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Japan is not the problem. We're committing hari-kari.

Concern with the deteriorating environment is expressed daily in newspapers and newscasts. Certainly, pollution of the atmosphere, waters and soil has become a very important concern. It appears that the chemical industry is widely felt to be the main cause, with the chemists and chemical engineers the chief culprits -- not of course the owners and consumers. The simple word "chemical" now traumatizes many people. The old DuPont adage, "Better living through chemistry", is now considered by many to be a monstrous idea -- although people, especially those privileged to live in regions where chemical industries are most advanced, have never been healthier, better educated, better housed, better travelled and longer lived with more access to cultural benefits than any in history. It is an established fact that to have reached these laudable goals we are using and polluting our planet irreversibly at observable rates. It is a problem inherent to the modern consumer society and one which the scientists identified over 60 years ago but the depression years, wars, and recoveries from wars' devastation were not times that provided much incentive for remedial action. Clearly, we must act now to decrease the rates of pollution and exhaustion of our nonrenewable resources and bring these down to steady states that are compatible with an acceptable standard of living for the about five billion people that now populate our planet.

There appears to be little appreciation of the fact that the present state of pollution is the price that inevitably had to be paid, under the prevailing circumstances to enjoy standards of living which have increased immensely in recent years for virtually all of the people on our planet. The cost, in terms of pollution, to better man's lot on earth was higher than it might have been. However, humanity naturally progresses by reacting to the mistakes of the past and, normally, makes changes that best appeal to the politics of the time. This in itself represents a serious problem since the issues have become highly technical and only poorly understood by the majority of the electorate that, for this reason, is rather easily misled.

Pollution of our waters and soil, acid rain, over-cultivation, the exhaustion of non-renewable resources, and perhaps even the greenhouse effect, are serious matters with which we must deal as well as we can and with high priority. This is widely recognized and indeed much meaningful remedial action has already been taken. However, the making of political footballs from these critically important but extremely technical problems must be avoided. This is absolutely necessary since the scientific literacy of the present-day voting public is much too low to serve as a reliably safe base for reaching wise decisions as to what can and should be done about pollution. Indeed, the electorate already appears to be in a highly disturbed state of mind over pollution, sometimes bordering on hysteria and steeped in superstition, a condition which is daily reflected in our newspapers and television.

Cults have developed, extending to the occult, with an assortment of high priests -- some promoted and maintained at public expense that oppose our modern civilization in manners that appear bent on tearing it apart and, most unfortunately, these prophets of doom are gaining support by alarmingly large numbers of people of very limited perspective. These are dangerous developments under any circumstance but particularly hazardous in our modern times when people are bombarded from all directions by propaganda that appears coordinated with our networks of communication, which are themselves, in as serious a state of pollution as is that of the environment.

If there was ever any time for qualified people to act calmly on the basis of established factual knowledge and to deliberately and unemotionally deal with the situation, it is now that analytical chemistry in concert with the biological and medical sciences have provided us with the tools that may well enable us to properly assess and address the problems and for industry to provide acceptable solutions based in the technologies which best meet the complex mixes of parameters that are involved, including the rapidly developing biotechnologies. However, rather than concentrating on educating the public toward a proper understanding of the problems associated with the maintenance of a healthy environment, our newspapers report polls, and publish items such as the concerns of teenagers on such tremendously complex and far-reaching subjects as atomic energy, solar energy, agricultural chemicals, food preservation, etc. For example, an Angus-Reid poll indicated that grade eight students see the nuclear industry as careless and environmentally dangerous. Surely, adults must be interested in what these young people are thinking, but that this is important only in the context of learning how their minds are being programmed in their schools and by the news media. Obviously, 13 to 14-year-olds are now prepared to hold fixed opinions on matters they basically do not and cannot understand. This kind of mentality, I think, is at the roots of our problem and represents a form of pollution that unfortunately extends throughout our society.

Proper scientific training teaches one to separate what you think you know from what you know you don't know -- in other words to separate fact from either the unknown or what is hypothesis or fiction and surely from what is merely hearsay. In other words, it has a powerful humbling effect. Society as a whole, must develop this habit of thought if we are to avoid catastrophe and further develop and improve the welfare of man on earth. The objective must be to increase the proportion of voters in a democracy that vote according to informed and objective analyses based on the available facts rather than family tradition, opportunity for personal gain or simple bias against, and distrust of, expert opinion even if it is certified to be expert by their own governments and universities.

Of course, changes toward a more properly informed electorate will be difficult to achieve for a wide number of reasons. Perhaps the main obstacle will be the news media which are far more interested in providing the opinions of scientifically illiterate editors and in entertainment rather than improving the reader's appreciation of the complexities involved. I see little promise for change in this regard since the popular styles of education are more and more themselves becoming just other forms of entertainment.

Pressures continue to exist for the universities to lower their academic standards in order to meet the always lowering standards of the high schools in the basic academic subjects of English, history, mathematics and the sciences. But more serious is the continuation of the training of our children to think that the highest forms of thought are, as do lawyers or clerics, to employ logic based in assumptions and in the context of circumstantial evidence and emotion, as is done in sermons and debates, in order to sway opinion toward preconceived goals. Instead, we must teach the young to reason in the frame of mind that has become essential to a highly technological age; that is, to always exercise great care to separate conjecture and hypothesis from what is truly known as a reproducible experimental fact and in the absence of such knowledge to keep an open mind. In other words, to practice the scientific method of inquiry in our daily lives; that method of thinking which liberated man from slavery and made democracy a viable form of government. In a recent speech, Lech Walesa said, "the higher the technology, the greater the freedom". I could not agree more. Like him, in my youth I experienced the brutality of life in a low technology environment.

The root cause of our polluted condition is still a highly reactionary stance of our educationalists toward treating science as a cultural subject. I am not aware that the resistance to change is based on any well thought out reason. Instead, it seems related to a mixture of cultural traditions and intellectual laziness coupled to a virtually complete ignorance of what science really represents and a stubborn dedication not to make an effort to learn. Many university students, if they have a chance, avoid science subjects like the plague. Such dedication to ignorance must have been seeded somewhere.

Superficial notions such as those largely expressed on television talk shows are attractive to intellectually lazy people and these abound in a society where everyone has the right and freedom to hold opinions on any and all subjects and does. This is a democratic right which must be maintained. But that these loose notions become broadcast uncritically by the news media to the extent that they may and do assume an aura of importance and authenticity represents another kind of problem. The propagandists take advantage of this and great hoaxes or misconceptions are generated including those about the Love Canal, the hazards of PCBs and dioxins to the point of hysteria. Our politics go accordingly with the "grease going to the squeaking wheel" and vast sums of money are wasted such as shipping PCBs to Britain and then back with great public outcry when these could have been safely disposed of here in Canada in the first instance. The list of such mindless actions grows every day.

It seems that expertise has become equated with prejudice and therefore not a reliable base for planning and action. This anti-intellectual attitude certainly relieves stress and well promotes ego building and is obviously popular with youth who now must be heard on all subjects and in a real sense obeyed both because they are numerous as voters and may become belligerent. In fact, the major changes in our universities over the past 20 years have not come from the professors, but, instead, from the students' demands. In my day, the professors were the university - now the learners want to be the teachers. This attitude for student power must have developed in the modern high school. To compound this problem, their thoughts and concerns in those areas where they know about as much as they know about brain surgery are given prominent notice in the press.

In 1985, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) launched an education reform project in response to national alarm that children are basically ignorant of science and technology. To cite one example, in an international comparison, American 13-year olds scored last in mathematics and tied two Canadian provinces for last place in science. Out of the panic caused by this discovery came a 217-page document by AAAS staff and several hundred educators and a few scientists as consultants and titled, "Science for All Americans." Dr. C.E. Finn, Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University published a critique of this document in the American Spectator, (August 1989). He points out that experts often forget what it is like actually not to know mathematics and science and can easily become attracted to books which have to do with learning about science rather than involvement with science. This of course opens the doors to the educationalists who do not wish to go to the trouble of really learning science. As the result, scientific curricula are created which offer historical perspectives and interconnections between scientific facts for which the student has absolutely no proper appreciation. As Professor Finn puts it, "It is like teaching sophisticated techniques of literary analysis to individuals who have never read a great novel, poem or play".

We are up to our necks and drowning in prejudices, misinformation and superstitions which I call pollution of the mind. Polluted mentalities are bankrupting our human relations and polluted government is bankrupting our economy. It is noteworthy in this regard that the environmental activists are reported to be mainly under 35 and nearly all are socialists. This is why the Swiss refer to the so-called Green Revolution as the Watermelon Revolution -- green on the outside but red on the inside.

The approach that offers most hope for long-term recovery is in the education of our children up to and through high school. To be effective we must first, I think, be able as adults to shed ourselves of the prejudices about science both as to not being compatible with religious principles and being a mere tool for specialists -- something like a dentist's drill which can be useful but only to the dentist. Instead, the focus must be on the fact that it is the body of scientific knowledge that has produced modern technologies which have become the dominant feature of life in the 20th century and its role must inevitably increase in the 21st century as the pool of scientific knowledge will surely increase.

A high profile must be granted in our schools to the cultural aspects of science. The scientific tradition for problem solving that requires hard and documented facts as the basis for drawing conclusions and making predictions should be ingrained into our children at an early age. To learn to think properly for yourself is not indoctrination. Thought control as we find exercised by many agencies throughout our society is antiscience and must be eliminated if we are not to commit social hari-kari. It is too late to start acquainting students with proper habits of thought in the senior years of high school or at university. Exposure to the natural sciences and how scientists work should begin in grammar schools and be emphasized throughout junior and high school. The kind of science survey courses that some wish for university arts students must be opposed since these could lead adults to believe that they actually know science when, in fact, all they know is something about science, a subject about which they remain ignorant. Such courses may be useful if presented at the early formative years but always when an appreciation of the underlying scientific principles are stressed and understood. Thus, the person would be equipped intellectually to live at ease and with dignity in the 21st century amongst all the products and rewards which accrue to societies based in high technologies.

Pollution and our ability to cope with it, are major concerns. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are forms of pollution that are far more dangerous than pollution of our physical environment and which are not receiving the attention required for the prevention of serious deterioration of our society and its human relations. I always felt that my main duty as a professor was to start students thinking for themselves. My best hope is that I have done so.

R.U. Lemieux, FCIC, is one of Canada's most brilliant and productive scientists. He has achieved eminence as a pioneering researcher, teacher, entrepreneur and leader committed to the value of science. His research has contributed to fundamental advances to organic chemistry and to our understanding of the human immune system. Three companies have been founded to pursue the practical applications of his work.

Dr. Lemieux was born in Lac LaBiche, Alberta and after receiving his BSc from the University of Alberta, he went on to earn a PhD from McGill. After research and teaching at Ohio State University, University of Saskatchewan and the National Research Council, he joined the University of Ottawa as vice-dean of the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science. He returned to the University of Alberta in 1961, where he was appointed University Professor in 1981.

In addition to the LeSueur Award his numerous awards and honors include the first Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, over a dozen honorary degrees, and the King Faisal International Prize in Science.
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Author:Lemieux, R.U.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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