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Opinion

Opinion

Let U.S. students tackle all the tough issues

September 3, 2011

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During Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s  recent campaign swing through New Hampshire, he said that American high school students should be left to decide what is science and what isn’t.  Hear, hear!  It’s about time America’s students were trusted to separate the scientific wheat from the chaff — before we clutter their minds with facts and figures.  As a matter of fact, let’s trust them to tackle the critical, controversial science issues that impact the day-to-day lives and pocketbooks of every American.  Here are five:

1. Energy extraction.  The U.S. has massive reserves of natural gas. To get at them, drillers use fracking, pumping huge volumes of water and chemicals at terrifically high pressures to blast the underground rocks and liberate the gas. Trouble is, fracking is suspected of dangerous collateral impacts: poisoning the ground water that people use for drinking and lubricating geological faults and earthquakes.  Should we be trading fracked natural gas for fouled drinking water and potential earthquakes? Let the students decide. They’ve not yet had sufficient geology and hydrology to prejudice their opinions.

2. Nuclear power. Many Americans and policy makers recommend a wholesale return to nuclear reactors to solve the nation’s energy needs cheaply and more kindly to the environment. Except for the waste. What do we do with the spent fuel rods that are not reprocessed?

The country has debated burial inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada since 1978, without resolution. Let America’s students decide. They are blessedly untutored in the half-life of uranium or the long-term containment security of steel, concrete and deep earth rocks.

3. Economic models. Economists live by them. The models direct government economic policies, how businesses are managed, and fluctuations in the stock, bond and commodity markets. At the end of the day, economic models control the food table, health care, house payments, bank accounts and virtually every other facet of American life.

Some economic models are qualitative, based on theory, and favored by Milton Friedman, President Reagan’s Nobel-prize winning economic adviser. Other models are quantitative, based on reams of statistical correlations, which prompted one critic to say, “if you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”

At first, Friedman touted the government intervention theories of economist John Maynard Keynes. Later, he flip-flopped, converting to free-market economics. Qualitative or quantitative, regulated or market-driven, it’s clear from the current global financial mess that the value of economic models is highly inflated.

The solution? Dump the models. Let the students chart the economic way forward. They don’t know enough yet about Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx or Keynes to let theory or data get in the way of smart economics.

4. Fresh water. Water is basic to life — if it hasn’t been fouled by fracking or pollutants.  Agriculture uses 70 percent — 90 percent of our water supplies, mostly from rivers, streams and underground aquifers. The world’s “breadbasket rivers” –– the Indus and Yellow rivers in Asia, the Colorado here at home, and others — are running dry.

Our own Ogallala Aquifer waters about a third of the U.S. It provides 30 percent of the groundwater for the nation’s irrigation, and 82 percent of the drinking water for the people who live above it on the Great Plains. But its water levels keep dropping, most seriously in the Texas Panhandle and southwest Kansas.

Biofuel corn grown on the Ogallala will make the drop precipitous. Here’s the math: It takes 8,310 gallons of water to grow enough corn — about half a bushel — to make one gallon of ethanol. Add another 30-50 gallons of water to convert the corn to ethanol. Is ethanol from corn denting oil use? Nope. Ethanol provides a measly 1 percent of the 140 billion gallons of fuel Americans use annually.  The U.S. goal is 3 percent, or 5 billion gallons of ethanol annually from corn, which will consume a whopping 40 trillion gallons of water each year.

What’s the solution?  Let the students decide between filling the food bins, filling the ethanol gas tanks, or filling the water faucets of the good people of Texas and the rest of the Great Plains. “Blazing Saddles” taught them the pithy western wisdom “We don’t need no stinkin’” science.

5. Earthquakes.  Washington, DC, where Gov. Perry hopes to reside as president, was rattled on August 23 by a 5.8 earthquake that cracked the Washington Monument and rocked the original 13 colonies from South Carolina to Massachusetts.  Separate tremors struck upstate New York, Colorado and Alaska.  Geologists say the earthquakes are not related, occurring over different fault zones in the earth.  The Los Angeles Times assured us that the earthquakes were “not part of some grander doomsday equation.”

Whoa!  Hold the presses!  Pat Robertson, an authority on scriptural science, blamed Haiti’s devastating earthquake on Jan 13, 2010 on Haitians swearing “a pact with the devil” to rid themselves of French rule.  Did the 13 colonies swear a pact with the devil to rid themselves of British rule?  Is that what caused the earthquake 235 years later?

Let the students have at it — oh, while rocking to Sam Cooke’s golden oldie: “Don’t know much about history; don’t know much biology; don’t know much about a science book …”

Leonard Krishtalka is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Biodiversity Institute at Kansas University.

Comments

Bushloather1 2 years, 7 months ago

"knowledge is always in flux"? Oh snap, idealogically "fixed" tea partiers, the deniers of mainstream science, religious zealots. Idiocracy, here we come!

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devobrun 2 years, 7 months ago

Huh? I have an opinion on reality. I also have one on science and what constitutes science. I also have an opinion on what is neither real nor science. Apples and oranges have no theory. My opinion is that I like apples more than I like oranges, except in the morning, when I like oranges better. No grand narrative. No importance to you or anyone else.

Why do you ask? Quick bozo, which is more real to you, airplanes, or dinosaurs? Which is more important to you and everybody else?

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devobrun 2 years, 7 months ago

Results that are not defined as swaying people's opinions, attitudes, and beliefs without any concrete, material manifistation. Virtual reality is not reality. Mythology, religion, stories are not of science. Theories that are tested in both quantity and quality become accepted because they work.

You know....airplanes. Not dinosaurs.

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devobrun 2 years, 7 months ago

Proper translation: "I accept all science that produces results".

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devobrun 2 years, 7 months ago

krishtalka, in one article you have managed to address: public school curiculum, presidential politics, definition of science debates, economics deficiencies, engineering, hydrology debates, nuclear power debates, alternative fuels, earthquakes, Pat Robertson, Haitians, and Sam Cooke. All before breakfast. Decaf, Dr. K, decaf.


Gathering evidence, hypoothesizing, then presenting the explanations to peers is not sufficient for science. Science requires such work, but it also requires experiments. The quality of the science is defined by the results of tests for refutation, not committees and organizations, and peer groups. Those all suffer from the influence of politics.

For example: All apelike creatures descended from a common apelike ancestor. Do it. Make one. Repeat that process please.

I do not offer creation as an alternative. I offer "I don't know". It is a better explanation because it reflects our inability to really test the statement. Can't do it? Can't use it? Can't disprove it? Say you don't know. Oh, if I say "I don't know" regarding grand narratives of origins I don't offer religion as the alternative.


Most of the issues you raise in your article are not issues of science, either. They are engineering problems with engineering solutions. Can I use the techniques of untestable science (oxymoron) to solve the problem of a depleting aquifer? No, and that is the common problem with all the issues you raise.

So the solution to all those issues you raised is to back off the stance that "we are experts and we have solutions". Non-testable science proceeds from gathering evidence and hypothesis to gathering evidence and modifying hypothesis, to gathering evidence...and on and on. Theories become more sophisticated, not less. Their usefulness diminishes and ultimately we get bureaucratic monstrosities that cannot be defined, tested, reduced, eliminated.....
And here we are Dr. K, bankrupt. Our increasing sophistication based upon faulty epistemology of non-testable science has left us with institutions that don't work. And nobody is willing to admit it. Scientists are busy justifying their existence by fighting the fight from the last century. They ignore their own iniquities. Face it Dr K, your science isn't working either.
Don't try to justify your bad solutions by insisting that the alternative is religion. That is a dodge. Religion isn't the problem in finding solutions to climate change. Your scientific technique is.
Teach kids that science is the test, the experiment.

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krishtalka 2 years, 7 months ago

Fossick

Two points to keep in mind: (1) science is rarely absolute (except for true laws, such as the speed of light), so there is not 100% certainty about the scientific solution to a problem; more evidence increases the odds understanding the complexities and of making the right decision. (2) Ultimately, the decisions I wrote about and you refer to are political/social; We hope that science informs the best political/social solution.

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Fossick 2 years, 7 months ago

"So my piece was a parody of his attitude about dismissing science in other critical challenges facing the nation."

That's what made me laugh. Since a PhD, Nobel-winner like Friedman be of two minds on a little question like whether government impositions on the economy are harmful or helpful (and have PhD economists who will back him either way), and since the experts have been debating nuclear waste disposal since I was in 5th grade and still have not decided anything, we might as well turn it over to today's 5th graders. After all, they are the only ones around without reputations to protect.

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Bushloather1 2 years, 7 months ago

I saw this movie, it is called "Idiocracy". A parody or a glimpse of the future?

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krishtalka 2 years, 7 months ago

In response to Dowser, I agree completely that all our students should be discussing and analyzing these science issues in class---it might be the best way to learn science. My point was that Gov. Perry, in cloning Michele Bachmann's anti-science rhetoric to appeal to the tea party/Republican right, came out against teaching science in the science classroom when it came to evolution or global climate change or other science they'd like to dismiss out of hand. So my piece was a parody of his attitude about dismissing science in other critical challenges facing the nation. It is not reassuring that the Republican candidates --- except for Huntsman!---think that dissing science is the litmus test for winning the primaries. Those are not the values I want in a president.

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Peter Macfarlane 2 years, 7 months ago

Speaking as a teacher of science, all of these are issues that our students should be aware of and actively discussing and researching in class, even in middle school.

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