond this – it’s also about our democracy. Jon D. Miller, director, Center for Biomedical Communications, Northwestern University Medical School told The New York Times in 2005 that “People’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” With the politicization of so many topics – stem cells, gene therapy, vaccines, evolution, climate change – a better educated public is essential.
I hope that ExxonMobil continues to fund science literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education programs, even though I’ve now alerted them that their ultimate goal is wishful thinking. It's a classic example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. And, I hope the public doesn't view all CSR programs as nefarious plots. There’s too much good being done to have CSR get redefined as Cynical Social Responsibility.
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