Its Not Hairspray: Americas Need for Science Education
Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives had a brief 30-minute debate on the House floor about climate change. This short treatment may seem rather banal given the controversy and media coverage on this particular issue, but until then, floor debate on the climate change issue and related legislation has been essentially nonexistent.
The impetus of the recent debate was an amendment attached to the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior. The language of the amendment was exactly the same as a resolution passed in the Senate declaring that the United States should enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop and reverse the growth of such emissions. The language made it through the appropriations committee, but was withdrawn on a point of order because it is against the House rules to legislate on an appropriations bill. Nevertheless, the procedural slight of hand at least produced a short debate on the House floor, bringing attention to this important issue.
As a citizen and scientist, as well as a congressional staffer, I found the debate vexing. On one side of the debate were up-to-date statistics and theories accepted by the scientific community, verified in a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, concerning past, present and future global carbon dioxide concentrations and surface temperatures. The representatives combined that information with anecdotal evidence of melting glaciers and record-high temperatures to put together a solid, reasonable argument for why the United States should immediately commit to mitigating the effects of climate change. Several congressional members representing both political parties spoke in favor of the amendment.
The other side of the debate, however, was entirely different. The argument of the lone member of Congress to speak against the amendment was riddled with seemingly off the cuff and unsubstantiated statistics and factoids. In an attempt to discredit most all science done on climate change as nefarious, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said: I will ask each and every one of you, and everybody watching and everybody talking this fear tactic, what melted that ice all the way to the North Pole before mankind set foot on this continent. It certainly wasnt hair spray or Freon If you look at any of the studies that are taking place now, the polar bear pack is very healthy and, in fact, increasing Do not just read the fear tactic.
Perhaps the foundation for this side of the debate came from across the Hill, as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, had gone on record with the statement: With all the fear, all the hysteria, all the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.
As a scientist, I am appalled and insulted by the way this debate is being conducted and the content included therein. Many of the statements are simply incorrect. First, I have only seen hairspray directly contribute to global warming at the lone fraternity party I attended in college when an industrious student decided to make a homemade flame thrower.
Second, several recent scientific studies, including some by government agencies, have documented the effects of shrinking ice caps on the health and sustainability of polar bear populations. Most striking have been numerous documented cases of several polar bears drowning and even three cases of polar bear cannibalism. These peer-reviewed studies have led to a petition for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the polar bear on the endangered species list. To me, that does not sound like a healthy and vibrant polar bear pack.
Members of Congress and their staff have access to perhaps the best library and research service in the world. With the use of the nonpartisan Library of Congress and accompanying Congressional Research Service, there is no reason or excuse for incorrect facts, scientific or otherwise, in House floor statements.
My main concern, however, is how the blatant misuse of science in this winner-take-all style of debate might affect the public perception and, in the end, the overall usefulness of science. In our reality-show, fast-news society, public perception is often, if not always, public reality. So when debates like the climate change one on the House floor are condensed to a sound byte for the evening news, the severe contradiction of scientific findings coupled with phrases like phony science and fear tactics often leads the public to perceive science in a negative light.
As a result, those misusing scientific fact the ones denigrating scientists and the practice of science for personal gain have won the debate. I am not for a minute naïve enough to think that they came across this tactical victory by mistake.
I have concluded that better science education is the only viable way to combat this type of irresponsible, yet effective, style of governing. Greater public understanding of science and sound scientific processes have the potential to transform our society.
We are facing real and immediate energy and environmental challenges that require genuine and progressive leadership to solve. Gone are the days when we can wait around for singular technological solutions to solve our problems. Now is a time of tough, informed decisions and strong national commitments.
Everyone must begin to hold our leaders and themselves accountable for their decisions regarding our energy future. This is the greatest lesson I carry forward with me, as I end my tenure on Capitol Hill and venture back into the classroom. I say all hands on deck!
Quane is the William L. Fisher 2005-2006 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. He is working in the office of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) this year. The views are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent Rep. Udall or any other individual or or entity.