Let U.S. students tackle all the tough issues

September 3, 2011


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.


P Allen Macfarlane 6 years, 3 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.

Kris Krishtalka 6 years, 3 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.

Daniel Dicks 6 years, 3 months ago

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

Fossick 6 years, 3 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.

Kris Krishtalka 6 years, 3 months ago


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.

Fossick 6 years, 3 months ago

"Ultimately, the decisions I wrote about and you refer to are political/social"

Yes, they are, which is why I was surprised to hear you refer to them in your letter as "critical, controversial science issues." They are mostly not, especially not the economics issues, and certainly not model-based forecasting*. Modeling allows us to make the same mistakes we make now, only faster and with more consistency. But that does not make them science.

But that becomes a problem, IMO, when scientists insist that their science credentials give them some kind of a monopoly over political/social issues. And this is especially the problem because politics and the money it passes out has corrupted science to a tragic degree. If scientists are saying that something is both 'heads' and 'tails' simultaneously, or if model-based, scientific programs like QE2 demonstrably fail to do as promised, the public would be wise to preliminarily conclude that science has less to say about an issue than do the scientists.

  • and before George writes a blog about me, I have two degrees in computer information systems and know a little bit about modeling.

P Allen Macfarlane 6 years, 3 months ago

It is important to remember here that models are a simplification of reality and when they are used for predicting future behavior of any system, there is typically a wide band of uncertainty in model output. We shrink but rarely do we ever eliminate that band of uncertainty when the data when input to the model is adequate and when the system being modeled is well understood.

It is possible for a model to generate a heads and tails result simultaneously if the data are insufficient or if capability of the model to simulate the system is inadequate. The latter could happen if the system is so complex that it cannot be modeled adequately with the available computing power, for example.

It is also important to realize that the basis for modeling is really the hypothesis and a hypothesis is based on an informed analysis of system behavior. As such, the ability of a model to represent a system is a measure of how well the hypothesis explains the system being modeled.

Fossick 6 years, 3 months ago

I don't disagree at all, but all that said, a model is not science any more than your spreadsheet is science. Computers allow us to do the same predictions that scientists would do if they did not have them, only faster, and allow them to track more variables. But GIGO applies to even the best models, and economics is famous for its mixture of the G in its GDP calculation with the G in GIGO. If a model does generate a heads and tails result, or if a model consistently generates results that do not square with observed reality, it should be kept very far from public policy rather than serving as its major underpinning. The man who dubbed economics "the dismal science" was half correct: it certainly is dismal.

Fossick 6 years, 3 months ago

FWIW, this is why even though I have spent 2 decades designing and building complex computer systems, if I was arrogant enough to call myself a scientist I would have to laugh myself off the boards. Computer Science, like any other number of "soft" sciences, is just trying to ride other peoples' reputations.

devobrun 6 years, 3 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.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 3 months ago

Translation-- "I reject any sort of science that delivers results that contradict my ideological prejudices."

Kris Krishtalka 6 years, 3 months ago

To Devobrun, Fossick and George

  1. Science, as an activity, discovers knowledge by observation and experiment and by testing the results of both, continuously, so that previous results are either tossed, emended or enlarged. As such, the body of knowledge is always in flux, never fixed, and constantly growing in volume and depth and resolution. All people do science all the time and apply the results.
  2. Anyone who reads a newspaper, or checks Google News, and does a bit of facts/figures research could have written the op-ed piece and raised the five examples I did, or many other examples of issues we face that are informed by complex analyses involving many sciences and other fields of human endeavor.
  3. That was the point---a candidate for the presidency should not be dissing science just because he (e.g., Perry)/she (e.g., Bachmann) finds some of its findings to be unpopular or uncomfortable, while readily accepting those findings that are popular and comfortable. It's not the way they would treat a medical diagnosis---if the news is bad, I don't believe it; if the checkup is good, I believe it. Knowledge is not determined by referendum
  4. The fact that some of the issues the op-ed raised remain undecided after many years reflects either competing scientific evidence, or competing social values, or competing political, economic and community interests, or all five. Science tries to provide the best information available at the moment on which to base a smart decision. After that, it's a free-for-all of competing interests.

Daniel Dicks 6 years, 3 months ago

Dude, I know people who believe the Apollo Moon Landing was a staged event in the Arizona desert. You can show them a rock from the moon. You can even see some man made debri left behind on the the lunar suface.. And they still deny it really happend. But they believe a FAUX News mockumentary. Go figure.

devobrun 6 years, 3 months ago

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

devobrun 6 years, 3 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.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 3 months ago

And I'm sure you have a theory on apples and oranges, too.

devobrun 6 years, 3 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?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 3 months ago

Still on the apples and oranges thing.

OK-- I'll humor you.

With regards to airplanes, what reality are you referring to? When they're purposely flown into tall buildings, or used to drop millions of tons of bombs on politically convenient, ethnically despised and oil-rich countries? When they make major contributions to the greenhouse effect/global warming? I used to think my plastic model ones were pretty important (right up to the point when I loaded them up with firecrackers and launched them out an upstairs window.)

And, you know, for millions of three-year-olds, Barney the purple dinosaur was more important than about anything else in the whole danged universe and all its multi-dimensional dimensions. Is your reality really any realer than theirs?

devobrun 6 years, 3 months ago

Wow bozo. That was surreal. I am referring to the science, engineering and use of the things as being real. All those airplanes worked because they were designed using models that were tested.

From a science standpoint, the airplanes worked. They flew. What they were used for is not the point. Whether you are a terrorist bomber, a kid with a plastic toy, or a life-flight helicopter pilot, the science is tested by flying the thing.

My reality isn't perceived reality, bozo. It is tested reality. I define a test, then I do it. Conflating the nature of the use of an airplane with the test that it worked is irrational.

Are you saying that I should expand the definition of "worked" to mean something about what it was used for? I hit a nail with a hammer and it drives the nail in, or I hit my thumb with the same hammer. Are you saying that it worked in the former, but not the latter? I say the hammer worked both times. The hammer was intended to smack things. What I hit with it is irrelevant to the definition of what a hammer is supposed to do.

Daniel Dicks 6 years, 3 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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