Tucked into the rich folds of his inaugural speech, it was almost too easy to miss what in the long run may be the most significant and far-reaching change in policy made by President Barack Obama.
To be sure, his acknowledgement of “when the levees break” was encouraging to those of us who have already suffered such woes. It reveals the import of such events in the new president’s mind--in great contrast to his predecessor who made no mention of such issues in successive State of the Union addresses.
But what could have far greater impact on us in the recovering city of New Orleans, and all of America for that matter, is the president’s plan to rededicate our efforts to the most successful investigatory tool ever devised.
In the heart of his inaugural address, the president outlined his vision for America including his goals of reviving a struggling economy, building infrastructure, bolstering public education and harnessing alternative energy.
And that’s where he also said: “We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”
I am not the only person to seize upon those words and all the promise that promise incurs. Cynthia Tucker writes in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Obama’s embrace of science is cause for hope.” She recalls how not so long ago the US was the leader in scientific study and accomplishment which certainly accounts in great part for the high standard of living and abundance of wealth we enjoy compared to most of the world.
But Tucker joins me in sadly observing the current wave of anti-science. With George W. Bush as “the chief cheerleader for a rejection of reason,” Tucker notes that Americans have become “a nation of superstitious ignoramuses.”
And who could disagree? On a regular basis we are reminded that the United States lags in basic education compared with other modern nations. Religious belief remains strong and popular support for Creationism and “Intelligent Design” persists in spite of a total lack of evidence and universal scientific rejection. These are just some more commonly known examples; the list is as long as the string of letters representing human DNA.
You may wonder how reaffirming America’s support for and confidence in science could possibly be more important than significant hurricane protection. It’s nice to have science, but as far as New Orleanians are concerned, nothing trumps good levees, right?
Wrong. The two are inextricably connected. We cannot expect to have a robust hurricane protection system unless we pursue it with good science. We cannot expect to be safe without serious and studious observation and application of lessons learned.
But there are indications that superstitious citizens will not yield. Despite several studies and repeated explanations, the average citizen still clings to the false impression that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet caused devastating flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Following Hurricane Katrina, pundits and politicians alike nicknamed the shipping channel “the hurricane super highway.” With no science to support the claim and ample evidence against it, the popular notion survives undaunted. Even the junior senator from Louisiana, a person one would hope we could look to for leadership and vision, suffers from belief in this irrational myth.
In another highly visible example, National Geographic posted the Internet story “A City's Faulty Armor” in April 2007. The story features the criticism of engineering professor Bob Bea, who boldly declares the new floodwall constructed to protect the Lower Ninth Ward will not stand against future storms.
Dr. Bea offers no scientific basis for his condemnation of the new wall. There is no mention of soil testing, laboratory analysis, model tests or calculations of any kind.
The only evidence offered by Dr. Bea, according to National Geographic, was a taste test.
Yes--a taste test. Bob Bea, who also happens to be an expert witness in litigation against the government, saw puddle water in the road near the wall and speculated it could be seepage coming from the Industrial Canal on the other side of the wall. To test his hypothesis, he tasted the gutter water and declared it “tasted salty.”
If there is any doubt in the foolishness of Dr. Bea’s methods and conclusions, we only need to remember Hurricane Gustav’s assault on September 1, 2008. Water filled the Industrial Canal almost to the top of the walls and waves splashed over for several hours. Despite dire predictions, the walls did not budge. Gustav killed 43 people in Louisiana but could not breach a single floodwall in New Orleans.
It is an embarrassment to the engineering profession that any engineer practicing in the 21st century would actually form an opinion on the stability of a concrete floodwall based on a taste test of gutter water. And it is testimony to how far this nation’s esteem for science has fallen when a national magazine dedicated to scientific study can publish such blatant quackery as serious inquiry.
Now that President Obama has staked out a position in support of science, I have great hope that the United States will change its path. I have great hope that science, and engineering as well, will find its rightful place in the rebuilding of America and especially in the fortification of New Orleans against future storms.