Author Archives: Andy Zucker

About Andy Zucker

Andy is a senior research scientist at the Concord Consortium.

Even Fiction Can Expand Our Understanding of Science

Andy Zucker was a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium who is now enjoying his retirement, including working with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO).  

Many people know Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, in which he posits that humans used remnants of dinosaur DNA to imprudently create a modern theme park populated with dinosaurs. Crichton often used science as a takeoff point in his novels. But Harvard scientist George Church is currently working to revive woolly mammoths using DNA samples frozen for thousands of years.

A value of Crichton’s works is they remind us of the important role that data play in science. Science is not only an experimental science. It often relies more heavily than standard textbooks suggest on the accumulation of accurate data long before theories explain the data.

In the latest Crichton novel, Dragon Teeth, a newly discovered manuscript posthumously published nine years after his death, fossil hunters work in the American West in 1876. Although fictionalized, Dragon Teeth is based on a real-life rivalry between two remarkable, obsessive men—Edwin Drinker Cope of the University of Pennsylvania and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale—who were responsible for finding fossils of more than 1,500 species. Their exploits were known as “the Bone Wars.”

The fictional protagonist is based on the real-life fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who supplied superb fossils to scholars and museums around the world, and who wrote, “I could tell of a hundred narrow escapes from death.” Larger-than-life figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Wyatt Earp were alive in 1876 and play roles in the novel. It is easy to see how Crichton used authentic history to create a fast-paced adventure story.

Some ancient people thought dinosaur bones came from dragons, but it was not until the 1840s that the term “dinosaur” was coined. The first dinosaur fossil was discovered in America in 1858. The site where Custer and his troops met their ignominious end in 1876, Montana’s Little Bighorn, is not far from key locations where dinosaur fossils were collected.

Data collectors are the unsung heroes of science. Without the thousands of butterflies collected in the Amazon by Henry Bates, scientists would not have had direct evidence of the creation of a new species—a discovery that Darwin called the “beautiful proof” for natural selection. Johannes Kepler was the first to understand that the planets move in elliptical orbits; his theory relied on the data of others (e.g., Tycho Brahe). The photos of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin were used by Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to establish that DNA has a helical structure. Our current understanding of dinosaurs and how they were wiped out by a meteor strike depends on data from fossils, but also from ancient pollen, geological finds, and astronomical data.

Dragon Teeth proves that even fiction can broaden our understanding of science and of the data collectors responsible for enlarging human understanding of the world.

Two “Global Experiments” about Climate Change

In an earlier post on this blog I wrote about the need to increase our knowledge of how people think about climate change and then apply that knowledge to expedite policy changes. Subsequently I discovered that there is an active community of psychologists, experts in communications and other researchers who conduct valuable inquiries in this field.

Some of their findings are sobering, such as data from April 2014 showing that only one in three Americans discusses global warming with family and friends even occasionally. One of the many reasons this is true is that for more than five years, with little variation from year to year, only about one in three Americans have believed people in the U.S. are being harmed “right now” by global warming—despite Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, extreme drought in the West and other once-rare climate events. One does not wish for more droughts, extreme heat waves, superstorms or wildfires; however, those are the kinds of events that may, slowly, change opinions about climate change.

People who realize how threatening climate change is believe that we are conducting a risky “experiment” with the sensitivity of Earth systems to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. For example, we still don’t understand climate “tipping points” well; however, our global experiment is already teaching us about tipping points, like it or not.

Professor Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego—who was Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report (2007)—wrote, in his 2006 paper called “Medical metaphors for climate change,”

“What is still not obvious to many is that all of us are now engaged in a second global experiment [emphasis added], this time an educational and geopolitical one. We are going to find out whether humanity is going to take climate science seriously enough to act meaningfully, rather than just procrastinating until nature ultimately proves that our climate predictions were right.”

This educational experiment—where education is broadly defined and includes more than what is taught in schools—could hardly be more important. It will take a concerted effort, over many years, by formal and informal institutions, political leaders and organizations, TV stations, museums, churches and others, to increase knowledge and a sense of urgency among policymakers and the public. The Concord Consortium’s High Adventure Science (HAS) project is one element in this long-term effort.

The Next Generation Science Standards include climate change as an important topic for instruction, which is significant because more people need some understanding of the science behind climate change. But the “educational experiment” the world is conducting requires policymakers and the public to learn far more than science. Better understanding the economics, political, regulatory, governance, diplomatic and technology issues needed to address climate change will be vital, as will an emphasis on ethics and values. It would be interesting to know how, and how often, climate change is a topic of study in other subjects taught in schools, colleges and universities (including social science classes, like Psychology), or whether it is addressed almost exclusively in “hard science” courses.

Psychology and Climate Change

The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, author of more than 50 books, had a rare talent for writing in different styles about a variety of people, from adolescent boys, to lonely old women, to kings and queens living on another planet. She had a brilliant novelist’s intuitive understanding of other people’s minds.

In her slender 1987 non-fiction book, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Lessing wrote about growth in scientists’ understanding of psychology, and the need to apply that knowledge to public affairs. Ever since, more and more high-quality popular books on psychology have been published, including Thinking Fast and Slow, The Righteous Mind, The Black Swan, and many others. Yet in the case of climate change, Lessing’s plea that we pay closer attention to psychology has grown more imperative. Humanity cannot address species-threatening climate problems without better understanding the ways we think.

As one significant example, earlier this month the New York Times reported that the West Antarctic ice sheet is not only melting quickly, but, according to two scientific papers, the melting appears to be irreversible. Over time – fortunately, the time scale is likely to be centuries – sea level will probably rise ten feet or more due to the melting of this single ice sheet. Simultaneously, other climate-related changes will also contribute to rising sea levels. Sea level is about to increase three or four feet in this century alone.

This once-in-a-geological-epoch news item about Antarctic melting ought to have caught the attention of people everywhere. Earth’s population will be in for a rougher ride than expected – and climate scientists have been predicting a rough ride for years. Yet the news of irreversible Antarctic ice melting probably passed unnoticed by a majority of Americans.

At almost the same time, a likely contender for the Presidential nomination of a major political party said that he does not believe human activity is causing climate change, a statement that may seem less shocking when one realizes that fewer than half of Americans think human beings are the primary cause of climate change. What strategies – other than waiting for more climate disasters to strike and hoping that politicians will accept facts – will work best to persuade the public and its representatives that action is needed now? Are there perhaps key groups, such as religious leaders, who are not the typical audience for scientists’ press releases, who might accelerate public understanding and acceptance of climate change?

It is easy to call climate change skeptics ignorant, or worse. But name-calling is seldom the best strategy for changing people’s minds and, what is more, modern psychology has demonstrated that virtually everyone’s thinking is badly flawed in certain situations. To take one example, airplane pilots must be taught to trust their instruments instead of their senses when they cannot see the horizon, and yet every year some crash because they did not learn this lesson. To take another example, some scientists’ first reactions in 1980 to scientific papers about the extinction of the dinosaurs by a giant meteor striking earth – calling the authors “arrogant,” “ignorant,” and “all wrong” – demonstrated prejudices rather than open minds.

Developing a better understanding of the science behind climate change is essential. There is also some work under way to develop better communications strategies, and those efforts are laudable. But mankind is not likely to change its behavior rapidly enough to prevent disaster if we do not learn more about how people think about global warming and apply that knowledge to quicken public action.

Online Learning as a Supplement, not a Substitute

In the past two days the New York Times has provided readers with six fascinating articles and discussions about online learning. One set is called Room for Debate: Can Young Students Learn from Online Classes and the other is a front-page article in yesterday’s paper: More Pupils are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality.

The quality of these articles and many reader comments is excellent, and the best of them are nuanced. Only a small fraction of students have ever taken fully online classes, so it is very difficult to generalize from these volunteers to conclusions about all or typical students. Some pieces, like Karen Swan’s entry in Room for Debate, cite studies investigating which students are likely to succeed online, and which are not.

Online learning offers genuine benefits to some students (such as access to courses not available in a local school) and will continue to spread. Very likely the scenario that will help the most students in grades K-12 is that more and more teachers in brick-and-mortar schools add online features to the courses they teach face-to-face. Students can then continue a lively discussion after school hours, interact with experts who never visit the school, or use computers and the Internet in other ways that supplement, rather than substitute for, what happens in school. In contrast, the vision of most American students taking a large percentage of their courses online, without a face-to-face component, may appeal to politicians as a way to reduce costs but seems very ill-suited to adolescents’ needs. Let’s not go there!

Andy Zucker
Senior Research Scientist
The Concord Consortium
Lead author of The Virtual High School: Teaching Generation V (Teachers College Press, 2003)