College students lack scientific literacy, study finds

This carbon cycle diagram shows the storage an...
The study said: "Most students didn't truly understand processes that transform carbon". The carbon cycle is shown above - click to enlarge - Image via Wikipedia

After reading this I asked myself: Is it any wonder college students get sucked in to emotionally based eco-causes/NGO’s that spout claims based on questionable science?  This troubling press release comes from Michigan State University. A link to the full paper follows below, which is well worth reading because it gives insight into the questions and answers given. It is quite an eye-opener. – Anthony

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Most college students in the United States do not grasp the scientific basis of the carbon cycle – an essential skill in understanding the causes and consequences of climate change, according to research published in the January issue of BioScience.

The study, whose authors include several current and former researchers from Michigan State University, calls for a new way of teaching – and, ultimately, comprehending – fundamental scientific principles such as the conservation of matter.

“Improving students’ understanding of these biological principles could make them better prepared to deal with important environmental issues such as global climate change,” said Charles “Andy” Anderson, MSU professor of teacher education and co-investigator on the project.

The study was led by Laurel Hartley, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver who started the work as a postdoctoral researcher at MSU. Co-researchers include Anderson, Brook Wilke, Jonathon Schramm and Joyce Parker, all from MSU, and Charlene D’Avanzo from Hampshire College.

The researchers assessed the fundamental science knowledge of more than 500 students at 13 U.S. colleges in courses ranging from introductory biology to advanced ecology.

Most students did not truly understand the processes that transform carbon. They failed to apply principles such as the conservation of matter, which holds that when something changes chemically or physically, the amount of matter at the end of the process needs to equal the amount at the beginning. (Matter doesn’t magically appear or disappear.)

Students trying to explain weight loss, for example, could not trace matter once it leaves the body; instead they used informal reasoning based on their personal experiences (such as the fat “melted away” or was “burned off”). In reality, the atoms in fat molecules leave the body (mostly through breathing) and enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and water.

Most students also incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “When you see a tree growing,” Anderson said, “it’s a lot easier to believe that tree is somehow coming out of the soil rather than the scientific reality that it’s coming out of the air.”

The researchers say biology textbooks and high-school and college science instructors need to do a better job of teaching the fundamentals – particularly how matter transforms from gaseous to solid states and vice-versa.

It won’t be easy, Anderson said, because students’ beliefs of the carbon cycle are deeply engrained (such as the misconception that plants get most of their nutrients from the soil). Instructors should help students understand that the use of such “everyday, informal reasoning” runs counter to true scientific literacy, he said.

The implications are great for a generation of citizens who will grapple with complicated environmental issues such as clean energy and carbon sequestration more than any generation in history, Anderson said.

“One of the things I’m interested in,” he said, “is students’ understanding of environmental problems. And probably the most important environmental problem is global climate change. And that’s attributable to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And understanding where that carbon dioxide is coming from and what you can do about it fundamentally involves understanding the scientific carbon cycle.”


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

The full study is here (PDF) and is well worth the read.

h/t to Indur Goklany

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January 8, 2011 8:44 pm

“They failed to apply principles such as the conservation of matter, which holds that when something changes chemically or physically, the amount of matter at the end of the process needs to equal the amount at the beginning. (Matter doesn’t magically appear or disappear.)”
They only introduced conservation of matter / energy equations to the IPCC climate models during AR4 didn’t they? Seems the experts also break such fundamental rules.

January 8, 2011 8:50 pm

Studies about students’ understanding of history, government, math, etc., have shown pretty much the same thing as this one. The reason for this is simple, students don’t spend much time studying. We did a survey of our Freshman and found that half studied 10 or fewer hours a week and only 8% (if I remember correctly) studied 20 or more hours per week.
Students at non elite colleges value grades divided by effort. They will admire a friend who gets a C with minimal effort more than one works works very hard to get an A. They might even view the second friend as a sap. And mostly likely the second friend is a goody-goody type who wants to impress her or his professor or parents and does not really care about what they are learning.
Learn Chinese.

Stop Global Dumbing Now
January 8, 2011 8:56 pm

I’ve encountered this when training undergrads and now even grad students. A big problem is the customized major. Students can pick and choose their courses and avoid the harder science courses. I spent days trying to teach a grad student, who graduated with honors, how to pipette. She made it through without a research methodology, chemistry or biosci lab course, but still thought she could do a genetics based PhD dissertation.
That’s part of the reason why I chose this internet moniker.

January 8, 2011 9:06 pm

I’m pretty sure I learned this in the sixth grade. At least the basics of the process. We breathe in oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide. Plants take in CO2, put out oxygen. I thought this was basic science that everyone who goes through high school is supposed to know. How are they supposed to save the planet if they don’t even have the slightest idea to how it works? This is massive, epic fail.

P.G. Sharrow
January 8, 2011 9:15 pm

Students that can’t grasp science and mathematics take liberal arts classes and become teachers, teachers that can not teach science and mathematics, teachers that put down the “nerds” that understand science and mathematics. No one that is “cool” would even try to understand math and science. How can students aquire an understanding of things that the teachers don’t like or understand? Liberal arts professors teach Junk Science as part of their philosophy and students have no reason to believe they are being lied to. This yields more teachers teaching junk science to ignorant students. When I was in school 50 years ago I was correcting teachers in class when they presented erronous facts. Science and math teachers made the correction and thanked me. Liberal arts teachers hated me and tried to get even.

Douglas DC
January 8, 2011 9:21 pm

My wife’s Alma Mater BTW- I remember struggling through Pre-Calc, Calculus,
Organic Chem. (didn’t use any of it. ) and ah, Shakespeare all in the name of a good
set of courses and well-rounded education-Confess that Shakespeare still gives me nightmares at times. But I would not trade any of my undergrad years for the
Sad Commentary on today’s educational system..

January 8, 2011 9:28 pm

“A buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”? Who’ll teach the teachers?

January 8, 2011 9:28 pm

Two words to explain this phenomenon, “Agenda 21”. Bush senior brought this to the USA. The dumbing down of America is deliberate.

Fred Souder
January 8, 2011 9:33 pm

Similarly, there is a study that is often done at college campuses to determine the percentage of students who can adequately explain why we have seasons. The results are staggering. In the last study that I reviewed, less than 30% of Harvard grads understood this basic concept.

January 8, 2011 9:41 pm

o’neill has a way with words:
4 Jan: Spiked: Brendan O’Neill: The icy grip of the politics of fear
The snow crisis of December 2010: what a striking snapshot of the chasm that separates the warming-obsessed elite from the rest of us.
It doesn’t matter what The Science (as greens always refer to it) does or doesn’t reveal: campaigners will still let their imaginations run riot, biblically fantasising about droughts and plagues, because theirs is a fundamentally moralistic outlook rather than a scientific one. It is their disdain for mankind’s planet-altering arrogance that fuels their global-warming fantasies – and they simply seek out The Science that best seems to back up their perverted thoughts. Those predictions of a snowless future, of a parched Earth, are better understood as elite moral porn rather than sedate risk analysis…

January 8, 2011 9:44 pm

What a bunch of techno-mysterio speak. He makes no sense, but since he uses scientific jargon it can be published by the University because no-one, but him understands it.
This is junk hyperbole. The school needs to educate its editors. What a rip off for this school’s students and their parents.
If he honestly wants to teach about the carbon cycle I would suggest he look at paleo-measurements of CO2 during the last glaciation cycles and base his conclusions on hard data vs. speculative models.
This statement is a joke – and to make matters worse, apparently no one at that institution has the information necessary to correct or refute this garbage. Our science has been infiltrated by the unlearned, but well spoken illiterates.

Baa Humbug
January 8, 2011 9:47 pm

My sad understanding of this is that……young’ens are too dumb to brainwash

January 8, 2011 9:49 pm

In a richer country where decently-paid jobs are available, young people tend to avoid diligent work.
The situation is the same here; students like to play with IT gadgets and don’t want to read textbooks.
However, such may have been as old as human history, as evidenced by old men’s complaint on a stone monument, excavated from a Mesopotamian digging site…………

Ray B
January 8, 2011 9:55 pm

Anderson: “One of the things I’m interested in,” he said, “is students’ understanding of environmental problems. And probably the most important environmental problem is global climate change. And that’s attributable to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And understanding where that carbon dioxide is coming from and what you can do about it fundamentally involves understanding the scientific carbon cycle.”
If Anderson teaches this “understanding”, his students will still lack scientific literacy.

January 8, 2011 9:58 pm
have a look [click on the VoD ison to play] and weep.

January 8, 2011 9:59 pm

I learned the basics of photosynthesis in fourth grade. In my obviously limited experience, I came to believe that most reasonably knowledgeable people, over time, become acquainted with the basic biographies and contributions of history’s great scientists and discoverers.
Last year a leading “climate scientist” (with a Ph.D.), in a widely circulated letter to “climate science” students and faculty, referred to Einstein as a watchmaker turned physicist. Though her statement spurred hundreds of comments, almost none of them challenged this basic error.
It is obviously possible for someone to earn a Ph.D. in a hard science, become a tenured faculty member at a university, and become widely published in scientific journals without encountering even a basic 3-paragraph biography of Albert Einstein.
Yet we are supposed to believe that these people can decode Nature?

January 8, 2011 10:08 pm

So I’ve read the whole paper and what annoys me the most is that these authors had a preconceived conclusion and matched that to real world responses in a way that denigrates those responses because they did not follow their their preconceived notion of scientific thought correctness. This is another example of supposed “scientific consensus” being violated. If any of these individuals have tenure, it should be challenged for competency. What a vacuous paper.

Carl Brannen
January 8, 2011 10:17 pm

Right now I’m scheduled to teach environmental science next quarter. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of introductory (conceptual) general science books now use global warming as an example of scientific theory as opposed to “pseudo-science”. I think I’ll take a slightly different approach, LOL.

January 8, 2011 10:24 pm

Here is some more scary stuff very well articulated and easy to understand. When you see this, you may need a stiff drink.

January 8, 2011 10:27 pm

Concentrate the attention on the carbon dioxide cycle and ignore the fact that that a cold carbon dioxide gas cannot re-radiate to a much warmer surface until the gas volume is at the same temperature, or above, the surface temperature. Even then only about half gets back to the surface. That is about half the 8% or so of the total energy from the surface that the gas is capable of absorbing anyway.

January 8, 2011 10:29 pm

So, let’s see.. most of plant mass of annuals *does* come from the soil in the form of water. I do hope they specified dry weight, otherwise the test givers fail.
Secondly, conservation of matter is one of Piaget’s developmental stages at around age 7. So, the students actually have this. As for “the atoms in fat molecules”, hydrogens outnumber carbons by about 2:1. So, most of the hydrogens are converted to water by supplying reducing equivalents to the oxidative phosphorylation pathway and leave the body via urine, the digestive tract, sweat, tears and humidification of breath. I do hope they specifically asked where the majority of the *mass* of fat goes, otherwise the test givers fail. This is a common mis-conception that can be cleared up in biochemistry in about 30 minutes. No big deal, unless they haven’t had any biochemistry.
Furthermore, whoever said “understanding the scientific carbon cycle” is an idiot and is throwing in “science” to intimidate freshmen (or reporters). Just another slam job on students by people who shouldn’t be giving tests.

January 8, 2011 10:39 pm

Michael says:
January 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm
Two words to explain this phenomenon, “Agenda 21″. Bush senior brought this to the USA.

Do you have an authoritative link to an E.O. (Executive Order)?

Dave F
January 8, 2011 10:43 pm

Yes, but how many are marketing majors, ‘organizational leadership’ majors and so on? What bearing does the carbon cycle have on the federal rules for evidence, GAAP, being a social worker, etc. I doubt that many people ever even knew about the carbon cycle in the first place. Point in case: AGW theory run amok.

John F. Hultquist
January 8, 2011 10:50 pm

Somewhere it is written that it is much more difficult to have people “unlearn” things than it is to learn them. I’ve had entry-level college students tell me it is impossible for a substance to change from solid to vapor without melting. So I ask if they have ever seen old ice cubes in a modern freezer? They say they have but still believe something else happened – usually because a 9th or 10th grade “science” teacher told them that the proper way was to go through the sequence of solid-liquid-gas.
They go away thinking the instructor (me) is crazy, that sublimation is a magic trick, and their high school teacher is smarter than anyone in the physics, chemistry, geology, or geography departments at the university.
Charles “Andy” Anderson, MSU professor of teacher education, says
When you see a tree growing, . . . it’s a lot easier to believe that tree is somehow coming out of the soil rather than the scientific reality that it’s coming out of the air.
I shudder to think how this confusing statement gets incorporate into the newly minted teacher, regurgitated in a beginning science class, and melds into the developing intellect of a young teenager.

January 8, 2011 10:56 pm

It isn’t so much that the universities do not teach science as much as most students avoid science classes as much as possible. Most students take as little math and science as possible. The end result is what I call the advanced high school degree.
I work with many competent scientists and engineers that know their stuff, but them the people with the liberal arts degrees know less science and math than 8th graders because it is at least fresh with the kids.
John Kehr
The Inconvenient Skeptic

James Sexton
January 8, 2011 10:56 pm

“The researchers say biology textbooks and high-school and college science instructors need to do a better job of teaching the fundamentals….”
But then they wouldn’t be so easily swayed by the psuedo-science advocates.

January 8, 2011 11:13 pm

_Jim says: Wrote
January 8, 2011 at 10:39 pm
Michael says:
January 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm
“Do you have an authoritative link to an E.O. (Executive Order)?”
Jim, I believe this will help. (EO 12986)

Robert Wykoff
January 8, 2011 11:15 pm

Doesn’t splitting atoms “magically” make matter disappear?

January 8, 2011 11:17 pm

In my view, a couple of generations since I was at school, this is a strong indication that the teachers themselves are, unwittingly, to blame, having themselves been taught (or not, as the case may be) the fundaments of physical science erroneously. I would hazard a guess that the main culprit is that body of ‘jobsworths’ whose erstwhile mission was to improve educational standards. There was nothing wrong in the way we were taught, except perhaps the time lag between what was deemed to be factual, and the changing reality of modern physics, as is the case today.
I will refrain from any remark concerning propaganda, except to say that it is rife, more especially in teachers’ training colleges.

January 8, 2011 11:23 pm

Oh hell. let me just copy and paste this so people can easily read it.
Note the part that says;
“alternative model for sustainable communities and lifestyles, based on ecospiritual practices and principles.”
“One of Bill Clinton’s most insidious executive orders was EO 12986, which was issued on January 9, 1996. The decree extended immunity from lawsuits to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, IUCN, which is an accredited scientific advisory body to United Nations. The IUCN has more than 880 affiliates in 133 countries, including scores of state and federal governmental agencies and non-government organizations in the U.S. that seek to promote “alternative model for sustainable communities and lifestyles, based on ecospiritual practices and principles.” Toward that end, the IUCN created the “Wildlands Project,” a scheme to transform at least one-half the surface area of the continental United States into a vast “eco-park” purged of modern industry and private property.
The Wildlands project was to be incorporated as part of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, which was signed by Bill Clinton in July 1995. One month later, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive instructing “Natural resource and environmental agencies” to develop “a joint strategy to help the United States fulfill its existing obligations (e.g. Convention on Biodiversity, Agenda 21 ). Agenda 21, it should be noted, is the Mammoth blue-print for global eco-socialism produced by the United Nations at its 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. In September 1994, the Senate refused to ratify the Biodiversity treaty when it was discovered that its “binding Protocols,” which had been devised by the IUCN, mandated the implementation of the Wildlands Project in order to conserve “biodiversity.””

January 8, 2011 11:40 pm

I posted this in an earlier thread and it puts two and two together with my last post.
It mentions the ecofascist religion they started. It’s a new RELIGION.
Note the last two paragraphs in this post.
“An influential professor who worked as an assessor for the United Nations IPCC has called for democracy to be replaced with an eco-dictatorship where enslaved masses are ruled over by an “elite warrior leadership” and forced to adhere to a new green religion, in yet another shocking example of how prominent global warming alarmists are revealing themselves as dangerous eco-fascists.
Professor David Shearman, MD, is Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences and Law School. Shearman was an Assessor for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report and the Fourth Assessment Report.
In his writings, Shearman, who labels humanity a “malignant eco-tumour” and an “ecological cancer,” says that “authoritarianism is the natural state of humanity” and that in order to save the planet from man-made climate change, an “elite warrior leadership” needs to be formed that will “battle for the future of the earth”.
Part of this battle involves replacing traditional religions like Christianity and Islam with a new green religion that would fit better with an authoritarian government.
“It is not impossible that from the green movement and aspects of the new age movement a religious alternative to Christianity and Islam will emerge,” writes Spearman. “And it is not too difficult to imagine what shape this new religion could take. One would require a transcendent God who could punish and reward – because humans seem to need a carrot and a stick.””

January 8, 2011 11:49 pm

Boy I would love an edit button. Please add this to the executive order post to Jim.
“Mr. Clinton, as his custom, simply ignored the Senate’s refusal to ratify the treaty. Through EO 12858 he created the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, which coordinates federal efforts to “Harmonize” environmental regulatory practices with UN directives. His subsequent decrees regarding “roadless areas” and new “national monuments fit perfectly into the Wildlands frame-work, which is built around a net-work of existing “core .protected areas” – such as the Grand Canyon – which are surrounded by “buffer zones” and then connected by “wildlife corridors.” Former Earth First! eco-terrorist Dave Forman, helped concoct the Wildands Project, urges ecoradlcal groups to “look for gaps between wild lands or public lands” for future acquisition “by public agencies or private groups like; the Nature Conservancy.” In this way, private lands abutting federally designated “protected” areas can be pried out of private hands, until (in Foreman’s words) “the matrix, not just the nexus is, wild.” With two strokes of his proverbial pen, Bill Clinton has placed millions of property owners in the path of the Wildlands juggernaut – and through EO 12986, he placed the IUCN beyond civil accountability for any injuries sustained by private property owners.”

Martin Brumby
January 9, 2011 12:06 am

“more than 500 students at 13 U.S. colleges in courses ranging from introductory biology to advanced ecology.”
Advanced ecology courses?
I bet those guys and gals will be really down to earth, practical, level headed types.

chris smith
January 9, 2011 12:12 am

Anderson himself fails to understand the principle that co2 absorption is saturated. He needs to be taught that contrary to his belief, this is a non linear system and increases in co2 at the stage have no impact on temperature. Rather, they will help to feed us.

January 9, 2011 12:33 am

“Most students also incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “

What do you expect when all they been told is that co2 is a toxin, it will overheat the planet etc.? I think improved “scientific literacy” might have some unintended consequences for the Warmists. ;o)

January 9, 2011 1:03 am

“Most students also incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
I leaned this the hard way. My father was proud of his brick and timber fence, mostly covered in climbing ficus. As a child it was my job to keep the ficus trim with hedgeclippers.
One day I accidentally cut through the single root of the ficus, and I thought it would die. But no, it carried on growing as if nothing had happened. I then realised that the ficus grew from the CO2 in the air and the rain that fell on it and the fence, and got a few needed minerals from the bricks and mortar of the fence.
Since then I have had a huge macadamia tree. The soil under it has built up several feet over the years from the falling leaves. Where has this come from? – the CO2 from the air.
Over the years I have eaten and sold many thousands of macadamia nuts. And the soil keeps building up – from the CO2 in the air.

January 9, 2011 1:27 am

To “deal with climate change” one does not need to be scientifically literate at all. Just babble about “increased greenhouse effect”, “warmest evah”, “floodsdroughtsheatwaves” and “we have to act now”.

Geoff Sherrington
January 9, 2011 1:56 am

Have faith in the young.
Here’s the reason, for these kids came up with smarter answers than we ever did:

January 9, 2011 2:06 am

One of the striking differences between this test and the ones that I used to do as an undergrad physiology major was that all of our exams were short answer or essay questions in which diagrams were allowed and generally calculations were needed. Some of the questions are quite ambiguous or just plain wrong such as the one about eating a grape and how the glucose molecules could provide energy to move your finger. The answer is either through glycolysis, a rather inefficient anaerobic process or through the Krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation. In both cases glucose is broken down into smaller molecules with lactate resulting in glycolysis and glycerol phosphate entering the Krebs cycle. I would have chosen a wrong answer and the rationale of the authors that “simpler molecules will not contain more energy than complex molecules” is simply wrong. Back in my undergrad days I had all significant biochemical pathways memorized (along with reaction mechanisms). One of the first things I do when I move into a new work area is put my biochemical pathways chart on a large area of wall. IMO, an exam of this type tells one very little about the knowledge of the students given some of the bizarrely worded questions. It does, however, give a lot of information about the fallacious assumptions of the individuals writing the exam.
Still, despite the horrid nature of the exam, the assumptions of nuclear transformations occurring routinely in plants and rotting vegetation make one wonder about how good a grounding these students have had in elementary chemistry and physics. The inability to comprehend that CO2 comes from the air is just shocking and it reflects a general dumbing down of science. I guess the concept of spontaneous generation has been resurrected also.
When I was in school this type of exam would be given in a grade 9 science class and even then it was short answer/essay format. By the time I got to university and my ecology course, we did detailed numerical calculations looking at mass flows of CO2, H2O and minerals through plants and animals. I wrote programs to simulate these but that wasn’t part of the course. Incidentally, that was a first year ecology course.
I’d be very interested in how the same students would fare on a test where they were required to write out the chemical reactions of photosynthesis and actually do some calculations on the concentrations of reactants given the rate constansts of the various reactions, or have to answer a question with an essay. What I find quite shocking in the climate “science” area is an incredible ignorance of what should be fundamental bedrock knowledge of a field with the assumption that it doesn’t really matter as someone has incorporated it into a model. It’s the medical analogy of a surgeon attempting to perform an operation with just a superficial knowledge of anatomy and no knowledge of the common anatomic variants that people have.

January 9, 2011 2:16 am

Matter can be turned into energy. So its conservation of energy, not matter isn’t it?
You know that E = mc^2 equation.

January 9, 2011 2:26 am

to me most of the students need to stop smoking pot, don’t tell them the more Co2 in the atmosphere the quicker and stronger the pot plants will grow, when they learn of this I bet that will change their view on Co2
[Dupe ? Robt]

Geoff Sherrington
January 9, 2011 3:00 am

There is no doubt, in the example above, that the harvest of eating matter from soils does remove soil and therefore its level will drop (unless it is being renewed faster by a replacement mechanism such as heavy mulching). For example, the soil seen on unwashed potatoes must lead to a depletion in the first instance, as does that internal part of the potato not constructed from material from the atmosphere and hydrosphere.
In this context, I have photographed several Camellia reticulata trees in west China, whose ages are mostly over 400 years (from preserved written records). Those trees growing within enclosures such as the walls of a temple, have an ordinary appearance of ground level. Conversely, those growing in crop fields often have a stonework support built around them, for their immediate surroundings are about a half meter above the crop areas. It is a reasonable assumption that cropping here has reduced the ground height by about half a meter in 400 years.
The problem resembles that of sea level change – what does one use for an invariate datum point?
The example of food gaining weight from photosynthesis would be better made if some figures were attached for popular crops like the potato. X% from the ground, Y% from the air.
[Your calculation/discussion is ignoring soil erosion on the exposed and plowed soil for those 400 years. Robt]

David, UK
January 9, 2011 3:12 am

“And probably the most important environmental problem is global climate change. And that’s attributable to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And understanding where that carbon dioxide is coming from and what you can do about it fundamentally involves understanding the scientific carbon cycle.”
Or to put it more reasonably: Probably the most important problem is a lack of understanding as to what is global climate change. Climate change is attributable to a whole range of factors: the behaviour of the sun, the composition of the atmosphere, clouds, cosmic rays, the wobble of the earth’s axis – and many unknowns. Understanding where carbon dioxide is coming from fundamentally involves understanding the carbon cycle. Understanding where clouds come from fundamentally involves understanding the water cycle, the sun, and cosmic rays. Understanding climate change fundamentally involves the study of climate cycles going back millions of years, rather than the last 150.

David L
January 9, 2011 3:21 am

Not a surprise at all. Only a fraction of the students care to even learn the sciences. And of that fraction, it’s surprising how little they can learn and still receive a degree. When I was in graduate school, I saw Ivy league chemists finish PhDs who didn’t know what “DNA” stood for. I work with chemists in big Pharma that don’t know what the letters “DNA” stand for! I learned this in 9th grade physical sciences.
A society of ignorant, gullible people are at risk of manipulation and control. History has shown this repeatedly.

Smoking Frog
January 9, 2011 3:44 am

Robert Wykoff January 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm Doesn’t splitting atoms “magically” make matter disappear?
Only very slightly. See:
Mass-energy equivalence

David L
January 9, 2011 3:45 am

P.G. Sharrow says:
January 8, 2011 at 9:15 pm
Students that can’t grasp science and mathematics take liberal arts classes and become teachers, teachers that can not teach science and mathematics, teachers that put down the “nerds” that understand science and mathematics. No one that is “cool” would even try to understand math and science…”
You’ve hit the nail right on the head!!! I too felt this was a reason our society lacks science understanding. To a larger extent than you’ve described, I feel it’s somewhat of an anti-intellectual society. Teachers, students, and society at large label you as a “nerd” or “geek” if you not only have a passion for learning, but simply retain knowledge. To get along in school, I found myself pretending not to care or to not know information, especially in the sciences or mathematics, else I would get criticized. Playing dumb was required. It’s okay to know all the football or baseball players and their stats, and to discuss ad nauseum about sports, but let-on that you know some math or science let alone wanting to discuss it with others and you’re an outcast.
And now it’s these same anti-intellectual ignoramuses ” all growd up” that will decide political courses of action based on science? The same science they felt was too “uncool” to learn back in school? What a joke.

January 9, 2011 3:49 am

my initial thought was ‘Nothing new here’
Unfortunately, apart from my eldest in his second year at uni – I don’t have much experience of the modern student – but I stick to the principle that I was always taught, in that if you get confused or ‘lost’ you shoulds always go back to the start and work it through again.
One of my biggest beefs with AGW (and I suppose ‘modern science’ in general) is that this never really seems to happen – It is always, using so and so’s results and based on this paper and this data, etc, etc. I don’t know if its laziness or simply that the modern trend is to ‘accept’ what has been done before (perhaps to enable stuff to be published?). I feel sure if the ‘raw’ data was properly available and the workings were shown, ‘fresh’ or ‘open-minded’ scientists may be able to work though some of the AGW ‘base’ data and give us a second opinion!

January 9, 2011 4:32 am

This is something I can absolutely relate to. Being in my honours year we only have about a dozen students taking business enterprise. We have studied together for 4 years and there was a debate on new disruptive technology that can help reduce CO2. All the mainstream tech was discussed such as wind farming or tidal wave energy, the general consensus was to go towards nucleur energy as it was too costly to maintain a high output of energy from tidal energy and investors may find first generation technology unappetising due to low returns and so on.
However during the questions session I proposed, much of which has been discussed on sites such as these and I have to say I borrowed some quotes, that CO2 was infact food for plants and if we try to force a nation to become carbon neutral it would harm rather than help that nation.
One student asserted that it was soil not CO2 while the rest pretty much went with what I said “oh yeah I remember reading that somewhere.” Further discussion surprised them that there was plenty of information out there that our fear of CO2 is baseless and we should be harnessing it instead. Only person that said let’s not get into the science of it was the lecturer hah.
The die hard students who really want to make a difference follow an idea such as AGW are completely blindsided by the data or journals out there countering it. That’s why I agree with people that say it looks like its becoming a religion based movement rather than trust -based on knowledge, learning and research.
I have to say though that I was incredibly indoctrinated into the AGW movement in school however joining uni at 17 my earlier lecturers always said we don’t care what your views are, base them on data and facts and we’ll mark you on your evidence. I’ve applied that to most interests in my life and well, I’m following WUWT now at 21 and glad that I am not simple shouting for a cause but continually researching it.
Apologies for the long post on a sunday, 😉

Smoking Frog
January 9, 2011 4:45 am

Boris Gimbarzevsky January 9, 2011 at 2:06 am
I’m glad to see your message. I had been wondering if something was wrong with me for thinking that some of it was, as you say, bizarrely worded, and that, perhaps, some of it was wrong.

C.M. Carmichael
January 9, 2011 5:15 am

Virtually every child in the past 3 years has seen “An Inconvienient Truth” in science class. I think it has replaced the carbon cycle portion of the curriculum. In Canada we get our climate science guilt trip from Dr. David Suzuki, who states that Rachel Carson is his hero. Of course having a PhD. in the sexuality of fruit flies qualifies him to be the Canadian God of Climate.

Another Gareth
January 9, 2011 5:38 am

“Students trying to explain weight loss, for example, could not trace matter once it leaves the body; instead they used informal reasoning based on their personal experiences (such as the fat “melted away” or was “burned off”). In reality, the atoms in fat molecules leave the body (mostly through breathing) and enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and water.”
My belly is a carbon sink!

January 9, 2011 5:39 am

@ Stop Global Dumbing Now says:
Could we perhaps start with spelling? To be dumb is to be bereft of speech (which is far from the case in many). Dumm is German for stupid, hence the American term “dumbing down”, to become more stupid, is evidently a victim of itself.
Please rectify and describe as “Dumming down” in future.

January 9, 2011 5:47 am

If you really want to be depressed about the future of humankind, try asking a college student a question that begins with “what do you think …” or “why do you think …”. I had a history teacher in college who quite often asked “why do you think this civilization did these things?” The students hated that teacher. He had the audacity of making them think. They were expecting to be lectured.
Modern academia does not teach us to think, it just gives us knowledge. Students accept whatever the instructor is telling them; they don’t know better because they were never given critical thinking or personal thinking skills. That is the real tragedy. Sure science students not knowing science 101 is a tragedy. But the root cause of that problem is because instructors and teachers only lecture and never let students think.
An excellent way to control people is by keeping them ignorant. If people can be ignorant and without original thoughts, even better for those who wish to control. This is the real tragedy. We need to teach thinking instead of obedience to instructors, obedience to Hollywood, and obedience to fads. I’m just glad my parents made me think.

January 9, 2011 6:00 am

Robert Wykoff says:
January 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm
Doesn’t splitting atoms “magically” make matter disappear?
Gary Mount says:
January 9, 2011 at 2:16 am
Matter can be turned into energy. So its conservation of energy, not matter isn’t it?
You know that E = mc^2 equation.
That’s what I was taught at school, and burning matter meant that some of the matter involved was converted into energy. The the problem being that c^2 is an extremely large number and therefore m is not easily measured in most reactions.

January 9, 2011 6:54 am

What I’m getting from this discussion is, you are not worried so much about what’s NOT being taught, as you are worried about what IS being taught – “INCONVENIENT TRUTH” and other propaganda in the classroom. I agree.
Simple solution: homeschool your kid. No, my kid will not work for NASA like his grandpa does, but we don’t care. He made a barometer out of a rice milk carton, and it worked! He made snow one night with a hose sprayer and a squirrel cage fan, and it lasted for two days! (we built this ramshackle sled run out of scrap plywood – cowabunga!)
Whenever my kids, or my husband for that matter, want to accept something without questioning, I make them drop two things out of an upstairs window — gets ’em every time!
Science is not a course in school, it’s a way of thinking that children learn, mostly I think from their parents. It’s the art of questioning instead of being fed. That is what education is, a habit that you learn. And like Caesar Chavez said, “Once you have education, nobody can take it away from you.”
Frankly, I think public school kills more brains every year than marijuana.

mike g
January 9, 2011 7:24 am

I’m not getting that the investigators are any more versed in the science than the students…

January 9, 2011 7:35 am

Clearly Science has become a subset of Religion & Politics. What actually happens in reality no longer matters – it is what you choose to believe that is important today. The science behind physical processes is whatever you want it to be in order to support your Religious & Political beliefs. CAGW being a prime example.

January 9, 2011 7:39 am

One thing that is most definitely lacking is teaching of the philosophy of science, as best elucidated by Karl Popper. The key is to never cease to re-examine prior assumptions, and to demand testability from a theory. Sadly, many popular “theories” of today fall far short of being testable, and are sometimes not even based on observational evidence.

Gary Pearse
January 9, 2011 7:52 am

The scientists themselves don’t seem to fully understand the cycle – CO2 from cement making slowly returns to the cement (in concrete) over time in a phenomenon known as concrete carbonation. The fully degraded old concrete has sucked up the most CO2. Plaster – another cement- made by burning limestone to lime, too, over time sucks back its lost CO2 and makes the plaster back into limestone.

January 9, 2011 8:19 am

This thread reminded my of some research done in the US (in the 80’s I think). I cannot remember all the details but I think the students involved were about 5th grade.
They were given five questions. One of these was to guess how much of a log of wood was made up of water, how much came from the soil and how much came from the air.
The questions were chosen because these were topics that were to be studied in the next semester.
The teachers were then asked to estimate how correct the students answers would be and how correct they would be at the end of the course.
What the teachers did not know was that the researchers were going to come back at the end of the course and test the students again.
The results were more traumatic for the teachers than for the students.
Again the details are a bit fuzzy but from memory the students were about 50% accurate before the course (compared with the teachers estimate of 25%) and only 25% accurate after the course (compared with the teacher’s estimate of 75%).
So the teachers underestimated the basic reasoning skill of their pupils and overestimated their own ability to educate.
The researchers came to the conclusion that most of us establish a basic understanding of how the world works which is surprisingly accurate. Education tends to undermine our confidence in these intuitive models as teachers replace them with well researched but very abstract models, often simplified to the point of uselessness. Because they are also presented without any real life context they are difficult to rationalise and validate and we are left confused.
Are we surprised that so many of us have swallowed AGW as truth?

January 9, 2011 8:25 am

Leif Svalgaard says:
January 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm
“have a look [click on the VoD ison to play] and weep.”
GOOD GRIEF. We were better off in medieval times.
Imagine when these types gets into government. We are DOOMED!

John Mc
January 9, 2011 8:38 am

I guest you could say that science has run amuck. I just sent the following, email to my eleven year old granddaughter, because of her abilities in math and science and concern for the environment. I would like for to read the right information about CO2.

January 9, 2011 9:24 am

There is a very good reason the Atmospheric Carbon Cycle is not taught in our schools. If it were, the light bulb would go off above every students head, and they would rightly conclude: “This global warming stuff is a lot of baloney”!

January 9, 2011 9:28 am

comprehending – fundamental scientific principles such as the conservation of matter
This reminded me … I’ve been having this problem with some of the CO2 numbers I come across that seem to take thousands of tonnes of coal and have them making tens of thousand of tonnes of CO2.
“Conservation of matter” would say otherwise.

James Sexton
January 9, 2011 9:31 am

So, now that we know our children lack even the most basic knowledge of science. Are we handing out less degrees associated with the sciences?
I doubt it.

Benjamin P.
January 9, 2011 9:42 am

Most Americans lack scientific literacy.

January 9, 2011 10:20 am

cal says:
January 9, 2011 at 8:19 am
interesting post – but it also illustrates the benefit of practical ability and demonstration in conjunction with my previous comment about working from basics. Teaching something in a responsible manner is of course the realm of the teachers, awakening the natural curiosity in kids and channelling it into active ‘interest’ is the key, IMHO. Modern students (schoolkids), in my opinion, do not get enough ‘hands on’ anymore, too much internet, ‘coursework’, powerpoint presentations and lack of practicals (health and safety and all that gubbins!) and I genuinely believe it makes them less capable in the real world, indeed half of them seem to be ‘automatons’ who cannot do anything unusual without directions first!
So I don’t think simple ‘lecturing’ the kids is the best way forward, and the best teachers probably know this?
We are all guilty of the ‘I’ve heard it before’ moment, where you just ‘switch off’ and don’t listen because you already ‘know it’. I confess to doing it all the time when reading articles, I tend to speed read and skip stuff I have ‘read’ before, believing it is likely irrelevent or not worthy of deeper consideration – then get flipping annoyed when I have to go back and re-read stuff to actually understand a point!
And as any parent here will admit – you simply cannot tell modern kids anything! LOL – so for me – teaching has got to be the hardest job in the world to do well, and I respect the teachers I had and the good ones around today.

Roving Poet
January 9, 2011 10:24 am

The MSU study is inspiring: teaching principles not indoctrinating politics. That is the real problem.
So: Could these wise professors offer us online or book examples of how we can study the principles ourselves?
thank you!

January 9, 2011 10:33 am

Can’t say as I’m surprised by this article. I graduated from high school back in ’87 and the criteria on math and science was rather lacking. All that was needed was 1.5yrs of science, 1.5yrs of math but 4yrs of english. Is it any wonder todays college students are not well grounded in the sciences?

Roving Poet
January 9, 2011 10:48 am

While reading through the study, I see that there is a link to a website that teaches the principles. Looking for more help if anyone, particularly the professors from that MSU study on students’ overreliance on informal reasoning, can offer assistance.
Thank you again!

Roving Poet
January 9, 2011 10:59 am

One more comment about this state of ignorance we are in:
Even these best MSU, principle-based teachers will have a tough time breaking through 100 years of accumulated nonsense in the hard heads of our youth. They have been taught culturally that there are NO principles at work politically, religiously, even scientifically. There is only what they subjectively see, want, feel and engineer! Pretty retro, that power drive, but when you disguise it as “progress” in the language of experts, it works for a while.
In fact, it was precisely because of new findings at the atomic and molecular level in the last 150 years that suddenly all principles were thrown out (Newton’s laws etc) perhaps because even our brightest could not see a way to connect all those levels of activity together in a principled way. (elusive unified field theory).
Nonetheless, true science perseveres and may even be aided by the principled hand of God, even at this late date. If that’s too much of a reach for some, stay with the meek though secular search for truth.

January 9, 2011 11:06 am

College students don’t only lack scientific literacy. Many of them are just plain functionally illiterate in general. Yet they graduate anyway: click
The link above was gleaned from my second-favorite blog, Maggie’s Farm. Here’s a list sorted by “Education.”

January 9, 2011 11:31 am

“Students trying to explain weight loss, for example, could not trace matter once it leaves the body; instead they used informal reasoning based on their personal experiences (such as the fat “melted away” or was “burned off”). In reality, the atoms in fat molecules leave the body (mostly through breathing) and enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and water.”
Well I didn’t know that. Nor did I know that plants build from the CO2 they intake although deep down I knew but I hadn’t really thought about the question of what material plants use to grow and nutrients from the soil would have featured in an answer I would have given too. I don’t actually think either matter really matters for issues of climate change.

david beattie
January 9, 2011 11:40 am

I retired from teaching in 1996. For most of my carreer I was an elementary school science teacher and had the backing one of the finest science departments in North America. (Calgary). I know how remarkable it was because of a report from a parliamentary committee and feed-back from the National Science Convention in New Orleans in the early 90’s.
The grade one students started in the science lab three times a week in grade one and finished with a very solid foundation of science methods and knowledge at the end of grade 6. They had six years of hands on science, both in the lab setting and out in the field. From grade three and beyond they were encouraged to enter projects in the annual school science fair and the top projects from grade 5 and 6 were entered in the city science fair. It was a joy to see the gym filled with close to 200 projects some years. There were over 500 hundred students soaking up science in that room every three days. The kids were at ease in a lab setting and as a school, scored consistantly in the top ten for the province on provincial exams at the grade six level. Without a strong team in the science department it would have been difficult to do what I did. What was important to me was the fact that the students did science, they didn’t just study it. They made C02 and experimented with it. The same with oxygen and hydrogen. As you can imagine, the highlight with hydrogen was the flame test with a flaming splint into a vial oF freshly made gas. Thankfully, no grade sixer thought to try the flaming methane gas test.
Unfortunately, during those years, I had to put up with the mantra from the educators down town that elementary school teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach children. A strong principal and supportive parents kept the wolves away from the door. It wasn’t to last.
A year after I left the science room and the school administrators retired, the science department was closed down and all the equipment and supplies scattered every which way. The floor of the science room was carpeted and a new Assistant Principal took over the room for her home room.I subbed for a while and saw the sorry state of science in many schools. It was not unusual to see a single table set up in the corner of the class room where some “science” could be done after doing other assignments. Most teachers had little or no science background.
I’m confident that many of the students who had the opportunity to be immersed in science,would, as young adults now, see the sad state of science today. I hope that someday our society will see to it that we get back on track but probably not in my life time. The Russians provided the imputus in 1959. Maybe ever increasing science and engineering graduates in Asia will provide the needed push down the road. With increasing numbers of blogs like this one, there just might be some hope in spite of the odds.
My heart-felt thanks to Andrew and all those who share their knowledge with those of us who are trying to learn and understand.

John Q. Galt
January 9, 2011 11:46 am

Most students also incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “When you see a tree growing,” Anderson said, “it’s a lot easier to believe that tree is somehow coming out of the soil rather than the scientific reality that it’s coming out of the air.”
Actually… , the largest source is dissolved CO2, carbonic acid and carbonates in soil water, as the cooler, heavier-than-air, highly soluble CO2 makes it’s way through the root-leaf transpiration process. More CO2 comes out the stomata than goes in as it heats up in the solar-heated leaf tissue along with transpired H2O.

Dr T G Watkins
January 9, 2011 11:50 am

We are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
It is not confined to the U.S. The teaching of ‘science’ in the UK has been ‘dumbed down’, particularly up to age 16. Environment contaminates and dilutes everything.
Teaching respiratory physiology to final year medical undergraduates when they struggle to know the composition of air and have no understanding of barometric pressure, partial pressure etc. is to say the least challenging. And, of course, they are bright and work hard; they just haven’t been taught basics in school or med. school, but tons of ‘ethics’ and ‘communications’.

January 9, 2011 11:59 am

onion says @11:31 am:
“Well I didn’t know that. Nor did I know that plants build from the CO2 they intake… I don’t actually think either matter really matters for issues of climate change.”
I doubt that there are more than a handful of readers of this site so scientifically illiterate that they believe that trees use material from the soil to grow. If that were so, houseplants in pots would need regular replenishment of their soil.
And the question does have a direct bearing on “issues of climate change.” But it would take an enormous amount of education to get you up to the 6th grade level necessary to understand the connection.
Instead, I suggest you stop cluttering up the threads with the nonsense you obviously get from alarmist blogs, and spend a few months reading the WUWT archives, including the comments. Everyone concerned will benefit.

Theo Goodwin
January 9, 2011 12:00 pm

The root of all evil in American educational systems today is that the verb ‘criticize’ has been banned. Some of you might be old enough to remember when that word was commonplace. I remember very well when that verb was replaced by the noun ‘critique’. It happened first in the business community. My guess is that it started there because no one cared about the differences between ‘criticize’ and ‘critique’ and no one in that community will risk ruffling feathers. The replacement has been successful for some decades now. Now for the bad part: the word ‘critique’ has been banned also. How bad is the situation? Well, over the last couple of weeks, I posted twice on this site in defense of Willis because he had been so politically incorrect as to criticize the work of a Warmist. Back in the BPC days (Before PC), the give and take of criticism was commonplace and no one was offended when someone revealed a prediction that had proved false or inconsistent assumptions. APC, mentioning such matters amounts to a serious faux paus.
I begin each of my classes by explaining to students that they are going to experience something new and exciting in my course, namely, criticism. I tell them that they are expected to develop theses and defend them against criticism from all comers. At first, this is very hard for them to understand because they do not know the meaning of ‘criticize’, ‘criticism’, “to critique,” or even ‘critique’. They learn or they fail. (I do not say these things to my colleagues because they can make one’s life very difficult.)
You might not have registered the fact that no Warmista responds to criticism. They do not acknowledge statements that are critical of their work. Really. They simply do not respond to interviewers or correspondents when they make critical statements. Warmista are living large in the era of PC. (Perhaps the most memorable example of this sort of thing is Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that a majority of Americans disapprove of Obamacare.)
The first task of those who would like to see the Kommissars of PC deposed is to restore the word ‘criticize’ to its original meaning. Criticism must once again become commonplace and no less respectable than assertion.

January 9, 2011 12:01 pm

Why bother with all this science stuff when in 10 months can be a Master of Global Environmental Change and you get to drive the bus in one of the millions of Green Jobs mandated in government bureaucracies, NGO’s, MSM and academia?
Click here for one of the top rated and network your way to success!
All it takes is “a clear interest in global environmental issues and institutional/social transformation, as well as in information technology.”

January 9, 2011 12:31 pm

Interesting CO2 factoid in new AGU presentation on “all good” windfarm turbulence effects on crops.
The “beautiful plume of increased turbulence that persisted even a quarter-mile downwind of a turbine” with “potential benefit to crops- that increased airflows could enable corn and soybean plants to more readily extract atmospheric CO2, a needed “fuel” for crops. The extra turbulence might also pump extra CO2 from the soil. Both results could facilitate the crops ability to perform photosynthesis.”
Nice to see photosynthesis lives still in DOE sponsored research but wonder about the net soil drying “benefits” for irrigated crops?
Some effort also needed with “a wind turbine is nothing more than a tall tree with a well-pruned stem” in initial computer models.

Kevin Kilty
January 9, 2011 12:36 pm

Leif Svalgaard says:
January 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm
have a look [click on the VoD ison to play] and weep.

That was an interesting video, Leif, thanks for the link. Believe me, I now know all about the private physics, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, biology of students. I taught a “physics without much math” course for health sciences for a few years, and I was always disappointed in the outcomes. The students had all finished (successfully) a terminal college math course (algebra or problem solving), but they couldn’t work anything at all in physics, as far as I could tell.
My friend, Adachi, says to me “They can’t work algebra ’cause they can’t handle fractions.” I didn’t believe him so I added a lab that made use of the lens equation and sure enough they would do things like add 1/20 + 1/32 and get 2/52…they would add the numerators and denominators separately, and tell me that this was good enough for high school. Things like 1/4-5/4 would have undefined results! They were, mathematically, helpless people who are then expected to do things like figure dosages of X-rays or medicines. Scary, isn’t it?

January 9, 2011 1:33 pm

Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach. Those that can neither do nor teach, go into sociology or media studies, where they spend the rest of their lives making up little stories about why they can neither do, nor teach.

January 9, 2011 2:02 pm

As a former teacher in science in junior high and then later as a professor in the engineering department of a large university, the issue of the inadequacies of science education is one that I was partly responsible for creating and later became a victim. In that sense I am probably qualified to comment on the issue raised by the MSU researchers. Before me there are at least 60 comments about the cause of the problem raised by MSU.
From my vantage point when I taught junior high students, they did not want the think. In an effort to gain approval they gave back what they thought I wanted to hear. They didn’t like when I asked the next question, how do you know that is the correct answer? Some might call this critical reasoning. When I faced college students I experience the same response. Help me find the answer you want on the test.
While Associate Dean I conducted a series of interviews from recent engineering students about science principles they will be using in their future careers. The questions were simple concepts from physics and mathematics that one would expect them to have mastered. I also video taped the answers and gave a copy to the university administration. I never got the tape back. I don’t blame them. It is embarrassing that the best students don’t have the ability to apply the principles to a question in science.
The question about science education is very complex as one can discern from the many comments in this post. The question I was always asking myself, how can I teach a student to think about the information they have at their disposal? The question is not easy to answer. The correct answer depends upon who is asking the question, what the students knows, the correctness of the information at their disposal, their ability to recall the knowledge, and their ability to connect the dots
If the experiment run by Harvard, MSU, and others reveled in this BLOG are valid, something is radically wrong with science education. Maybe the paradigm that has constituted science education, particularly in America, is not correct. Science is not knowledge alone, particularly when the information is tainted or watered down. Science involves careful consideration ideas with plenty of debate and discourse and skepticism. Is that what we are teaching?

January 9, 2011 2:25 pm

This reminded me … I’ve been having this problem with some of the CO2 numbers I come across that seem to take thousands of tonnes of coal and have them making tens of thousand of tonnes of CO2.
“Conservation of matter” would say otherwise.

Each tonne of carbon you burn takes two oxygen atoms from the atmosphere – carbon has mass 12, oxygen has mass 16, therefore a CO2 molecule is 3.6 times heavier than a carbon atom, so yes the CO2 is a lot heavier than the coal.

January 9, 2011 2:50 pm

What do you expect from kids who were, for the most part, nothing more than consumers of a mass produced product (government education) that is characterized more by social promotion and grade inflation than by the transfer of knowledge. It’s hard to recover from 12 years or more of being taught what to think rather than how to think!

January 9, 2011 3:31 pm

Neo says:
January 9, 2011 at 9:28 am
… I’ve been having this problem with some of the CO2 numbers I come across that seem to take thousands of tonnes of coal and have them making tens of thousand of tonnes of CO2.
“Conservation of matter” would say otherwise.
Actually, The combustion of 3 thousand tons of anthracite coal (nearly 100% carbon) would make ~11,000 tons of CO2. The ratio is roughly 3.66 to 1 which is the ratio of a mole of CO2 (44) to 1 mole of Carbon (12)

January 9, 2011 4:02 pm

Quote from the release:
“And probably the most important environmental problem is global climate change. And that’s attributable to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
Who will teach the teachers?

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
January 9, 2011 4:13 pm

From Kevin Kilty on January 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm:

They were, mathematically, helpless people who are then expected to do things like figure dosages of X-rays or medicines. Scary, isn’t it?

Thankfully modern medicine is taking care of this issue. In the interest of Quality Control, brought about by the overwhelming need to avoid lawsuits in the face of skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums, the correct dosage will be “whatever the computer says it is.”
With the human element removed, all errors can be eliminated as computers are infallible. Just in case, the computer can be queried three times with the same info inputed, and dosing can proceed as long as two of the three results are “close enough” to agreement. This only needs to continue until Cost Containment decides any error rate is negligible thus the computer only needs to be bothered once.
Besides, if there would happen to be an error (highly unlikely), it is obviously the fault of the company that programmed the computer, thus they will be the ones who get sued. Thus to promote Quality Assurance and reduce health care costs, at the likely insistence of the computer programmer, they’ll have a second computer automatically verify the results of the first computer.
Really, since the way to make everything better and remove all possibility of error is to sit back and let the computers do the thinking, as is found throughout our modern society, what does it matter if humans can calculate those things at all?

January 9, 2011 4:19 pm

To be fair to the students in this, I think the “teachers” are poor at posing questions, and had an axe to grind. If I was to compare the oxidation reaction of fat (an organic chain) to the oxidation of octane (an organic chain), and were to use a short phrase to compare the two, “burned off” is actually fairly descriptive.
In octane, the hydrogen combines with the oxygen to form water, and the carbon combines with oxygen to form CO2 which are ejected into the air as gases/vapours in a process known a “burning”.
In fat, the hydrogen combines with the oxygen to form water, and the carbon combines with oxygen to form CO2 which are ejected into the air as gases/vapours in a process which does seem to rather similar in those fundamentals.
“Melting away” is pure marketing speak from anti-cellulite creams however.
Further more, the majority of the plant is actually water, and this does (in most plants) come from the soil. The solid bits are just to keep the water the right shape. Even then, the solid bits in many instances come from the soil. Nitrogen (fixed by soil bacteria), phosphorus etc. That’s why manure spreading is so important – it’s not done for fun. Again, a poor question.
So despite my usual criticisms of the standard of edukashun (TM), I think the students were hard-done to in this particular instance. The “teachers” need to be slapped a bit, and made to up their game.

Philip Finck
January 9, 2011 6:33 pm

What do you expect when universities such as Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada offer degrees in Environmental Studies. The list of lectures would make David Suzuki smile.

January 9, 2011 7:59 pm

david beattie , it was interesting to read your comments about the state of science education in Calgary schools. I did junior and senior high in Calgary graduating in 1971 and the science labs were well equipped and available for use for those of us who were interested in conducting experiments after hours. I’m sure that many of the experiments that we did even in junior high school would be considered to be too dangerous in our current risk-averse age. We were quite comfortable around sulfuric and nitric acids the science teacher only reigned us in when we tried to make TNT (only got the first nitro group on).
What surprised me was that the physics we took was equivalent to first year physics at the university of Ottawa where I did my undergrad and the final year math class included calculus. The state of science education in Ontario at that time wasn’t even close to what was available in Calgary.
Also, in 1969 the Calgary school board made a large amount of computer time available for student use at the University of Calgary and a number of us lived at the UofC data center programming and trying to find new places to hide from our parents who had strange ideas like we should be sleeping at night, not writing programs.
Science fairs were large affairs at that time and were places one could meet fellow nerds. The elementary plant physiology that started this discussion thread would have been taught at a grade 9 level in Calgary. The biology courses that I took in high school included biochemistry and physiology and a knowledge of mathematics was assumed for all science courses.
I still have my high school textbooks in storage and should compare them to modern textbooks to see how much science has been dumbed down. I’m not sure if the same division of students into various groups still applies as I was in the group of people who were expected to go into university. The other group was those who were interested in going into a trade and they had a different level of science/mathematical education and finally there was the lowest group that were headed for secretarial and other work who had an even lower level of mathematics and science. This group was primarily female and the only course which I took at this level was typing and we annoyed the teacher to no end as we were the only 3 males in the class and we easily determined that all we had to do to pass the course was to type fast enough and never bothered with learning how to setup letters and other documents on typewriters but just made it through with blinding typing speed.

Jorgen Overgaard
January 9, 2011 8:38 pm

“When you see a tree growing,”Anderson said,”it is much easier to believe that tree is something coming out of the soil rather than the scientific. . . .”
A common picture of a forest in latitude 55 to 65 N. is that the soils have been transported by the big Ice some 20,000 years ago. Down in a valley you have a creek. Production of wood and trees are high low down in the valley. Depending on climate, soils and moisture content the production is maybe something between 10 to 15 cubicmetres a year and hectare (m3/yr/ha/. When you come higer up on the slope one can see the trees are shorter and smaller also in diametre and if you check one can see that the production is much lower maybe only 2 to 5 m3/yr/ha. The soils seems pretty much like what you have on the bottom of the valley but it is dryer and not as deep. Still higher up you have the rock and hardly no production at all.
Through the photosyntesis process in the green parts of the plants oxygen and carbon splits. Oxygen is transported out of the plant. Carbon mix easily with solved carbonates and carbon acids and other compounds that the root sucks up from the soils.
The processes are not as simple as one can believe from the post. It is much more complicated. In this post all carbon compounds are called for CO2. It is the same mistake as the AGW do, when they call carbon dioxide for carbon. Now AGW people and governments want to sequester carbon down to the under world. What happens if they take too much and the content of carbon dioxide will be too low.
I don’t blame the kids that they believe the trees or plants are coming from the soils. Why do there parents fertilize there gardens and the farmers their lands. We havenot started to spray the plants with CO2 to get them grow better. Our poor media does not like to mention that the production of our lands has increased by 10-15 % during the last decades caused by increased carbon dioxide content. The media is to blame that they donot give us. kids and grown ups the truth and all the truth, but a lot of lies about the climate changes. Jo

James Bull
January 9, 2011 11:14 pm

“Most students also incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” When at school in 70s UK we covered the experiments of (I cannot remember who) which showed that a tree growing in a pot of soil of known weight gained in size and weight over time with only the addition of air and water. So what are they teaching now?
James Bull

P.G. Sharrow
January 9, 2011 11:50 pm

The very young are real scientists. They examine everything for cause and effect, and want to know how the world works. As soon as they can understand and speak people talk, they are told fairy tales instead of facts. Techno-babble instead of reality. For some season the least capable teachers are pushed to the 2nd & 3rd grade where administrators think they will do the least damage. Actually they do the most damage, if students can read well and do arithmetic by the 4th grade they can teach themselves.
Now with the NET that covers the world the old way of the educated elite controlling knowledge is over. Anyone with access to a computer can call up all of the knowledge in the world and communicate with anyone even in different languages.
The modern personal computer is the greatest invention ever created! the amount of human knowledge now doubles every 7 years! and every genius can communicate with every other one. These are very interesting times. pg

January 10, 2011 6:47 am

One of the things I am not interested in is the fact that plants make their carbon from CO2 from the air (actually most of them have to get their protein-forming N from the soil). Because if you do not know yet, you learn this in middle school (K-9 or something) in civilized countries. Now it appears the best and brightest university students struggle to understand it. Yay.

January 10, 2011 9:59 am

Anderson said: “One of the things I’m interested in,” he said, “is students’ understanding of environmental problems. And probably the most important environmental problem is global climate change. And that’s attributable to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. ”
To sum it all up: this is the case of one moron seeking to teach other morons.

A. Fucaloro
January 10, 2011 10:15 am

I’m scheduled to teach our course designed for non-majors meeting their science requirement. I sent the students the following list of 20 scientific questions/puzzles for them to review over the Christmas break.
1. What is the circumference of the latitude line on which Los Angeles is situated?
2. What is the significance of the Tropic of Cancer? The Arctic Circle?
3. Sometimes no water condenses on the surface of a glass of ice water. What does this tell you?
4. How did Eratosthenes determine the circumference of the Earth?
5. A coiled spring upon which rests a five pound ball is placed vertically on the locomotive of a one-mile long train traveling at a constant 60 mph (1 mile/min). The spring is released and the ball ascends 50 ft above the train before falling back down. How far back from the spring does the ball strike the train?
6. You are traveling 100,000 miles/sec (really fast) in relation to some designated fixed point. You flash a light in the direction of travel. A person located at the fixed point measures the speed of the light to be 186,000 miles/sec. What speed do you measure for the light? (See question 12.)
7. You are driving your car at a steady 40 mph. In the car is a helium balloon “resting” on the car’s ceiling. You apply the brakes and lunge forward as the car decelerates. In which direction does the balloon lunge?
8. Beaker A contains 100 grams of water and beaker B contains 100 grams of alcohol. You pour 10 grams from beaker A to B. You then pour 10 grams of B into A. Which beaker contains the “purer” solution?
9. Is the velocity of a falling object proportional to the distance fallen or the time fallen?
10. Is it possible to estimate the time by observing the moon at night?
11. You travel one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north and arrive at the starting point. Identify all locations on the globe for which this is possible? What is it about global directions for north, east, south, and west that make it possible to do this?
12. Why does it usually take more time to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo than the other way?
13. How long does it take light to travel from the Earth to the Moon? From the Sun to the Earth? From the next nearest star to the Earth?
14. How hot is the surface of the Sun? How do people who know this, know this?
15. How hot is the interior of the Sun? How do people who know this, know this?
16. What are the definitions of circles and ellipses?
17. What is Euclid’s fifth postulate? How is it related to our current understanding of gravity?
18. What is the surface area of a cube with a one-meter edge? What is the volume?
19. How much does one cubic meter of water weigh?
20. Two objects start moving from the same start line at the same time (say t=0). Object A moves at a constant velocity, v[A], and object B uniformly accelerates such that
v[B]=k x t, where k is some constant and x is the multiplication symbol. Show that both objects cover the same distance when v[B] = 2 x v[A]. This is basically what Galileo showed for falling objects which uniformly accelerate. The problem reduces to either a simple geometric or algebraic solution. Your call.

UK John
January 10, 2011 1:50 pm

Leif is dismayed, but surely the Earth if flat? isn’t it?

George Steiner
January 10, 2011 5:32 pm

In Prehistoric times such a study could not have been done. No academic would have sunk this low. As for your students, can they write, can they speak, can they count? They are indolent, insolent and incompetent.
When I went to school, in prehistoric times in a small country, we had to take something like 11 subjects all through the years until the end of high school. No options. You had to pass them all. To go up a year.
At he age of ten I was taught biology. The sciences and humanities al the way to the end plus a language. School was for half a day. Three hours or so of home work every day.
Marking was not an exercise in statistics. 5 was excellent, 1 was a fail. We where tested constantly. In the first five or so minutes of the class some where asked questions about the last lesson. And marked in a little book, 1 to 5.
I was not brilliant mostly 3s some 4s. I am still living on my high school education. A nation of uneducated people will decline rapidly and thirty years can’t be reversed.

Dr. John Ware
January 11, 2011 4:35 am

I’m displeased at the comments about liberal arts education. A true LA education includes science, which, if well taught, will encompass the concepts referred to in the article and many more. But it may also include such courses as music theory, which is just as difficult (at least for the non-musician) as science is for non-scientists. In the liberal arts I do NOT include such featherweight noxiosities as ethnic studies, women’s studies, New Age studies, and such drivel. When seeking culprits for the current state of education, be sure to include grade inflation, self-esteem (as opposed to self-respect), political correctness, and fear of offending students by awarding real earned grades. As for Shakespeare: Read it–you likely need it!

Ben of Houston
January 12, 2011 11:24 am

Via the tried and true method of requiring extremely-specific wording and declaring anything else blatantly wrong, this man has declared everyone else is too stupid to be reasoned with. He would fit in very well with most of my professors in school.
However, he messes up several key facts that are quite important.
1: CO2 is not a nutrient. It provides no energy to the plant.
2: The energy source of a plant (and therefore primary “nutrient”) is sunlight
3: Plants DO get nutrients from the soil including… well, everything that isn’t carbon.
4: Plants cannot be said to come out of the air any more than animals dissapear into the air or flush down the toilet. While I generally allow good leeway in artistic license on catch-phrases, I am not going to give him room here. Claims of inaccuracy should be supported by accurate statements.
5: Finally, it is quite reasonable to say that fat “burns off”. While it isn’t combustion, the end result is oxidation into CO2. The use of the phrase “burn” in non-technical circles is normal for complete-oxidizing reactions.

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