Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some Thoughts On Our Recent Science Discussions

I am going to make one or two heads explode when I say the following - I think Marshall Art's somewhat sulky complaint that science needs to be translated for laypersons is, in some way, correct. While I still grant Alan's point that our schools do a lousy job teachings science, and that this is so because of political pressures and financial pressures, I still believe that it is incumbent upon science to do a better job of educating the general public on the way science operates, what it's latest findings are, and what their significance might be. I also grant Alan's point that most journalists who report on science tend to be ignoramuses, or deliberately obfuscatory, which means the burden falls upon the group that least likes to deal with this - the scientists themselves.

Much of what I have called below "anti-science" or scientific ignorance or illiteracy, is a result of a number of factors. Some of those include the increasing specialization as well as cross-specialization involved in scientific research. For something as complex as evolutionary theory, we have not only cellular biology, but bio-chemistry, taxonomy, genetics, and the various sub-categories of biology, such as specialists in various animal families, or vertebrate and invertebrate biology, botany, etc. Concerning the infinitely more complex issue of global warming, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, meteorology are all involved, in various ways, in exploring the phenomenon itself, as well as its consequences. Tracing the ways these interact is difficult for an educated lay person. For someone who is not as scientifically literate as others, it is nigh-on impossible. It seems there is an ethical imperative on the part of scientists to explain not only what they are doing, but the how of it, and even more important, the why.

I think that this kind of thing is more easily understood as the result not just on a willingness to refuse to understand what science is, but as a reaction against what seems to be the inordinate complexity of this somewhat random article from Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry, October, 2007 volume. Entitled "Photochemistry of Cu complexed with chromophoric dissolved organic matter: implications for Cu speciation in rainwater", authored by Melanie Louise Inez Witt, Stephen Skrabal, Robert Kieber and Joan Willey, the abstract of the article follows:
Significant quenching of fluorescence by Cu in rainwater samples from southeastern North Carolina demonstrates that chromophoric dissolved organic matter (CDOM) is an effective ligand for Cu in rainwater. A strong inverse correlation between the decrease in fluorescence upon Cu addition and CDOM abundance suggests the presence of excess binding sites for Cu in high CDOM samples. Electroanalytical studies indicate that CDOM extracted from C18 cartridges formed Cu complexes with concentrations and conditional stability constants similar to ligands found in ambient rainwater. When authentic rainwater samples were photolyzed with simulated sunlight both photoproduction and photodestruction of ligands were observed, suggesting the photochemical response of Cu-complexing ligands in rainwater is the result of two competing reactions. The rate of CDOM photobleaching was directly related to changes in strong ligands (KCuL ∼ 1015) whereas weaker ligands (KCuL < 1013) were not correlated, suggesting the photolabile CDOM resides in the strong ligand class. A photolysis study comparing filtered and unfiltered rainwater samples indicated that Cu-complexing ligands adsorbed onto or otherwise associated with particles are photodegraded much more rapidly than dissolved ligands. Photolysis with UV radiation appears to be most effective at engendering changes in Cu ligands, however a significant photochemical response was also observed when samples were exposed to photosynthetically active radiation with wavelengths greater than 400 nm. Results from this study demonstrate that complexation of Cu by CDOM has important ramifications for controlling both the speciation of the metal and the reactivity of CDOM in rainwater.

Isn't it so much easier to just say, "Boy, you know, my gut just tells me these scientists are paid hacks, because there's snow in my backyard while they prattle on about global warming," than to try and fight your way through this abstract? Unless scientists themselves are willing to stand up and explain to the general public what they mean, regardless of the troubles involved, scientific ignorance will continue, and get worse.

This is not an argument for dumbing down science. Just the opposite. I am arguing for increasing the scientific literacy of the general American public. Now, willful scientific ignorance ("I don't care what all those scientists say! I won't click any of your links! Commonsense is better than thinking!") will never disappear, and I still say we should simply dismiss this kind of thing out of hand, even as we patiently explain to others what science is, and is not. Yet, there is a public burden upon scientists to do a better job of getting the word out concerning their jobs, their methods, and their results.

I probably ticked off everyone with this little post. Oh, well.

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