Blowouts, elementary school, and the future of democracy
Ron Wilson - June 7, 2010
The weekend edition of the Financial Times this week carried a story that gave me pause. It was a long piece of straight reporting, mostly from inside BP’s command center in Houston, on that company’s struggle to control the discharge from their now-infamous Macondo well. The piece is detailed, well-written, and timely, as one might expect from the Financial Times. But it made me realize just how technically vacuous has been the deluge of coverage on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and how totally unprepared the citizenry of the USA is to deal with the questions today’s world thrusts before them.
For example, the general impression created by the US press is that BP has spent most of its time wringing its hands about the blowout, while consulting movie stars, letters from school children, and perhaps a psychic or two in the search for solutions, while occasionally taking a stab at some scheme or other. But the Times article suggests a reality more like the rescue of Apollo 13: hundreds of engineers, 160 companies including ExonMobile and Chevron, and some of the world’s leading sea-floor engineering contractors, driving themselves to exhaustion testing plans and directing a navy of remotely-operated submersibles.
In the litany of Web video, photos, and blurbs, and on the decrying of the evening news reports, this drama is simply missing. Where are the discussions of strategy, profiles of the leading engineers, descriptions of the ships and submersibles-even an accurate description of a blow-out preventer? Where a discussion of the communications network that links equipment, crews, and engineers with live video? The sad answer, I fear, is that all this is missing because the news providers either don’t understand it themselves, or because they assume their audiences wouldn’t understand it.
Unfortunately, on this count they are probably correct. An article in a local newspaper earlier in the week gloated that Oakland had become the only school district in California to require science classes below the high-school level. Kids who have no clear idea of science or the workings of the natural world at 14 are unlikely to become adults who can form a clear idea of a complex deep-water petroleum-engineering project, or for that matter of what is likely to be an equally complex problem in ecological engineering.
Therein lies a deeper issue. Our culture will continue to face complex choices that posit an obvious benefit-energy, health, employment-against a range of technical risks, and even more complex proposals to mitigate those risks. In our political system these challenging optimization problems will be set before the court of public opinion as emotionally-charged black-vs.-white choices. The ability of a woefully undereducated public to see through the oversimplifications into the richness of the problems, and at least not to obstruct the search for useful solutions, will influence the future of the republic. All we who have had the privilege of a technical education owe some thought to capping this gusher of technological ignorance that is poisoning not just our beaches or our wildlife, but the very bedrock of civil discourse upon which our system of government must rest.