What a difference 50 years makes

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

What a difference 50 years makes

Last month, I attended the 50th anniversary of my college graduation. A
week later, I celebrated my grandson’s graduation from high school. I
don’t think I was much different from the kids in my grandson’s class
when I went away to college in 1954 (give or take a few rings and
tattoos). Like them, I was filled with trepidation but also excitement
about testing my physical and intellectual abilities beyond high
school. But my how the world has changed in 50 years!
    
I began my last year of college in 1957. On October 4 that year, the
Soviet Union electrified the world by successfully launching a
satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. Little did we dream that out of the
ensuing space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. would come
24-hour television news channels, cellphones, and GPS navigation. In
1958, the only trans-Atlantic phone lines were cables laid on the ocean
floor, so phone calls to England had to be booked hours or sometimes
days in advance. I flew from Toronto to a roommate’s wedding in San
Francisco on a propeller plane that made several stops during the
22-hour trip.

In 1958, scientists were still debating about whether genetic material
was DNA or protein, we didn’t know how many chromosomes humans have or
that the Y chromosome determines sex, and the Green Revolution was yet
to come. Polio was still a problem in North America, smallpox killed
hundreds of thousands annually, and oral contraceptives, photocopiers,
personal computers, colour TV, and DVDs didn’t exist. In 1958, parts of
the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea had not been explored. We were yet to
learn of species extinction, depletion of fish in the oceans, the
effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, acid rain, global warming, PCBs,
and dioxins.
    
In half a century our lives have been transformed by scientific,
medical, and technological advances, as well as a host of environmental
problems. No one deliberately set out to undermine the planet’s
life-support systems or tear communities apart, but those have been the
consequences of our enormous economic and technological “success” over
the past five decades. Beset by vast problems of wealth discrepancy,
environmental issues, poverty, terror, genocide, and prejudice, we are
trying to weave our way into an uncertain future.
    
I began speaking out on television in 1962 because I was shocked by the
lack of understanding of science at a time when science as applied by
industry, medicine, and the military was having such a profound impact
on our lives. I felt we needed more scientific understanding if we were
to make informed decisions about the forces shaping our lives. Today,
thanks to computers and the Internet, and television, radio, and print
media, we have access to more information than humanity has ever had.
To my surprise, this access has not equipped us to make better
decisions about such matters as climate change, peak oil, marine
depletion, species extinction, and global pollution. That’s largely
because we now have access to so much information that we can find
support for any prejudice or opinion.

Don’t want to believe in evolution? No problem – you can find support
for intelligent design and creationism in magazines, on websites, and
in all kinds of books written by people with PhDs. Want to believe
aliens came to Earth and abducted people? It’s easy to find theories
about how governments have covered up information on extraterrestrial
aliens. Think human-induced climate change is junk science? Well, if
you choose to read only certain national newspapers and magazines and
listen only to certain popular commentators on television or radio,
you’ll never have to change your mind. And so it goes. The challenge
today is that there is a huge volume of information out there, much of
it biased or deliberately distorted. As I think about my grandson, his
hopes and dreams and the immense issues my generation has bequeathed
him, I realize what he and all young people need most are the tools of
skepticism, critical thinking, the ability to assess the credibility of
sources, and the humility to realize we all possess beliefs and values
that must constantly be reexamined. With those tools, his generation
will certainly leave a better world to its children and grandchildren
50 years from now.

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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