Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sarah the Mad Scientist

By Bob Ferris

When the coal port was first proposed in 2010 for Cherry Point near Bellingham, Washington I was interviewed by a journalism class about the problems with that proposal.  During one of my responses I was talking about the 54 million metric tons of coal that was proposed to be shipped through that facility and what that meant in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.  I offered up that an easy rule of thumb was that for every ton of coal burned about 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide are produced (it is actually 2.86 for anthracite).

The instructor stopped me at this point and asked me how I justified the above statement and whether or not this was commonly accepted.  I was a little stunned and my response was: Yes, it is a basic principle of inorganic chemistry.  For that I got a kind of a scrunchy face response and a lot of blank stares from the students so I continued by saying: If you burn coal you are essentially oxidizing it and in the process taking one carbon atom and combining it with two heavier oxygen atoms.  I got more blank faces so I continued: Remember the C-N-O sequence on the periodic table and the relative atomic weights?  Nothing, so I moved on.

I think about this episode because of Sarah Palin’s recent “I can see Russia from my house” claim about being as much a scientist as Bill Nye is.  My sense is that how folks tend to see and understand the world is largely based on what they have seen or experienced.  Ms. Palin may very well think that she “knows” science because her father once taught the subject in elementary school, but this is a little like her claim about understanding the broader world and foreign policy when she did not get a passport until 2006.

The passport analogy is a good one to examine when looking at Ms. Palin’s claim because science—just like the world—is divided into realms that you have to visit and experience to better understand the whole ball of wax.  The more realms or disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, geology, physics, or math) that you are exposed to should increase your understanding of science in general as well as your own sub-discipline.  And the converse is true also.

So how do Sarah and Bill compare? Looking at the current requirement for a journalism degree at Ms. Palin’s alma mater University of Idaho we see that graduating students must complete 8 semester units of science and 3 of math (see here).  At Cornell in the Mechanical Engineering program where Mr. Nye matriculated the students are required to complete 16 semester units of science (chemistry and physics specifically) and 19 of math. Essentially this shows that Mr. Nye was probably exposed to more than 3 times as much science and math as Ms. Palin.  But that really tells little about the true nature of the difference because while Ms. Palin’s science courses were classes to be survived, Mr. Nye’s science and math courses were pre-requisites so that he could be prepared for the more complicated, science-oriented coursework to come (see above flow chart).  Considering these academic preparations equivalent from a science perspective has ridiculous written all over it in bold, capital letters.

Science exposure can also come through work experience.  Ms. Palin was a sportscaster and local politician before becoming Governor of Alaska and quitting before her term’s end.  Mr. Nye worked for Boeing and used his technical skills to develop a hydraulic resonance suppressor for the 747 and then transitioned into consulting and science education.  Now trajectory and force vectors (i.e., physics) are certainly involved in sports, but my sense is that there is likely more science employed in the Boeing labs than in a newsroom or the meeting spaces at the Wasilla City Hall.  Just a guess.
"Bill Nye is as much a scientist as I am," the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee said, according to The Hill. "He's a kids' show actor, he's not a scientist." in CNN report.
In the science game it is not only how you see yourself it is also how you are seen by others. I suspect that part of Ms. Palin’s stance is that Mr. Nye is an “engineer” not a “scientist.”  This is an interesting distinction given that roughly a third of the signers of the so-called Oregon Petition used by the climate denial crowd are folks with engineering or basic science degrees.  Journalists on the other hand were not invited to sign the petition.  Moreover, when we look at external measures of how public institutions view the pair Mr. Nye has six honorary doctorates—five in science.  Ms. Palin on the other hand was identified as a “distinguished alumni” at a junior college in Idaho and made an "Honorary Texan" by former Governor Rick Perry.  Somehow these awarded honors do not seen equivalent from a scientific point view and I am not even going to get into all of Mr. Nye’s patents, scientific committee work, or the 19 Daytime Emmys earned by the children’s science show that Ms. Palin derided.

That Ms. Palin would engage in a scientific pissing match with anyone of any consequence is absurd in the extreme, but it raises two issues for me.  The first is that we should be very, very concerned that society has allowed this particular dog-and-pony show to migrate from the realm of comedy to commentary.  Why is she or Marc Morano given the public oxygen to conduct this intellectual travesty that only acts to cause more delay on needed action and deeper harm to the public?

The second issue it brings up is the general state of journalism and more particularly the environmental beat.  I have interacted with some fine environmental journalists over the years—Andrew Revkin, Bill Dietrich, Bill McKibben, and Tom Horton—come immediately to mind as well as a handful of outdoor writers—Ted Williams, Hal Herring, Todd Wilkinson, Todd Tanner and Brenda Peterson—who study their topics and are prepared for these complicated subjects.  But far too many environmental reporters write without benefit of the deep knowledge which helps them recognize reality from fiction as well as statements of opinion from those of fact—and the good sense to have their writing reflect these distinctions.  There are nearly an infinite array of directions where fingers can be pointed for this phenomenon, but I am very much less inclined to look for those to blame than to hoping someone somewhere has a solution.

With record global temperatures, rising sea levels, topical diseases on the move and acidifying oceans the public—even Sarah Palin’s public—should have very little time for her and Marc Morano’s what-me-worry, carbon-is-wonderful and climate-scientists-are-billionaires tour.  They have about as much functional relevancy at this point as the last standing panels of the Berlin wall.  History will see them for what they were, but the rest of us need to do what we can so that we have that history.  And I will start that process by thinking about all the scientific accomplishments of Sarah Palin while collecting an easily obtainable liquid nitrogen source for my straw bale garden plots (below).

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