Weekly Links

Why Are so Many Young People Not Sure If the Earth Is Round?

Weekly Links: brief commentary on local, state, and national stories from (roughly) the past week


Urban Planning/Energy/Environment

When Are We Getting Our Glow-in-the-Dark Trees?

From The Week. Scientists are not very close to delivering on their proposal to replace city street lights with glow-in-the-dark trees. As it turns out, making trees glow via bioluminescence is pretty hard. Since cities spend massive amounts of money on lighting and everyone is looking for more trees, making trees glow seems like a good idea. At least for some people. The process involves extracting genes from organisms that naturally glow and inserting them into trees. But the trees also have to produce enough light to adequately replace street lamps. The delay is probably a good thing since we should spend more time thinking about the costs (destroying the natural cycles of animals) and the benefits (much less energy use) before deciding if we even want glow-in-the-dark trees.

PBS has a great episode of NOVA exploring the many potential human uses of bioluminescence, which include helping us to better understand the brain as well as how cancerous cells can be tracked and destroyed. Just another way obscure, recently discovered plants and animals can help humans.

Bioluminescence off the beaches of Australia. Credit: Timothy M Roberts via Flickr


Why Do Only 66% of Young People Believe the Earth is Round?

From Scientific American. A recent poll conducted by YouGov found that 66% of respondents aged 18-24 firmly believe that the Earth is round. Similar results were found for respondents in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups while 94% of those over age 55 firmly believe the Earth is round. However, when Scientific American looked into the actual data they found that the 66% figure was actually 82%. YouGov failed to respond to questions regarding the discrepancy. But the larger question remains, why do so many young people doubt the roundness of the Earth? After all, polls repeatedly show that younger people overwhelmingly accept climate change and evolution as fact.

The authors note that you should never trust the results of just one poll. Polling can involve complicated statistical formulas and some polling firms are better than others. FiveThirtyEight does a great job explaining this and has even assigned a score to major polling firms based on several factors (YouGov received a B grade).

Some have attempted to explain the poll’s results by claiming that young people tend to be more religious (flat-Earthers tend to be more religious) or that young people just don’t learn as much science as older generations. Scientific American points out that few young people actually believe the Earth is flat. The vast majority who do not firmly believe the Earth is round simply aren’t sure (only 2% said the Earth is flat). We also know that young people are much less religious than older generations so the religious theory probably isn’t correct. Since young people firmly accept climate change and evolution, it’s unlikely they are receiving inferior scientific education than older generations.

Politics and religion likely play some roll in the generational gap regarding acceptance of climate change and evolution. But the shape of the Earth is not really a political debate. Perhaps the roundness of the Earth has been accepted for so long that young people are simply being presented with less evidence; it’s unnecessary to really teach this since it’s been proven for so long. Evidence of climate change and evolution have become so strong recently that young people are constantly presented with this information. Older generations, having grown up with little education on either climate change or evolution, are less inclined to accept it, but are more inclined to believe the Earth is round because they grew up with the space race and the Apollo program.

Maybe we should look more closely into how members of different generations come to conclusions. We should all have a healthy degree of skepticism. The key word, though, is healthy.


EPA Proposes Plan to Increase Pollution, Kill More People

From The New York Times. Normally that would be a sensational headline, but those are the actual conclusions from the EPA’s recent proposal to reverse the existing Clean Power Plan. According to the EPA’s analysis, which is included in the proposal, the reversal of the Clean Power Plan would result in as many as 1,400 premature deaths by 2030, 48,000 new cases of respiratory-related health problems, and as many as 23,000 missed school days. Since this data isn’t great, the White House has also floated a rule to eliminate this type of research in future proposals.

The proposal focuses on giving states more flexibility to regulate coal power-plant emissions as the see fit. Environmental protection is one area where federal oversight makes a lot of sense given that pollution and natural resources don’t stop at state borders. Allowing states to set their own rules creates the potential for inter-state conflict as residents of one state generally aren’t pleased to find pollution from a neighboring state with weak regulation. It also threatens to create a race-to-the-bottom scenario where states compete to have the fewest regulations, which only raises overall pollution levels.


Cover photo credit: NASA


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