Friday, February 27, 2009

The Need for Science Education

The Importance of Science Literacy

It’s not what we know but rather how we think that is important.

Perhaps the expression most oft uttered in high school science classes across the country is, “why do I need to know this, I will never use this.” And it’s true to a large degree. I am guessing that 90% of Americans don’t need to know how ionic bonding works in metals, what microchondria do in a cell or how harmonic oscillations function. But as science literacy in American’s decreases it is affecting our ability to think critically about issues in not only science but also society. (A lack of science literacy has also hurt the American economy directly, but that is not central to this argument.)

When we think scientifically we observe a phenomina then based on our observations we make a hypothesis. Next we test the hypothesis objectively. We then determine if our test verified or discredited the hypothesis. If the tests supports our hypothesis it becomes a valid theory. This is thinking scientifically, and it can be used by people in many fields, not just scientists. Bankers thinking through an economic problem, a mechanic working through a mysterious car problem and a plumber working through an unpleasant clog to be successful all must think this way, whether they realize it or not. But it’s puzzling how our society does not think scientifically or critically about all topics.

For the past two weeks the sports world has been ablaze, roasting Alex Rodriquez for allegedly testing positive for using steroids from 2001-2003 when he played with the Texas Rangers. Fans our outraged that Alex Rodriquez “cheated” and illegally or unethically increased his home run total by using chemical enhancers. The only problem with this line of thought is that no one has objectively proved that using steroids increases the number of home runs that a player hits.

Let’s think about it scientifically for a minute. We have observed that from the mid 1990’s until about 2003 the number of home runs hit by players increased. We also observed that during this period of times players appeared to increase in size, particularly in muscle mass. Recently we learned that many players from this era were using steroids to increase their muscle mass. Thus we hypothesize that players used steroids to increase their strength and hit more home runs. This is what hundreds of sports columnists and reporters have done in the past few weeks. The only problem is, no one bothered to prove their hypothesis.

In order to be sure that steroids increase home runs we need to test this objectively. We need a control group that did not use steroids, and we need a test group that did. We then need to statistically compare the two groups and determine if the steroids did increase home run totals. (Remember that during the 1990’s baseball expanded rapidly and 48 minor league pitchers became major league pitchers, baseball started playing at stadiums with incredible altitude and ballparks became much, much smaller – there are alternative hypothesis that need testing.)

The tests that have been performed so far suggest that using steroids does not necessarily increase the amount of home runs that you hit. Meanwhile scientifically illiterate announcers, players and columnists continue to report that steroids certainly caused A-Rod to become a great home run hitter. It’s too bad they failed science class, or otherwise they might understand the truth.

We need to work ideas through the scientific method fully to understand the truth. A hypothesis is not a proven theory and it's dangerous to think so (see also risky mortgages). So the next time that someone tells you that a little intelligent design never hurt anyone consider that maybe thinking critically all the way through issues is not optional, it's necessary to know the truth.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Neptune's Pasture

I just got back from a special seminar presented by Paul Greenberg about his upcoming book “Neptune’s Pasture.” Greenberg presented the audience with two readings, one from the autobiographical portion of his book and the second focusing on the introduction of the book and its central thesis. Afterwards he ended with a lively question and answer session in which the audience presented a number of terrific ideas. The prose presented was lyrical, I am greatly looking forward to ordering the book on Amazon, but alas it is not yet near publication (I will make a note here when it becomes available). I didn’t take notes so what follows is a generalization of the key points and themes to his book.

Greenberg’s central “thesis” as he called it was that humans now stand at the precipice of making critical decisions involving the future of the world’s fisheries. He pointed out that hunter gatherers narrowed down the many, many mammals that used to range our ancestral lands to four that are considered somewhat common now, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle. He then notes that humankind then turned its attention to the skies, narrowing those down to four key species chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. He then proposes that we will likely do the same to fish, pick four that are manageable species that meet certain taste/textures requirements, and cultivate them while slowly driving other species to extinction. The factors that make this push are varied, from human kind’s desire for choice but “not too much choice” to industrial efficiency favoring only a few profitable options.

He noted that while for our ancestors the culling was not a decision but a necessity. For us, given our improved understanding of ecosystems, what we do to fisheries in the future is a decision and one that we need to consider presently.

The format of the book seems to be an autobiographical introduction, an introduction of the thesis then a discussion of four fish species within context of the thesis including sea bass, cod, something else and tuna.

The discussion that followed the reading was lively and topics ranged along the following:

  • Categorizing fish as food or wildlife and how public perception of this divide drives choices.

  • That human taste changes with time, and that has allowed us to move from one fish species to another very quickly, with devastating effects on the “fish of the year.”

  • Is sustainable fishing really a good premise to move towards. Once a fishery is declared “sustainable” society will move towards it rapidly, making it immediately unsuistainable.

  • A question was asked where shell fish fit into his thesis, and Greenburg seemed to think that it was a different issue, one that affected developing nations more than developed nations.

The idea is pretty interesting and a I thought a solid one. My fisheries friends told me that there were a lot of holes in the principle of the idea, but in my ignorance I missed them. Anyone want to cast some doubt on the theory?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How Now Brown Cloud?

Brown clouds are not the sinister creation of a science fiction writer, but rather the name that atmospheric scientists have given to smog, soot and dirt clouds that obscure the Earth’s surface from space. Smog originates mainly from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, but can also form naturally in some locations. Soot is found in the atmosphere as a result of wood or coal burning, or natural occurring forest fires. Some people explain these clouds to “pollution clouds,” but in truth these clouds are more complicated than that, sometimes being a result of man’s activities, but other times being wholly natural.

When you spend a lot of time looking at satellite images of the Earth as I do, you get used to certain features of the Earth looking a certain way. Sometimes, these features become obscured by a grey haze. Occasionally this grey haze becomes thicker and darker in color. This is what is referred to generally as a brown cloud. Brown clouds are common over India and Southeast Asia, especially in the late fall through early spring, where rapid industrialization has increased emissions from human activities.

The above figure, taken from NASA’s MODIS website, features Southeastern Asia. To the north of the image is Nepal and China, the mountainous terrain there is crisp and clearly brown in color. As you move south into India and Bengladesh, the surface becomes obscured by a grayish obscuration. The green of India and Bengladesh’s forests is barely visible. This is due to the presence of a so-called brown cloud, a cloud made of soot, smog and dust, most of which are due to human activities.

However these brown clouds are not only native to Asia, but can be found in the United States as well, as the image below shoes.

This satellite photograph, taken from NASA’s MODIS website, shows the Southeastern United States. Here a brown cloud is seen over Louisiana and Texas. The origin of this cloud, seen in the summer of 2004, were extensive forest fires in Southern Canada.

Scientists recently have been examining what exactly causes these brown clouds over Asia to form so regularly each year. Understanding this is important because these brown clouds can affect how much sunlight reaches the surface in these regions, affecting not only climate but crop growth. These clouds are also thought to interact with regular water clouds, changing the way the normal clouds reflect sunlight and how they produce rainfall.

The results of the scientists research are quite shocking, at least to me. The expectation was that a large portion of these brown clouds would come from fossil fuel combustion. The team of scientists report that around 2/3rds of the source material for the brown clouds come from biomass burning. In this region, biomass is used for home heating and cooking, along with burning of residual crops to produce fertilizer. This is an important finding, because it would allow for regional governments to address the issue of unclean home cooking and heating fuels, if they wanted to improve air quality.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Golden Opportunity for Conservation on the East End

If you’ve ever taken the picturesque ferry across Long Island Sound from New London, CT to Orient Point, NY then you’ve seen Plum Island up close. Plum Island sits only a mile or so to the north and east of Orient Point, which is the easternmost point on Long Island’s North Fork. Chances are however that you’ve never been to Plum Island as the island has been closed off to the public since before World War II.

Plum Island, its location highlighted with a red square, sits between Orient Point and Fishers Island at the eastern terminus of Long Island Sound. It is currently home to the Department of Homeland Security’s Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory, but is set to be decommissioned starting in 2014.

Perhaps that will change in the next decade or so, as the island’s current occupants are set to move out. Since the end of World War II the island has been home to the United States Animal Disease Laboratory, run by the Agriculture Department until its transfer to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Now however DHS has plans to replace the Plum Island facility with a larger, state of the art facility in Kansas.

Above is a view of Plum Island, courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture’s website.

While state and federal politicians are campaigning to keep Plum Island functioning as a animal disease research laboratory even after the new laboratory in Kansas opens, it’s worth considering what to do the island in the case that is decommissioned.

According to the Times article, local residents are already salivating at the prospect of turning the island into another suite of expensive homes, in the traditional Hampton’s style.

Enzo Morabito, the director of real estate development for Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Bridgehampton, which deals exclusively in luxury property, said a two-acre lot of bare waterfront property on the south side of Plum Island would likely go for about $2 million.

He also said the entire island would be suitable for a golf course and luxury homes.

“That’s what I would do with it,” Mr. Morabito said. “That’s the highest and best use.”

With all due respect to Mr. Morabito, perhaps there is a more egalitarian approach to the land that could be taken. Why not consider opening the island up as a national or state park? The island fits the criteria that many set for designation as national park, it is both strikingly beautiful terrain and also of a historic value.

It is thought that Plum Island is the location of the first confrontation between British soldiers and members of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The British Army and Navy had taken to raiding coastal Long Island for provisions and supplies at the onset of the conflict. So it is told, the first organized confrontation between the two armies occurred as American soldiers attempted to evacuate livestock from Plum Island to more secure locations on the mainland.

Additionally, Plum Island is a green haven in an increasingly developed region. Fishers Island to the northeast is an island which has been developed extensively for residential use. Plum Island could be developed only modestly, and still provide the infrastructure necessary for an exceptional national park.

As Long Island steadily looses its remaining open space to sub-division after sub-division, turning Plum Island into a national park represents a tangible opportunity to protect the environment, increase parkland and preserve local heritage.