A Newsletter of Scientific and Civic Literacy. March 2006


a new name For twenty-five years I have written Hawkhill Science Newsletters--three, four and sometimes five issues a year. We used to include the 4-page newsletter in the center of our Hawkhill video catalogs. As the rising cost of printing and postage made this difficult I switched to an email version. Customers and subscribers have been generous in their feedback (both positive and negative) and I have enjoyed very much getting my oar in on issues related to scientific literacy. As I approach my 80th birthday (that’s not a misprint) I think it’s time for a change, for a new beginning.

We’ll start with a new name. HAWKHILL NEWS. Simpler. No graphics. Just words. And ideas. Email and Internet.

civic and cultural literacy The new name reflects my intention to include items on civic and cultural literacy as well as scientific literacy. Education has become too departmentalized. Science teachers don’t talk to history teachers. Professors of literature have little contact with professors of physics or biology. And vice versa. A writer named C. P Snow called this the “Two Cultures” back in the 1950s. The current flap at Harvard that ended with the president resigning seems to fall into this category.

Today in the 21st century students are still and often unable to see connections between the facts, concepts and understandings they learn in science classes and those they learn in social studies and humanities classes. And sadly and more important, a culture of pessimism has grown in 21st century America education circles that I think merits comment and response. So let’s begin.

Start with education. Here is a quote that cuts across disciplines. It is from an anonymous internet writer that a friend forwarded to me recently. I thought it worth passing on.

what do teachers make? WHAT TEACHERS MAKE

The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education. He argued, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?" He reminded the other dinner guests what they say about teachers: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." To stress his point he said to another guest; "You're a teacher, Susan. Be honest. What do you make?"

Susan, who had a reputation for honesty replied, "You want to know what I make?

"I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I make a C+ feel like the winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them criticize. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write. I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and perfect their final drafts in English. I make them understand that if you have the brains, and follow your heart, and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you must pay no attention because they just didn't learn."

Susan paused and then continued. "You want to know what I make? 'I MAKE A DIFFERENCE.' What do you make?"

all the difference Teachers of science and in the humanities, did not make all of the differences from the 1950s to 2006, but they do deserve credit for a fair share of the progress during this half a century. It is time to take that credit. Now that I have confessed to my age I can claim historical perspective on just how impressive that progress both scientific and civic has been over the past fifty years. Also how uninformed is the current fad of pessimism.

For instance. I was a high school science teacher back in the 1950s when the Soviet Union put the first satellite, Sputnik, into space. Science education suddenly made the front pages and the nation mobilized to “catch up” with the Soviets.

from 1950s to 21st century Consider the progress made. In the 1950s we used slide rules in our science classes. No calculators, no computers. Video did not exist. Nor did the Internet. Nor did copy machines (I used messy spirit duplicator trays to slowly and laboriously make copies of experiments and quizzes for my classes). Cell phones, MRI machines, organ transplants, cable television, supermarkets, cheap air travel, hundreds of new sports for participants and for fans, credit cards, college and university education for the masses as well as the elite, explosion of new travel possibilities, world-wide satellite communication networks, all were dreams of the future.

Who invented these new machines and pioneered in these new services? Men and women who were taught in public and private schools in the U.S., Canada and other western democracies ”to read, read, read, show their work in math, perfect their final drafts in English, and use their brains and their hearts to accomplish great new things.” In other words, their teachers deserve a healthy share of the credit for the great new things that have been done.

political and economic progress Consider next the political and economic progress. In the 1950s we had just emerged from (1) the worst depression in world history, and (2) the most catastrophic war in human history. A war that cost not two or three thousand lives but over 30 million lives.

Very few travelers in the 1950s made the now common trips to Europe, Africa or Asia because most of the countries on all of these continents were still struggling to rebuild war-devastated infrastructures and economies. And many of these countries like the Soviet Union, all of eastern Europe as well as China and much of southeast Asia were in even more desperate shape not only because of the war but because their communist religion led to unprecedented stagnation, poverty, famine, as well as deadly prison camps for millions of dissenters.

Today the Soviet Union is defunct. Eastern Europe is free, democratic, and making fast economic progress. I have been there, before and after, and I can tell you the change is startling. I have also recently traveled to China which is still politically oppressed but is making giant strides economically. I have also traveled to India, southeast Asia and Japan and seen how these countries too are becoming richer and freer in this 21st century.

How did this happen? Surely teachers from kindergarten to college, teachers in the sciences, natural and social, and in the humanities deserve some credit for these revolutionary changes in our lifetime!

civil rights, civil liberties And then consider the home front.

In the 1950s African-Americans were denied the most basic civil rights and liberties. I went to college in the late 1940s with a shy beautiful young woman who sang like an angel. She was one of only two African-Americans in our college. (Most colleges of that day, public and elite, had none.) When she traveled, this friend could not book a room in many hotels or eat at many restaurants. This friend, Coretta Scott, a few years after graduation, married a handsome young man named Martin Luther King. The rest is history.

environmental progress And finally, look at the progress in improving our environment.

In the late 1940s I worked in Pittsburgh one winter. Walking downtown on some sunny days the air was so full of soot particles and who know what other industrial chemicals you could hardly see across the street. I taught in New York City for most of the 50s, lived with my young family in a dingy cold-water flat (all you could afford on a teacher’s salary then) and breathed air that was only marginally better than Pittsburgh. You should have seen our filthy window sills in the summer (no air-conditioning of course). Outside our tenement apartment, the Hudson River was full of sewage and bereft of fish. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire!

Without question our environment today is a hundred times more healthy and less polluted. Teachers deserve some of the credit for this difference as well..

I realize on this last point some of you may raise objections. What about pesticides and chemicals in our food, air and water? What about overpopulation and resource destruction? What about carbon dioxide and global warming?

population explosion? Here I dissent from--in some circles at least--seems to be politically correct opinions. In the 1960s biologist Paul Ehrlich, regular guest on Johnny Carson, wrote a best-selling book “The Population Bomb” that scared many people. It began "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate."

In 2006 the world had indeed grown in population (caused mainly by a dramatic decline in death rates) yet overall people around the world are better fed than ever before, and the problem is not famine but too many fatties. (Ehrlich is still barking up the wrong tree however and to my knowledge has never admitted his prediction was faulty.)

was Rachel Carson right? In the 1960s, too, the biologist Rachel Carson made a splash with her book “The Silent Spring” and inspired a host of environmental crusaders who, to give them credit, have given a strong and needed hand in improving our environment. But we are just realizing today that some of these crusaders have made environmentalism into a religion, and too often join forces with far-right religious groups as modern disciples of gloom and doom. Sometimes they seem determined to stop economic and political progress, and to stifle scientific progress as well in important fields like genetic engineering, nuclear physics, chemistry, agriculture, animal behavior, as well as in studies in evolution. Even the current media fascination with global warming has strong elements of this messianic fury. Unfortunately the crusaders include some scientists who ought to know better.

global warming revisited Despite the popular consensus I, along with quite a few respected experts at MIT, University of Wisconsin and other research centers in climatology, remain skeptical about global warming. As climatologist Reid Bryson at UW-Madison says, “It is an interesting hypothesis. But only an hypothesis.” Yes, carbon dioxide is increasing in the air. One question is, why call carbon dioxide a pollutant? We know for certain it is an essential chemical for all plant and hence all animal life. It also does play a part in the greenhouse effect and if the increase of carbon dioxide in the air were the only factor in climate change, global warming would be on the way. But it is not the only factor.

Things like water vapor, clouds, homeostatic mechanisms, dust and a host of other known and unknown factors also play major parts in weather and climate. And despite the sophisticated computer models, we are not even close to confidently making predictions about the climate two years from now much less fifty or a hundred years from now.

If global warming does come, there will be winners as well as losers. And finally, how many resources do we want to devote to a hypothetical problem fifty or a hundred years from now when we have many more urgent problems today. Like global Islamic terrorism, AIDS and malaria, ethnic and religious conflict, and especially continued poverty in the half of the world’s peoples who still live in unfree and seriously polluted neighborhoods.

60 Minutes and CNN In addition, I have lived through quite a few similar media-hyped scares. Once it gets heavy play on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, late night talk shows and CNN, watch your wallet.

In the 1970s, for instance, the consensus was that the world was fast heading toward an ice age. The U.S. Academy of Sciences in 1975 warned that “There is a finite possibility that a serious world-wide cooling could befall the earth within the next 100 years.” Stephen Schneider, one of the most vocal proponents of global warming today wrote in a book in 1976, “The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival” that predicted catastrophic global cooling. He also famously wrote in 1989 (after he had changed his mind about global cooling) that scientists often “have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of the doubts we have.”

chemical scares DDT was supposed to be deadly to living creatures. In the Nixon administration it was banned in an admittedly political, not scientific, decision. The ban may have helped peregrine falcon populations. Unfortunately our ban of DDT also contributed to the death of quite a few million people in India and Africa who could no longer use it to protect from malaria and other insect borne diseases of the tropics, diseases we in the west had been able to conquer with the aid of DDT.

Similar stories could be told about many of the other environmental scares. Alar on apples, pesticides in our foods, chemicals in our drinking water, asbestos in schools, energy crises, high-voltage power lines, radiation from cell phones, genetic pollution of our foods. All of these scares and more have been shown by sober scientific studies to be without merit.

Environmental hysteria also effectively crippled nuclear power, which now seems to be the only practical clear and clean solution to coal-fired power plant pollution and possible global warming.

"don't follow the crowd ..." I could go on and on but you get the point. Maybe Yogi Berra had the answer when he said: “Don’t follow the crowd. Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

And if you are interested in a longer term look at some of these questions I recommend our brand new 2006 program Democracy in World History. Six new videos and DVDs that explore the growth of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from ancient Greece to the 21st Century. See our web site: www.hawkhill.com

Editor: Bill Stonebarger
Hawkhill Associates, Inc.
125 East Gilman St.
Madison, WI 53703