As discoveries multiply, popular understanding of science must deepen

Published December 22, 2006 in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

The contrast between these two stories in the Nov. 30 St. Paul Pioneer Press was startling. One, "Ancient Greece — birthplace of the computer?" elaborates on how a team of scientists painstakingly unveiled the mysteries of an antique calendrical device discovered in 1901 in the wreck of an ancient Roman ship off the coast of Greece. The other, "High court takes up global warming," portrays a skeptical U.S. Supreme Court hearing an argument concerning the contribution of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to a warming global climate.

The "Antikythera Mechanism," a remarkably sophisticated machine thought to be 2,100 years old, reveals that the Greek civilization made painstaking efforts to comprehend the natural sciences. Ancient peoples needed to understand the astronomical calendar because, as noted astronomer Carl Sagan explains in his "Cosmos," it "was literally a matter of life and death," as people regulated and adjusted their lives based upon the cycle of the seasons.

In an unrelated story, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the increase in amounts of CO2 in our atmosphere and about proposed measures to regulate such emissions in newer vehicles. This is the first time the high court has entered the global warming debate.

At one point during the proceedings, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, having been corrected when he mistakenly identified a layer of Earth's atmosphere, rejoined, "I told you before I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth."

This is quite a remarkable statement when one realizes that it comes from one of nine justices responsible for evaluating controversies in the constitutionality of laws that govern our land. Yes, Scalia was attempting a humorous riposte, and that, in and of itself, is no big deal. We all blunder. His subsequent remarks, however, do contain a kernel of truth.

All too often we hear the catchphrase, "I was never very good at science;" and now we can add further testimony to that credo that Scalia makes light of. One does not have to look very far into the history of science to imagine the refrain.

"Hey, Galileo, I was never very good at science, so recant everything you've said about Earth revolving around the sun and we will spare your life."

"Sacré bleu, Monsieur Pasteur, I was never very good at science but your claim that invisible microbes can kill me is absurd."

"Say, Charlie Darwin, I was never very good at science, but you'll never make a monkey out of me."

As a science teacher, I insist that all of my students make a conscientious attempt to understand the fundamental scientific principles embedded in the courses I teach. Even if they view theory with skepticism, they are encouraged to do so rationally and methodically, and to make up their own minds based upon evidence and logic.

It is, of course, unreasonable to expect a Supreme Court justice to be a scientist. It is not unreasonable, however, and perhaps crucial, to compel those who judge the constitutionality of the law, including environmental law, to understand science. Scalia and others in the position to rule on law are morally charged with an obligation to understand the nuances of each case and to conduct their own impartial investigation, study environmental texts and journals, and become informed as to what may be happening in the atmosphere that encircles our planet. Most likely, this case will be decided on some procedural technicality, but there will be later cases that will require knowledge of scientific principles, and the court's decision may rest upon an understanding of those principles.

After all, if ancient peoples could decipher the physical laws that govern a clockwork universe specifically for survival within it, I would imagine our judges and lawmakers could better serve our country and world community by making an attempt to understand the science of global climate change. the reality of which may well be a matter of life and death.

Peter Pitman of St. Paul teaches earth and space sciences at White Bear Lake High School-South.