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King: US science lag doesn't add up

POSTED: October 8, 2013 12:30 a.m.

The man in the checkout line bought a six-pack of beer, a gallon jug of cheap red wine and a frozen eggplant Parmesan casserole. An interesting combination, I thought. Apparently the young fellow bagging the items recognized the man, who had done some tutoring at the local high school.

“Boys are always better at math than girls,” the man said, despite the fact that I was standing a mere 3 feet away. The checkout clerk and the bagger, both male, exchanged glances.

I couldn’t resist. “Didn’t the president of Harvard almost lose his job for making a similar remark?” I said. The truth is, unfortunately neither American boys nor American girls do particularly well in math or science.

The U.S. ranks 11th worldwide in fourth-grade math, nine in eighth-grade math, seventh in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science. Asian nations are way ahead of us.

Moreover, according to Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, “When you start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time.”

I’m particularly concerned about the nation’s deficiencies in science. Nothing is more important in today’s fast moving, technology-oriented world. Science is not a matter of arcane facts and complicated theories. It’s a way of thinking.

Science is how mankind looks at, understands and talks about the physical world. Science weighs, measures, compiles and records, and mathematics is its universal language.

If our nation goes down hill in math and science, it will lose a competitive edge in other areas as well. This will most certainly hurt us economically in the future. My concern, however, is what a lack of scientific understand is doing to us politically here and now.

Because so many of us don’t understand science, we are unable to comprehend and act on important global issues like climate change. The public has already fallen pray to political opportunists who look no further than immediate short-term gains.

Unscrupulous politicians have encouraged an uninformed public to question the findings of the many scientists around the world who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and have spoken out about temperature changes in both the atmosphere and oceans.

Because climate scientists couldn’t say for certain that the earth was warming and that human activity was the cause, doubters received equal time and attention in the media. A confused public was misled and saw no immediate need for government action. Now mere doubt has morphed into ideology. How many times have you been told that global warming is some sort of conspiracy?

Only when people understand the language of science will they realize that climate change is not a party issue. It is not a national issue. It is a human issue, and it is global.

I’ve talked to people who resist addressing climate change based on their religious conviction. This is the strangest excuse of all because once one understands the worldwide consequences of radical climate change, addressing the issue becomes a moral imperative.

In a report issued only days ago the IPCC says it is now 95 percent certain that climate change is occurring and that human activity is a major contributing factor. Before you say "But that leaves a 5 percent chance that they’re wrong," consider the question asked by the Associated Press: What phenomena would they consider more certain?

Gravity, the IPCC scientists replied.

In science nothing is ever completely certain. That’s why it is science, not religion. The scientist is always questioning, testing and searching for more exact measurements. No good scientist is an absolutist. He or she knows that all knowledge is incomplete.

We were warned about global warming years ago and did nothing — less than nothing, because vested interests muddied the discussion. If the public had a better understanding of the science behind the warnings, if they had understood the language, we might be better prepared to address the issue today.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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