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Complexity, Cows and Cars

The Washington Post reports that Washington DC has a new science museum, the Marian Koshland Science Museum.

Bessy, a cow, is one of the centerpieces at a science museum that opens today in downtown Washington. Like other cows, Bessy chews a lot of grass and creates a lot of methane. Scientists count methane as the second greatest cause of global warming.

That is why a realistic fiberglass model of Bessy and an explanation of her multiple stomachs, her diet, her chewing and emissions came to be at the new museum sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. The Marian Koshland Science Museum aims to demystify the scientific topics of the day.

Bessy is part of a temporary exhibit on global warming:

To explain the science behind global-warming headlines, the museum uses a number of approaches. There are descriptions of volcanoes, measurements of ocean coral, explanations about the way Earth wobbles on its axis. There are a number of computer-driven displays. One panel gives visitors several options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which are more prevalent than the methane created by cattle. Once the visitor makes a choice — such as planting more trees or improving commercial transportation — the panel shows how much impact that would have.

Now I realize that this is a science museum and not a social science museum. But why would we want our children to think that by improving commercial transportation there would be a simple straightforward effect on carbon dioxide emissions? A complex set of responses would be set in motion if we were to improve commercial transportation. We don’t have the faintest idea what the net impact would be on carbon dioxide. And that’s just the social science. Allowing kids to dial up some amount of carbon dioxide emissions misses the complexity of the environment and treats our world like a set of solvable simultaneous equations. Both our economy and our environment are much more alive than that.