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Pediatric Environmentalism

Henry I. Miller, 04.16.10, 03:30 PM EDT

Kids should be learning science--not feel-good advocacy--in school.

Every schoolchild these days seems to be a devoted environmentalist, able to spell "sustainable" before "dog." However, much of the indoctrination about environmentalism--especially in schools--is of the passion-is-more-important-than-fact variety. These kids are being misled and shortchanged, to their own and society's detriment.

For last year's Earth Day, for example, sixth-grade students at a tony private school near San Francisco were given this bizarre assignment: Make a list of ways Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates' fortune could be spent on environmentally friendly projects. There was no hint that systematic market-based incentives for people and businesses could protect the environment--merely that it is OK to appropriate wealth from someone as long as it's for a good cause.

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Last semester fifth-graders at a public school in Sonoma, Calif., undertook a major "environmentalism" project on bees, the purpose of which was to learn about their importance and life cycle and the existing threats to them. They focused in particular on the mysterious and worrisome disappearance of honeybees that has received a great deal of attention during the past few years. The kids discovered that according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 1945 and 2007 the number of U.S. honeybee colonies dropped by two-thirds--from about 6 million colonies to an estimated 2 million. They made graphs and charts, created pamphlets in English and Spanish and wrote letters to dozens of local and national politicians.

The kids became particularly concerned about the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the technical name for the bees' wholesale disappearance from hives, a subject that would have created an excellent teaching opportunity about biology, agriculture and logic--if only they had been given sufficient and accurate information. "Nobody's sure what's killing them," summed up one of the students. "Mites, pesticides, radiation from cellphones, humans, global warming and not enough wildflowers. We're not sure. There's a lot of probable causes."

Probable causes? In fact, there's no scientific evidence that cellphones, pesticides, global warming or the alleged insufficiency of wildflowers are linked in any way to CCD. But the real probable cause makes for a fascinating story--one that the students and their teachers are poorer for having missed.

During the time that CCD has increased, an infectious fungus called Nosema ceranae has increasingly colonized bees and is now frequently detected worldwide in both healthy and weak honeybee colonies. In two articles published in 2008 Spanish researchers showed that natural infection with the Nosema fungus can cause the sudden collapse of bee colonies, establishing a direct association between infection and the death of honeybee colonies under real-world field conditions.

But association is different from causation--an important distinction even for fifth-graders--and the CCD experiments show how scientists go about proving that an infectious agent causes a disease. They demonstrated that healthy colonies near an infected one can also become infected, that the fungal infections can be controlled with a specific antibiotic called fumagillin, and that after the six-month period of protection from the antibiotic ends, reinfection of the hive is possible.

In other words, the presence of the fungus is correlated with the colony collapse and can spread the phenomenon; killing the fungus with an antibiotic protects the hives; and removal of the antibiotic makes the hives sensitive to the fungus again. Those findings are far more persuasive than hand-waving about cellphones, global warming or pesticides.

Too often the objective of student projects seems to be "empowering" the kids and giving them a feeling of accomplishment instead of getting the right answer and learning scientific principles.

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