A Newsletter of Scientific Literacy. Winter 2002

"round up the usual suspects" Reviewing some of the responses to September 11, I thought of the line in Casablanca when the French general (played by Claude Raines) had to do something to explain the dead Nazi shot by patriot Humphrey Bogart as he watched. "Round up the usual suspects," he told his aides.
radical left and radical right In the case of the September 11 attack, the usual suspects had a lot to do with your political point of view. After the shock and horror sank in the radical left and the radical right were united in blaming America first. For the left it was the arrogance of our military and our multi-national corporations that have been looting the world and now are reaping the harvest of hatred they richly deserve. For the right it was the sinfulness of our permissive society that is now bringing the wrath of God down upon us.
radical Islam The great majority of Americans did not look to either of these suspects, but understood that hijacked and radical Islam as represented by Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban were the obvious killers. And the great majority of Americans have supported the war to fight and we hope, to eventually destroy this cancer of the civilized world.
science in the schools There is obviously more to it than this, and I think some of that more has to do directly with schools and even more directly to do with science in the schools. Let me explain.
five hundred years ago Scholars of history may not be unanimous but I think most would agree that the huge gap in economic and social development between the western world and the Muslim world has little to do with resources or populations or corporations or ecosystem destruction but everything to do with governments and religious and cultural history. Five hundred years ago it was the Muslim world that was the leader in science, technology and humanistic scholarship. Today it is the reverse. What happened? Why the turnabout?
why the gap? Most scholars of the suject will tell you that it was the secularization of western society, the separation of church and state at the time of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent explosion of western style democracy, capitalism and scientific progress that has made all the difference.
difference in schools Here at the beginning of the third millennium consider the differences in schools and you can appreciate the scale and the scope of the problem. We in the west have long had public schools that, for all their failings, teach literacy, teach history, teach economics and political science and most important of all teach physical and biological science. Schools (when they exist at all) in many counties of the Muslim world teach only the words of the Koran. And in only too much of the Muslim world these sacred words are themselves interpreted in a profoundly anti-scientific and blatantly anti-western and anti-American way. Thus profound ignorance leads to profound poverty, to profound tyranny and in its turn, to deadly terrorism.
hope in a few countries A few of Muslim countries, like Turkey, have turned to a secular democratic government and have encouraged secular schools and scientific inquiry. These countries have made progress in overcoming poverty and terrorism is on the decline. Other Muslim countries, like Egypt and Morocco, are beginning to show signs of moving in these progressive directions. And now if we can help Afganistan with its new democratic replacement to the most extreme of all religious tyrnannies, perhaps there is hope that in time the rest of the Muslim world will once again rise to heights not seen since the fourteenth century.
the front line In the meantime the best that most of us in America can do is stick to our jobs--and do them better. Especially those on the most crucial of the front lines--teachers in our free schools.
how not to do it One example of how not-to-do-it was reported in our local Madison paper a few days after September 11. Many of the students at Edgewood College, like students everywhere, were astonished and distressed to see the clips of people in the Middle East cheering the destruction in New York. According to the newspaper account, Judy Adrian, the coordinator of Human Issues Department at the college, said "For example, Tuesday, in a field biology course on trees we never got to trees. Instead, we talked about what all this means to young people. The students' question was why do they hate us? The instructor got the discussion back to field biology by talking about the environment and natural resources of the world and how much of these we use, how that makes a percentage of the world extraordinarily angry at us."
globalization? This instructor's response is understandable but, in my view, extraordinarily wrong-headed. Despite their small numbers it is surprising how influential the anti-corporate radicals who organized the violent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and Genoa have been, especially in our schools. These radicals, like all Americans, were appalled at the size of the New York carnage, but they have faced a serious problem in knowing how to respond since they agree with many of the views of the terrorists. Like the Islamic terrorists, they despise the Pentagon and the international corporate wealth symbolized by the World Trade Center. As one of their leaders, San Francisco anarchist-writer Burton Rose, is quoted as saying. "We're supercritical of these terrorists scorn for human life. Why couldn't they have done what they did on Sunday? There are always ways to make allowances for people's lives."
resources on earth For a more rational view of this resource issue I urge you to preview our new 2001 program RESOURCES ON EARTH . And after you view this one, take a look at the other five of our new series: PLANET EARTH: THE 3RD MILLENNIUM.
a new book brings a firestorm of controversy--and a splash of rationality For those who want to delve deeper into the details of resource and population issues I recommend a new book by a Danish environmentalist, political scientist and statistician at the University of Aarhus, Bjorn Lomborg. The book THE SCEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST (Cambridge University Press, 2001), has raised the hackles of many activists but has been grudgingly acknowledged by others to be well researched and accurate. Lomborg, a former member of Greenpeace, was a firm believer in the only-too-standard environmental credo a few years ago. The world is vastly overpopulated and getting more so; the environment is becoming ever more polluted with industrial poisons; our food supply is being seriously tainted by chemicals and genetic engineering; tropical forests and species are disappearing at catastrophic rates; global warming is leading to world-wide disaster, and above all, our wasteful western life-style is leading all the world to a catastrophic breakdown in the near future. If you add religious fanaticism, these views are shared by the terrorists who attacked the Trade Center.
boomster vs doomster Dr. Lomborg was visiting Los Angeles when he came across an interview with Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist, in WIRED magazine. Dr. Simon, who died in 1998 (and is seen and heard in our video program BOOMSTER VS DOOMSTER) argued vigorously that these strongly held environmental beliefs were myths. Dr. Lomborg at the time of reading the interview considered Simon's arguments "simple American right-wing propaganda." He was impressed enough, however, with the arguments that he bought Simon's seminal work, THE ULTIMATE RESOURCE, and took it back with him to Denmark for further studyl He began nightly study sessions with his statistics students intending to debunk Simon's contentions using statistics drawn from reports of the World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Association, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the International Panel on Climate Change and other official U.S. and United Nations organizations.
the "right-winger" turns out to be right To his and his students astonishment, Lomborg says "three months into the project we were convinced that we were being debunked instead. Not everything he said is right. He has a definite right-wing slant. But most of the important things were actually correct!" Lomborg ended up writing this 539 page book with meticulously documented evidence to explain his conversion. He still considers himself an environmentalist and says "I'm a left-wing guy and a vegetarian because I don't want to kill animals--but you can't play the `he's right-wing so he's wrong' argument."
review in SCIENCE In a blistering review in SCIENCE, Michael Grubb from Cambridge University says "Lomberg has compiled an immense amount of data to support his fundamental assertion that in many respects the environment is getting better rather than worse and to argue that we should not worry much about the state of the world. These are two distinct theses. For the most part, I find his analysis of the first contention compelling but his case for the second woefully inadequate."

Read the book. View the videos. Judge for yourself.

more high-fog from reader Thanks to reader Dale Mertz for e-mailing me this example of high fog prose in the educational arena.

"This from the North Central Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement assessment survey called `Capacity Assessment Instrument.' `The school has developed a profile using disaggregated data that triangulate multiple assessments to select student goals."

e-mail groaners This, being my first newsletter published just on the Internet rather than print, I had better keep to a bit of tradition and offer a smile or two.

For dog lovers I recommend a recent cartoon that has a spiffily dressed retriever bellying up to the bar and asking for "scotch and toilet water, please."

Then there is the groaner a friend of mine repeated at a recent Barbershop Quartet concert. It seems this guy walked into another bar and the bartender points to the sign that says "You must be 21 to get service ." So he goes out to find 20 friends.

Here is a nice tale e-mailed to me recently: "Inner Peace. You are so special to me so I am passing this on to you. It worked for me. I think I've found inner peace. My therapist told me a way to achieve inner peace was to finish things I had started. So far, I've finished 2 bags of potato chips, a lemon pie, a fifth of Jack Daniel's and a small box of chocolate candy. I feel better already."

an educational tale My favorite recent find is this educational tale. There was this blind golfer, you see, who met Arnold Palmer one day in the clubhouse. He introduced himself to the famous golfer and said. "Mr. Palmer, I challenge you to a game of golf. Five thousand dollars is my bet." Palmer says, "How many strokes do I have to give you?" "None," says the blind golfer. "You want to play 18 holes with me, you get no handicap, and I win $5000 if I beat you!" "That's right," says the golfer. "Weeeellll, ok pal" says Palmer "You're on. Do you have a tee time?" "Yep," says the blind golfer. "10:30 ...... Tonight."
stories in science One of the ways to make science more interesting to beginning students is to use stories to teach concepts as well as methods. The Journal of College Science Teaching has many good examples of this in their case study issue of September, 2001 issue. One of my favorites is the article "To Spray or Not to Spray?' by Frank J. Dinan and Joseph F. Bieron of Canisius College, Buffalo, New York. As they summarize in their introduction, "In this case study, students grapple with the complex issues surrounding the use of DDT to control malaria, which affects millions of people in developing nations. In their examination of the issues, students consider risk/benefit anaylsis and the precautionary principle, two techniques used when making policy decisions involving the impact of science and technology on society."
DDT and malaria The five-age article goes on to tell the story of a meeting in the office of Mr. Mali Sahritis, the United Nations Secretary for Public Health. At the meeting are three visitors, Dr. Nicole Lund, a tropical disease specialist with the World Health Organization, Chiba Iogu, the ambassador from the central African country of Malawi, and Dr. Patricia Canavan, a DDT expert and representative of the Sierra Club. The dialogue of the four experts reads like a good play. After the dialogue comes the teaching notes and the analysis and discussion phase of the lesson. If you would like a copy of this article send me an e-mail and I will get it to you at no cost.
teacing how to deal with unusual claims Another story approach is detailed in the April 2001 issue of NSTA's journal, The Science Teacher. `Skeptical Science" is a five-age article on "teaching students how to critically evaluate unusual claims" by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Alan J. Scott, Carolyn M. Barnhart, Ken S. Parejko, Forrest S. Schultz and Steven E. Schultz. They quote Paul Hurd, a researcher from Stanford University as rationale for their course."There is plenty of time after high school for scientists-to-be to learn the minute facts of science. What they need from the schools are the higher thinking skills to distinguish evidence from propaganda, probability from certainty, rational beliefs from superstitions, data from assertions, science from folklore, theory from dogma." Their summer course was designed to teach these skills.
massages, UFOs and mosquito repellents One strategy in the summer graduate course for in-service teachers they taught was a field experience in dealing with unusual claims. A massage therapist was hired to explain the practices of massage, aroma therapy, acupressure, and balancing a patient's `chi' or `life force energies' by moving one's hands over a patient's body. Another presentation highlighted UFOs, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena [where the] presenter strongly suggested that UFOs, ghosts, spirits, and so forth, exist and have been photographed." Other strategies were to evaluate the claims of various commercial products such as "dowsing rods, laundry balls, mosquito repellents, bio-magnets, perpetual motion machines, new foods, and more." Glad to send a copy at no cost. E-mail address below.


Editor: Bill Stonebarger
Hawkhill Associates, Inc.
125 East Gilman St.
Madison, WI 53703
billjane@hawkhill.com