AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

Fall 2004 Treasurer's Report

Scientific and Political Truths

Charles E. Robertson
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 3

During the past year, Tom O’Kuma chaired a committee that reviewed the Announcer and during the process discovered that the treasurer’s report was the least read article in that publication. But I am undaunted by this dismal showing of my literary masterpieces. So, since the membership is not interested in finances, I would like to write on another topic that everyone should be interested in: the upcoming general election.

As I listen to the rhetoric of both major political parties I realize that we as physics teachers can make a difference. When we teach, we continually try to get our students to think what is happening. A plane is flying upward at an angle of 10° with the horizontal with a speed of 20 m/s. If the plane is 50,000 m above the level ground when a care package is dropped, how far in advance of the target should the package be dropped? Of course some students go immediately for a set of equations that can be used to solve the problem and some will be successful. However, we would like them to think about the problem, understand what assumptions are being made, see if their picture of what is happening makes sense (that plane is going very slow at a very high altitude), and finally ask whether their answer makes sense in light of the values given. We want them to read the problem and think.

This is exactly what needs to be done when we read the newspaper or see political ads on TV. We, and our students, need to read and listen, understand what assumptions go into the political statements, and make a voting decision based on the information. Here are two examples that I have read and heard discussed by President Bush and Senator Kerry.

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, John Kerry said he would eliminate tax cuts on persons making more than $200,000 a year but not touch those cuts for people earning less. A few days later President Bush told a group of workers that Kerry was going to raise their taxes. At first I thought these were incompatible statements because none of the workers appeared to have incomes over $200,000. But after thinking about them I realized they could both be correct. It depends on the assumptions made. If the tax cut on the wealthy was rolled back, the AVERAGE tax of all tax-paying citizens in the nation would increase. That may not change your tax or mine, but the average would increase. (Imagine yourself in a faculty meeting when Bill Gates walked into the room. The average income of the room would certainly increase.) I wonder how many of the workers listening to the President realize what is being assumed.

The other topic is that of energy. To reduce our dependence on foreign oil (both keeping prices down and supply up), the Democrats have proposed to use oil from our strategic oil reserves. The Republican stand is to not do this but continue to use oil from overseas and to strengthen the ties between the U.S. and these oil-producing countries. This latter view does nothing to give our citizens a reprieve from $2.00/gallon gasoline or to make our supply less dependent of the whims of international politics. However, as all of us physics teachers tell our students, the amount of oil the planet can supply is finite. We will eventually run out (or have extremely high oil prices). According to one article I read, the last country standing will be the one with the last energy supply so maybe we don’t want to use our own supplies.

At the winter meeting in Philadelphia several years ago, Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, one of two physicists in the House of Representatives gave a talk followed by questions from the audience. Congressman Holt was asked what one thing could we, as physics teachers, teach our students? Holt’s answer was one word, “Statistics!” He said that the average person understood very little about statistics. People are afraid to fly but not to drive, whereas the statistics on death and injuries certainly favor flying.

These stories demonstrate what impacts we as physics teachers might have on national politics. We need to expand our ideas of teaching students to evaluate problems beyond those problems found in their texts, beyond physics, and into the realm of politics. Undoubtedly, candidates in the upcoming election will make statements that could be used as examples for analyses. Are statements being made supported by data or are they contradictory? What assumptions are being made? Is there a cause and effect?

By the time you read this, the election will be just around the corner and you may not have time to help your students apply the techniques they learn in physics to politics but the one thing many of you can still do is to encourage your students to vote. And don’t forget to vote yourself.

We can make a difference.