Science Fridays: Knowledge (about Science) is Freedom…Part One

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Consider some of the following recent headlines:

  • Ammonium Nitrate was Present at West Explosion Site
  • F. D.A. Says Food from Cloned Animals is Safe
  • Coastal Cities Confront Global Warming-Induced Sea Level Rise
  • A First: Organs Tailor-Made with Body’s Own Cells
  • Mars Could Have Supported Life Long Ago, NASA Says
  • So Far Unfruitful, Fusion Project Faces a Frugal Congress
  • Fracking for Natural Gas Fuels Health Worries
  • Small Molecule That Destroys Potentially Dangerous Cells May Improve Stem Cell Therapies

What all of these news stories have in common is science. In other words, each of them deals with a topic or issue that requires some understanding of basic scientific concepts. For example, some knowledge of chemistry would go a long way in helping the reader decipher exactly how a common fertilizer ingredient, like ammonium nitrate, could cause a deadly explosion. A bit of biology would go just as far in helping the reader understand the stories about genes, cells, and cloning. These topics may seem daunting, but none of them require a college education to figure out. In fact, a high school level knowledge of Earth and Life Sciences, covering fields such as geology, oceanography, biology, anatomy and chemistry, is usually sufficient to grasp the majority of science-related news stories and what bearing it may have on you, your family, and even the planet as a whole.

Do you know how the energy that keeps your lights on is generated and what its long term impact might be for your children and grandchildren? Do you know how your food is grown, packaged and preserved, and how these factors may affect your health? Should our government fund stem cell research and the search for water and minerals on other planets and asteroids?

If we as a people want to have a say in our future, we have to have a firm grasp of the fundamental concepts that underlie all of these issues. Think about it. The food we eat, the energy we consume to access information, fabricate products, and get from place to place as well as the quality of our medical treatments and the condition of our air and water; all encompass a great portion of our material lives. If we do not decide what shape they should take, others will decide for us. Make no mistake, letting others decide what type of energy you should consume, what kind of food you should eat, and what technologies your tax dollars should be spent on, is tantamount to giving up a sizable portion of your freedom as a citizen and abdicating your responsibility to future generations.

Roosevelt_in_a_wheelchairThe importance of an educated populace to the viability of a representative form of government is hardly a new concept. Our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, put it succinctly when he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Of course, this still holds true today; only the study of science must make up a much larger portion of the average person’s education if we are to succeed in safeguarding democracy in an increasingly technological society.

The increasing pace of scientific innovation and the continued marriage between our political leaders and moneyed interests make these issues all the more relevant and urgent. For example, in the old days, we had coal and oil. Today we have coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear reactors, solar panels, and wind turbines. Natural gas is cleaner than oil, but the increasing use of fracking to get it takes a heavy toll on surrounding ecosystems and regional water quality. Should we invest in geothermal or solar instead? You really have to be informed to know; and being informed means understanding the science behind the extraction and use of a resource, NOT, the opinion of a politician.

ArtFor example, a congressman from the corn belt is unlikely to tell you that the recent increase of corn-based ethanol in gasoline (from 10% to 15%) is inefficient and ultimately harmful to both cars and the environment. Gasoline with corn ethanol produces about 22% less greenhouse gas emissions than regular lead free gasoline. However, raising corn requires large amounts of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and causes more soil erosion than any other crop. When all is said and done, the production of ethanol consumes about as much fossil fuels as the ethanol itself replaces. So much for the environmental benefits! What about the economics? Ethanol is a little cheaper at the pump, but it’s still about 25% more expensive than standard gasoline because it gets about 30% less mileage. The scale of ethanol production is also a problem. Diverting 40% of the U.S. corn crop to the production of ethanol has caused an increase in food prices. Given these facts—and warnings from car makers that a 15% ethanol fuel mix can damage a car’s fuel system—why would the EPA want to increase the level of ethanol in gasoline? Needless to say, the ethanol industry, which badly wants the government to mandate more use of ethanol, has significant political influence in Washington.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should side with the even more powerful oil lobby; nor does it mean you should take my word about the disadvantages of corn ethanol. What it does mean is that you should evaluate each resource, technology and process on their own scientifically proven advantages and disadvantages. How? The first step is familiarizing yourself with basic scientific principles. The second step is surveying a diverse sample of books, videos, periodicals and news sources. I will discuss both in next week’s installment of Science Friday.

Carlos Plaza