Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why Science is So Damned Important

Before I get into the meat of this post, let me preface what I am about to say with a few disclaimers.

1. I freaking love science. Always have, always will. Shoulda been a marine biologist. True story.

2. I don't intend for this to turn into a debate, but if the shoe fits...I'm game.

Not my card, but it works.
3. I am concerned, very concerned....

This is a topic that I've been meaning to write about for a good long time now, and to be honest it is so broad with so many issues that there is no way that I'll be able to discuss most of them. I'm hoping to at least gloss over the major issues that concern me the most, and might write about some more of them in more depth in the future.

One of the precipitating factors in the conjuring of this post was the debate about creationism and evolution that happened recently between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I watched the whole thing, which was a bit of a challenge while making dinner and helping kids with homework, but I wanted to see it myself before I could make any sort of commentary on what transpired.

Because that is how things are supposed to work....you are supposed to form opinions about issues only after being presented with all the evidence from all sides...

Anyhow, I watched it and ended up writing a piece about the debate for Lefty Pop. I wrote it there because I knew my propensity would be to over analyze the hell out of it and turn it into a long post if I touched it here. Over there, I have to work very hard to condense my words, and so that's where I did it. You can read the post here if you haven't already.

The debate was concerning enough, the idea that there is a group of people wholly unwilling to accept scientific truth, entirely reliant on the Bible as though it is now or was ever intended to be the factual basis for anything. As Nye himself said, and the reason for his agreement to do the debate in the first place was, what adults want to believe is fine...it's the children he is concerned about. I agree with him absolutely.

I agree with him because we are already struggling as a nation when it comes to science education. We are already losing our edge when it comes to our ability to compete internationally in innovation and the development of new technologies.

Our education system has become increasingly obsessed with objective measures of knowledge, and has insisted on legislating how to teach from the top down, often by people with no actual experience in the classroom. We worry so much about literacy, and yet find ourselves struggling even more there now than in the past. In the meantime, we have sacrificed math, science and all extra curriculars at the altar of literacy. The experiment is failing. It is failing our children, it is failing our families, and it is failing our society as a whole.

We have sacrificed everything else for reading and writing, but are churning out a generation of kids who can barely put together coherent sentences, let alone tell you what a covalent bond or confidence interval is.

We need a reboot. Desperately.

We need science. Now more than ever.

The danger, to me, in the Nye/Ham debate isn't how the universe started, which was the point of the debate in the first place. The danger, to me, is in the refusal to see evidence of evolution that exists right now in this space and time. The danger is in discounting the very real changes that are happening in viruses and bacteria that already are presenting threats to the lives of humans in current time. Things that we used to be able to understand and treat are mutating, evolving, surviving our only arsenal of weapons against them. To just deny that is happening isn't only a silly debate to me, it's dangerous.

Deniers seem to be all the rage these days, though. Climate change is one of the greatest debates raging in the political world currently, which begs the question of why science that almost every climatologist in the world agrees on ever became fodder for political debate in the first place. Why are we debating science? Why do we think we can?

If you haven't seen it, you should watch Bill Nye and Marsha Blackburn on Meet the Press from last weekend. It makes my head hurt to think that she is an elected official.

Easy. It's easier to deny it. It's easier to wave it off as speculative. It's easier to say that there is no possible way that human involvement is speeding up the process, because if we believe that, then we have no incentive to change how we do business...and that is the crux of this faux debate - business.

Business wants to make money. Corporations are legal fictions that exist to make money. Period. They do not exist to serve the public interest. They do not exist to serve public health. They do not exist to serve the environment. They do not exist to serve the world as a whole. They don't even exist to serve our nation. They exist to serve their shareholders. They exist to make money.

Politicians anymore exist to serve corporations, not the people.

The quickest way to make a buck isn't going to be the cleanest, the safest, the more environmentally conscious.

Why do you think we don't have fully operational electric cars yet? Why do you think the water in West Virginia was contaminated for weeks after the plant hadn't even been inspected in years? Why do you think wells are being erected at a record pace all over the country in every place a shale deposit exists?

Money.

It's not because the corporations give a damn about what happens 10 years from now or 100 years from now. It's because they want to make money, they want to make money the fastest way possible, they want to extract fossil fuels from the earth the fastest way possible, refine them the fastest way, and they need to keep us totally dependent on them.

The fluids used in fracking aren't even public information because the industry has convinced regulators that the information is proprietary. Never mind that they may be contaminating ground water and air. Never mind that they may be creating seismic activity in areas that had very little before.

The Weather Channel just released a huge collaboration on the effects of fracking in Texas. It is well worth the read, particularly if you live in an area of the nation obsessed with drilling, as I do.

The regulators of many industries are people who either work in the industry themselves or who reside so far down in the pockets of the industry that they can't see their way out. Biased regulation isn't regulation, and it certainly isn't safe.

Instead of actually studying the short and long term environmental impacts, instead of worrying about public health, instead of doing their jobs, the talking heads we the people elected are just denying these issues exist at all.

They aren't doing their jobs. Instead, they are pretending to be experts in areas they know nothing about and calling the actual experts liars.

As if the time and energy wasted on denying climate change and the dangers of industry aren't enough, we should also be very worried about the knowledge base of the average people here in the US.

A study came out last week that 1 in 4 US adults believes that the sun revolves around the Earth. 1 in 4. I read that aloud to my husband, and in his generally skeptical way, he questioned the validity of the study, mused about who the population sample was.

It was a study by the National Science Foundation.

Shit.

Are we really this uneducated? Are we really this ignorant? This can't be true. Can it?

There were more questions in the study, and our collective answers are compared to other nations here. It's not pretty, I promise.

Then again, as we learned in the wake of the creationism debate, 46% of the population believes in the Book of Genesis - that God created the universe and everything in it in 7 days. Carbon dating, evidence of the big bang, evidence of trees and ice on the Earth many more thousands of years older than the Book of Genesis tells us....all means nothing.

This should be terrifying to all of us.

Incidentally, this should not be taken as me saying that religion and science cannot coexist. I absolutely believe they can and do coexist, for the simple fact that even if you subscribe entirely to the Big Bang Theory, as I do...something had to start it all. The matter had to come from somewhere. Mayim Bialik was on Real Time with Bill Maher last week. The woman, an actual certifiable genius, said the same - that there is no conflict between her religion and her foundation in science.

They aren't mutually exclusive, as much as people may want to simplify it. They can exist in harmony.

When people labor under the delusion that they can't coexist, or that science is bullshit, people die. Children die. Children like Kent Schiable, who died of pneumonia because his parents believed prayer would save him.

Prayer didn't save him. Antibiotics might have.

This is a matter of life or death. If we keep slacking on science education, we'll all pay the price eventually.

4 comments:

  1. One of the biggest dangers of using an evidence-based approach to improve education is that the vast majority of the world has a flimsy understanding of statistics and statistical methodologies *at best*. Same problem in other fields, like healthcare. We rely FAR too heavily on these things. I am a scientist by education, but there is only so much meta-analysis and systematic reviews can offer. To really, truly know something is incredibly difficult, especially when there are SO many confounding variables to take into account. Sure, you can control for extraneous variables, but that's not really solving the problem. I have a real passion for improving scientific literacy and healthy skepticism towards any claim that is made. We have a long way to go as a country towards improving education and changing the general public's perception of what science is and how it works. I think instead of going after the niche groups that tout extreme religious beliefs, we should be putting our efforts into promoting the joy of discovery that comes along with scientific inquiry of the natural world.

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    1. The difficulty in understanding statistics is actually something I was going to discuss in the post, but elected to take it out because it was already getting to be too long. I absolutely agree that we need to do a better job in education kids in the area of statistics specifically because it is so critical to understand the differences between correlation and causation...essential to so many debates these days.

      I have hope that the system can be reformed, though it will take a lot of hard work to convince people that we need to do it at all. Time spent on debates about theological beliefs is not entirely wasted, in my opinion, because that is the basis so many people use to discredit science. At some point though, we need to stop engaging it and just get to work, right?

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  2. "We worry so much about literacy, and yet find ourselves struggling even more there now than in the past. In the meantime, we have sacrificed math, science and all extra curriculars at the altar of literacy. The experiment is failing. It is failing our children, it is failing our families, and it is failing our society as a whole." Without a doubt!

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  3. As one who studied and taught Creationism to my kids in homeschool-AS A THEORY- I was very disapointed in Ham's lack of scientific evidence. (They also studied evolution for balance,) In the 10 years of following the theory, I am watching their "proofs" weaken. It is unfortunate that he could not stay on point and instead opted for a theological debate.

    I found myself continuing to distance myself from Ham and his platform because it sounds more like rhetoric than fact anymore. Intelligent Design has always been my belief.

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