EDITORIAL: He thinks what?

THE COLOR MATCHED EXACTLY. The blood orange tint in photos of the California sky this week was the same as the color of the sun as it set here in Ghent. In California there have been days as dark as night. Here the sky was a cloudless gray.

The tints of sun and sky come from ash released by the fires on the West Coast, 3,000 miles away. The weather report says the particles from burning forests, homes, businesses and schools are so high in the atmosphere that they won’t affect our lungs. The forecaster didn’t predict whose lungs the particles would affect. Maybe it’s birds’ and fishes’.

Distance doesn’t insulate us from bad things that happen far away. In this case, the smoke from California echoes across a continent, so it’s not a big leap to imagine the same thing happening globally.

The president visited California this week and said the fires were the result of “poor forest management, not climate change,” according to The New York Times. He is correct about problems with forest management. He’s wrong about climate change. And when a state environmental official told the president that science did not support his position, the president replied, “I don’t think science knows.”

The president’s rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and his misstatements on the subject are not news to anyone who plans to vote in this year’s election. He’s made up his mind and will not be swayed. But his statement on this subject at this moment leaves the impression that his aim was not only to remind his supporters of his position on the issue and to irritate his opponents. He knew or should have known it would confuse children.

This is the week public schools in this county reopened with in-person classes some weekdays, a mix of in-person and online learning other days, and all remote learning for some. Kids, not to mention teachers and parents, had a lot more on their minds than a few words uttered by the president. But words like “I don’t think science knows” can have a life of their own.

There are folks in Columbia County who voted for the president and plan to vote for him again but who also believe that climate change is happening and should be addressed by government. These adults accept the president’s dismissal of this threat to the human race because they rank his other actions as more important to their lives.

When the president says, “I don’t think science knows,” is he limiting the statement to the damage we face from climate change? Adults might choose that interpretation, considering the circumstances. But what about his hostility toward widespread Covid-19 testing and wearing masks? How does the President of the United States of America determine which scientific disciplines do know something and which don’t?

These are questions that adults can try to answer for themselves, although believing you know more than experts doesn’t make you an expert. By contrast, schools train kids to trust, starting with the teacher in front of the class or at the center of a student’s screen. What is a teacher to do if a student tells his or her science class: “I don’t think science knows”?

The president’s statement—a snippet from a press event in a disaster zone far from here—may be soon forgotten as just another Tweet-like distraction in the midst of the campaign. But it might also yield a teachable moment… for teachers and students. In an age appropriate way it’s a chance to explain that science doesn’t “know” anything. Science is a tool that allows us to understand ways in which the world around us works. And if we apply the methods of science—like systematic experimentation and observation—we can learn a thing or two.

The president mixed up science and scientists. A lot of people do that. Sometimes scientists disagree among themselves. But scientists worldwide know that climate change is here, its impacts will get worse if we do not take immediate steps to slow the change, and that climate change has made fires on the West Coast worse.

If it should come up in class, teachers must tell their students that the president misspoke. What he should have said is “Scientists will know.” This week proof of this fills the sky above us.

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