Archive for Thursday, February 5, 2004

Alternatives to science?

February 5, 2004


At the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service is selling a book that says the Earth and the Grand Canyon all happened in six days during creation week, 6,000 years ago. In the book, "Grand Canyon: A Different View," Scripture scrubs science clean of 500 years of geology, paleontology, biology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy -- essentially most modern knowledge of the universe, Earth and life on Earth. The Park Service says it wants to be fair to an "alternative view."

OK. Perhaps in the interest of fairness, NASA's bookstore should carry the two-volume alternative, "Flat Earth: A Different View Of Our Planet" and "Earth At The Center: A Different View Of Our Solar System." Fact is, there is no alternative view, not if science matters. It took 4 million to 6 million years for the Colorado River to carve out the Grand Canyon, a grand piece of geologic history that is too uncomfortable for the biblical literalists behind the book. Even grander are the rock layers in the Grand Canyon that date back 1.8 billion years.

Science can't matter much when Kathy Cox, the superintendent of Georgia's schools, just proposed banning the word "evolution" from Georgia's middle and high school science standards and replacing it with the term "biological changes over time." This Orwellian double-speak is a cave-in to some parents who object to teaching evolution, which Cox labeled a "buzzword."

OK. Perhaps we should change "gravity," another buzzword and scientific theory, to "objects falling over time," because some parents believe that the Earth is flat and at the center of the solar system rather than round and orbiting the sun?

Cox should know that "biological changes over time" can be attributed to many different causes, including supernatural ones. It is not the same as "evolution," which involves specific, proven natural processes and patterns of genetic variation, natural selection, and the origin of millions of species from common ancestors during the 3 billion year history of life on Earth.

Even President Jimmy Carter criticized the change. "As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox's attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia's students."

The upshot is that science can't matter much when it is gladly dismissed to gain false comfort. The knowledge that science unearths isn't up for referendum or a feel-good test: thumbs up if we like it; thumbs down and banned from students' books and brains if it makes someone feel uncomfortable. Environmental science suffers from the same feel-good test. The state of the environment is off the table for the 2004 election because "no one is listening," crows Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., conservative think tank.

Actually, people are listening, but they choose to believe the facts that match their comfort zone. If the environmental news is good (e.g., cleaner air since the early 1980s), then the science behind the Clean Air Act is hailed as A-1 by politicians and pundits. But if the environmental news is bad, then the science or the news is branded: (a) not 100 percent proven; (b) not really that nasty; (c) too far off to worry about now; (d) possibly true but too costly to the economy to fix; or (e) politically motivated by radical, fringe, enviro-freaks.

Well, too much of the environmental news is bad and going to worse. Global warming and greenhouse gases are established facts, not weirdo conspiracies. The downstream health effects of polluted air, rivers, and soils are well documented, enough to make a slew of eastern states sue over the smog and acid rain belched at them by midwestern coal-fired plants. A devastated Atlantic fishing economy is tragic evidence of the tragedy of the commons: severely over-fished oceans and short-sighted, short-term use of the world's shared environmental resources.

Ditto timber harvesting in many forests. Repeated surveys conducted on the ground, from aircraft and from satellites don't lie: Ecosystems are shrinking worldwide; plant and animal species are becoming extinct at a frightening rate.

Can we fix the environment for the long-term? Sure. Can we plan smart growth and smart use of environmental resources for food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals? Absolutely, but not without listening to the science. And not without political courage, economic honesty and the long view.

Merely not liking the environmental news won't change it or make it go away. Neither will trashing the science behind the news. When science speaks about the health of our bodies, we listen. When science speaks about the health of our environment we should sit up and listen hard. It is taking the pulse of the future, nothing less than the life, liberty and health of our children, our children's children and future generations: the air they will breathe, the water they will drink, the ground they will live on, the food they will grow, the natural resources they will use, and the earth they will inherit.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center at Kansas University.

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