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Ira Flatow is on a mission to expand the role of science in what he calls a "science-challenged world". He stopped in Wilmington earlier this month to talk with WHQR supporters and staff. He explores the need for more popular interest in science -- for kids and adults. And he examines why a basic appreciation of it must transcend politics (when did ideology invade the scientific world?) and why it's critical to the future of the planet. In this series of interview excerpts, Flatow talks with WHQR's Rachel Lewis Hilburn.

Ira Flatow: The cost of ignorance / Congress doesn't know science

Kevin McCoy


LIsten to Part II of the excerpt here.

  RLH:  So you mentioned that 400 parts per million milestone that we’ve reached.  What can we do?  Or is it just going to be over at some point?  I’ve heard about some scientists predicting the 6.4 degree Celsius temperature increase – and that’s going to make the earth uninhabitable.  Really?

IF:  I don’t have a crystal ball.  But will that happen?  Will we be able to put aside our political differences or put aside our geographical differences?  I don’t know.  You have other countries like India which will actually overtake China as being the most populous country.  Will they agree not to develop technologies that are not green?  Or will China, which has actually started thinking about these things, decide that it’s not going to build all these coal-powered plants – you know – the equivalent of one every few days – something like that – I don’t know. 

I mean it is a scary – my kids ask me these questions.  They worry about this.  It is, I think, a fearful time that people live in – trying to figure out what’s going to happen.  But we’ve already seen signs of it.  The ocean’s acidifying.  If we lose stuff that lives in the ocean – the oceans – they keep the earth alive. 

People talk about well – what’s the cost of carbon and taking the carbon out of the air and whatever and changing our society.  What they don’t talk about is what’s the cost of not doing it.  In other words, if the oceans rise all over the world, what’s the cost of pushing people away from the coastline in North Carolina?  What’s the cost of building the dikes?  Of moving the homes?  Of making the infrastructure?  Of building the berms?  Of shoring it up? 

I mean it’s untold, the amount of money, along the whole coast of the U.S. and the rest of the world.  You never hear about that cost that’s thrown in there. 

RLH:  And that is a really interesting question on the microcosmic level.  Why is it so important for the real estate industry and whoever else is involved in this to keep the setbacks where they are?

IF:  Yeah!  Yeah.  You know there’s a huge cost in here that no one wants to talk about because it’s unfathomable.  It’s trillions of dollars we’re talking about here.  Whereas if you maybe put a carbon tax in or whatever, and raise the cost of using the carbon stuff, that might be little compared to what it would cost to move everybody back. 

These are political decisions and social decisions that people have to make.

IF:  But they have to understand that this is what is going on.  And people are just not understanding this.  I don’t think the media ever focuses on these things in any sort of great detail.

RLH:  Really?  Some people would argue with that and say that the media beats it to death. 

IF:  The media, and I mean commercial media, and they’ve told this to me ‘cause I’ve been in many sessions many times.  The media is not in the business of teaching you anything, they’ll tell you.  The media is owned by the entertainment industry.  You know, all the major networks – they’re owned by entertainment companies, and they’re there to entertain you.  And they’ll tell you right to your face.

“Look, we have stockholders.  We’re in the entertainment business.  We have to make the most money we can.  And entertainment sells.  And people want to be entertained.”

So instead of creating an informed discussion where you come away with something, they create a food fight.  People want to see the fight, they say, so we will not present an issue that might be resolvable.  We do not want to sit down and have a discussion that goes through all the possibilities.  We’re going to create a polarized discussion.  We’re going to have people from the extreme one side of the issue and the other side of the issue and we know they’re never going to come to agreement but they’re going to throw the food around a lot.  You know? 

RLH:  Yeah.

IF:  And that’s some of the problem.  That’s the problem.  And so people don’t really get a chance to talk about this.  And this is what we see as our mission on Science Friday and our website and everything – is to be able to talk about these issues.  To try to come to some resolution and have an intelligent discussion and find the place – have a place – where people can actually hear an intelligent discussion about this. 

RLH:  Are you ever worried about taking a position on an issue and finding yourself in a political situation instead of a scientific discussion?

IF:  Yes.  I try not to get into a political situation.  The closest I come to this… and if people want to, we will have a discussion.  We’ll talk about the environment.  I’m not a politician.

People will say to me, ‘What can we do?  What do we do to change it?’   And I’ll say to them, ‘Look, depending on how you feel on either side of the issue, you have the right to vote.’

Because some of these people in office have no idea how science works.

I had an interesting discussion with Jane Lubchenco, who is the outgoing head of NOAA.

And I said to her, ‘You were a scientist for so many years.  You’re still a scientist.  Now you were brought into the White House – into the Administration.  What was the most challenging part?’

And she said to me, ‘I’ll tell you one story.  I was up on Capitol Hill.  You know, NOAA controls the weather satellites and they die.  We need to have new weather satellites.  They wear out.  And I was talking to a Congressman on the committee that would appropriate money for us.  And I said we need appropriations for a new weather satellite. 

And he looked at me and said ‘a new weather satellite?’  He said, ‘Why should I give you money for new weather satellites?  I can get all the information I need from the Weather Channel.’ 


You can’t make this… you can’t make this stuff up…

RLH:  I notice that you omitted the name of the Congressman. 

IF:  I don’t remember.  She didn’t tell me the name of the Congressman.  But I should get my people looking… I want to get a clip of that – seriously – somewhere on CSPAN or something…

RLH:  That would be fun to find.

IF:  There is a clip of that.  You know?  Hello?  There are very few scientists who are in Congress.  And Rush Holt – who was a physicist before he got to Congress – he’s quoted in many places as having said – and we know Rush because he’s been on our show many times – he said, “you know, when you’re a scientist, the facts count for everything and the illusion counts for nothing.  And you get to Congress, and it’s just the opposite.  Illusion is everything and the facts count for nothing.” 

RLH:  I think a lot of Americans feel that way right now.

IF:  Yes.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.