Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Lecture Topics

Conscience of a Progressive
    (A Book in Progress)

A Dim View of Libertarianism

Rawls and the Duty to Posterity
    (Doctoral Dissertation)

The Ecology Project

For Environmental Educators

The Russian Environment

    (Critiques of Post Modernism)

Notes from the Brink
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The Online Gadfly: Editorial Policy

The Gadfly's E-Mail: gadfly@igc.org

Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession




The Quotation Bin

"No Mo Po Mo"

It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope.  We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren, till she transforms us into beasts...  Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?  For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and to provide for it.

Patrick Henry

 Science Education and Scientific Literacy

We have noted, in The Online Gadfly, the deplorable condition of science education in the United States. In addition, we have criticized the "fact-funding" approach to science education, whereby the content of science is given primary consideration over the activity and function of science. Due to this approach to science education, we have encountered all-too-many college undergraduates who, while familiar with various scientific "facts" and "laws," are quite unable to appreciate why science might be a superior means of ascertaining knowledge of the natural world. Such students can complete an undergraduate education still perceiving no reason to prefer (for example) astronomy to astrology. Such scientific mis-education provides fertile soil for the "post-modernism" and "deconstruction" that is corrupting our communal thought-processes today.

In early 1998, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reported some shocking findings about the state of scientific education in the United States. Two editorials in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, thus responded to that report.:

 The science and mathematics education community is still recoiling from the latest results on student performance in [TIMSS]. Although scores were not expected to be high, the fact that the nation's 12th graders were among the lowest performers was disheartening... US 12th graders performed below the international average and among the lowest of the 21 TIMSS countries that participated in the general science knowledge assessment. And in the advanced physics assessment, US 12th graders performed among the lowest of the students from the 16 countries participating....

Earlier TIMSS data indicate that when compared to other countries, US [science] teachers lack support throughout their teaching career and feel isolated from their teaching colleagues. They teach more classes per week than their Japanese counterparts, and there is no time set aside in the US school day for teachers to learn from one another and share strategies about teaching. Science teachers also face the challenge of having to teach subjects outside their field of expertise. US Secretary of Education Richard Riley notes that, in the physical sciences, "Almost half of American students are taught by teachers without a major or minor in that field." (March 13, 1998. Gerald Wheeler, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association).

By the broadest definition, more than 90% of Americans are scientifically illiterate -- an appalling statistic by anyone's standards and possibly a threat to our well-being. Yet with all this agreement we see astonishing ambiguity -- and to different definitions of scientific literacy. The first emphasizes practical results and stresses short-term instrumental good, notably training immediately productive members of society with specific facts and skills. We call this science literacy, with its focus on gaining units of scientific or technical knowledge. second is scientific literacy, which emphasizes scientific ways of knowing and the process of thinking critically and creatively about the natural world. Advocates of the second assume that it is good o have critical thinkers, that scientific literacy is an intrinsic good -- on moral and other principled grounds. Being scientifically literate helps people to live "good" lives (in the philosophers' sense of reflective and fulfilling, and not in the distasteful sense of eating good-for-you bran flakes). According to this view, science is beautiful, exciting, and fun. Becoming scientifically literate produces skeptical, creative habits of mind that are valuable for everyone. (August 14, 1998. Jane Maienschein and students, Arizona State University).



Science and Religion in the United States: 
Three Reflections


If polls are to be believed, 100 million US citizens believe that humans and dinosaurs were created within the same weak as each other, less than ten thousand years ago.  This is ... serious.  People like this have the vote, and we have George W. Bush (with a little help from his friends in the Supreme Court) to prove it.  They dominate school boards in some states.  Their views flatly contradict the great corpus of the sciences, not just biology but physics, geology, astronomy, and many others.  It is, of course, entirely legitimate to question conventional wisdom in fields that you have bother to mug up first.  That is what Einstein did, and Galileo, and Darwin.  But our hundred million are another matter.  They are contradicting -- influentially and powerfully -- vast fields of learning in which their own knowledge and reading is indistinguishable from zero.

Richard Dawkins, Free Inquiry
Summer, 2001

We are now in an awfully pious period in our own country...  We are a churchy nation -- far more so than any other Western country.  The Swedes, the Brits, even the Italians seldom go to church.  Americans go regularly.  Those nations have lower rates of violent crime and other social maladies, but so what?  The efficacy of religion is considered proven, even if it is not.

Richard Cohen, The Washington Post
March 6, 2001

The Bush budget includes cuts, after accounting for inflation, to the three primary sources of ideas and personnel in the high-tech economy" the National Science Foundation is cut by 2.6 percent, NASA by 3.6 percent and the Department of Energy by an alarming 7.1 percent...

The 21st century economy will continue to depend on scientific innovation.  Economists estimate that innovation and the application of new technology have generated at least half of the phenomenal growth in America's gross domestic product since World War II.  Keeping that economic source productive is critical to both national prosperity and federal revenues....

The proposed cuts to scientific research are a self-defeating policy.  Congress must increase the federal investment in science.  No science, no surplus.  It's that simple.

D. Allan Bromley, New York Times, March 9, 2001
(Bromley was the Science Advisor to Pres. G. H. W. Bush)

Scan the shelves of a bookshop or a public library and you will see that most of the books are about the evanescent concerns of today... They take so much for granted, whole forgetting how hard won was the scientific knowledge that gave us the comfortable and safe lives we enjoy.  We are so ignorant of the facts upon which science and our scientific culture are established that we give equal place on our bookshelves to the nonsense of astrology, creationism, and junk science.  At first, they were there to entertain, or to indulge our curiosity, and we did not take them seriously.  Now they are too often accepted as fact.  Imagine a survivor of a failed civilization with only a tattered book on aromatherapy for guidance on arresting a cholera epidemic.  Yet, such a book  would more likely be found amid the debris than a comprehensible medical text.

James Lovelock
Science, 8 May, 2000


The Evolution of Ideas

"All new and truly important ideas must pass through three stages: first dismissed as nonsense, then rejected as against religion, and finally acknowledged as true, with the proviso from initial opponents that they know it all along."

Stephen Jay Gould, Paraphrasing Karl Ernst von Baer.

In Defense of Reason

"The general public no longer views science, let alone the ultimate truths of the universe, with a sense of awe and mystery, but instead considers it conservative and mundane, "trapped" in logical thinking. It is as if the shackles of rigidity have -- thank God -- been removed when "open-minded" attitudes are conveyed on television, in books, in movies about ESP, UFOs, or any of a thousand other varieties of alleged paranormal phenomena. The great danger, in my estimation, is not so much that vast numbers of children and adults will be sucked wholesale into truly goofy belief systems (channeling, abduction, and so on), but that they will be misled into accepting the implicit message that science is boring, conservative, closed-minded, devoid of mystery, and a negative force in society. Again, this message is not overt, but tacit, perhaps not even consciously intended. Yet it is precisely this subliminally that makes it so insidious and dangerous.

"I have no quick fixes. I do not know how to quickly and easily repair decades of damage. I do not even fully understand why the sands have shifted so radically. All I can do is look on in sadness and worry about the future of rational inquiry, bemoaning the loss of awe toward genuine mysteries that our society was once lucky enough to possess."

"Popular Culture and the Threat to Rational Inquiry"
Douglas Hofstadter, Science, 24 July, 1998


What's wrong with a [belief] that brings comfort to so many people?  That's a bit like asking what's wrong with a lobotomy, a steady diet of happy pills, or a group like Heaven's Gate.  Charismatic authority figures are always disconcerting, especially when they malign rationalism and exhort us to abandon our critical thinking powers in order to realize spiritual growth....  No one who demands worship, however, covertly, deserves respect.

Wendy Kaminer
Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials

For decades now, we have been told that "knowledge" is not a legitimate goal of striving but merely a shibboleth for enforcing the dominance of a class, race or gender. From that position it follows that the correct way to assess an idea is not to test its congruence with established facts but simply to ask whose interest it serves. And once this anti-empirical habit comes into play, it automatically creates sympathy for whatever notions are rejected by the ruling group. This process of rehabilitating "marginalized" conceptions stops a nothing -- not even ... at the most comical excesses of the [alien] abduction mania.

Frederick Crews
"The Mindsnatchers"
The New York Review, 7/28/98

There have always been two kinds of original thinkers, those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order try to protest it by creating disorder.  The tension between the two is what drives learning forward.  It lifts us upward through a zigzagging trajectory of progress.  And in the Darwinian contest of ideas, order always wins because -- simply -- that is the way the real world works.

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience.

Risk assessment data can be like the captured spy: if you torture it long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know.

William Ruckelshaus, Former Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency

My experience with academics is that they have a short attention span and are also pretty clueless as to what needs to be done to make a political change.  They then to think that if they write a letter to the editor, they have done their duty.

Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education.
Quoted in Science, December 3, 1999, p. 1843

Deconstruction and Doublethink

"Plus ça change, plus la même chose"

In our recent rereading of Orwell's 1984, we encountered a passage that vividly reminded us of our recent classroom encounters with "postmodern" students . Recall the quotation by Paulo Friere (in "Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World," this site): "Education ... denies that the world exists as a reality apart from men."

"But how can you control matter?" [Winston Smith] burst out. "You don't even control the climate or the law of gravity. And there are disease, pain, death ---"

O'Brien silenced him with a movement of the hand. "We control matter, because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation, anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the laws of nature."

. . . .

"But the world itself is only a speck of dust. And man is tiny -- helpless! How long has he been in existence? For millions of years the earth was uninhabited."

"Nonsense. the earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness."

"But the rocks are full of the bones of extinct animals -- mammoths and mastodons and enormous reptiles which lived here long before man was ever heard of."

"Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing. After man, if he could to to an end, there would be nothing. Outside man there is nothing."

"But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach forever."

"What are the stars?" said O'Brien indifferently. "They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it. . . . Do you suppose it is behind us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?"

Alan Sokal -- Call your office!

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .