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Tuesday: Science, politics and niche theory

Update: I totally missed this.  The FCC is proposing new rules for broadband and wireless providers.  Depending on whether you have a landline method of delivery or wireless, your internet stream will be regulated differently.  This is particularly important because the world is going wireless so it could be a coup for the masters of the universe that want more control of content and how much you will pay for it.  They’re already gouging us.  Why make it easier for them to control what you can have and how fast?  We already lag Romania in terms of internet connection speed.  Romania.

According to the report “2010 Report of Internet Speeds in All 50 States” released recently by the Communications Workers of America (CWA):

“The report shows that the rate of increase in U.S. Internet connection speed is so slow, it will take the United States 60 years to catch up with current Internet speeds in South Korea, the country with the fastest Internet connections.”

It’s inexcusable that we’re going to let wireless companies off the hook and not make them invest in their infrastructure.  Allowing them two tiered data plans gives them exactly what they want: more money without having to lift a finger to improve their equipment.

ROMANIA.

Jeez, just twenty years ago, Ceaucescu was running the country, it was dark and dreary, there was nothing to buy there and babies in orphanages were dying from HIV infected blood transfusions.  Now, they have better internet access than we do.  I have an iPhone in central NJ and I still can’t get a signal in my office at work right in the heart of AT&T country.  How can lawmakers even contemplate this kind of change without requiring wireless companies to get with the program that the rest of the world enjoys?

Unbelievable.

Moving on…

Yesterday, I was perusing Derek Lowe’s pharma chem blog, In the Pipeline, and he had a post up called Politics in the Lab about a recent article in Slate with the weird title “Most Scientists in this Country are Democrats.  That’s a problem”.  I don’t know that’s a problem and I’m not sure it’s even true, but I’ll get to that below.

The chewy center of this article seems to be that until there are more Republican scientists, the field won’t be bipartisan enough to get its point across.  Huh?  The author states:

Yet, partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it’s the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren’t blue or red.

Well, that’s not quite right. Consider the case of climate change, of which beliefs are astonishingly polarized according to party affiliation and ideology. A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats(and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?

It doesn’t seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic.

Yet there is clearly something going on that is as yet barely acknowledged, let alone understood. As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more “science literacy” as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.

Ahem.  I find this article truly disturbing for several reasons.  But let’s go back to YearlyKos2 in Chicago when Pharyngula of ScienceBlogs, presided over a panel on Science and the public or some silly title.  I was shocked by how arrogant and dismissive the panel was of the average American who didn’t believe in climate change and evolution.  Yeah, I know how incredibly frustrating it is to get family members to buy into evolution.  But I’ve made peace with the fact that if I describe the theory of natural selection well enough, they will accept it without having to go back to the beginnings of time to find out where God is in the picture.  It can be done.  You have to choose your battles.

What’s frustrating to me is that there are a lot of Democrats who are just as irrational and gullible.  Their fears and misunderstandins are just different- nuclear energy, genetically modified seeds, colony collapse, thimerosol in innoculations (that absolutely do not cause autism).  I’ve argued with many of them to no avail.  They are as resistent to facts as creationists.  It has been particularly frustrating when it comes to pharmaceutical science where many people on the left, and you dear reader may be one of them, are convinced that the researchers are cold, heartless, profit driven monsters who are either making nothing but “Me too!” drugs or don’t care if they make poisons that only serve to treat some manufactured quality of life problem or they get all their ideas from government sponsored labs and don’t contribute anything.  They just take, take, take and never give back.  Admit it.  That’s what some of you think, right?  (If I were you, I’d ask myself who benefits from that perception?)  But I don’t really want to go there right now.  That’s not my point.

Here’s my point: Not everyone is cut out to be a scientist.  That’s why people don’t go into the field.  It means studying lots of math, wrapping your head around stuff like quantum theory (which isn’t necessarily impossibly hard to understand but it is very, very weird) and spending hours in a lab hunched over smelly chemicals and microscopes.  Some people take their required science courses in high school, get a passing grade and move on.  And that’s fine.  The world needs writers and mechanics and accountants and elementary ed teachers too.  It’s not that the field is too hard.  If you are diligent and motivated enough, you can learn anything.  But some people just aren’t passionate about science. If it’s not your  niche, that’s OK.

But if that’s the case, please don’t pontificate on science.  I don’t care if you’re right or left.  Just don’t.  You sound uninformed to those of us who do it for a living.  Like most Americans, Democrats find it just as hard to assess risk and can be just as gullible when it comes to evaluating the merits of a science article in the New York Times.  That kind of analytical ability comes with time and from reading a lot of papers.  There are even some bloggers who I love in most every respect except when they go off on a science jag.  Then they quickly lose their mojo and I just have to walk away shaking my head.  And I don’t think that the labs are teeming with Democrats.  There may be a slight tilt that way but there are just as many Republicans in the lab as Democrats.  Most people I know are independents.  In my humble opinion, Democrats are born that way; Republicans evolve.  And when Republican scientists evolve, they become management, which may mean that they are finding their own niches.

Now, don’t go away mad.  I’m not saying that Democratic bloggers should never discuss science.  And I’m not saying scientists are knowledgeable about every field.  We’re not.  Gawd knows I struggle every day to understand new science.  Things remain a mystery until you beat your head on the bench long enough.  What I am saying is that if it isn’t your cup of tea, proceed with caution.  If you *are* interested in a particular area of science or science issue du jour, you owe it to yourself to read up on the subject in the way that any scientist would.  Dig into it by learning all you can from people in the field before you pop off some opinion. Learn to evaluate data (BTW, the nomination of Obama during the 2008 primary season should put to rest the notion that Democrats are better at evaluating evidence. Really, there’s nothing to crow about there guys.).  

Now, where can you get information about science?  First, if you have an eReader of any kind, you can find free text books in just about any subject.  Second, our government does an outstanding job providing resources to the public through such sites as PubMed and PubChem where you can find abstracts and links to scientific literature, entire genomes, sequences, chemical structures and their properties, etc. The abstracts are free, the actual articles may not be.  You can purchase access to full articles through several services at nominal cost. There are tools like BLAST to compare nucleic acid and protein sequences, a database repository of protein structures in the RCSB, and lots of other sites of open source information in easy to use interfaces.  Some of them come with java viewers so that you can rotate molecules of interest.  If you wanted to start your own pharma, be a real entrepeneur, like the Republicans are always advocating, there’s plenty of free stuff online to use.  This is real time, up to date information, free to the public from the NIH and other government funded sources. We share our information with the world and the world with us.  That’s the way we advance science.  The sites belong to us, courtesy of us, the US taxpayer, and it’s one of the most valuable things we do.  Third, there are some popular blogs and podcasts out there where new science is covered in detail but also explained thoroughly for the non-science type.  I recommend the Naked Scientists from Cambridge University in the UK.  Their podcasts are challenging but fun and they will not talk down to you.

If there is one thing you can do for science this year, it’s advocate for the continuation of these valuable online tools.

One more thing:  Derek linked to a survey from the Pew Foundation on the public view of science.  You can test your scientific knowledge and get your score compared to the rest of the country by taking this online quiz.  I scored a 100%.  Nyah-nyah!

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102 Responses

  1. Hey, I just took the test. I’m an old female (65+) and definitely a non-scientist. Back in the Dark Ages, I almost lost my college scholarship, thanks to Chemistry.

    But I got 11 out of 12 right! (The laser one threw me.)

    • Congratulations!
      They teach Chemistry differently these days. It’s a lot less memorization and a lot more mechanisms. Doesn’t matter though because no one is hiring chemists in the US anymore.

      • Right now Big Pharma has paid off your congress members to ban re-importation of drugs due to safety concerns. When they have their new plants up and running in Mexico or China look for a reversal of that policy.
        The company I work for is transferring it’s chemists and engineers (mechanical and electrical) into other positions as they export manufacturing to third world countries.

    • BTW, in reference to that Pew survey of public attitudes towards science, I think the US still is top notch in science. We still attract top students from around the world to study here and we have some extremely gifted people in science working on cutting edge technology.
      But this era will soon pass away unless the masters of the universe start valuing science and the people who are dedicated to it. That slack will not necessarily be picked up by the rest of the world, which may lack the right ingredients of social, academic, industrial and governmental factors that the US has possessed over the past 100 years.
      So, politicians should be cognizant that the rules they are making for us to live by may be killing the golden goose and I am not talking about FDA regulations. I am talking about rules governing the financial system which has been wrecking havoc on research and development.

      • This is already happening in a big way. I work in a high tech industry. We are seeing fewer college graduates. Why would a student select a difficult major for which US jobs are few and advancement is limited? Major corporations are treating tech workers like burger flippers. This is due to massive hiring of workers in other countries. Much like the manufacturing industry in this country, our high tech leadership in the world is going to vanish within 10 years is my estimate.

        • The high tech corporation I work for has done a lot more hiring overseas than here in the past 10 years. Yet economists say we have a cyclical recession and no structural employment problems, except for the auto industry. That is so wrong.

        • Yup.

        • Yep, just like burger flippers. The MBAs that run our countries have never done R&D. It’s cliche to say they don’t understand the industry they’re managing. Every industry probably says that.
          But in this case, it’s true. We are dealing with living things and forces of the universe for which we have at best an imperfect understanding. It takes time and trial and error to make things work. But shareholders must have their money every quarter so the management rearranges the deck chairs and slashes budgets in a futile attempt to master biology. Good luck with that, business majors.

          • Also for engineering, a big problem is that in shipping manufacturing overseas, we have lost opportunities for innovation. Innovation and invention happens when engineers and inventors see every-day problems that come up and it gets time to percolate in their backbrains and eventually they get a bright idea.
            Remember the Chilean miners — the solution that got them out came from PA miners, not from desk jockeys.

          • I think it’s starting to sink in to the shareholders that maybe, just maybe, MBA culture isn’t doing them any favors. Witness what happened with Jeffrey Kindler at Pfizer recently.
            Sooner or later, the R&D departments will cease to exist in a functioning form and all the profits will completely dry up. Then where will the shareholders be?

      • The engineering follows the manufacturing.
        As it goes overseas or to the South the chemical and engineering jobs will follow.
        U S trained engineers and chemists will be temporarly transferred to set up the plant and train the local graduates then sent back home to be laid off.

    • I’m 70+ and missed the planet that’s no longer a planet question, drat it. Time to do some internet research to find out which it really is.

  2. One problem with science today is the way it is presented on TV. It’s all about wrinkle creams, cosmetics, and the latest drug with it’s endless list of side effects. People sell products with sciencey words and models dressed up in lab coats.

    It’s also been politicized so a lot of morans run around and demand you tell them if you believe in evolution or global warming, even though they themselves have never even bothered to study the science behind those issues.

    What happens is that people start to relate science to something negative, to something cheap and for sale. Science has a real PR problem in our culture at the moment because it’s representatives are not scientists, they’re just loud mouths.

  3. Of course I got them all right. What’s unbelievable is that this is more educated than 90% of the rest of the US? These are really easy questions and should be regularly in the public domain. Truly sad.

    • Every day knowledge questions and 90% don’t get them all right. Science in the US has a problem but it has less to do with the scientists than with our media. I think we could say that about most things though.

      Hard science is not a “he said, he said” conversation though and I think that’s what people try to make it.

    • Yes, but even if you get all of them right, that doesn’t mean you can’t be wrong about the causes of autism or how genetically modified seeds are killing the bees. You would not believe how many people on DailyKos thought that genetically modified seeds were causing the bee populations to die. There wasn’t one single study that indicated that it was even a remote possibility. But they were as unshakeable in their belief as a fundagelical that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth at the same time. There was absolutely no reasoning with them. Now, it has been shown that the bees are suffereing from pathogens, not seeds. I’ll bet those same people are saying that it’s all a conspiracy between government and the corporations to keep the truth from the public so Monsanto can make an ungodly profit.
      Well, Monsanto may indeed make an ungodly profit and the genetically modified seeds might not be good for the world in the long run but there’s absolutely no evidence that they’re killing the bees.
      And yet, those same Kossacks probably scored pretty highly on the science quiz.

      • What that demonstrates is a lack of trust in the media and government.

        • What that demonstrates is a certain mindset from the left that is as irrational and unshakeable as the mindset on the right.
          Lefties are paranoid about corporations and any entity that makes money. They don’t want to hear about it. It’s all la-la-la, I can’t HEAR you. What do they want? For science to be created in at home labs by celibate and independently self-sustaining noblemen and or their bastard sons? Please. It’s just silly. The demands of the left for science to somehow to be pure and natural and uninvolved with profit are unrealistic and frankly undoable.
          Lefties need to get their heads out of their asses. They flatter themselves too much. And I can say that because I’m one of them.

          • They prefer “Science in the Public Interest”, where fun goes to die.

          • Perhaps so, but it would help if the corporations and their tame pet governments and media operatives would quit doing so much to earn such distrust.

            Even paranoids can have real enemies, y’know. 🙄

    • I got them all right too but I was expecting real hard science questions. In fact I thought the first few questions were purposely bonehead-easy just to warm us up. Then the test ended. wow

      I find it disturbing that so few, at least so far on that online survey, don’t know these kinds of topical, easy bits of information about the world we live in.

      My conspiratorial mind thinks that, well of course, a nice and dumbed down population is easier to enslave … sigh …

      —-

      Happy Solstice to you all! Thank you for being here day in and day out. You are a breath of fresh, rational air 😉

  4. I got 100%

    But if that’s the case, please don’t pontificate on science.

    I love it when someone who has never heard of Palsgraf or Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins wants to lecture me on the law.

    It just makes my day.

    • Hey, I am not a lawyer and steadfastly resisted my academic advisor’s pushing me in that direction.
      All I’m saying is that Democrats are not all they’re cracked up to be in the area of science. There are just as many nutcases on the left as there are on the right. Just because you scored well on a science quiz doesn’t make you less susceptible to faulty analysis of scientific data. You can educate yourself and you don’t have to be a scientist to talk about science. But you do have to know how to evaluate data and most people, regardless of political orientation can’t do it.

    • And for gawd’s sakes, don’t run R&D industries.

  5. “Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism”

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/145286/Four-Americans-Believe-Strict-Creationism.aspx

    Of course, that isn’t any different than the 26% of US voters who think that Obama is doing an excellent job as President.

    • Yes, and my family (mom, brother, sister, in-laws) are some of those 4 in 10. But they believe in natural selection. You can explain it to strict creationists and they will buy into it completely. They will understand it as well as Darwin. All you need to do is not go back more than 6000 years. If you keep the principles of natural selection in the here and now, no problem. And really, isn’t that what is most important? Not proving to the resistant what you can’t say you witnessed with your own eyes?
      Take what you can get. They’re not ever, EVER going to buy into “Evolution”. That belief is extremely hard to dislodge because it is based on faith. You can’t prove or disprove it no matter how much evidence you provide to them. Give. Up.
      But that doesn’t mean they are stupid people or can’t understand the principles upon which our biology depends. They can.
      Don’t beat your head against a rock.

      • Self-described “science-” and “evidence-based” persons can be just as ignorant and fact-resistant. Witness the number of “skeptics” who will confidentely tell you that Jesus of Nazareth was a mythical figure because “Mithras was born of a virgin” and “Horus was crucified between two thieves.”

        And they believe this because they read it on the intertubes. Even “rationalists” will believe what they have an emotional need to believe.

        • Even in the agnostic phase of my life, I never doubted that Jesus existed as a historical figure.

  6. “But you do have to know how to evaluate data and most people, regardless of political orientation can’t do it.”
    ******
    “Magical” thinking is much easier. The end result of using the scientific method is to produce more questions than “answers”. That is one of the strongest attractions of fundamentalist religions, all of the questions are answered.

  7. Wow! I am so proud, I can knock my head against the wall. My all country – which also had a bona fide recount in 2004 which changed the result! Do I feel like an idiot or what?
    And speaking of people who should feel like idiots, the DUdies: The “Obama ate shit sandwich for 30 years” edition
    http://edgeoforever.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/dudies-for-december-17-21/

    • LOL! So, 80% of Democrats are still *thrilled* with Obama. What they’re not telling you is how many fewer people are identifying themselves as Democrat since 2008. I’d like to see the trend line. Because 80% could be a really small number of people these days. Certainly not enough to win an election.

  8. Rats!!!
    I missed the Mars question because I thought we discovered mold. (or plant life)
    Wasn’t water found some time ago?

    • One woman, who asked not to be named, was visiting Santa’s grotto with her eight-year-old son in the grounds of a hotel in the park.
      She said: ‘My son was distressed and we did not feel comfortable. It was an awful sight and nothing seemed to have been done about it.

      Oh, fergawdssakes, it’s fucking nature. I swear, the Brits are becoming even bigger wussies than Americans these days.
      I guess we should stop taking school children to the LaBrea tar pits. Those poor little saber tooth tigers suffered a gruesome death and it’s unsuitable for innocent eyes.
      Nice Kitty
      Nice kitty

      • The bones of a long dead creature doesn’t have the impact of the death of something familiar.

        • This could be a teachable moment. It’s nature in its most natural state. This is what happens to animals in the winter. Didn’t these people ever watch PBS specials or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom??
          Animals are real creatures and real stuff happens to them. Circle of life and all that.
          The problem is that nature has been Disneyfied

          • Jeebus, don’t take them to a farm then.

            I’ve even heard people say taking kids to a farm to see how things are done (not factory farm mind you, small family farm) is tantamount to child abuse. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people.

    • My dad used to tell me he was going to wait up for Santa to shoot the deer and fill freezer. He also used to tell me he was going to catch the Easter Bunny to make rabit stew.

      Yes, I know, it explains SO much!

    • They must have caught up with their backlog

      • Looks like opponents of the death penalty may finally be able to show an innocent man was executed. That sort of slows things down while it works it’s way through the system. I hope it ends it completely.

        Houston will probably send more people to death row than can be executed. I think they’re gonna start doing it for unpaid parking tickets one of these days.

  9. Took the test: 10 out of 12 (missed the tsunami and the laser)

  10. Yay, I did better than 80 percent of the country!! That REALLY surprised me because I am a science dope, but I suppose my saving grace is that I’ve always shut up and let the sciency people explain stuff rather than assuming I knew it all.

  11. I got 100% – these questions aren’t that difficult. I did think that more up to date question would have been “What did they find recently on the moon?” That would have also been water just like on Mars. My own “magical belief” ends up being the Shroud of Turin. While my belief in any god has gone from good Lutheran to at most an all encompassing spirit, I know all the testing that has been done on it, but I still find myself believing in the Shroud of Turin. Maybe it is because I am an artist and I know how difficult it is to draw in negative, and the image (when photographed and shown in negative – turning it into a positive) is very realistic at a time when both the paintings and sculptures were nowhere near that realistic.

    • Another artist/photographer here. Whatever else the Shroud may or may not be, it’s a photographic negative. If its first appearance is dated from the early14th century, the beginning of realistic representation of the human figure is still a hundred years in the future.

  12. Here’s a good paper from Jonathan Zittrain on Net Neutrality and the case against silos..

  13. Here’s the new House reapportionment based on the 2010 census.

  14. Clapton singing for the Big Dawg and Hillary…catch them at the end.

  15. While I was grateful to be able to answer the questions on the quiz, I thought the test was measuring knowledge of current events as much as knowledge of science.

    Isn’t it enough for Big Business to make incredible profits without them trying to additionally control our lives?

  16. Just took the quiz and got 100%. {Doing the nerd dance}

  17. Spot on post.

    “…frustrating to me is that there are a lot of Democrats who are just as irrational…”

    As I see it, the so-called left fails to enact policies because, for example, when we say ‘civil rights” we mean our civil rights, not civil rights. And this self center view hold true in many spheres. The left called for the slashing of the Space Program and they won, we abandoned 3 of the most powerful rockets ever…fully built…to rot in museums. And the result of this “saving”? Thousands of skilled workers out of work in the hardscrabble 70’s and eventually, tax cuts for the rich. Wages stagnated when the so-called left started cutting government programs that didn’t tweak their fancy.

    The so-called left favorite cry is, “let’s cut X so we can do Y”. And Republicans cheer us on! We should say, “let’s do Y which will employ workers from X with equal or better jobs and X will lose political support”, but we don’t.

    I can’t speak to pharmacological sciences, but all I have to say is “Thorium Reactor” and people who don’t know their periodic chart from a hole in the wall won’t let me finish the sentence before they start shouting about the horrors of nuclear power…go solar…go wind…who cares about peak demand, we’ll just use less. This while I sit in their 600 ft^2 living room.

    • I actually think nuclear power can be done safely.

      My problem with it is that I don’t think our culture can do it safely, because of the corruption in our system–that is, sleazy corporations will bribe regulators, or the politicians who appoint the regulators, to allow the corps to cut corners on safety. 😮

      There’s that distrust of corporations again… 😉

      • I neglected to add, “like BP was allowed to do on the oil well that blew out in the Gulf.”

      • I agree with the thrust of your point. I believe France’s marriage of a publicly held corp is a pretty reasonable/responsible way to handle the political/economic implications.

        I do wish so-called liberals would take the time to educate themselves about the huge differences with Thorium powered reactors, but when I have posted on the benefits the shout down begins. I think this is mid thread enough to be roundly ignored…

        There is a lot of info out there…but from today’s news:

        http://www.cnbc.com/id/40766873

  18. In the news on unholy bipartisanship, 18 Senators are introducing catfood-commission legislation:

    http://money.cnn.com/2010/12/21/news/economy/senators_push_for_debt_reduction/index.htm?hpt=T2

    Because reducing the deficit (now that the rich have their tax cut) is sooooo important….

    djmm

    • Ah yes, now that we have nearly a trillion added to the deficit to give to the rich, it’s time to take from the poor, again, to pay for it.

      Now when we see the Dickens period Christmas movies, they don’t seem so far in the past for some reason.

  19. Second, our government does an outstanding job providing resources to the public through such sites as PubMed and PubChem where you can find abstracts and links to scientific literature, entire genomes, sequences, chemical structures and their properties, etc.

    And, by the way, you have Al Gore to thank for the idea that those should be publicly accessible (and free). I’m just astounded that Bush and Obama didn’t change that.

    • They probably would have, but they had such a long list of things to destroy. Just never enough time in the day.

    • “Bush and Obama” do seem oddly alike.

      I suspect that if Obama’s dad had been a shiftless bigamist European Marxist, rather than a shiftless bigamist African Marxist, Obama would be a Republican.

      Of course, Obama is more useful to The Owners as a Vichy Democrat than as an Elephascist. 😦

  20. As dim a bulb as I am, with less than a year of college , (in which I took an “I” in physics and calculus), I got all 12 too. Without cheating. Go figure.

  21. 12/12

    I just read a lot.

  22. Global warming is not the easiest thing for someone who is a layman to understand but I really don’t think you need to be a scientist to have a valid opinion or to understand it. The contention is pretty easy to understand. Water vapor accounts for 98% of greenhouse gas. Water vapor is not directly affected by human behavior. However, it is indirectly affected since C02 potentiates. There is some validity to the position that our planet goes through cycles and the planet warming may be more naturally occurring then manmade. After all, we know that at one time this planet went through an Ice Age and the greenhouse effect warmed it and made it habitable again. There was no industrial age to blame it on back then. So I don’t think it is completely unreasonable to suggest that man’s effect on global warming may be overstated. That being said, I see no reason to not try to lessen the impact we know C02 has on the environment. The worst case scenario would be that controlling the amounts we release would have a negligible effect on global warming.

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