Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Choice

In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy.
(John Sawhill)
On Wednesday 16 March 2005 a slim majority of U.S. Senators passed a resolution that would allow oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). There's still a ways to go before oil drilling can begin, but it is a victory for the proponents. Misguided and ignorant it may well be. Even "criminally" irresponsible many of us would claim. But the fact is that within a year, it is likely that hundreds, perhaps ultimately thousands, of humans with drilling equipment, diesel engines of all kinds, drums of chemicals, aircraft, ships, and tons of supplies to sustain these strangers will descend on a remote coastal plain, a place that some have called "America's Serengeti." We made a choice. Didn't we?

This American government has proclaimed it's about "energy independence." In this day and age who can argue with national security? Of course, the U.S. has been aiding and abetting religious fascism in the Middle East (of which terrorism is a part) for years, because we haven't had any American energy conservation policy, at least one created by the "elected" representatives for the citizens of the country.

Thomas Friedman, the N.Y. Times columnist, in a recent article, called the almost dysfunctional fixation on Alaska oil drilling "mind-boggling." His article was not primarily about Alaska but our growing dependency on China, and our decreasing leverage with the country most likely to be our major competitor--because of the dim-witted (my words) policies of the Bush administration.

Friedman believes any oil that may eventually come out of the Alaska Refuge will probably benefit the consumers of China and Japan more than the citizens of the United States, because of distances and refinery capacity. And, as oil demand increases in both China and India, prices will continue to rise for Americans--significantly. As the proverbial broken record says over and over again, a slight increase in fuel efficiency standards in the United States would offset any possible marginal gain from drilling in ANWR ... and might actually set us on a course of something that resembles a degree of energy independence.

The current American government has clearly decided that protection and preservation is not part of its energy policy. The current American government has clearly decided that America needs to remain an insatiable, reckless, world class drunk. Last, the current United States Senate has clearly decided they are nearly as irrelevant as the Roman senate at the time of the Empire. But it's our choice. Isn't it?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

You Calling Me Stupid

Could we Americans really be that uninformed? Of course the logical question then becomes compared with whom? And, uninformed about what?

A recent article in the Kansas City Star reported that many scientific researchers felt assaulted by various groups and individuals, regarding such topics as stem cell research, evolution, global warming, genetics, and a host of scientific activities.

History, however, has demonstrated that scientific thinking has always held on by the slimmest of threads. Brief periods have shined with critical thought, facilitated new inquiries, and encouraged learning as an end in itself. A few examples would include Greece in the 4th and 5th century B.C., the approximately 400 years that the Arab world and Baghdad was the center of learning (coming to an end by the middle of the 13th century), and Europe in the 18th century, the period known as the Enlightenment.

Scientific thinking is analytic and objective. Above all, it's frequently difficult. On the other hand, revelation, the prophetic voice, and a belief in the "rightness" of ones own words and thoughts is much easier and requires little or no training. It's subjective and does not require that the views of others need to be considered. Science, at its best, does respect thoughtful, diverse opinions. America, it seems to me, is slipping into an especially gloomy time for science, critical thinking, and learning in general.

One poll and survey after another point out that Americans are remarkably ignorant when it comes to basic knowledge, at least compared with residents of other "developed" countries. Two Gallup polls taken over the past several months state that nearly 50 percent of those polled do not believe in the theory of evolution or don't know what it is. The percentage in Europe and Japan is under 30 percent. Of course, what does it say about us as a country when the current occupant of the White House states that the "jury is still out" on the theory of evolution.

A National Geographic survey published two years ago pointed out that only 17 percent of those Americans surveyed could locate the country of Afghanistan on a map. This survey was done after U.S. soldiers had been there close to a year, some of whom were killed in combat.

Do you remember the Time-Life books, the series about Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, and so forth? While looking up some information about Greece in the fifth century, I compared the book published in 1965 and the one published in 1997. In the 1997 edition I was told that "Zeus was the all-important god of the sky and weather." In the 1965 edition I learned that "at the center of the Greek outlook lay an unshakable belief in the worth of the individual man." The 1997 version might have been written for the average eighth grader. The 1965 version was written for literate adults.

Some 83 percent of Americans supposedly believe in the "virgin birth," and 68 percent believe in the devil. Our knowledge of world history, as well as our own history, is at best pathetic. American high school students consistently perform poorly on math and science tests compared with the rest of the world.

Anti-intellectualism has been a recurrent theme throughout the history of the United States, but it seems noticeably virulent in America today. The highest elected political leader in the country, the President, claims publicly he doesn't read newspapers. His wife later says that he does read newspapers. Perhaps political success, more and more in the U.S., necessitates the increasing need to pander to the uninformed.

Politicians at all levels sneer at "those self-appointed intellectuals." The chairman of the U.S. Senate's Environmental and Public Works Committee (James Inhofe) once said that global warming was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." I suspect that many climate experts in the world may think the only real hoax is Senator Inhofe....

Ah, well. In the final analysis, what is the important question? Did Adam and Eve have navels--belly buttons? Martin Gardner, writer and debunker of nonsense science, suggests this is not a "trivial" question. If these two poster children of creationism didn't have navels, they couldn't have been perfect human beings. But if they did in fact have navels, well, would this suggest a birth they supposedly never experienced. Weighty matters to be considered.

This topic has been debated ever since the Book of Genesis was written. Ponderous treatises have been published over the centuries arguing for or against belly buttons. Paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance show "with and without." In one form or another we are still debating these questions in the twenty-first century.

Scientists believe the average vertebrate species exists for 2 to 5 million years. Homo sapiens have only been around some 200,000 years. It seems inconceivable that we'll ever approach the two million milestone. I suspect that as long as we're infatuated with our own self-importance on the planet, magic in its various forms will hold sway for most of us.

We'll likely destroy ourselves before long, in geologic time--I hope, but we can wish that evolution in its serendipitous way will come up with something better to replace us on planet earth. In the meantime be happy, have some fun ... and fervently hope the spark of scientific inquiry remains alive somewhere. I've got an appointment with my urine therapist.

Friday, March 04, 2005

So What?: March 2005

Did you know there were a lot of hermaphroditic cricket frogs in the state of Illinois in the 1950's? So what?

Toxicologists and veterinarians at the University of Illinois spent some time examining the reproductive organs of more than 800 cricket frogs. These frogs had been collected in Illinois between 1852 and 2001, and apparently stored at various natural history museums.

Frogs with both male and female organs were plentiful in the 1950's according to the scientists. This was considered rare in frogs from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Large amounts of chemicals, like DDT and PCB's, were used at this time, and researchers believe the evidence is increasing that pesticides and various industrial chemicals are able to alter the sex hormones of animals.

Because frogs go through metamorphosis and spend time in water, they are considered "sentinels" of major environmental change. More information can be found in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Some scientists are suggesting that the Arctic may not have any ice in the summer by the end of this century. Does it matter?

It could matter a lot. Ice is melting in a number of places in the world. Average temperatures are rising in the Arctic Circle and ice buildup is shrinking each year in the Arctic. The ice cap on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania may have vanished by 2015. Glaciers in South America are melting rapidly.

The largest land ice mass in the Northern Hemisphere is Greenland. If it were to melt completely, it could raise the planet's sea level by some 24 feet. If melting continues it could affect various plant and animal species, food supplies, available drinking water, especially in South America and Asia, economic development, and change regional climate patterns.

Last--but not least--as the ice melts less sunlight is reflected back in space and more is absorbed by land, increasing the warming effect further ... to what end we can't be certain. Ignorance, however, is not bliss, perhaps not even in the "short" run. Learn more about global warming and "melting" ice. It is not an environmental conspiracy.

The ozone layer is declining faster than some scientists expected. But who can worry about that?

While ozone at ground level is a pollutant, in the upper atmosphere it protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation. A lot of this kind of radiation causes skin cancer. According to an article in the Denver Post, scientists last winter discovered that the Arctic ozone declined much faster than expected.

The scientists can only speculate at this point as to the reasons for this decline. A number of natural reasons such as solar storms might be a contributing factor, but human-emitted chemicals are a likely reason as well. Testing is now taking place.