We All Love Technology, But Are Not So Sure About Science

As the Apple iPad and a variety of other electronic wonders become entrenched in our daily lives, it is clear that the world is in the middle of a technology boom, and it is even clearer that we all love it.

Technology such as the iPad is built on the back of fundamental scientific research in many fields, from theoretical physics to materials science–even particle mechanics and other esoteric sciences creep into the picture. Years of research in universities, private laboratories and government agencies, leading to literally thousands of scientific papers, have led the way to the products that we speculate about, eagerly await announcements of and then buy in the millions.

But somewhere along the line we seem to have lost our appetite for science–in fact, some even look on it with disdain. In developed countries, far fewer students today engage in science or science-based subjects in schools and universities than 20 or 30 years ago. Yet those same people crave the products that a science-based education system can ultimately deliver.

I can recall a newscast I was watching when the iPad was first launched where an excited correspondent was telling the audience about the new device. Not two minutes later, the same person was salivating at the prospect of “the whole global warming story collapsing like a house of cards because of the bogus science.”

But the approach to this science is no different than that behind the iPad, the scientists no less diligent, the papers they produce no less reviewed. Yet because we either don’t want to know about or can’t accept the findings, we choose to attack the science and the scientists–not with any intellectual rigor or scientific discipline, but with slander and sometimes even abuse. I doubt the correspondent had even the remotest idea as to the years of research in atmospheric chemistry that have led to the concern about the rising levels of carbon dioxide or the detailed measurements done in laboratories for the past century on the behavior of carbon dioxide and infrared radiation. But he loved the iPad!!

This same issue played out recently at an MIT forum where I had the privilege of listening to the keynote address given by Nobel laureate Mario Molina. The subject of the address was the issue of conveying an understanding of the science of climate change to the general public.

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Mario Molina. Credit: IISD Reporting Services

Professor Molina won the Nobel Prize and is best known for his work in identifying the role of chlorofluorocarbons in the destruction of the ozone layer. Unlike the current state of paralysis that seems to be encompassing the international talks on climate change, the Montreal Protocol, which underpins the global reduction in the use of CFCs, was negotiated with relative ease. But the nature of the problems are very different.

Turning back to the keynote address, Molina lamented the poor job that scientists had seemingly done in conveying what is, in his view at least, a relatively simple and well understood physical phenomena governed by a set of known equations. In addressing the audience, he asked quite simply in his soft understated tone, “What is it about Planck’s Law and the Boltzmann constant that is now in dispute?”

A similar question was asked for Kirchhoff’s Law and the other equations that can be used to calculate the observed temperature of the atmosphere, all of which have been developed over the last century and can be found in books such as Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry by Daniel J. Jacob, Princeton University Press, 1999. Most, if not all, of these physical laws were discovered for reasons unrelated to atmospheric chemistry, but of course can be applied to this discipline as they also can to explain a multitude of other physical phenomena on display in the world we inhabit.

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In fact, none of this basic physics and chemistry is in dispute. If it were, then we shouldn’t be surprised that a multitude of the devices we use in everyday life, including the iPad, wouldn’t work as expected–or in reality, wouldn’t exist in the first place. All depend on the same physical principles that also make up our understanding of the workings of the atmosphere and the impact of a change in its composition–as illustrated below from the book mentioned above.

Yet time and again, we are confronted by commentators claiming the issue is a hoax and the science is fraudulent. This played out again in Australia in recent weeks, as British climate skeptic Christopher Monckton toured the country and delivered a series of lectures–sometimes to rousing applause!!

Professor Molina didn’t have a solution to this problem, other than to recall the successful transition from initial skepticism to eventual action and international agreement on CFCs. He noted that this was to some extent down to the role of business, as new refrigerants were developed to replace CFCs.

Unfortunately the climate problem is an order of magnitude or two more complex than the ozone layer issue, given our near total reliance on fuels and industrial processes which emit CO2. The issue also runs headlong into the sensitive issues of energy dependence, human development, economics and national security.

But we could at least start by recognizing that physics and chemistry are part of our lives and that the society we have built depends totally on the laws, constants and algorithms that have developed from these disciplines, which includes our understanding of the processes in the atmosphere.

Then, perhaps, there is room for a more grown-up debate on the way forward. But even if we can get past the atmospheric chemistry that supports the thinking on climate change, we then run into difficulty with the solution set. Many people don’t like nuclear, yet have little or even no knowledge of the supporting science. Geological sequestration of carbon dioxide is struggling to gain public acceptance, despite the many studies done and even field tests that support its inherent safety. We simply choose not to believe that it can be right.

But we still love the iPad!

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