Responding to Scientific Illiteracy


I am not a scientist. But, I am scientifically literate. There is a difference just like there is one between being a writer and knowing how to read. On many fronts, from political to educational, it is important for all of us to be literate in the sciences. I don't know of any statistics on who is more literate, the Left or the Right. However, judging by issues like Global Warming, Evolution and Big Bang my suspicion is that the Left may be more, as the idiom goes, "in the know." For those who aren't hopefully you will find this a useful primer, and for those who are you can go back to reading Ed Wilson or Neil DeGrasse Tyson (or Richard Feynman, Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, etc).

Science comes from the Latin word scientia which means “knowledge.” It is the culmination of knowledge about various natural phenomena. To know the function of atoms is to make a science out of it: atomic physics. To know how living organisms operate is to make a science out of it: biology.
 
To be scientifically literate is to know how the scientific method works. To be scientifically illiterate is not to know.
 
The scientific method is the technique for acquiring understanding of a phenomenon. Unlike ancient texts that tell us what to think, this method equips us with how to think. It advises us to observe something, hypothesize as to how and why it happens, test the hypothesis and put it up for independent verification under controlled conditions. To use the scientific method is to investigate something that is falsifiable – it can be disproven!
 
For example, if you wanted to know why planets orbit round a star you might hypothesize that it is some force we may call gravity. Then you might test it and present your hypothesis to others to verify it. What you will have produced is a theory: the Theory of Gravity.
 
Sometimes scientifically illiterate people don’t understand the context of the word “theory” in science and are dismissive of it: “It’s just a theory!”
 
The Big Bang is a theory. Gravity is a theory. Germ theory of disease is a theory. Evolution is a theory. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a theory. Being theories does not devalue them. In scientific terms it adds value. They are falsifiable. That they are standing the test of time only adds to their value.
 
Take String Theory, for example. This “theory” per the Wikipedia page “is a developing branch of quantum mechanics and general relativity with the aim of merging and reconciling the two areas of physics into a quantum theory of gravity.” Not to get distracted by the details but physicists like Lee Smolin have questioned whether it is really a theory at all since it hasn’t proven to be falsifiable. Check out Smolin’s easy-to-read book, The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, for details.
 
BIG BANG!

• Big Bang!
 
About a century ago some physicists noted that the Universe is expanding outwards. Everywhere we looked, objects were moving away from us, not towards us. This provoked a simple thought: if things are spreading a part then further back in time things must have been really close together. This led to the question: what caused stuff to spread out?
 
While we don’t know what existed before the hypothesized bang, or much of the conditions that existed during that split second once it went boom! we do know the gist of it: something went bang!, gave birth to the Universe as we know it and it has been expanding outwards ever since. In fact, we also know that it is expanding at an accelerated rate.
 
EVOLUTION
 
 
• Cyanide and Happiness cartoon
 
This theory existed before Charles Darwin ever stepped foot on the Beagle, but Mr. Darwin did provide more verification and hypothesized more deeply than his predecessors. In fact, much of the sciences that have developed since him largely come from his work like modern medicine.
 
Evolution is the change in genetic material over time. We know that if we replicate a molecule a thousand times a mutation will occur. We know that the average human undergoes 60 mutations during the encoding process of its DNA. These mutations, passed on and built up over time can and do result in new species. Two monkeys didn’t produce a modern human anymore than two single-celled organisms produced a monkey. Rather mutations built up over long periods of times which created biodiversity. We are related to monkeys. We are also related to snakes and spiders and beetles and blades of grass.
 
We can explore the DNA of species that have been around longer than us to see how we relate. This is why most animals consist of a head with two eyes, a nose with two nostrils, two ears, a torso with four limbs, etc. Scientists have looked at the DNA of fruit flies and have discovered that they share the same “master control” gene with mice for their eyes. Take this gene away and the fly or mouse will not be born with eyes. Take the mouse gene and put it in the fly and it will be born with regular fly eyes.
 
Take antibiotics for example. If you consume a certain antibiotic for too long of a period then resistant strains can evolve that can potentially harm your health. This is why there are concerns about the overuse of soaps that “Kills 99.9% of GERMS!”
 
Evolution, like Big Bang, is a theory but it is also a fact. A great book on evolution for non-scientists is Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is.
 
GLOBAL WARMING
 
 
• Global temperatures since 1880
 
This theory which is still claimed to be a hoax by many is simple. The planet is warming. Climate data shows that since the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the last half century, there has been an increase in global temperatures and its effects, while still becoming more and more understood, is and can become even more problematic.
 
The reason the Industrial Revolution, and the last half century, is of significance is because of the use of fossil fuels which releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas which means it traps heat into the atmosphere. And these gasses once released into the atmosphere can remain for a long time.
 
It’s not just burning fuel or coal that releases these gasses. Deforestation does it too. Plants absorb CO2. So when we cut down a tree the absorbed CO2 is released into the atmosphere. In the BBC documentary, Planet Earth, it was noted that over half of the world’s rainforests, wetlands and grasslands have been reduced by half.
 
CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas. Methane is too. Bovine flatulence releases it (we do too). So when sections of the rainforest are cut down in Brazil to raise livestock (which also consume a lot of grain and water that could be used to feed the hungry) you can get an idea of how this can be bad. To make matters worse, these cows are slaughtered and shipped to places like China for consumption. Of course, the fuel used for transportation puts carbon into the air.
 
There is a natural carbon cycle to the planet. The atmosphere, the biosphere, the oceans, the land, the planets interior all are a part of a natural cycle. Different eras of the planets history have seen different levels of CO2 and various temperatures.
 
 
• Carbon Cycle
 
For the last 23 million years, the Neogene and Quaternary periods, the concentration of CO2 has been between 250-280ppm. We have, since the Industrial Revolution, pumped enough greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere that it’s now about 390ppm. If the last 23 million years was put into a day then this 40% increase would have occured in a fraction of a second just before midnight. Current best estimates of what is needed to reverse this trend and keep things as normal as possible would require bringing it down to 350ppm, though that might even be too high. This means we need to reduce our carbon a lot. Some say we need to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.
 
What are the potential problems of Global Warming? You can start here on this Wikipedia page titled “Effects of global warming.” In general we expect to see and are seeing extreme weather conditions, increased water evaporation, changes in local climates (Australia is experiencing some severe droughts and Greenland is seeing its permafrost melt which consists of a lot of methane which, as previously noted, is a green house gas), various effects on our oceans, etc.
 
I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and last week we got about a foot of snow. This is unheard of in our part of the country. Local Global Warming deniers point to this snow as proof that Global Warming is not real. Two things should be noted: (1) Local seasonal weather is not indicative of global temperatures over an extended period of time; (2) Increased water evaporation due to the warming effect that flowed through our jet stream during winter brought precipitation and cold air which culminated in snow. So yes, our unusually cold winter and snowy lawns is more than likely due to Global Warming. The issue is not that winter is cold but that we got more precipitation than normal.
 
(RE)SOLVING CLIMATE CHANGE
 
The first thing needed to help solve climate change is to increase scientific literacy. Not everyone needs to be a scientist, but we do need to understand how and why the science works and what the results are. We need to understand what we are doing that is creating the climatic changes.
 
How does the transportation system in the US (and elsewhere) add to the problem? Do millions being stuck in traffic or cars speeding along roads and highways contribute? Are their alternative transportation systems?
 
Is the global food system a contributor too? Does it make sense for vegetables to travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to get to a dinner table when it can be grown locally? Are the costs of deforestation to farm livestock outweighing the benefits? What about the costs and benefits between monoculture and permaculture?
 
Some deniers of global warming point to the emails (i.e. Climategate) that were released last year as proof scientists are “tricking” the data. A close observer would take note that the emails really didn’t change the facts. In the example of the 1999 email where one scientist noted he “tricked” some data he was not referring to a nefarious plot but rather to include information about temperatures over the last 50 years which some previous methods of acquiring data don’t accurately reflect. A statement was released by the University of East Anglia on the email:
 
One particular, illegally obtained, email relates to the preparation of a figure for the WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 1999. This email referred to a “trick” of adding recent instrumental data to the end of temperature reconstructions that were based on proxy data. The requirement for the WMO Statement was for up-to-date evidence showing how temperatures may have changed over the last 1000 years. To produce temperature series that were completely up-to-date (i.e. through to 1999) it was necessary to combine the temperature reconstructions with the instrumental record, because the temperature reconstructions from proxy data ended many years earlier whereas the instrumental record is updated every month. The use of the word “trick” was not intended to imply any deception.

Phil Jones comments further: “One of the three temperature reconstructions was based entirely on a particular set of tree-ring data that shows a strong correlation with temperature from the 19th century through to the mid-20th century, but does not show a realistic trend of temperature after 1960. This is well known and is called the ‘decline’ or ‘divergence’. The use of the term ‘hiding the decline’ was in an email written in haste. CRU has not sought to hide the decline. Indeed, CRU has published a number of articles that both illustrate, and discuss the implications of, this recent tree-ring decline, including the article that is listed in the legend of the WMO Statement figure. It is because of this trend in these tree-ring data that we know does not represent temperature change that I only show this series up to 1960 in the WMO Statement.”

The ‘decline’ in this set of tree-ring data should not be taken to mean that there is any problem with the instrumental temperature data. As for the tree-ring decline, various manifestations of this phenomenon have been discussed by numerous authors, and its implications are clearly signposted in Chapter 6 of the IPCC AR4 report.

 
It is a lack of understanding the context of the emails and scientific illiteracy that has turned this into a controversy. Global Warming is real. Human activity is inescapably the main culprit behind climate change due to our use of fossil fuels, pollution and assault on entire ecosystems. A short term solution is to account for the costs of our activities by putting a price on carbon and pollution. This can be in the form of a tax or a cap and trade system where 100% of a finite amount of permits are auctioned off. Either way the revenue generated needs to be used to rebate those most vulnerable by the increased cost of living and to fund research and development in new technologies and social infrastructure.
 
And it’s not just Global Warming or Evolution, Big Bang, Gravity, etc. It’s science period. The function of science is to learn, a natural instinct for our species, but more importantly: how to learn and how to be open to new information that replaces the old.
 
There are social implications for this beyond the technical aspects of the sciences. Embracing the knowledge the Theory of Evolution provides us gives us life-saving medicines; understanding distant planets and stars shed light on our own planet. James Hansen, one of the most knowledegable people on the planet about Global Warming started out looking at Venus, a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect. Looking into our brains for an understanding is helping explain our own behavior. Take the Ellsberg paradox popularized by Daniel Ellsberg. Humans have a natural aversion for ambiguity. When taking risks we prefer to take the ones we understand over the ones we don’t. This has political and economic implications. Just look at our electoral system. By allowing private contributions to campaigns the electoral system has become marketized. In markets you vote with your dollars and those with the most dollars get the most votes. Of course private contributions doesn’t mean that some get to vote more than once but it does mean that private contributions play a major role in who can afford mass advertisement. That is to say, private contributions tip the scales in favor of certain candidates (see the Investment theory of party competition). Candidates unpopular to moneyed interests, like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich for example, will go unnoticed. Being inundated with ads for the candidates favored by the campaign donors means these other candidates are more ambiguous. We perceive them as a higher risk despite them being more favorable to our interests.
 
We cannot equip our minds with the tools needed unless we understand the tools we need – Intelligent Design will not aid us in advancements of biomedicine. We cannot strengthen our political systems without understanding how they work and how we work – the Ellsberg paradox + the Propaganda model + the Investment theory of party competition does not equal a functioning democracy. We cannot preserve our planet for future generations unless we understand how our activities affect our environment. We need to increase scientific literacy to achieve this understanding.

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