The Trouble with Geniuses: They Forget to Reach High Schoolers

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The trouble with geniuses is they missed some high school lessons. My father was nicknamed Honest John of Philadelphia due to his gawky, ramrod earnestness which he unleashed routinely while being (reputedly) the finest, meanest, most erudite and exacting legal mind in the city. A cult-like group admired him and his work throughout his life, but in the end my father's genius did not outshine his disruptive social gaffes, which delivered gnawing disappointments to himself and others.

By him I learned that you can be a genius intellectually and still lack crucial smarts for success, and that is knowing how to empower your allies and to see and ward off your enemies. It's called social intelligence.

Judging from the advent of "Climategate," in which some emails of climatologists were stolen, cherry picked out of context and published on the eve of the climate talks in Copenhagen, I would say that the climate researchers and their allies have had some failures in this regard.

Knowing your audience means conceding that not everyone cares if you're an elite, or a hard worker, or a genius, because to some, genius looks like guile and guile looks like dishonesty. (Note the reaction to the term "trick" in handling data.) A simple story and a spotless appearance of probity are crucial when your aim is to change how people get to work and consume electricity -- in a process that disturbs major industries who will lash out as your enemies.

Therefore climate defenders need a simple, concrete, and plausibly undeniable frame of knowledge for the masses that captures the CO2 crisis, hopefully one that can be grasped with a high-school education.

We have that frame; it is ocean acidification, described through this formula:

Carbon dioxide plus water yields carbonic acid

It's discernible to all who were even slightly academic in high school, including honest skeptics. And regular folks who can still hear their mothers clucking, "Don't drink too much soda, it'll rot your teeth!" understand, too, that carbonic acid damages calcium compounds like teeth -- and shells and coral and plankton. And those calcium-based marine creatures are the big story.

Last week Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, demonstrated this acid principle when she defended climate science to a congressional committee by putting sticks of chalk into glasses of water, some of them tainted with vinegar, to show the impact of rising acid levels in our oceans as they absorb CO2. The chalk, with the same chemical make-up as shells and plankton, dissolved in the acidic water while the other chalks did not.

The acid story is the straight shot that cuts through all the mysteries of climate science and stuns the mind with the gravity of our carbon emissions. If we don't rapidly reduce our CO2 emissions we could lose our bountiful oceans in like 40 years. It is no coincidence that Lubchenco gave this science lesson in response to "Climategate" and the partisan outcry about the stolen emails.

The acid story should have been out in force years ago because acidification is already sickening our seas as reported in the Portland Press Herald. Noting that baby clams are already dying in their mud nests due to acidity, marine scientists of Maine are now saying acidification threatens to do more harm than global warming by attacking plankton which are the base of ocean food webs and produce half of all atmospheric oxygen.

Drifting at surface where the CO2 mixes in, plankton's demise could lead to a "complete collapse of our biosphere" said Professor Robert Steneck. "These are not academic things, these are real," he added, as if saying this is no elite climate science.

Straight up high school science.

Honest skeptics, are you listening? And Xcel Energy, determined to boost your coal burn by 25 percent soon with Comanche 3, are you listening?

Had the acid story been pushed by climate advocates when it came out in 2004, the fishing industries of the world could have become the climate's personal Teamsters Union as allies.

With friends like the Teamsters defending a science as simple as chalk in vinegar, how far could enemies of climate science get by stealing a few emails? But the real, simple acid story has been left underplayed, so on the eve of Copenhagen the enemies of the green economy were able to score a few points playing gotcha with emails that exploited the science's all too complicated glory.

Any nerdy 17-year-old whose journal was stolen by rivals could have told them this would happen. Like my mom said: "If you don't want your secrets shouted from the rooftops, don't put them in print."

We should all write our emails as if they were going to be stolen and broadcast. And when lives are on the line, never rely most on a complex idea when a simple one can clinch the deal.

Now that's social intelligence that passes the acid test.

A version of this column appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.