Posted by: Ali Davis | May 24, 2011

Plight of the Bumblebee

I decided to spend a part of my weekend terrifying myself with politics instead of science, and so I watched a bit of The Chris Matthews Show. That’s his weekend syndicated show. It’s in a lower key than Hardball, which, in case you’re not familiar with it, is also a political show in spite of the hilariously misleading name.

Matthews has a segment called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” which is sort of a lightning round.

I have no idea if Matthews screams “I KNEW THAT!” if his visitors fail to tell him something he doesn’t know, or if his guests ever give in to temptation and just whip out the weirdest fact they can think of about naked mole rats, but I hope so.

When Matthews asked venerated newsman Dan Rather, Rather tried to rattle off some crucial information about the possible role of pesticides in the worldwide disappearance of honeybees.

The show doesn’t have tidy little chunks of video up on its website, and the most recent full episode it has up is a week old, so I will transcribe their exchange from my DVR.

CM: Welcome back! Dan, tell me something I don’t know.

DR: A new campaign – not an official campaign – a new movement is beginning to raise questions about systemic pesticides: Pesticides that are put in the system of plants. The canary in the coal mine here are bees. Bees, who are used for pollination, are dying off in drove numbers. And there’s a continued concern, a growing concern, that because the bees pollinate the plants… The systemic pesticide in the plant stays in three to five years. It’s all been approved by the EPA, but there are going to be new questions raised about that –

CM: Does it hurt us? When we consume it?

DR: The EPA says no –

CM: OK.

…And then Matthews barreled on to the next guest.

The guest in question was Rachel Maddow, who had both the perspective and the politeness reflex to at least take a moment to say “Wow. Scary,” before launching into her own bit.

I realize that a half-hour show has to stick to a time limit, but does anyone else see a problem with Matthews’ reaction here?

“Does it hurt us? When we consume it?”

Rather is an old pro, so he was able to restrain himself from leaping up, grabbing Matthews by the lapels, and screaming “BEES EQUAL FOOD! SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR NUTS, CHRIS! NO, THE OTHER ONES!

I realize that Matthews was looking for quick sound bites here, but this is a grown, intelligent man who spends five or six hours a week pontificating about complex world events. And he was unable to make the connection between bees and pollenation and growing food.

I feel like Matthews’ response illustrates exactly what’s wrong with the way we teach and think about science. And, for that matter, the way we teach and think about consequences: Does it hurt people directly? Well, OK, but does it hurt them right away? OK, but does it hurt us in an ouchy way, like stabbing or punching? OK, but is it people who look like me and live in the same place? Well, then I can ignore it, right?

The inability or refusal to think a chain of events through to its eventual logical consequences – and deal with them – is why we are collectively being such idiots about climate change. And that is hurting people. Ask anyone in Joplin right now. Or New Orleans. Or anyone who lived through the devastating flooding in Pakistan.

But somehow the fact that the increasingly common “freak” weather events are killing masses of people in farflung places and months apart means we can deliberately fail to connect them to each other and to what we’re doing to the earth’s temperature and to the composition of our own frigging atmosphere and vote instead for the promise of immediate dollars for corporations that do not care about us via the politician who would like to approve some exploratory drilling see if there is any oil in your local swimming hole and/or manatee pituitary glands.

Yes, colony collapse disorder is something we need to worry and, more importantly, think ahead about. Even if it means banning a pesticide that makes money for a big company, even if that pesticide doesn’t immediately hurt humans when they consume it.

We might also want to do some worrying about our basic science education too.

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