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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Five gallons worth of oil-derived tar balls washed up on Texas beaches this past weekend. Jerry E. Patterson, Commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas, confirmed that the tar balls were found on beaches in Galveston and the nearby Bolivar Peninsula. It’s worth nothing that the amount of oil that washed up in Texas is relatively small, enough to fill a large bucket. In addition, no one can say for sure if this unexpected tar ball arrival is due to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The tar balls could have come from a ship leaking oil in the area, or from the countless gallons of oil that seep naturally from the Gulf of Mexico floor each year. Scientists and officials are looking at recent weather and ocean current patterns in the Galveston area to ascertain the likely course and direction the tar balls took to reach Texas shores. Hurricane Alex’s recent appearance south of Galveston may also be a factor in this mystery.

If these tar balls do indeed originate from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, then Texas would become the fifth and final American Gulf coast state to have beaches and shoreline habitats fouled by the continuing oil spill. News is still worse for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In Louisiana, for example, tar balls and oil sheens have now reached Lake Pontchartrain, the country’s second largest salt water lake, just north of New Orleans. Near-shore oil skimming ships were held in port last week due to choppy seas from Hurricane Alex, and more oil continued to wash up on Gulf coast beaches.

Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard has restricted access for journalists to clean up sites. The new rules limit how close journalists (and other onlookers) can get to clean-up boats and containment booms, as well as beaches and other areas fouled by oil. Journalists must obtain permission a Coast Guard commander to come closer than 65 feet to any of these sites, or else face fines of up to $40,000 and felony charges. Initial reaction to these rules has been hostile from some journalists and local government officials. CNN’s Anderson Cooper in particular takes the U.S. Coast Guard to task, accusing the Coast Guard of backtracking on its initial pledge for full and complete transparency of the disaster and its lasting effects on the Gulf coast.

Finally, nearly 80 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, oil continues to gush from the rig’s open well. BP has announced that recent choppy seas in the area have hampered its efforts to drill a relief well, which is the last best chance the company has to plug the open well permanently. BP hopes the relief well will be drilled by mid-August.

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Charles Darwin, proponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Nature has a brief and fascinating interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of New York’s Binghamton University. Dr. Wilson is a full time researcher, yet he also spends time injecting evolution into public policy debates. He advocates engaging the general public with evolutionary ideas, and giving evolutionary theories real world relevance for society.

Dr. Wilson’s ideas couldn’t come at a better time. Among Western nations, Americans are famously skeptical of evolution. It was only four years ago that a comprehensive review of surveys on public perceptions of evolution determined that less than half of Americans agreed with the assertion that human beings evolved from other animal species. A mere 14% of the general public believes that evolution is “definitely true.” Of all the Western countries surveyed, only Turkey had a population that was more wary of evolution, while Scandinavian countries had over three-quarters of their citizens accepting evolutionary theory.

Americans have unique historical and sociological reasons for their skepticism and hostility toward evolution. Many have theorized that the strong presence of Protestant fundamentalism in the American tradition decoupled religious learning from the major universities. As a result, whole Protestant groups educated and cultivated clergy and congregations hostile to mainstream Western education ideals and standards, especially in regard to the natural sciences. In addition, in recent decades, the political climate in the United States has added fuel to the notion of evolution as a dangerous, foolhardy, and heretical falsehood. President Reagan famously littered some campaign speeches with the line, “I have no chimpanzees in my family,” to ridicule a whole field of biological study. Some argue that the link between the political right in the United States with hostility toward evolutionary theory was cemented to curry favor among religious fundamentalists. If so, it is an alliance that is noticeably absent in other Western countries. In much of Europe and Japan, far-right political groups are just as a likely to accept evolutionary theory as other segments of the population.

Another reason the American public is so hostile to evolution may be the poor state of scientific literacy in general in the United States. Most Americans have only a minimal scientific education up through high school, barely touching on subjects like evolution, genetics, and inheritance. Beyond high school, most Americans don’t further their scientific education at all. Dr. Wilson’s group at Binghamton University is researching ways to inject evolution back into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. It will be interesting to see if these methods bear fruit, especially since Dr. Wilson himself believes his methods of engagement may not please a prominent pro-evolution group: atheists.

Dr. Wilson is an atheist himself, but does not agree with many “new atheists” who take an openly hostile view to all religious belief. In fact, part of Dr. Wilson’s work looks at the group benefits of religious belief from an evolutionary perspective.

To learn more, read Dr. Wilson’s whole interview with Nature.

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This true-color image shows southwestern Australia as it appeared on 18 August 2002. A significant chunk of the coastal region is green, a sign that ample seasonal rainfall has done its job. However, to the north and east, hot and dry conditions persist, as a reminder that much of the Australian landscape is dominated by the arid and semi-arid “Outback.”

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, and it is getting drier. The patches of temperate and sub-tropical areas along the coast (including the pictured bit of southwestern Australia) are getting warmer, but receiving less rainfall. Much of southeast Australia (including most of the major urban centers) has been wracked by a decades-long drought. The Murray-Darling river system in the southeast, the only major river system on the continent, is drying up quickly, depriving the country’s limited agricultural land of much-needed irrigation. Cities like Western Australia’s Perth (with a 2009 population of 1,659,000) have seen water demand spike as reservoirs drop. Already, the country has three desalination plants operating to provide water for coastal cities, with three more under construction and at least one more planned. These desalination plants will likely increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest per capita in the world.
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The above image is the Korean Peninsula at night, via satellite. If the Korean coastline isn’t very familiar to you, there’s a daytime image after the jump.
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Doctor-turned-Politician

Several days ago, I posted a list of scientists who left their research, academic, or industrial careers and entered politics. I omitted one prominent category of scientists-turned-politicians: those scientists who were trained and educated in medicine. I think the general public too quickly assumes that doctors-turned-politicians only make themselves heard in issues of public health. In some cases, this is certainly true. But, not always!

Though medicine makes up only a fraction of the natural sciences, there are a number of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals who have sought government office. The list below barely scratches the surface, but should give you an idea of the impact this group of applied scientists has on government policy.
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Scientist-turned-Politician

If we start by counting my years as an undergraduate, I’ve been a scientist or scientist-in-training for over a decade. During that large chunk of my life, I’ve heard many of my research colleagues, peers, and teachers lament the deplorable excess of scientific illiteracy among those who make such critical decisions about funding for scientific research programs: the politicians. Of course, one cannot expect a thorough scientific education and training among politicians – most of them were trained and educated in the law, or some other field that flows more naturally toward a political career the United States. In many other countries, the same trend rings true. Sure, the subjects may change (in countries with frequent coups d’etat, for example, a military background might be a better stepping stone to a government position), but I know of no nation where scientists involve themselves in the political realm at high frequency.

This is no surprise. Presumably, most scientists aren’t in government because they’re simply too busy being scientists, or branching easily into alternative careers like teaching or industry. However, in electoral democracies, the voters theoretically have a unique opportunity to elect nearly anyone of any educational or vocational background to office.

So, do we see scientists standing for public office, brining their unique skill sets and backgrounds to the political world? From my perspective, not really. In the United States, many folks who seek elected office or senior civil service positions are still lawyers or political scientists. As a whole, scientists in government remain confined to the areas wholly encompassing science policy, such as the CDC or NASA. The same is true for many other western democracies. But, here and there, you’ll find exceptions to this rule: folks who were trained and educated first as scientists, and later sought out roles in government outside of science’s traditional influence. I’m fascinated by these people. What made them switch careers? Have they brought unique scientific perspectives to their offices? What scientific fields do they come from?

I cannot say what impact this small minority of politicians has had on scientific discourse in the political realm. I’m sure many of my colleagues would still grumble on the low value of scientific truths in government on all levels, particularly in the United States. Still, it is worth noting at least some of the scientists who have taken the bold step into government. Below is a list of some of the more prominent examples of scientists-turned-politicians, from the United States and other countries. I have deliberately left out one unique subset of this group: the doctors-turned-politicians. Those individuals who left medicine for government service will be considered in a future post.

For now, enjoy this all too brief survey of (non-medicine) scientist-turned-politicians.
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