[ASC-list] Scientific literacy of our leaders?

Rob Morrison rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Wed Feb 22 07:04:18 UTC 2012

It depends a bit on the country from which you make the assessment. I have seen quite a few (even academics) decrying the predictions of the ZPG "alarmists" that population growth would lead to famine, hygiene problems etc and claiming the ZPG adherents  to be wrong.

I think that the problem of the ZPG claim lay in its unstated inference that a crash would happen all at once and everywhere.

The people who say that ZPG was wrong and that improving technologies will see us through art mainly speaking from western countries where (a) the problem is not so great and (b) the technologies to help can be afforded and (c) it makes political sense to apply them locally.

What they don't talk about is the multiple collapses and miseries of Biafra, the Sudan and a myriad other contries where all these problems have been around for decades, sometimes to the same populations as they collapse, recover and collapse again.

In many African countries, and some others, collapses are common, health is abysmal, malnutrition is the norm, death by starvation common and famines claim, on too regular a basis, great swathes of the population.

These collapses are almost always described as the result of crop failure, bad weather, poor transport, political upheaval etc etc, but all of them boil down to populations that have so outstripped their country's resources that any minor upheaval means untold calamity for thousands.

It is a bit like the way the San Franciscans talk about "the Great Fire" instead of "the Great Earthquake." The latter caused the former but, as it is a bigger lurking threat that could strike again at any time, it is better to go into denial and describe the fire as though it were the originator, not the result. Similarly, it is not overpopulation that the Africans are said to have to deal with but weather, drought, transport, war, disease .....

A huge proportion of the world is already underfed. We have the technologies to improve their lot now, but we don't do it or, if we try, we are defeated by population growth moving too fast for the cumbersome help we apply. In the most dispiriting  circumstances, real success can lead to saving people who then, because they have no birth control measures or understanding of their mechanisms, or because cultural reasons prevent them from applying them or, disastrously, because they MUST have too many children or there will be nobody to support them in their dotage, go on in their survival to have more children and thus compound the problem of a population that has outstripped its resources.

Those who say that ZPG exponents got it wrong take, I fear, a pretty westrnised view of the world. It will be interesting, and probably awful, to watch how the Greeks, many of whom are well educated but now without hope of a job (or often, a roof) manage to cope with their sudden need to bring western technological and other expertise to bear on a population which is having considerable trouble even now in finding the resources they need to live.

If we are so confident of our technological solutions, and our ability to apply them effectively, why do we not do so now, when so much of the world is in need of them?

Dr Rob Morrison
rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Phone: (08) 8339 3790
Fax: (08)8339 6272

From: Jesse Shore [jesse at prismaticsciences.com]
Sent: Wednesday, 22 February 2012 4:14 PM
To: Rob Morrison; Elizabeth.Yuncken at csiro.au; asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Cc: Peterg.King at csiro.au
Subject: RE: [ASC-list] Scientific literacy of our leaders?


In a closed system, unlimited growth is unsustainable. But in the face of ever new technologies and discoveries of new resources, defining when growth peaks and then declines is less easy to state. We are going to run of steam eventually but most people are likely still banking on plenty more party years ahead. If a week is a long time in politics ten years is a lifetime for most people.

The credibility of scientifically educated people, who talk about problems of unlimited growth, took a battering after the predictions in the Club of Rome’s 1972 book ‘Limits to Growth’ were far from the marks they set. They refined predictive model and republished in 1974 with a more optimistic prognosis but the damage was done. Many of those in favour of growth mention the inaccuracy of the first book and damn the whole business.

Seems that the Club who cried wolf prematurely not only isn’t listened to again but has undermined the model-based predictive processes in a number of minds.


Jesse Shore PhD
Science Communicator
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P:   (02) 9810 2328
M:   0415 841 276
E:    jesse at prismaticsciences.com<mailto:jesse at prismaticsciences.com>
W:  www.prismaticsciences.com<http://www.prismaticsciences.com/>

From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au [mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of Rob Morrison
Sent: Wednesday, 22 February 2012 4:21 PM
To: Elizabeth.Yuncken at csiro.au; asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Cc: Peterg.King at csiro.au
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] Scientific literacy of our leaders?

I suspect that the problem is subtly different. There are very few people with scientific training in politics, but heaps of lawyers and economists.

Both groups seem to believe that the world can be made to run on "man-made" rules -societal and economic - but it cannot.  Eventually, when the man-made rules come up against natural laws, the latter win every time.

A few more scientifically educated pollies might help the lawyers and economists understand some fundamental natural limitations to their plans; the foremost surely being that one cannot have unlimited growth (population and economic)  on a finite planet.

Dr Rob Morrison
rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au<mailto:rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au>
Phone: (08) 8339 3790
Fax: (08)8339 6272

From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au [asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of Elizabeth.Yuncken at csiro.au [Elizabeth.Yuncken at csiro.au]
Sent: Tuesday, 21 February 2012 10:59 AM
To: asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Cc: Peterg.King at csiro.au
Subject: [ASC-list] Scientific literacy of our leaders?
Hi Listers

A colleague has been wondering whether the scientific literacy levels of a country’s leaders (CEOs & politicians) is correlated to economic performance. Does anyone know of any research into the comparative scientific literacy levels of top leaders around the world?

My colleague put the question like this:

“It would be great to understand more fully the impact of scientific literacy to aspects of leadership and performance.

-          Eg. knowing scientific literacy of CEOs (of say the ASX 100 and comparable groups overseas) and tying this into the company's investment in R&D and overall performance

-          Eg. knowing the scientific literacy of our elected officials and comparisons to overseas parliaments.
“By literacy I mean having studied STEM subjects at university either as the major focus of the degree or as a component of the degree (maybe even with some differentiation between the two)”

What does the literature say (if anything)? Would make an interesting PhD topic!


Elizabeth Yuncken
Advisor, Europe & India | Global Engagement
Phone: +61 2 6276 6480 | Mobile: +61 467 777 817 | Fax: +61 2 6276 6308
elizabeth.yuncken at csiro.au<mailto:elizabeth.yuncken at csiro.au> | www.csiro.au<http://www.csiro.au>
Address: PO Box 225 Dickson ACT 2602

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