Volume 22, Number 4 October 1993


Gasoline Taxes

Since one person (James Felton, January and July 1993) has responded twice to the content of my last letter ("Global Warming," October 1992), it is my turn.

There is now enormous pressure to keep our gasoline taxes at unreasonably low levels. The Ohio Motorists' Association made the silly claim that a 4.3-cent increase in the gas tax (about $2 per thousand miles) would cause tourism to "suffer -- especially;" Forum letters have implied that any revenue from taxes on gasoline should only be used to benefit motorists. These writers can be refuted by plain facts:

1. Many costs associated with auto travel are not covered by these taxes. For example, billions of dollars are spent annually to protect shipping lanes for oil tankers, and there are pollution costs. We are motorists part of the time, but we breathe all of the time. The free market works best when prices reflect costs; when this does not happen, we suffer for it, because the advantages of superior products (such as more fuel efficient autos) are negated.

2. In most states, sales of almost every item except gasoline are taxed for general revenue. Ohio's sales tax would amount to between 7 and 10 cents per gallon if it were levied on gasoline (as it is on every other item you can buy except food).

3. Gasoline costs are so low that very few people take fuel efficiency into consideration when buying a car. Federal gasoline taxes, adjusted for inflation, are far lower than they were in 1960.

4. Gasoline taxes are among the few that can be easily offset without pain. You can save the entire costs of a ten-cent-per gallon tax by simply driving five miles per hour slower (which would still put most drivers over the speed limit, and cost them very little time), or by buying a car that has 8% better fuel efficiency. Why make dangerous driving cheap?

The argument has been made that federal gas taxes should not be raised because the "highway trust fund" has a surplus. Why does it have a surplus? Simply because it can only be used for a very limited type of expenditure, such as 90% of interstate highway construction, or 50% of some other highways. It is clear that people on these interstates are being subsidized by people who do mostly local driving. As a consequence of that subsidy, freeway drivers pay about 1 cent per mile, less than a quarter of the cost of using a toll road.

If my gas-tax money can subsidize an interstate that I don't use, why can't that money be used to subsidize additional trains, which I do use (whenever they are available)? Trains are safer, more efficient, more comfortable, and faster than autos, and everybody who takes the train (especially a commuter train) is helping to ease highway congestion for motorists.

John D. McGervey
1819 Wilton Road
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118

Story Lines for a Physics Course

You asked for comments on your article about your physics course (Comment, July 1993). I found the section called "Comparing Newtonian and post-Newtonian physics" very confused and very misleading:

1. Newtonian physics is not "outdated." For most situations, other than at the atomic level, it is an excellent approximation to relativistic quantum mechanics. The idea that new theories eliminate old theories encourages crackpots. I teach my freshman students about the correspondence principle.

2. The most basic elements of modern physics are particles. The last 25 years have witnessed the revival of the elementary particle concept with the discovery of the W and the Z and the quark model. It is true that these particles are created and destroyed and need to be described by quantum mechanics.

3. The statement "the universe emerges as an --unpredictable network of energy" sounds more like mysticism than science. With the discovery of the microwave background 25 years ago, the evolution of the universe (physical cosmology) has become an important area of science research.

4. The opposition to evolution comes from those who refuse to accept scientific evidence. Relativity and quantum mechanics are irrelevant.

I hope your students are not too badly misled by your course.

Lincoln Wolfenstein
Department of Physics
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890

An Experiment in Teaching Environmental Science

During a Fulbright lecturing award this year, I taught an environmental science course, "The Terrestrial Biosphere: Physical and Societal Issues" at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay. The faculty's generous support and encouragement enabled me to offer this course in a unique format. I based the course on the 10 one-hour video programs, "Race to Save the Planet," produced for the US Public Broadcasting System by the WGBH (Boston, MA) Science Unit. I also used the accompanying study guides and textbook by G.T. Miller Jr, Living in the Environment (Wadsworth, Belmont CA, 1990).

It was an honor to use this material as a teaching tool, apparently for the first time in India since the material's initial airing in the Fall of 1990. Although I had purchased the US off-air taping rights, I obtained from the Indian distributor (EDUTECH, Center for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, Gujarat) copies of the video programs in PAL format, as well as copies of transcripts of the programs for each student.

The academic backgrounds of the 22 enthusiastic undergraduates represented a cross-section of science and engineering disciplines at IIT. There were 3 contact hours per week. During the first two weekly hours, we critically viewed each of the videos and discussed the contents using suggestions in the Faculty and Study Guides. I used the third hour to give basic lectures in ecology, based on the textbook, to prepare students for the video programs. At the outset, I distributed a list of two dozen topics from which students chose subjects for oral term reports. Near the end of the semester, the students presented their reports during three successive half-day "workshops" which were videotaped in the studio of IIT's Education Technology cell. Educational video technology is new at IIT Bombay, and my students were among the first to use this facility. I was pleasantly surprised to find that students chose topics with little or no duplication, and that some chose to work in teams. Topics included: global warming models, ozone depletion analysis, population study of Bombay, effects of industrial development on a village, the ozone layer and melanoma, environmental impact of a refinery, natural systems for waste management, migration from villages to cities, aquacultural water purification, survey of IIT faculty on environmental concerns.

Weekly homework assignments were taken from the self-tests in the study guide, and an in-class "open-scripts" final exam was compiled from the accompanying faculty guide. Grades were based on oral presentations, homework assignments, the final exam score, and attendance.

We barely touched on the physics, let alone societal issues, raised in this series. My primary objective was to empower students to take initiative to apply their own science and engineering backgrounds to environmental issues. The success was beyond my wildest expectation. I regret that I did not take the trouble to become better acquainted with individual students, through informal meetings at least occasionally throughout the semester.

I plan to repeat this course back home, and I would be interested to learn of personal experiences of your readers in teaching environmental science.

Bernard Hoop
Pulmonary and Critical Care Unit
Massachusetts General Hospital
Harvard Medical School
Boston, MA 02114

Concerning Letters to the Editor

Let's consider two types of scientific publications, journal articles dealing with specific scientific discoveries, and letters to the editor and similar communications concerned with issues of general interest to scientists. Peer review is used to judge the first type, while editorial discretionary procedures are used to judge the second.

The intent of letters to the editor is to focus our attention on such items as the role of science in society, criteria of choice for scientific values, scientific controversies, matters of personal interest to scientists, and historical recollections. A particularly important item deals with controversies in science. Letters to the editor should allow and encourage discussions and debates on controversial issues. "Controversy is one of the spices of life and an important path to knowledge" (editorial in Physics and Society, October 1992).

There is clear evidence that these objectives of letters to the editor are not fulfilled. The evidence shows that discussions on important controversial issues are discouraged and suppressed. Acceptance or rejection of a scientific communication is left entirely to the editor's discretion. Reasons for rejection, if rejection occurs, are not disclosed. In one case I was clearly and unambiguously advised by the editor [of another publication] that it is not the policy of that journal to disclose to the author any reasons for rejection. Whatever motivations the editor had is a secret matter and there is no appeal.

A very curious situation has developed. Editors are allowed to exercise tremendous and probably unprecedented personal power to control scientific communication. Even an error in judgment on the part of the editor is not considered to be a possibility.

Peer review is not a perfect system. However, it would serve the best interests of our scientific community if the discretionary procedure were abandoned and peer review be used instead. Peer review is an open process. The author and reviewer actively participate in open discussions on the issues involved. The possibility of appeal is an important part of the system. If a reviewer has a negative appraisal, opportunity is provided to have the case reexamined by another reviewer.

It could be a considerable advantage to the scientific community to have an open scientific forum or a clearing ground to discuss a variety of problems in physics. The forum could be in the form of letters to the editor. However, rules consistent with the traditions in science should be strictly observed. In no event should secret decisions be used to silence those who express unpopular ideas that are outside mainstream scientific research. In the proposed forum an editor may reject a scientific communication, but reasons for rejection should be disclosed and an opportunity for appeal should be provided. Such an opportunity should be provided upon the request of the author.

Jacob Neufeld
113 Cedar Lane
Oak Ridge, TN 37830