You can teach an old dog new tricks. Take me for example. With the help of a lot of smart and web savvy folks here at the Institute on the Environment, I am learning how to blog. While I am learning, please bear with me as I learn the do's and don'ts and the proper etiquette of blogging.
Here, and in the next few entries, I want to spend some time introducing the topic of my blog by defining the three terms that comprise the title I've chosen. My apologies if that seems a bit tedious. But, it is my experience that our failure to communicate is often attributable to a lack of common understanding of even the most basic terms of a discussion.
Of the three terms in my blog title, biofuels is the easiest to explain. That's just a technical term. So I will come to that last of all. It's the other two terms that are troublesome.
Why do I start with "common sense"? Because, in the words of Rogers and Hammerstein, "it's a very good place to start." And it's what is most often missing in the debate about alternative energy and the choices we face as a society about our energy future.
I think that many of us equate common sense thinking with logical thinking. But for me common sense also relates to the events and ideas that all of us as human beings share based on our own experiences living in the world from day to day. Science, in that sense, is anything but common sense. It's a specialized kind of experience. For that reason, when scientists enter into the public debate over issues like energy, they often fail to communicate their ideas. Likewise, the rest of us who don't know or have the special knowledge and experience of these scientists, are frustrated in our attempts to understand what they have to say.
But there is more to the gap between science and common sense than just knowledge or experience. There are many common sense problems that cannot be resolved using the arcane experimental and theoretical devices of "the scientific method" we were all taught to practice and admire in high school. Common sense problems are complex. They don't lend themselves to careful and controlled experimental design. They are usually a tangled mess of influences, ideas, uncertainties and values. So, when scientists speak to such problems, they are often at a huge disadvantage (to put it politely).
I can think of no better example of just how ill-equipped and unprepared scientists and academics can be in confronting common sense problems than the recent example of the expert panels who have recently opined on the proper approach to diagnostics and screening for breast cancer. These well intentioned experts touched off a firestorm of debate in their attempt to offer objective scientific advice on what is a deeply ethical and emotional problem.
While biofuels may not be as controversial as health care or education or "the war on terror", their role in our society does have very serious "third rail" issues that can be hazardous to those experts who dare to touch on them. In twenty years of experience working on biofuels, I have finally come to believe that biofuels can and should (note the ethically loaded term there) play a role in our energy future. That's what I want to talk about.
My goal in this blog is to improve the dialogue about biofuels by bridging scientific and technical experience and common sense experience. This involves untangling scientific and technical uncertainty from political and ethical uncertainty. It requires translating or at least relating the specialized knowledge of the scientist and the technologist to complex common sense world in which our energy problems exist. I won't always succeed, but I think it's worth the effort. After all, what is at stake is nothing short of the future survival of future generations.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.