Friday, May 29, 2009

Public Understanding of Science: What We're Up Against

As many educators already know, the challenge of public understanding of science is not limited to the general public, but is also present amongst our political leadership. A month or so ago, I told you about Canada's Minister of Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, who refused to state publicly whether he adhered to the theory of evolution. This month, I've decided to share with you an American example: Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking Republican member of the House energy committee. Notably, the Wall Street Journal has called this man the "House GOP's leading expert on energy policy."

In order to get a sense of Rep. Barton's level of expertise, here he is talking about climate change:

He informs us that carbon dioxide is nothing to worry about since it is a "natural product" and shares with us the reassuring knowledge that CO2 is "in your Dr. Pepper." At the end, he sums up his message with the following remark:
We think it's futile to try to regulate something that's (a) not a pollutant (b) is not going to help the environment one way or the other and (3) (sic) is so ubiquitous that in reality you're just kind of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Another Rep. Barton clip that I particularly enjoyed is his questioning of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Barton apparently feels that he "stumped" Chu, and captioned this video (which he posted in his own YouTube space) "Where Does Oil Come From? Question Leaves Energy Secretary Puzzled." I invite you to mull over the source of Secretary Chu's "puzzlement":

As entertaining as some may find Rep. Barton's remarks, one of the interesting things about them is that if you didn't know much about science, they might seem reasonable. His position, such as it is, is explained clearly. Reasons are given. After all, CO2 is "natural" and "in your Dr. Pepper," so what could possibly be wrong with it? A solid STS-leaning science education might be able to teach students how to criticize this reasoning, but the continuing success (in advertising and elsewhere) of claims about the "natural" may testify to the fact that science curricula are not delivering the goods in this regard.

Thankfully, Rep. Barton no longer holds the chairmanship of the Energy Committee. Cooler heads (or hotter ones, at least with respect to climate change) have prevailed, which is certainly good news for those of us who are concerned about the environment.

1 comment:

Amy Shuffelton said...

I don't really have anything of substance to say about this, but I'm glad to see someone in education philosophy is paying close attention to this! Hoping to keep hearing from you about science etc.