I first posted this in June, 2015 but feel, in light of the current political campaign, that it needs to be reposted.
Please note that this is currently a “work in progress”. I would be interested in knowing what other issues you think might be worthy of putting in.
This has been edited since it was first posted.
As we get into the 2016 political season, we need consider a few science issues. One thing that you will note is that there are other issues, such as economics and taxation, intertwined in this piece. That’s because we do not live in a world where we cannot place our knowledge in separate categories.
To the best of my knowledge, every candidate running for President, declared or undeclared, Democrat or Republican, is a college graduate. As such, and unless this has changed, there was a small science component in their degree. This means that each of these individuals is, by definition, scientifically literate. But it is quite obvious that many of these same individuals do not utilize that knowledge in a way that reflects what they learned (unless, of course, they either didn’t attend or slept through the lecture).
Now, science literacy can be defined as the ability to use science knowledge in every day situations (“In Pursuit of Learning: The Rediscovery of Scientific Literacy”, 79th Annual Meeting, Illinois State Academy of Science, Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, April 18, 1986). The need for a scientifically literate citizenry can be seen in the many political debates in this country. The politics of many issues have been simplified to the point of scientific irrelevance.
As I first pointed out in 2008,
“The United States is not only facing a dearth of future homegrown scientists and engineers . . . but increasingly, everyday citizens need science literacy.” (from “Have We Learned Anything Yet?”)
Only when the populace, as a whole, has the capability and the ability to understand and evaluate the issues being discussed can reasonable debate and solutions be achieved. When the populace does not understand the issue or is prevent from understanding the issue, a limited number of individuals are able to control the outcome for their own purposes, be they good or bad.
The Need For Science Literacy
The first science issue, then, that must be addressed is the scientific literacy, not only of the candidates, but how it will be achieved in the populace as well. This is being partially addressed at the pre-college level with an increase in the mathematics and science requirements for graduation from high school and admittance into college. The former (graduation from high school) clearly is of a higher priority than the latter simply because not every individual is going to college, especially with college costs continuing to rise.
Addressing the issue of science (and mathematics) literacy means reevaluating how we look at education funding. I recognize that we are dealing with what is known as the “fixed and limited volume” problem.
There is only so much money available and right now the majority of that money is directed towards other areas. So there must be 1) a restructuring of our priorities for the future and 2) an understanding that our source of funds must increase. And with regards to that latter point, I know that there are some who are not going to like that idea, just as the idea of funding education over other programs will not go well.
But in the end, if we do not increase the funding for education and we do not increase the amount of revenue in total, we will arrive at a situation where our populace is neither educated or able to be educated and all of that which we rely on today in terms of technology will be rather useless. If people do not know how to fix the technology being used, what good is the technology? And that is part of scientific literacy as well.
I would list the creation/evolution issue as part of the science literacy issue, not so much for the content of the debate but because the debate centers on our ability to think independently and creatively. Those who seek to include creationism in the science classroom do not do it because it is viable science (which it is not) but because they want to control what students learn and in controlling what students learn, they wish to control creativity and independent learning.
I think a second part of this debate is the move by many to limit the boundaries of academic freedom, the right to teach as one feels is appropriate. Academic freedom is not necessarily a science issue but being able to teach science, or any subject for that matter, without interference is an issue of academic freedom. But as I have noted in the past, being able to teach what you want does not necessarily give you carte blanch to teach anything you want. (A summary of my blog posts dealing with academic freedom is at “Notes On Academic Freedom”.)
As a follow-up to this, we also have to consider various pseudo-science issues that seem to pervade societal discussions. For the sake of brevity, let us just say that topics in the area of pseudo-science are topics which may seem to be scientific but are more likely to bad interpretations of the information. Many times, a person will be opposed to an idea because of some scientific study that, in actuality, has no basis. Differentiating between “good” and “bad” science is necessary component of a scientifically literate populace.
There are several issues that require that the populace understand science.
The Environment and Energy
Perhaps the first area is that of the environment simply because there are several issues in that area, such as:
- Air quality – is our air clean? What are we doing to keep it clean?
- Water quality – Is our water clean? Do we have enough clean water?
I would place climate change in this category. We need to understand that we, as an inhabitants of this planet, are doing things to the climate that are not necessarily for the good. This means understanding what is meant by climate change, because not understanding what climate change is about is part of the problem today.
Addressing climate change means addressing the continued use and reliance of fossil fuels as our primary energy resource. The interdependence of our national foreign policy and our nation’s energy resources dependence on fossil fuels has placed us in a very precarious position.
The options that we have for a continued use of fossil fuels illustrate 1) the need for an increased science literacy and 2) the need to include alternative energy resources in the debate.
Consider the following questions:
- Is natural gas an alternative?
- There are those who say natural gas is a “cleaner” alternative.
- Is the energy output obtained from natural gas better, on par, or worse than that from coal and oil?
- Are the products obtained from the burning of natural gas better or worse than what comes from the burning of coal and gasoline? (If you have ever taken high school chemistry, you know how to figure out the answers to this question.)
- How do these figures compare to similar calculations for the alternative energy resources?
- What are the costs associated with each process?
- Is natural gas a viable replacement for other fossil fuels?
- Are their “cleaner” or alternative methods for obtaining fossil fuels? There is a great discussion taking place about “fracking” but do the benefits of this method outweigh the risks? Is what is gained by obtaining energy from this method worth the cost? – see “What Is Fracking?”
Alternative Energy Resources
We must, therefore, begin looking at other alternative energy resources such as nuclear power, solar energy, wind power, geothermal energy, hydroelectric energy, and fuel cells, Each of these has it own pros and cons and each has to be weighed against the other in terms of efficiency and cost. It is most likely that ultimate answer is a combination of all the possibilities that considers not only the present situation but the long-term situation as well.
I would think that the exploration of space has to be a bigger topic in the science debate of this country. I don’t believe that there has been a candidate who has not given “lip service” to the idea of going to Mars or putting a long-term human presence on the Moon. But when other factors come into play, such discussions are pushed aside or the suggestion is made that private enterprise should deal with it. Space cannot be the property of some corporation but must be the place where the people of this planet can work together cooperatively. If that means resolving the conflicts on this planet for the betterment of society, so be it.
In the end, any discussion of science issues cannot be simply a discussion of the science involved. Economics and politics will be a part as well. It seems to me that science has always played a secondary role in our political debate. Perhaps it is time for science to be at the forefront of the discussion, because it is through science that we will find a way to the future.