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 …”