Thursday, August 20, 2009

Unscientific America... ditto California's Governor.

This is my latest column in the very local Morgan Hill Times. I am posting here for the very good reason that I want you to get a copy of Unscientific America and read it. It isn't long (125 pages) and it isn't difficult but it is important. Greens who don't understand science will never find the solution to global warming nor make a Green Economy work.

I have two topics that I want to mention this week and the more I think about them, the stronger the relationship appears to be. I will try to give both their due and still keep this to one column.

I recommend a new book, “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.” It is the collaborative effort of a top journalist, Chris Mooney, and a marine biologist, Sheril Kirshenbaum. Their major point seems to me to be well taken. We live in an age where science has been engineered into the fabric of our lives and still we choose to remain relatively ignorant of the nature and practice of scientific inquiry.

The goal of the book as well as of intersection, a blog that Mooney and Kirshenbaum co-author, is to help bring about a melding of cultures in such a way as to include science. They end the book by quoting C. P. Snow's two culture lecture from 50 years ago. “We require a common culture in which science is an essential component. Otherwise we shall never seen the possibilities either for evil or good.”

That is seems so simple, but with Hollywood sending us one un-scientific story after another and some who would politicize science for reasons known only to themselves, the task of building such a common culture is daunting. The most recent politicization is the accusation by one time Congressman Dick Armey that then entire H1N1 pandemic was manufactured to help push Obama's health care agenda. With that example I need not even mention climate change and the raft of falsehoods that have been used to maintain the status quo.

There was no way that Mooney and Kirshenbaum could have written on this subject without acknowledging the ongoing debates over evolution and religion. I would agree with their position that those who have been labeled as the New Atheists are doing more damage to the cause of science than they are willing to acknowledge. There is no rational for some of the antagonistic actions that have taken place.

I watched physicist, mathematician Freeman Dyson on the Charlie Rose show this week mention new atheist Richard Dawkins and saying that he has done much harm for future science by chasing away young people who might become scientists but who are not ready to give up the religion in which they have been raised... as Dawkins would insist.

We live in Silicon Valley, in a culture that produces much of the science based technology that fills our lives, or will in the near future. From I-Pod to I-Phone, from solar cell power generation to a Tesla Motors roadster or resveritol in a pill. the fabric of our existence is being changed by science. Yet, our media is rarely allows for science stories to make it into print or onto the screen. We have much discussion about a world class center for mathematics being established in Morgan Hill and yet I see little if any influence on our youth.

I hope that all of you who read this will get the book. At a minimum, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are asking questions that should be asked.

My second topic is the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta and California's water problems. There is much more to this story than that which make the news. Too often the demand to boil the story down to short soundbites or a desire to explain it in terms that the un-scientific reader can understand ends up with a he-said / she-said style of reportage in which neither is telling the truth. As one person remarked, solving California's water problems is a likely as winning a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East.

We can not expect the current situation to remain as it is. Our climate is changing. A recent study from UC Davis indicates that the orchards of the Central Valley will all need to be replaced due to global warming. It is quite probable that apple, pear, cherry, pistachio and many stone fruits will no longer set good crops as winters become increasingly mild. We also know that population will continue to increase. Finding the right solutions will require paying more attention to the sciences: climatology, agriculture, ecology... and less attention to the calculus of short range vote margins, something that not even the American Institute of Mathematics can help with.

There are those who posture in public, who claim that drought is costing far job, who would have us build more dams for future supplies because it sounds good now. Unfortunately, the ecological changes that we are undergoing will happen. We seem not willing to try and avoid severe climate disruption. At least, let us use the best of our science knowledge to plan for our future. It is not a time to be scientifically illiterate, even if you are the Governor.

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