Sunday, June 24, 2018


We are confronted daily with news of problems that require a solid foundation in science to evaluate. In this course, we explore a variety of geoscience issues that affect the public and are, therefore, also public policy issues. We study the underlying scientific concepts relevant to the problem being addressed, and we discuss how this scientific background needs to be considered as part of the process of making policy decisions. The course also introduces students to how scientists and public policy makers apply the scientific method and the concepts of probability and statistics in the decision making process.

(Note: Posts on this blog have Read more links to continue reading their full text.)

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Life is uncertain... There will always be uncertainty and risks that we have to accept as part of our lives.

My primary motivation for teaching this course stems from my experiences as a scientist. In particular, from my experience as a scientist I became convinced that a major driving force behind how science and public policy issues unfold is that many people look towards science in the hope of finding some level of certainty in an uncertain world. That is the starting point for my story line for this course, and exploring this theme is interwoven throughout all of the topics covered in the course.

Friday, June 22, 2018


The story here is that, in 1616, the Church condemned the sun-centered theory of the solar system as contrary to scripture. Galileo Galilei was told by the Church to abandon his view of a solar system with the sun at the center. He was tried and convicted of proclaiming a view contrary to religious doctrine, and was sentenced to house arrest, under which he remained for the last decade of his life. Galileo was exonerated by the Church in 1992. Here we discuss what the scientific issues were that led to this conflict, how Galileo came to conclude that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and how early views of the motion of the planets were modified due to scientific evidence and reasoning.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


The next topic, after Galileo and the Church, is the current (and, it seems, perennial) "creation/evolution" controversy, i.e., the controversy over whether it is appropriate to teach the biblical account of creation in public school science classes as an alternative to geological theories about the origin and evolution of the Earth. There are several reasons for covering this topic. First, it seems to never fade away from the news coverage of public policy in the United States. Second, exploring this controversy requires a good understanding of a number of fundamental scientific concepts such as: how the scientific method is used to learn about things that are not directly observable, radiometric dating and the nature of matter on very small (atomic and nuclear) spatial scales, and geological time. Finally, this topic is an excellent springboard for discussion about how scientific knowledge differs from other types of knowledge.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


A course on science and public policy would hardly be complete without covering global warming and climate change, probably today's most newsworthy and controversial science and policy topics. Thus, we study why scientists have concluded that the Earth's atmosphere has been getting warmer since the late 1800s. This requires a thorough explanation of the Earth's atmosphere and how electromagnetic radiation from the sun interacts with the atmosphere to warm the environment near the surface of the Earth. Considerable amount of lecture time is spent exploring the nature of light and electromagnetic radiation to provide a thorough understanding of the "greenhouse effect" and the human influence on climate change.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


The final major topic of this course is earthquakes, with a particular focus on how earthquake science intersects with society's current environmental challenges. This topic was chosen for several reasons:

First, this enables me to move from topics that I have general knowledge of to a topic that I have direct basic research and public policy experience with. Second, this is a topic that illustrates how our relationship with the Earth is unavoidable; we can't run away from earthquakes. Earthquakes teach us humility in the face of the power of nature, and are (I believe) one of the most obvious signs of our evolving environmental consciousness. Finally, earthquakes (and the science of seismology in general) are one more example of a topic that matters to people and requires a good understanding of basic science concepts to engage in informed discussion about what we really know and don't know.

Monday, June 18, 2018


This course is my attempt to explore some fundamental questions about science-based public policy issues, such as:
  • How does scientific knowledge differ from other types of knowledge?  
  • In cases where the scientific basis of a public policy issue is ambiguous, when is it appropriate to take political action?  
  • What constitutes sufficient evidence that political action should be taken?  
  • When is it justified to spend money for additional research to investigate the scientific basis of a public policy decision?