Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A nobelist in Senate, and a failure to educate

I just happened to read in Science that the 2003 chemistry Nobel laureate Peter Agre was contemplating running for Senate in Minnesota. I thought this was good news for a number of reasons.

One important reason that there is a serious paucity of leaders currently in the US Senate and Congress who can make even a simple, coherent argument about science, leave alone make sound policy decisions on science. In an ideal democracy, the leadership of a nation should represent a diverse spectrum of the intelligentsia of that country, as well as have a robust representation of “common folk”. However, it seems like the required educational qualification for Senate or Congress is law, and a majority of the country leaders are lawyers by training. I’ve nothing against lawyers, but while they can argue about anything, it helps if you have well qualified representatives from diverse areas, all of which are critical for the country’s progress (science, economics, international affairs and health, to name just a few). It can easily be argued that having such leaders will allow issues like stem cell research or abortion to be discussed cogently, with facts on board, and will avoid purely emotional responses, and knee-jerk counter responses.

The US probably has more active scientists than the rest of the world put together, including dozens of Nobel laureates. Many of them have also proven to be able administrators and have helped drive science policy forward. Surprisingly, not one single Nobel laureate has ever been elected to Senate or Congress. Nor are there many scientists in Senate or Congress currently (I read an article months ago that said there were four total. I apologize for not being able to find the link). While I don’t have numbers, this seems to be in contrast to Europe, where there are a number of high profile scientist-politicians (including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany).

I don’t think Agre has a serious chance of winning (or beating Al Franken), but it’s a start, so good luck to him.

(On a somewhat related note, it is amusing to note that the Indian minister for Science and Technology is a celebrated lawyer, Kapil Sibal. While being a lawyer shouldn’t be held against him, a lifelong lack of any commitment or initiative towards science can be.)


I’ve always thought that there is a serious disconnect between environmental education in schools, and the environment itself. The end result is that the student has really little clue about how interconnected things are, how easy it is to cause major damage to the environment, and how all our little actions may appear to be unrelated to anything damaging the environment, but actually does cause immense harm. This starts from simple things like leaving the lights or air-conditioning on when we leave home. You think it’s just a little hit on the electricity bill, but it goes all the way to burning more fossil fuels to get that energy, which comes from mining coal or petroleum, with the associated direct environmental damage, and pollution.

Anyway, while scanning through PLoS biology I happened to read this commentary, which more clearly and coherently puts together an argument on the failure of environmental education, and how we can fix it. While the entire article is well worth a read (it is written avoiding scientific jargon), I’ll leave you with the conclusion and an edited “seven ways to improve environmental education”. I found myself nodding to many of them.

1. Design environmental education programs that can be properly evaluated, for example, with before-after, treatment-control designs. Such approaches represent a sea change from programs today, and we expect considerable resistance from environmental educators. But the environmental community at large must stop rejecting criticism as negative and must embark on a policy of continuing self-evaluation and assessment……
2. Many environmental issues facing us today are caused by over-consumption—primarily by developed countries. Changing consumption patterns is not generally a targeted outcome of environmental education, but we believe it is one of the most important lessons that must be taught…..As countries develop, their environmental footprint may expand, and consumption control may become more important. ……..we need to radically overhaul curricula to teach the conservation of consumable products. Teaching where and how resources come from—that food, clean water, and energy do not originate from supermarkets, taps, and power points—may be an important first step.
3. We need to teach that nature is filled with nonlinear relationships, which are characterized by “tipping points” (called “phase shifts”): there may be little change in something of interest across a range of values, but above a particular threshold in a causal factor, change is rapid. For instance, ecology, which focuses on understanding the distribution and abundance of life on Earth, is a complex, nonlinear science. If environmental education is linear—in other words, if you teach that recycling one beer bottle will save “x” gallons of water—people will not have the foundation to think about linkages or nonlinear relationships. ..….. For instance, when European sailors first came to the Caribbean, sea turtles were extremely common. After intensive exploitation, turtle populations and the vital ecological roles they play have never been fully recovered. Without a historical component, these baselines will shift as we ratchet our way to inevitable ecological collapse [19].
4. We need to teach a world view. Americans know little of world history and are geographically illiterate. A 2002 poll of 18–24 year olds in nine western countries, ranked the US next to last in geographic literacy [20]. A greater appreciation of the diversity of cultures and peoples in the world should help us realize the selfish consequences of our consumption. “Not in my backyard” is not a sustainable rallying cry in an interconnected world when we are faced with global climate change. We are too late for “think globally and act locally” to work. And, contrary to the statements of President George W. Bush, the American way of life must become negotiable if it is to be sustainable. We have little trouble suffering security-related inconveniences; we should be willing to accept some inconveniences for the opportunity to live in a sustainable environment.
5. We must teach how governments work and how to effect change within a given socio-political structure. We suspect that many individuals will be offended by the thought that large industries have so much sway on the wording of state and federal legislation. We all suffer from polluted water and greenhouse gasses, but lobbyists are very effective in diluting potentially costly legislation meant to safeguard our water supplies or prevent rampant climate change. Understanding how the system works will empower subsequent generations to change it.
6. We must teach that conservation-minded legislation may deprive us of some of the goods and services that we previously enjoyed. Inexpensive airline flights make flying routine, but planes create more greenhouse gases than trains or buses [21]. Self-sacrifice will be necessary to some degree if we are to avoid or minimize adverse effects of imminent environmental threats with truly global consequences.
7. Finally, we must teach critical thinking. Environmentally aware citizens must be able to evaluate complex information and make decisions about things that we can't currently envision. True scientific literacy means that people have a conceptual tool kit that can be applied to a variety of questions. Unfortunately, much science education is not inspired, and students are required to learn facts without being given the ability to manipulate and analyze those facts. Without the ability to ask questions, identify assumptions, and make well-reasoned decisions, we're left with a population ripe for exploitation by less-than-honest industries and politicians.

Read the complete article here.

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