Saturday, September 15, 2007

The skeptical science teacher ...

Bob Park - who generally has very trenchant things to say about science policy, takes issue with Bjorn Lomborg's recent book (and apparently the positive reviews of it in both New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.)

This is an issue of some import, since to develop an appreciation of science, science teaching needs to instill into students the importance and value of objectively evaluating both evidence and responses. Listening into the National Science Teacher Association's (NSTA) biology listserv, it is clear that "An Inconvenient Truth" is being used as a teaching focus. This raises interesting issues.

My point would be that where scientific data and hypothesis are involved in decisions with socioeconomic and political impact, we must emphasize the tentative nature of science. Science is not about dogma, but about an honest and dispassionate evaluation of hypotheses and observations.

In the political realm, all action requires use of resources in one area rather than another. When we talk global warming, the question is how to balance the size of the expense, the extent of the impact, and the effect of the expense on other sectors of the economy (and people) – one choice often necessarily precludes others.

I take as an example the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (here in Colorado), which could be "cleaned" thoroughly at a cost of billions, or left undisturbed. Which is the better use of public resources? What else could those moneys be used for?

I have always read Lomberg as arguing against fundamentalist, essentially apocalyptic, environmental radicals, whose interests are not with the people (i.e. the poor and the rest of us) but with some other covert agenda (perhaps anti-capitalism?) Much the same logic has been used to argue against genetically modified organisms which can increase agricultural efficiency, and preserve forests and top soil, for the banning of DTT, which could have saved millions of lives lost to malaria, against nuclear power, which produces a lower global impact (at least in terms of CO2 and other pollutants, including mercury and radon) than fossil fuels, and probably against vaccination, because a small percentage of people have adverse reactions.

What the more rabid "political environmentalists" fail to do is to explicitly state both the possible positive and negative effects, as well as the costs and consequences, of their proposals. (They are much like creationists in this regard - they are not laying their cards on the table for all to see).

While they may exploit science, they do science a disservice. They are rather like those geneticists of the last century [see eugenics], who argued forcefully and sincerely for racist immigration and force sterilization policies for the "good of the race".

This is an critical issue in science education - to get students to see science as dispassionate, rational, natural, and effective approach to understanding the world and making the best possible decisions. A Bayesian analysis that factors into the equation the probabilities and costs of success and failure seems appropriate.

Bob Park's own arguments about manned versus robotic space exploration makes this point quite well.