Science!

I am very troubled by some things that I read about and hear about on the news.  It seems like there is a movement in the country to discount science.  I am not entirely certain why this is, except to say that it seems than many people don’t trust scientists.  The feeling that I get from news reports and other sources is that people feel that scientists have a vested interest in the outcome of things, so people feel that the scientists are not impartial.  Someone always has to benefit, right?  That is the American way!

There are four areas in which scientists really have adamant disagreements with many Americans: Peak Oil, Evolution, Autism and Global Warming.  It is pretty clear that I won’t actually be able to change many people’s (anyone’s) opinion on any of these subjects, but I thought it would be interesting to discuss them anyways.

1. Peak Oil

My wife loves to discuss peak oil.  She is a geologist, so it is really no surprise. What is somewhat surprising is that many people do not really understand what peak oil is.  Oil is a material that is not easily renewed, since it takes a very very long time to make.  Since it is non-renewable, it means that there is pretty much a fixed amount on Earth.  When that is gone, it will take millions of years to produce more. There is no real argument that oil will run out. It is just a question of time.

Many people argue that there is a significant amount of oil still out there. And they are correct. Let’s consider an analogy.  Let’s say that you are in the middle of a dessert and you are thirsty.  There are four supplies of water in front of you: (1) a few bottles of fresh water; (2) some salt water in buckets; (3) some raw sewage; and (4) some rocks that people have assured you contain water (but you can’t see it or feel it at all).  You are thirsty, so the first thing that you will do is crack open some bottles of fresh water and drink that.

A few days go by and you are starting to run out of this water.  In essence this is roughly where we are with oil.  We have used up a significant amount of the relatively easy to use oil.  Now, when you get thirsty, you are going to have to weigh your options.  How to get the water out of the other sources?  Well, salt water is probably the next easiest thing to use.  Just set up something to evaporate the water, capture the water vapor and then let that condense.  You then have fresh water.  It is a time consuming process and it takes a lot of energy to get the fresh water out.  You also have a big old pile of salt left over to get rid of.

You then run out of salt water and are left with rocks and raw sewage.  Which do you turn to first?  My guess is that if you get desperate enough, the raw sewage can be turned into water in a similar way as the salt water, except there is probably a lot less water content and you end up with a lot of, uh, by-products.  This then lasts you a few more days, but it takes a huge effort to get the water out of it and there is a huge amount of waste.

Now, you are left with a big old rock that has water in it.  Do you know how to get water out of a rock?  No?  Neither do I.  I am sure that smart scientists or engineers know how to.  Or will one day.

In essences this is like us with oil.  We are at the point in which the easy oil is quickly being consumed.  There is plenty of oil out there, but it is in a form that is quite difficult to get.  This means that, while we might be rolling in oil for another 50 years, it is going to become increasingly more difficult to get.  Further, there is going to be a lot more waste to get it out.  For example, the tar sands in Canada utilize 2-4 times as much water as oil they extract.  That is a huge amount of water being used to get oil. In addition, there is huge environmental devastation that occurs to get the oil out of the tar sands.  This is basically the equivalent of the salt water.  So, we are using slightly harder to get oil now.

The big problem with this is that as it becomes more difficult to get the oil, it becomes more expensive.  If you have not really noticed, gas prices have gone above $4 per gallon a few times in the last few years, and each time that they do, the economy quickly turns bad.  This last summer, in the recovery period of the recession, gas prices went to $4.19 per gallon, and everyone started talking about double-dip recession.  After labor day, prices plummeted to $3.49 per gallon and economists are saying that the worst is over.  People argue that when the economy turns good, gas prices go up (demand goes up), while when the economy is bad, gas prices go down (demand goes down).  The opposite could also be true – when gas prices go up, people realize how much they spend on gas and start cutting back.  Why would you buy a F150 that gets 15 miles per gallon when it costs $75+ to fill up the tank? This is an interesting article.

As a scientist, it seems clear that (a) the end of easy (cheap) oil will come at some point in the (relatively near) future; (b) the economy is intimately linked with oil prices; and (c) this is sort of bad.  Doesn’t it make sense to try to do something about this?

2. Evolution

In many ways, the idea of evolution is galling – we (humans!) evolved from lower forms of life?  That is insane!  It makes a lot more sense that we were created just as we are. Except that there is a lot of evidence that supports the theory of evolution:

A. Genetics.  This is pretty much what it is all about.  We can actually read genes and DNA and even manipulate the stuff.  We can take one thing, play with the DNA and make something else.  If you don’t believe me, just google search for genetically modified food.  People do this every day.  There is no argument about it being true or not.  It is the truth.

B. Dogs.  You know that dog that you own?  Or the one that your neighbor owns?  Those dogs were bred.  By bred, I mean that someone noticed a trait in a dog that they liked and they had that dog get together with another dog that had a similar trait.  Then they did it with the children of those doggies. After a few generations they got the type of dog that they wanted – say a poodle or a retriever.  Modern dogs were not put on this Earth as they are, they were created by people.  Using science. Not really sophisticated science, but science.

C. The Earth is very old, and we can look back through the history of it and actually see evolution taking place.  You can go to places like the Rocky Mountains and see is the side of a cliff the build up rock over time and how there are different organism embedded.  You can see dinosaurs and birds and insects and lichen and all sorts of stuff.  Scientists can map out the time-line of the development of people.

I think that the third one is the tricky bit with most people. People believe in dogs.  They believe in the food that they are eating.  But to then extrapolate that to the conclusion that we evolved from something else takes more than a leap of faith.  Even though there is significant evidence in the rocks that say that this is what happened.  It is harder to see because it is removed from them – they can see the rocks, but it is not nearly as personal as, say, a dog.

One reason I have a hard time with the argument of creationism vs. evolution is that there is no real reason to believe in creationism, except that people believe that if creationism is not correct, then the Bible is wrong.  People do not want this to be true.  There was another argument similar to this back a while ago – people thought that the Earth was the center of the universe.  The church proclaimed this to be true.  They threw people in jail who disagreed with it.  Then along came some scientists and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Earth is not the center of the universe, and that we go around the sun.  The evidence for evolution is as strong as the evidence for the Earth going around the sun, yet some people still cling to this belief.

At this point in time, there is still plenty of room in the theory of evolution for God.  For example, no one really understands how big changes can happen (e.g., how did humans evolve?)  Mutations are often the argument for how big changes take place at one time.  But, this is somewhat hard to swallow, since single mutations make a lot of sense (i.e., one animal develops a new trait that lets it live longer), while mass mutations don’t really make sense statistically (i.e., a bunch of animals develop the same trait at the same time). That is much harder for science to explain.  But, at the same time, it doesn’t invalidate the basic argument of genetics and the fact that we descended from a single cell organism (which, I find, is pretty freaking amazing).

3. Autism

One of the problems in science in society is that some of the topics are quite personal.  Autism is one of those issues.  What could be more personal than your child having a condition that will effect how they will be able to live their life?  There is little that is more personal than this.  Therefore, autism is an incredibly sensitive issue.  I don’t want to dismiss this as a casual issue at all.  It is not.

From my understanding, there were some studies published a while ago that linked autism to immunizations.  People suggested that the rates of autism were growing as the rates of immunization were increasing.  My wife read about these and really did not want our daughter to get immunizations.  But, many places require immunizations for children (schools, pre-schools, etc.) So, she got the shots.  My wife read a LOT about this subject.  To be honest, I have not read a huge amount, but I have read a lot of compelling things.

What many (more recent) studies have shown is that there is no correlation between immunizations and autism.  This is a great post that really discusses many many aspects of the issue.

One of the issues that is somewhat casually dismissed by most people is the fact that if people stopped immunizing their children, the rates of disease would go way up.  We are at a point in our history in which the infant mortality is less than it has ever been.  This is in large part due to immunizations.  If we were to change this, the infant mortality rate would climb.  You could definitely argue that the massive number of immunizations if not really called for.  I definitely think that this could be explored to find a happier medium, but it is clear that immunizations in general must stay.

4. Global Warming

Wow, there is a lot that could be said here, but I will keep the arguments very short:

There is pretty much no argument that the planet is getting warmer.  This is accepted by just about everyone.  Once again, there is nothing to believe or not believe.  It is a fact that has massive amounts of data to support it. There a lot of news stories about how the weather this or that particular day is very cold, so global warming must now be true.  These people don’t know the difference between climate and weather.  It is like being in a really cold house, turning your stove on and saying “Wow, it is really warm in this house.”

There is a question of how much local regions will be effected by the rise in temperature.  There are models that show different locations will have larger temperature increases and some that will have smaller temperature changes.  For example, here in Michigan, it is predicted that the temperature increase will be relatively mild.

Another fact that is not really argued is whether global sea levels will rise.  The main issue here is that as the temperature increases, ice melts in the polar region and runs off into the ocean.  This causes the amount of water in the ocean to rise, so the level of the water rises.  There are a huge number of people who live within a few miles of the ocean who will be strongly effected by this.  For example, Florida could be almost all under water in 50 years.  Think about this – within 50 years, the US might have to abandon cities like Miami and Tampa, since the water level will be above the roads.  We could do something like we have done in New Orleans – build massive dikes around the whole city and hope that something like Katrina never happens again.  But, that is somewhat silly, since Miami is sitting in prime Hurricane track.  Also, what is not really under dispute is that hurricanes and extreme weather events will most likely increase.  Summary: rising sea levels, coastal cities under water, and more hurricanes –  accepted by the scientific community.  This will probably happen within 50 years. Also accepted. (It should also be noted, at least as an aside, that not only are there US cities that will be under water, there are over a billion people who will be significantly effected by this – many of these people won’t have the resources of the US to build dikes and relocate.  They are in third world countries that have very little hope of stemming the tide of massive deaths that will result from hurricanes and tsunamis in a world with significantly more water.  Also a fact.)

The real issues are whether this warming is caused by people and whether we should be doing something about it (i.e., try to change the rate of increase.)  These are much more difficult questions to answer.

There are definitely arguments that can be made that the current global warming trends are not man-made.  For example, there are studies that show that the orbit of the Earth around the sun, the wobble of the rotation axis and other orbital considerations can effect the temperature of the planet on the 10,000 year time-scale.  It is also true that we are at a point in which these considerations are causing the Earth to be much warmer than the historical norm.  But, the counter argument to this is that the trends in this case are on the 10,000 year time-span, where we are seeing temperatures rise by significant factors in 10 years (i.e., not 10,000 years).  This is somewhat scary.  Not many things can actually cause this type of change, except massive increases in green house gasses.  Which have occurred.  And we have done that.  I am absolutely sure that this argument has convinced you, so let’s move on.

The next question is whether we should be doing something about it.  This is much harder, considering the dramatic changes we would have to make to our life style to actually make a significant change.  For example, cars are one of the top contributes to greenhouse gases (and consumers of oil… hmmm….)  Cars are extremely expensive to replace, and actually take a huge amount of resources to make new ones.  Many cars available right now get pretty crappy gas mileage.  Indeed, gas mileage by some cars has actually gone down in the last 10+ years (my 1988 Honda Civic got better gas mileage, 35-40 MPG, than the 2005 that I was looking at, 30-35 MPG, to replace my gas guzzling Honda Element, 18-22 MPG.)  While hybrids are nice, they are not a miracle cure.  For example, a Prius gets around 45 MPG, while a Volkswagen Jetta Diesel (not hybrid) gets about 45 also. A Smart Car, those micro cars out there that look like they should be getting 75 MPG, actually only get around 40 MPG.  Then, when you buy a tiny car, you have to worry about trucks.  In Michigan, there are a huge number of semis around, which, no matter what car you are driving, you will lose if you get into an accident with one of them.  There are also a gigantic number of F150s.  A Smart Car doesn’t stand a chance in a collision with one of these monsters.  So, do you sacrifice safety for 10-20 MPG?  Then, you look at all of the < 20 MPG cars being driven around, and it is hard to convince yourself that changing one car will make a difference.  But, it actually will.  One Smart Car or Prius or Civic Hybrid in the parking lot turns to two, then three.  Eventually there will be a difference, and the F150s and other gas guzzlers will be the minority.  This is how change happens – slowly.

Further, the government can accelerate this change by making more stringent standards.  Many anti-government regulation people argue that the market will dictate the changes (as described in the paragraph above), but this is only somewhat true.  Auto manufactures argue that increasing MPG will cause increases in the cost of cars and people won’t buy new cars.  Just look at the trend during the 90s – the fuel efficiency went down.  The thing that is driving the fuel efficiency in cars now is the price of gas, not the argument of global warming.  It is really the government that can control the large-scale trends in reducing green house emissions. Companies really can’t do this unless we as a society decides that it is important.  Right now, with a 50 year horizon and no real practical ramification on US, we don’t choose the thing that will help a billion people who aren’t even born yet.  But, the science says that it is out there.  Just biding time.

Summary

We seem to be at a time in which science is being casually dismissed by many people.  They “believe” that the science is right or wrong.  The real question for scientists should be how to change the understanding of science in our society.  How can we convince people that scientists don’t have a vested interest in the issues that they are discussing? In many ways it comes down to trust.  Scientists are not trusted by society for some reason.  Also, you could argue that the science has become so hard to understand, that society really has to take it on faith that the scientists know what they are talking about.  When you get a few people who say “those people are lying to you” AND you have a vested interest in believing that (i.e., don’t want to buy some micro-sized car or take the bus to work every day), you tend to dismiss the scientists.  And why not?  What does it hurt to believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old? Or that getting a bit warmer in Canada is a good thing?  How can scientists compete with talking heads on the TV?  These are really hard questions.  But, scientists are smart.  Maybe they should concentrate on answering these questions too.

 

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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3 Responses to Science!

  1. Mike Liemohn says:

    Nice post, but the “dog” argument for evolution is incorrect. The dogs we know are different breeds, not different species. Speciation requires a bigger separation of traits, to the point that offspring are infertile after a generation or two. See, for instance, the infertility of the mule, which is a donkey-horse interspecies hybrid.

  2. aaronridley says:

    Completely agree. I didn’t mean to say that there are new species created. What I really meant to say is that you can change the traits of generation by selective breeding. To make a new species takes something else, like a mutation.

  3. ramakant says:

    good article, but could not agree with the gas guzzling part. Most people I know are buying larger diesel cars because of the way oil prices are structured in the country. No matter what options are pursued, the price of energy will go up. More and more people are getting used to electric lamps and staying up till 10 PM in the light. Even remote villages now get 6 hours of electricity. Times are changing fast.

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