Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Science Learning

My blog pal Joanne, the estimable Science Goddess, is running a very smart science reading contest (along with her colleague Jeff at Scienticity) for children and teens.

Actually, there are two contests, divided by age:

Click here for Joanne’s promotional video and here for a list of authors supporting the project.

Grown-ups make such a mess when they can’t, or won’t, understand straightforward chemistry and physics — worsening the Gulf of Mexico situation, for instance, by failing to learn how to do the cleanup while keeping workers safe, as ProPublica has been reporting lately and The Pump Handle follows assiduously.  So  it’s impossible to overstate the importance of kids’ learning to understand how to read science.

In regard to reading science, The American Scholar just published a thought-provoking essay by nobel-laureate physicist Robert B. Laughlin.  The article ponders geologic time from a scientist’s standpoint — and makes a crucial distinction between what we really cannot know about the earth’s future and what the rising costs (financial, environmental, human) of energy make us fear.

Laughlin writes

The geologic record as we know it thus suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy. Energy procurement is a matter of engineering and keeping the lights on under circumstances that are likely to get more difficult as time progresses. Climate change, by contrast, is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself.

I suppose Laughlin will take a lot of flak from people who are sure that “the science” allows them to predict that the earth will be irrevocably ruined, and human civilization irretrievably altered (if not demolished), by manmade climate change. But it’s refreshing when a scientist can acknowledge that humans do bad things to the environment but still refuse to join the sky-is-falling brigade.

There are lots of reasons to curtail the damage that humans do to the physical environment and to preserve biodiversity.  But having a crystal-clear view of just what will happen if the carbon dioxide concentration stays above 350 ppm — islands disappearing and so forth — shouldn’t be one of them.

Science is good at explaining the world, but about the future it is best for telling us what we don’t know (and what questions to ask).

A little more awareness of what we don’t know, and a lot more humility in the face of ignorance, might have gone a long way toward protecting the Gulf of Mexico.  Too late for that.

So Brava! to Joanne, Bravo! to Jeff, for furthering the project of teaching the next generation to use science better.