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Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Richard A. Muller
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
368 pp., $26.95

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Science in Focus: Kathryn L. Wiens


Energy for Future Presidents, Part 1

Breaking down misconceptions.

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Global warming. Oil spills. "Green" energy sources. Electric cars. These topics are far from remote for most Americans, as mainstream media have increasingly paid attention to environmental concerns. While most would agree it is admirable that the news is picking up on these issues, the science behind the stories is not always reliable. In Energy for Future Presidents, Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, reframes the discussion of energy and environmental policy, breaking down misconceptions that bedevil citizens and policy-makers alike.

I have spent my career as a science teacher and professor, working hard to provide students with an education that promotes scientific literacy—that is, teaching with the goal that my students need to understand the body of science in such a way that they can fit new information and new experiences and questions into what is known. I believe this is the way we enable our students to make sense of the inconceivable amount of data that bombards them daily. Muller does just that, helping Americans to put into context the media sound-bites and campaign-trail quips that influence our decision-making. Muller presents the need-to-know science that leads to a useful understanding of these issues and introduces us to a wide spectrum of data rarely presented in mainstream media. For example, it is a common belief that the number of hurricanes has been increasing as a result of global warming. Recently, we witnessed news anchors, mayors, and meteorologists asserting this in anticipation of Superstorm Sandy in November of 2012. However, as Muller writes,

The fact that we are observing more storms doesn't necessarily mean that more are occurring …. To compensate for such observation effects, scientists like to pick an "unbiased sample." Storms that hit the US coastline are ideal because they have reliably been reported since the early 1800's. When we use such a subsample … we see that there is no increase.

Because of his reputation of a scientist who looks at real data and pushes aside the popular notions of the day, he can make us reconsider the impact of events like the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis following the tsunami in Japan, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As tragic as they were, he states, they were much less catastrophic than portrayed—and in some respects less threatening than the baseline of environmental issues we face every day. Ill-informed policy decisions made in the wake of such disasters, Muller adds, have in many cases exacerbated their impact.

In a style that allows readers to easily follow his presentation of data and his conclusions, Muller allows the reader to see a macroscopic view of the environmental issues of our day and how they can (and should) relate to policy decisions. This is a fantastic read for all those looking to increase their environmental and energy literacy.

Kathryn L. Wiens is Associate Director of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability.

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