The book Environmental Science Investigations contains factual errors as well as deceptive statements. In general, it has the following types of problems:
Following are specifics:
The control rod match model is a very poor analogy of fission in a nuclear reactor.
The second further study topic on p. 25 asks students to evaluate the location of the first critical pile. Having been preceded by years of research and the construction of 30 sub-critical piles, the results were clearly anticipated. According to one source, "[s]o exact were Fermi's calculations... he was able to predict almost to the exact brick the point at which the reactor would become self-sustaining." (Allardice, C., and E. Trapnell, The First Reactor, USAEC, Oak Ridge, TN.) Understanding of the physics involved eliminates the uncertainty. Given the facts of the matter, it seems odd to imply a safety problem with the location for the first experiment as this question does. This is asking the students to answer a question they have not been given the resources to evaluate.
The fact that President Reagan reduced the spending of government funds on energy alternatives did not prevent the free market from tremendously reducing the cost of solar cells. Even at a cost of $1-2 per watt, solar energy is not price competitive with nuclear energy. The discussion cites the environmental "destruction" and "hazards" of fossil fuel energy with similar cost, but makes no reference to the environmental impact of producing solar cells, of covering vast areas of land with solar cells as would be necessary, or of storing the energy for times when the Sun is not shining.
The discussion emphasizes the U.S. contribution to global greenhouse emissions without acknowledging that this share has been decreasing for the past half century, nor that part of these emissions also represent the degree to which the U.S. provides food, goods, and services to the rest of the world.
On p. 91 is the statement "[s]ome politicians argue that there is no absolute proof of a rise in the greenhouse effect" but no acknowledgment that most climatologists argue the same thing. It is also incorrect to state that "climatologists agree that we can ill afford to gamble on being wrong." Most climatologists agree on this scientific fact: there is no proof of anthropogenic warming of the Earth above background noise. This discussion not only misinforms students concerning the degree of scientific consensus on the global warming hypothesis, it also leads them to avoid application of the scientific method.
Margaret Thatcher is quoted out of context; she referred to steps such as energy efficiency and conservation, which are environmentally and economically sound. Her statement cannot be implied to refer to subsequent economically unsound proposals.
The question on p. 96 asking students to predict consequences of 3-m or 5-m increases in sea level fails to compare this to actual predictions of sea level rise. Even the questionable predictions of the U.N. IPCC are for an increase of 0.15-0.95 m in the next 100 years. The figures used in this question represent 300 to 3,000 years of rise at these pessimistic rates. The question leads students to assume a connection between such increases and the predicted threat, when in fact there is none.
The final topic for further study, evaluating actions of Congress and the EPA, include questions which lead the student to choose between the options that they are taking proper action or that they are doing too little. No allowance is made for the possibility that they are doing too much.
Question 6 on p. 113 presents charges against North Americans, but omits that the relevant populations (the U.S. and Canada) have much smaller growth rates than the third world and that North America's share of global greenhouse gas emission is dropping.
The statement of Newell and Marcus on p. 114 is presented as a "scientific" statement, but it is flatly incorrect. Carbon dioxide levels and world population are not correlated that well. Carbon dioxide emissions are very indirectly connected to world population. Per capita rates of carbon dioxide emission vary widely from country to country; typically, countries with slow growth rates have higher per capita emissions while countries with high population growth rates have per capita emission rates which are lower, but are increasing dramatically from year to year. Moreover, buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also affected by the efficiency of the various identified and unidentified carbon "sinks"; this efficiency varies both seasonally and over periods of years (ref. Keeling et ali, Nature, 375:666) and may be linked to economic activities which vary from country to country.
Asking students to debate whether "[a] human population of 20 billion is desirable" or not involves more social engineering than science.
Contrast South Korea and North Korea, or the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China, or Singapore and Indonesia, or the United States and Russia: resources per capita is only a single factor in determining how well the population lives. The economic and political system as well as the social system can be demonstrated to have a greater impact. Discussions which ignore these factors merely serve to produce false guilt or animosity between classes.
The debate topic on p. 119, "Do donor nations have the right to link food aid to certain policies, such as allowing them to have military bases?", is disingenuous. This focuses discussion on the unsubstantiated and devisive charge that such aid is controlled by military policies. If we assume that third world nations have a right to aid, such aid has the goal of improving the well-being of the citizens. Aid which supports an oppressive regime will not attain this goal. Refer to what happened in Ethiopia. In reality, the nation that donates the largest amount of food--the United States--donates food mostly to nations without U.S. military bases.
In regard to the final topic on p. 129, there cannot be a market for recycled products unless it is economically viable. The economic viability of recycling is directly linked to the energy savings, if there is any. If the government is going to interfere in a free market economy to create a market for less energy efficient products, then one result is greater environmental damage.
Moreover, to imply a connection to taking action on greenhouse predictions which are "not certain" (in contrast to the implied certainty in "The Greenhouse Effect" section) is unscientific. As scientists, students must be taught to evaluate independent claims independently and on the basis of the evidence.
Moreover, to describe the government as having "huge supplies of taxpayer play money and want[ing] to give some back to the people" is disingenuous. This is deceiving the student about the nature of government unless the teacher has first extracted these "huge supplies of... money" from the students.
By defining the environment as a social dilemma issue, the discussion misses an opportunity to emphasize the many ways in which individuals directly and promptly benefit from their own individual environmentally sound choices.
It is intentionally deceptive to use an obviously flawed financial plan to illustrate industry planning as on p. 140. By pitting the arguments of an environmentalist against an obviously logically flawed "capitalist," victory is as certain as against a straw horse. In reality, however, a successful capitalist will not misrepresent the cost of fines, will not sell below cost, and will not fail to plan beyond four years. There is no explanation for why costs to produce items without fines increases each year, but the cost with your materials does not after five years.
Externalities receive little attention in economics because they are external to the market process and hence outside the domain of economics. They appropriately come into play in the larger domain of social and governmental issues.
Illustrations of a global population of 1017 have emotional impact but no real connection to the issues at hand. Describing life in 3 m2 of space and then asking "How do you feel about this?" is an artificially constructed scenario to lead the student to a predetermined conclusion. It is dangerous to link the worth of a person to their artistic productivity, as this discussion does. In reality, technological and industrial advances tend to transform societies and bring about low population growth rates. This is happening in the Third World.
The statement on p. 148 that a two-year North American drought "would use up the world's entire reserves of grain", if true, presumes no decrease in consumption. It may assume no North American grain production at all, a very different assumption than that implied by the word "drought". If anything, this discussion demonstrates the degree to which the rest of the world depends on American agricultural production--production resulting from our high consumption of fossil fuels, for which we were criticized in previous discussions.
I am disappointed to see students led to defend the PRC's measures to reduce their population (p. 149). The PRC would not be facing such a problem if it did not have a communist government preventing the economic growth that would allow prosperity to reduce the growth rate, as in Western Europe and North America. Neither science nor ethics will allow defense of mandatory abortions and birth control and a blind eye to infanticide.
© 1997, 2002 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 24 May 2002.
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