Sometimes I get frustrated when I see public officials demonstrating their lack of scientific literacy. Sometimes I get downright annoyed. In recent memory, a truly annoying demonstration of scientific illiteracy can be found in comments made by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Perhaps you’ve seen her in the news making statements about carbon dioxide not being a harmful gas but, rather, being a harmless gas? Perhaps you saw her on C-SPAN speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives making the same statements as part of an effort to convince Americans that the “threat of manmade global warming doesn’t make any sense”? If you missed it, or just want to be reminded of the sheer absurdity of her statements, I’ve included a copy of the video.
I used to live in Minnesota, not very far from the State Capitol building. There was a time when I could have (and would have) tried to meet with Congresswoman Bachmann to talk with her about her ideas and help her learn some real science. Since I no longer live in Minnesota, I decided to write her the following letter:
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann
107 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
June 24, 2009
Dear Congresswoman Bachmann,
After having listened to, read, and seen you express your views on how, because carbon dioxide “is a natural byproduct of nature,” the “threat of manmade global warming doesn’t make any sense” I felt the need to write you and help you understand something about carbon dioxide. I am sure that you have, by now, learned that you were wrong when, on April 22nd from the floor of the House of Representatives, you made the claim that CO2 made up 3% of the earth’s atmosphere. I am also sure that by now you have been informed by your staff that you were again wrong when, during the same speech, you made the claim that “carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas.” I am sure that someone on your staff has pointed out to you that in 1986 a limnic eruption of Lake Nyos in Cameroon released CO2 from the lake’s surface and asphyxiated all living organisms within a fifteen mile radius. But the real reason I am writing you is to point out why many Americans, including your constituents, intuitively understand that carbon dioxide is dangerous.
I was recently watching a movie that Ron Howard made called Apollo 13. If you have not seen the movie, I would highly recommend renting it. It is a fantastic movie and was critically acclaimed for its accurate depiction of the actual events that took place in April of 1970 during the Apollo 13 mission. Jim Lovell, John "Jack" Swigert, and Fred Haise almost died on that mission because of a rise in concentrations of CO2 gas in the Lunar Module. There is a great scene in the movie where mission control and the astronauts have to figure out how to jury-rig the Command Module’s CO2 scrubbers so that they could be used in the Lunar Module. If they had not been able to figure out how to decrease the CO2 levels in the Lunar Module, all three astronauts would have died before they could even attempt to re-enter the earth’s orbit. There are countless millions of people in America who have seen this movie and understand that it was based on actual events. There are millions more who remember the actual events taking place. When all of these millions and millions of people hear you say that “carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas” they have to decide to either believe you or to believe the Apollo 13 astronauts. I think that your comments on the topic of carbon dioxide being harmless help paint a picture of you being out of touch with scientific reality as well as popular culture. I will leave it to you and your staff to decide if the people who saw Apollo 13 would agree or disagree with me. In case you are not aware of it, Apollo 13 took in more than $350,000,000 at the box office and has been available to rent for more than a decade. There are an awful lot of people out there whom you would have to convince that Apollo 13 was not based on real events. You could try, but I think you could do a tremendous amount to repair your public image if you would simply admit your mistakes and stop trying to convince people of something they already know not to be true. Carbon dioxide is not harmless; it can be a lethal gas. If you can’t or won’t tell the truth about CO2, I must assume that you can’t or won’t tell the truth about other issues. I encourage you to watch Apollo 13 and learn what the rest of us know to be true.
Dr. Owen Priest
Department of Chemistry
In my letter, I explained to Congresswoman Bachmann that she is wrong when she claims that “carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas.” One of the examples I cited was the 1986 limnic eruption of Lake Nyos in Cameroon. During that event, carbon dioxide was released from the lake’s surface and asphyxiated all living organisms within a fifteen mile radius. That hardly makes carbon dioxide a harmless gas. And what about the Apollo 13 mission?
A few weeks ago I watched Apollo 13. It was actually my third viewing of the movie. I think it is a fantastic movie! When I sat down to write the letter to Congresswoman Bachmann there was a scene in Apollo 13 that I could not get out of my head. In the scene, Jim Lovell, John "Jack" Swigert, and Fred Haise realize that the concentration of CO2 gas in the Lunar Module is increasing. Mission control determines that the three astronauts will die from CO2 poisoning before they ever get a chance to attempt re-entering the earth’s orbit.
Mission control and the astronauts figure out how to jury-rig the Command Module’s CO2 scrubbers so that they could be used in the Lunar Module. There are countless millions of people in America who have seen this movie and understand that it was based on actual events. There are millions more who remember the actual events taking place. I am, therefore, astounded that there are people in America who take Congresswoman Bachmann seriously when she attempts to speak knowledgeably on scientific matters. Whether or not you have a background in science, if you’ve seen Apollo 13 you know that CO2 is NOT a harmless gas. What levels would be dangerous in our environment? Are increasing levels do to human activity? Are the increasing levels part of a natural cycle? These are all questions that can be debated and studied. But to simply say that carbon dioxide “is a natural byproduct of nature,” and “is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas” smacks of partisan politics and demonstrates an astounding lack of scientific literacy.
Michelle Bachmann should watch Apollo 13 and brush up on some basic science before attempting to speak about it authoritatively. If you haven’t seen Apollo 13, or if it has been awhile, I would encourage you to watch it. And if Congresswoman Bachmann responds to my letter, I’ll let you know what she says.