Guest opinion: Dr. Tim Ball
Science is pervasive directly and indirectly in every phase of modern life. While the majority are not directly involved in science, they need to understand science and how it works. It is increasingly the underlying control of social, political, and economic decisions made by them or for them. They need to understand how it works, even if they don’t make it work. This knowledge must be a fundamental part of any school curriculum.
Climate skeptics struggle with getting the majority of people to understand the problems with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) anthropogenic global warming (AGW) story. It was the theme of my presentation at the first Heartland Climate Conference in New York and many articles and presentations since. The problem is much wider because it relates to the lack of scientific abilities among a majority of the population. Based on teaching a science credit for science students for 25 years, giving hundreds of public presentation and involving myself in education at all levels from K-12, to graduate, and post-graduate, plus the transition to the workplace, I believe a fundamental mandatory change in thinking and curricula are required.
I believe abilities are an example of the ongoing nature/nurture argument. People can learn an ability, but can only achieve a high level of competence with an innate ability. For example, most people can learn the mechanics of teaching, but only a few are ‘gifted’ teachers. These concepts are particularly true of certain abilities, such as music, art, languages and mathematics. From my experience, I learned that most people with these gifts struggled with understanding why other people cannot do as they do. Often, they do not even see their ability as unique, and some deride those without their ability. On a larger scale than just mathematics, which philosophically is an art, is the distinction of abilities between those who are comfortable with science and those who are not.
Figure 1 shows the national percentage of students with High-Level Science Skills. Presumably, they are the ones who will pursue careers that require that level. Figure 2 shows the number of university graduates in science-related programs. By combining the data, it is reasonable to assume that approximately 15 percent of the population are comfortable with science.
Figure 3 appears to confirm that percentage as it shows the percentage of Undergraduates from the University of Michigan. Those graduating with a science degree include Engineers 3 percent, Mathematicians 5 percent, and Sciences 7 percent, for a total of 15 percent.
I was involved in many curricula fights, few of them ever resolved much. Ever subject area and discipline considered theirs essential to an education. They failed in achieving curricula useful to the student and society. This was because they were controlled by people ensuring what interested them or what ensured their job, rather than what the student needed to become an effective informed citizen. Students are not given the tools to avoid being exploited. Indeed, sometimes I think the system keeps them ignorant so it can exploit them as adults. Peoples of the Rainforest teach their children what they need to survive in the real and dangerous world in which they live. We don’t do this at any level. For most North American university or college students the experience is simply a socially acceptable and ridiculously expensive form of unemployment. Most of them learn more about life and themselves in part-time and summer jobs.
Michael Crichton, best known for his scientific novels like Jurassic Park, was a graduate of Harvard Medical School. He wrote an interesting novel, State of Fear, that used global warming to illustrate how environmentalists misuse science for a political agenda. This misuse works because 85 percent of society are unable to know what is happening. However, there are other ways to determine that misuse is occurring. For example, I am not a mathematician, but I do understand the scientific method. I knew from the start that the goal was to ‘prove’ the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis, not to disprove it. Richard Lindzen’s comment very early in the debacle that the consensus was reached before the research had even begun resonated with me immediately.
It is true that the devil is in the detail. I did not have the skills to detect what Michael Mann did to create the ‘hockey sick’, but knew from knowledge of climate history and other evidence that something was wrong. To quote Popeye as my philosopher of record, “I don’t know how’s youz duz it, but youz duz it.” It took the skills of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick to identify how it was done. It was the nail in the coffin, but the coffin was already under construction. Worse, the coffin is still not finished.
Crichton also gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on September15, 2003. Here are his opening remarks.
I have been asked to talk about what I consider the most important challenge facing mankind, and I have a fundamental answer. The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.
We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we’re told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part given to us by what other people and society tell us; in part generated by our emotional state, which we project outward; and in part by our genuine perceptions of reality. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own hopes and fears.
The main theme of his talk is the political use of environmentalism as a religion for indoctrination and control. His concluding remarks state:
Because in the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost. We will enter the Internet version of the dark ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices, transmitted to people who don’t know any better. That’s not a good future for the human race. That’s our past. So it’s time to abandon the religion of environmentalism, and return to the science of environmentalism, and base our public policy decisions firmly on that.
I agree, but how do you resolve the problem of science being the answer when 85 percent of the people don’t understand science? I agree with Crichton about Environmentalism, but it is a wider problem. Every aspect of society is a function of science and technology that is vulnerable to political manipulation.
For me, the obvious answer is to have compulsory courses in Science. They should occur in Elementary, Middle, High School and College and University. Everyone needs to know what science is, how it works, and how it evolved. If everyone knew about the scientific method the challenges I faced in my first presentation before a Canadian Parliamentary Committee would not have occurred.
The hearing involved the issue of ozone. I did not want to attend because I knew it was pure political theater designed to exploit an environmental issue. I had no choice; it was a quasi-judicial hearing with incarceration the threat for failure to appear.
I was grouped with two other science people and we had less presentation time in total than the five “Friends of the Earth.” (Think of the arrogance of that name; if you are not in our group you are not a friend of the Earth.) I expected that bias. Biases are only problems if you are not aware of them. I also realized that the politicians knew little or nothing about science. However, the presentation of one of the scientists disturbed me most. He presented data of ozone levels over Toronto for a period when I knew there were no such measures; he particularly stressed one very low reading. I realized this was computer model generated data. He did not explain this to the politicians who thought it was real data. In a break after his presentation, I asked if he knew about the scientific method and was surprised when he said no. I decided at that point to break protocol and replace my submitted presentation with an impromptu explanation of the scientific method.
This began by explaining, as a geochemist colleague put it, that people think science provides answers. It does, but only rarely. Science works by asking and vetting questions. The questions are presented as a hypothesis based on assumptions. Other scientists, acting as skeptics, challenge the hypothesis by testing the validity of the assumptions. In other words, they try to disprove the hypothesis. I told the politicians that the CFC destroying ozone hypothesis was untested.
I then explained that a scientific hypothesis was akin to speculation based on a few selected facts. That science was constantly creating hypotheses, which in this time of environmental hysteria, received media attention but also attracted people seeking research funds. I told them I could produce several hypotheses based on a few facts that presaged global disasters. I gave one example, the potential collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field and the resulting damage to plants and animals without the protection it provided. I wanted to know what my government planned to protect the citizens.
The challenge for scientifically illiterate politicians, I subsequently found out there was only one who had BSc in biology, was to decide which of these threatening speculations warranted their attention. The current response is to fund those that will advance their career. They do this partly because of the self-serving nature of people and politics, but also, because they are ill-equipped to make a better judgment. If they knew and understood science and how it works it would be different. It certainly would be different if they knew the constituents knew.
If people knew that science involves constantly asking questions and only occasionally finding answers their understanding is measurably improved. The few acceptable answers are only those that withstood challenges and eventually made accurate predictions. All skeptics would need to do is show, to an educated mostly non-scientific public, that a hypothesis failed most challenges and produced incorrect predictions without having to involve the arcane scientific complexities that baffle the 85 percent. As I explained in another article, Aaron Wildavsky understood this when he chose only non-science graduate students, members of the 85%, to investigate environmental threats already being exploited. They found none of them withstood scrutiny.