“Science Issues For The 2016 Political Season”

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.

Creationism/Evolution Debate

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.

Science Issues

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.

Other Topics

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.

Election year economic issue questions

I do not pretend to be an economist so the only part of economic theory that interests me is the part that allows me to know if I can pay my bills and live a reasonable (important adjective there) life.

In terms of that thought, I have the following questions:

  1. Is there a minimum living wage?

  2. Do employers have an obligation (moral and economic) to pay such a wage?

  3. What are the responsibilities of the worker?

  4. Is health care a necessity?

  5. Who should pay for health care?

  6. Should health insurance companies be private or public corporations? Should they be “for profit” or “non-profit” corporations?

It has been said that John Wesley opposed the rich and the powerful. I know that he wasn’t happy about the power structure of the church that seemed more interested in self-preservation than spreading the Gospel but I am not sure that he necessarily opposed the rich.

I do know that he was not opposed to anyone earning the maximum that they could. Often he said earn as much as you could. But I think that he would have also add, just don’t earn your money through the exploitation of others. He also encouraged everyone to save all that they could and, give all that they could.

John Wesley wanted to make sure that everyone understood that poverty was not a condition of sin. It is unfortunate that this lesson has still not been learned. Too many people today still feel that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and poverty a sin of God’s damnation. For such, charity is a non-engaging task, designed to sooth their own consciousness. But should we not consider that, as I think Wesley did, put our faith into action. (adapted from https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/how-will-you-get-there/)

Wesley also said,

Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?” (from http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/151350.John_Wesley)

I do not wish to interject religion into a political debate (we have enough of that as it is) but if a politician is going to say that they are a Christian or if they believe in God or if they hold onto a humanist view of the world, don’t you think that their actions should reflect what they believe?

Monthly Clergy Letter Project Newsletter

The new issue of Clergy Project Newsletter is now available on-line. I urge you all to check this out as it has information related to the teaching of science and academic freedom.  

There is a section in this month’s newsletter for you to sign up for the 2017 Evolution Weekend.

No matter whether you are clergy or laity, I urge you to check it out and get involved in the project.

A New Vision Of The World

A Meditation for 24 April 2016, the 5th Sunday of Easter (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1 – 16, and John 13: 31 – 35.

Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday.  Got a little bit behind in my work and struggling to catch up.

Let’s begin by expanding on the thoughts behind Peter’s refusal to eat certain foods. Peter was undoubtedly an observant Jew so he had grown up obeying those dietary laws, rules, and regulations.

But it was very likely that he and everyone else at that time what those laws, rules, and regulations were the way they were. There were foods that you could not eat with other foods and there were foods that you could not eat at all and that was they way it was. The reason or reasons for these laws, rules, and regulations was lost in the passage of time but were based on the early days of the Exodus when food storage and preservation were at a premium. The people who began the Exodus understood this but this understanding got lost over time.

How many of us hold onto attitudes and behaviors that we grew up without understanding why we do? How many times do our actions towards others reflect “old” thinking?

The problem for so many people today is that they remain locked in this “old” way of thinking, often times without realizing it. There are those who read the words of John the Seer in the Book of Revelation and see a fulfillment of the past, of the actions of a vengeful and hateful God. But the Seer’s words are a new vision of the world, a new beginning, an opportunity to begin anew and not a continuation of the old. The Seer’s Revelation was never, as President John Kennedy said in the concluding part of his speech to the nation on 22 October 1962, a victory of might but a vindication of what was right. The Book of Revelation is not a justification of the old ways but the knowledge of the new ways.

But how do we achieve the Kingdom the Seer foresaw? How do we establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth as Christ so many times proclaimed He had come to establish?

Do we create military armies that will destroy our armies? Do we create laws, rules, and regulations that echo our prejudices and hatred, which reap vengeance on those we hate and despise?

Or do we do as Jesus told those who heard Him that day two thousand years ago that we are to love each other as He loved us? Are we to act in such a way that when others see us, they will see Christ?

It is very hard to throw away the old ideas, the old ways. We heard that in Peter’s thoughts written in the Book of Acts. But Peter understood what he had to do.

The assurance and presence of God through Christ gives us the same comfort and strength that Peter received so that we can cast aside the old and claim the new, so that we can have a new vision of the world.

Where Were You On April 4, 1968?

I first posted this on April 4, 2007.  

Where were you on April 4, 1968? I was a senior in high school that year. And, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, it was a very interesting time.

That particular senior year started off the previous fall with our senior-dominated football team actually winning more games than it lost. It was not a championship team by any sort of the imagination but it was an improvement over the previous years.
It set the stage for the basketball season which we all knew would be a championship season. The previous year, we had come close but lost in the regional semifinals. The core of the team, all seniors, was back and we were certain that this was to be our year. The sports writers of the state had our team as the number one team in the state and everyone (students, parents, alumni, and interested supporters) was making plans for the trip to the state tournament.

But that was not to be the case. An injury to a key player changed the dynamics of the team and allowed a rather non-descript team from across the county to beat our team in the first round of the district playoffs. What had begun as a promising senior year slowly disappeared in the mists of defeat.

Typical of that year, our traditional river boat ride on graduation night was tempered by a torrential rain storm. What was supposed to be a night of celebration simply became a long and wet boat ride. And what should have been a joyous year of victory and accomplishment was washed away by a night of thunder and rain.

But all of that is meaningless when the events of April 4, 1968, are factored into the mix. You see, my high school was Nicholas Blackwell High School in Bartlett, Tennessee. And Bartlett, Tennessee is a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. Everything that we might have thought or planned changed that day with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I will admit that my mind was not on the struggles of the Memphis sanitation workers that brought Dr. King to Memphis. It is possible that the strike had no effect on my family since we lived out in the county rather than within the city proper. It would not be until later in life that I truly understood what brought Dr. King to Memphis. But I know that many of my classmates and their parents viewed Dr. King as an interloper and an outsider who had no business interfering in the affairs of Memphis.

The issues of race and poverty that brought Dr. King to Memphis were silent issues as far as the white citizens of Memphis and Shelby County were concerned. There would be no issue if no one would talk about it and if no one talked about it, then the problem would eventually go away. The white citizens of Memphis and Shelby County had no concern for the black citizens of Memphis and Shelby County. So why should others, such as Dr. King, show concern?

But through the lens of history, it is clear that these issues are like a malignant tumor that will grow and spread unless someone deals with them.

While I may not have been aware of the sanitation strike, I was aware how the subtle racism of the Mid-South affected my education. When I was a seventh grader in Montgomery, Alabama, I had to buy my textbooks from a book store. This was because the Montgomery school board was not going to fund textbooks if it meant that black school children were going to receive the same benefits as white students. But if you make everyone buy their own textbooks then everyone becomes equal; the only difference being that those who have the ability can buy new textbooks, the less fortunate must get by with used textbooks.

The Shelby County school board made sure that everyone, no matter whether they attended a black school or a white school, had textbooks. They just cut the funding for other things, such as chorus and band. If a band wanted new instruments or better uniforms, it was up to the parents’ association to get them. Thus school in high income areas had good instruments and fine uniforms; other schools weren’t so lucky. The effects of racism and years of neglect were probably harsher in the black schools but they impacted all the schools.

Life in Memphis the weeks following the King assassination were weeks of tension and fear. I had planned on earning some extra money keeping score in the Memphis Bowling Association Annual Tournament but the uncertainty about the situation caused each weekend’s events to be cancelled.

I am not sure if life in Memphis has changed for the better since that day in 1968. Oh, the white political machine that dominated Memphis and whose employment policies set the stage for the sanitation workers’ strike is long gone. But it has been replaced by a black political machine that is probably no better than the white political machine that it replaced. It still conducts politics as usual. Politicians line their pockets and the public pays the price.

Towns in Shelby County are still essentially divided by race and economic status. Only now the divisions are far more subtle than they were some forty years ago.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King spoke of seeing the Promised Land. He spoke of a future that would be free of racial and economic division. I did not hear those words when he spoke them because I was not listening. I was not listening because I was more focused on another task and I was not aware of what was transpiring.

Later that spring and summer, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the riots in the streets of Chicago would tear apart the last shreds of hope of which Dr. King spoke. Richard Nixon would be elected President of the United States on a platform of law and order (meaning a maintaining of the status quo) and victory in Viet Nam.

Since that time, it seems to me that we have drifted further and further away from the goals that were expressed during the early and mid 1960’s. We have wandered away from the goals of freedom and equality for everyone that this country was founded upon. In a country that was founded on religious freedom, the right of everyone to worship as they choose, we are increasingly becoming an intolerant and inflexible society. Instead of heading to the Promised Land, the land that Dr. King spoke of, we have turned our backs on that land and gone back into slavery in Egypt.

Though I may not have spoken out as I should have back then, I was beginning to be aware of inequalities in the world around me. And as I became aware I also heard Jesus Christ was calling to me. I heard His cries against oppression and injustice. I heard His cries against a religious community that worked in conjunction with an oppressive military-based dictatorship to enslave their people.

Today, April 4, 2007, I look around and I see religious leaders who call for war when Christ calls for peace. Today I look around and I see religious leaders who exclude people when Christ called for everyone to come to Him. Today I look around and I see the divide between rich and poor growing bigger every day instead of shrinking.

On the Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple and spoke out against those who would corrupt the work of God for their own benefit. What would Jesus do today with the megachurches and pastors with million dollar incomes?

I look around and wonder if we have forgotten what Jesus taught us? I look around and wonder if the words that Dr. King spoke are now just words for the pages of history and not the call for action that there were and continue to be.

I began by asking “where were you on April 4, 1968?” It is not important that you answer that question. It is more important to ask “where are you on April 4, 2007?” Are you with Christ, calling for action against those who would seek to increase oppression and injustice? Or are you with those who in a few days will stand in Pilate’s courtyard and do the bidding of the powers that be that seek to maintain the status quo and call for the crucifixion of Christ?

You may not have been aware of what transpired in Memphis some thirty-nine years ago but you are aware of what is transpiring today. Are you going to let it happen again?