Another skeptical semester begins
Tomorrow our semester starts back, which means I have to return to the classroom. It is always hard to go back after a semester break. For me the dread is not because of teaching – necessarily – but because of all the useless wastes of time that accompany a semester in term. Faculty meetings rise to the top of the hate list. Perhaps I’ll do more blogging during faculty meetings this time around… I think that helps.
Anyway, this semester I’m teaching a course on the environment, specifically about the cyclic processes and systems that operate on or around Earth’s surface and define our world as habitable. Earth is a unique planetary system. Compared with every other planetary body we know much about, Earth is astoundingly rich in chemical and physical complexity. Earth has liquid oceans and a thick atmosphere of gases that are chemically reactive and trap thermal energy from the Sun. Earth has a vigorous system of plate tectonics that drives a factory conveyor belt pumping out new land and fresh carbon dioxide. Earth has a churning outer core above a shining inner-core nugget of electrically-conductive iron; a self-contained dynamo driven by gravity, heat and momentum that exerts a protective planetary barrier of magnetism that screens out most particle radiation from space. Earth has a large Moon that steadies its axis of rotation… and our seasons. Earth has spawned an astounding assortment of self-replicating machines – life – that collectively transform and continually modulate the planet’s climate and the long term atmospheric composition.
I try to teach my students a useful perspective when addressing environmental issues; that of a planetary geologist. That is the reason for this blog’s name. In the classic novel Dune, planetologists were appointed by the Emperor of the Known Universe to study whole worlds, to figure out what interlocking attributes of a planet contribute to its makeup and surface conditions, and ultimately to determine how a planet can be most usefully and sustainably managed to optimize habitability. Aside from the Emperor stuff, that’s basically how I look at the study of planets. What kinds of planets can exist, with what weird variety of surface compositions and conditions? What subset of those possible planetary profiles are capable of supporting natural self-replicators? Once evolved, what influences do self-replicators exert on their birth world… and ultimately, the universe at large?
In my environmental systems course I have to address a smaller scope, by necessity of time and the catalog course description. Mostly I focus on how Earth formed, how climate works, and how human activities can perturb planetary-scale processes in tangible, measurable ways. It’s never clear how much of that gets across to students in one semester. Probably not much.
Well, if students are going to get something from my courses, it might as well be something useful. The first lectures I give, in most of my introductory courses, deal with skepticism. Skeptical thinking and rational evaluation of evidence are two things I care very much about, and which get a lot of coverage in my blog posts here. Looking critically at evidence and evaluating claims using skeptical inquiry appear to be the only tools available for reliably solving problems. When applied to certain problems, we call that practice science. When applied generally, we call it not being stupid. Failure to apply this practice results in all sorts of terrible, stupid, harmful things… such as fundamentalism, creationism, science denial, conspiracy theories, the anti-vaccination movement, pyramid schemes, psychic predictions, homeopathy, ‘recovered’ memories, abduction by UFOs, haunted houses, and children being beaten to death during exorcisms. Being gullible kills. Skepticism saves lives.
In the environmental arena gullibility is no less deadly. Corporations lie and propagandize to hide pollution, or the harm it causes. Governments choose ideology over pragmatism, leading to warped and destructive public policies – and wars – that weaken our national security and place our fate as a civilization in the hands of people still motivated by Bronze Age tribal disputes… both in Middle Eastern theocracies and in American bully pulpits. People vote for politicians who reject facts that conflict with faith. Well-meaning young people march against genetic engineering, yet are ignorant of both genetics and engineering, or the fact that they most of them wouldn’t exist without agricultural and medical science.
I can’t do much about most of those problems, but I can try to diffuse a tiny bit more skepticism and rationality into the people who sign up for my courses. That’s a goal of this blog, too… although the Planetologist allows himself to be much more in-your-face than Prof. Haas is ethically supposed to be. Nonetheless, every time I teach a course on the environment, or on the evolution of life through geologic time, or on the geochemistry of life’s origins, I try to start off with a short primer on baloney detection and gullibility avoidance. The skeptical community gets plugged at that point (e.g. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Bad Astronomy, Skepchick, and Skepticality, for starters), but that’s only appropriate. They’re the ones who got me into this media-skeptic thing in the first place. Thanks for that, by the way.