Blog 83. Headlines, hubris and earth science

Budget meddling by congress?”  We would rather read something terrible, tragic, or titillating.   And short.  Front-page headlines in yesterday’s local newspaper were: “Man charged with abusing partner and dog … “HP is cutting 30,000 jobs  … Human bite marks on dead baby’s body … Stanford dean resigns after affair ….”  At the other end of the reading spectrum, the September 2015 issue of Scientific American magazine offers a set of articles outlining Einstein’s life and his work on relativity.

Sci Am has evolved from a strict presentation of science to popular level reviews and an occasional defense of science.  The September 2015 issue features an editorial with the heading:

Budget meddling by Congress could cripple Earth science programs.

According to Sci Am, congressional Republicans, “egged on by Senator Ted Cruz” moved to decrease NASA’s budget for Earth science while increasing the budget for planetary science that NASA didn’t request.  (NASA is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, chartered to focus on phenomena in the atmosphere and space.)  Sci Am reports that several Republicans, including Senator Cruz and Representative Culberson (also from Texas), claim that NASA’s funds would be better spent examining other worlds instead of Earth.  As reported by Sci Am, Earth science funding was previously reduced by the Bush II administration, then replaced by the current administration.

Sci Am declares “this choice between our planet and others is false.”  I would call it disastrous.  What happens on other planets is interesting, but it rarely affects life on Earth.

Anti-science politics is not new.  As I said previously, politics is more about belonging than about platforms, but building a platform to deny yourself (and everyone else) data about sustainability suggests a mental deficiency.

To be fair, the Sci Am editorial faults Democrats in Congress for weak support of Earth science, but Sci Am puts the blame on the Republicans for opposition to measurement of such things as climate change and ocean acidification, measurements that I notice might affect big business.  And everything else on earth.

Earth science is no longer an academic exercise.  The temperature studies draw the most public attention, but remote sensing by satellites now reveals soil moisture, including California’s water supply; seismic hazards, including the almost-certain Cascadia earthquake and tsunami along the northwest coast of the U.S.; forecast of power-grid disruption* by solar winds; ice movement; global production of vegetation; and sea level change.  If the budget is limited, would we really rather pay for data about the moons of Jupiter?

As at National Geographic, the Sci Am editors regard the science wars to be so severe as to merit a political article.  That’s a change in awareness and priorities, a decision to talk about a social problem rather than to ignore it under the guise of neutrality, a refusal to ignore the elephant in the room just because acknowledgement of the beast would make everyone uncomfortable.  Governance by ignorance will ultimately make everyone much more uncomfortable.

We have laws and institutions worth conserving, so there are valid reasons for some conservatism in politics.  But I see no socially responsible reason for deliberately choosing ignorance.  I think the public can tell the difference between reasoned conservatism and irresponsible stupidity.

In a society where the headlines are about bite marks or love affairs. can an explicit editorial in a science magazine make a difference?  I think so.  Perhaps the headlines are only expressions of editorial hubris.  I’m a member of the public, and I read the Sci Am editorial yesterday, but I didn’t read the newspaper article about bite marks.

Other readers might seek the more- important information, too.

* Open the power-grid link to see a neat few-second video of the rotating earth and orbiting moon.

2 thoughts on “Blog 83. Headlines, hubris and earth science

  1. Arvid Lundy ·

    Don, I just want to thank you for these continuing always thoughtfull essays. They make a difference to me.

    Cheers, Arvid

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