Yesterday at the Michigan State C.P. Snow conference, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Barbara Forrest, a philosopher and author of the pioneering and immensely important book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, which exposed the true religious nature of the ID movement. Based on this work, Forrest played a critical role in defense of evolution as a witness in the Dover trial of 2005.
At Michigan State, the “two cultures” issue that Forrest tackled was science vs religion, and I really enjoyed her take, as it dovetails so closely with my own view. So let me attempt to summarize her argument and why it resonated for me.
As it’s Sunday and there’s no need to be serious, I thought I’d share some pictures of our puppy Sydney. She’s a one year old Boston terrier, insanely cute, and a massive amount of fun. However, one downside: She tends to roll in, er, smelly things (compulsory scientific question: Why do dogs do this?)
Anyways, we call this the Boston terrier break dance, and have caught the moves in slo-mo:
In the political arena from 2001 through 2008, the United States was governed by an administration widely denounced for a disdain of science unprecedented in modern American history. Judged next to this staggering low, President Barack Obama’s administration gives us great reason for hope. But science continues to occupy a ghettoized space in the political arena, and few elected officials really understand or appreciate its centrality to decision-making and governance. Too many politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, fail to see the underlying role of science in most of the issues they address, even though it is nearly always present. In fact, politicians tend to be leery of seeming too scientifically savvy: There’s the danger of being seen as an Adlai Stevenson egghead.
We’re still struggling with the problem that historian Richard Hofstadter outlined in his classic 1962 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which documented how the disdain of intellect became such a powerful fixture of American culture. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to scientists, and this has been the case to varying degrees since our nation’s inception. We’ve even rewritten the biography of one of our most cherished founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, recasting him as a tinkering everyman when in fact he was a deep-thinking scientist of the first rank. After visiting the country in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville similarly remarked upon Americans’ interest in the practical rather than the theoretical side of science, observing a people more intrigued with the goods delivered at the end than the intellectual challenges and questioning encountered along the way. For a very long time, American scientists have found themselves pitted against both our businesslike, can-do attitudes and our piety. When John McCain and Sarah Palin ridiculed research on fruit flies and grizzly bears on the 2008 campaign trail, they were appealing to precisely this anti-intellectual strand in the American character. They thought they’d score points that way, and they probably did.
And if you think politicians are bad, let’s turn to the traditional news media, where attention to science is in steep decline. A 2008 analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that if you tune in for five hours worth of cable news, you will probably catch only one minute’s coverage of science and technology—compared with ten minutes of “celebrity and entertainment,” twelve minutes of “accidents and disasters,” and “26 minutes or more of crime.” As for newspapers….
Of course, that’s only the beginning. Unscientific America hits in a few weeks and you can preorder here.
A new paper in Biological Conservation by my colleagues Clinton Jenkins and Lucas Joppa predicts that without major investments in conservation globally, earth will miss the target set by the international Convention on Biological Diversity: To protect 10% of all ecological regions by 2010.
“Protected areas are the best chance we have to save the world’s biodiversity, and they are going to play an increasing role in climate change negotiations as well,” says Joppa. “Missing a conservation milestone is regrettable, but we hope our results turn attention to the achievable tasks at hand, and not to what the world has failed to accomplish.”
I hope so too. On a more positive note, the article also reports that Brazil is protecting a lot of the Amazon.
Olson, a scientist and filmmaker whose work we much admire, has a book coming out in September that dovetails with many of the things we’ve also been saying about the problem of science communication. It has this provocative title: Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. A book website has just gone up, and the table of contents are thusly described:
Introduction – The need for a new approach to science communication in an age of information overload. In the words of communication theorist Richard Lanham (“The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information,” 2007), “style and substance, and our expectations for them, have changed places.” It’s not about “dumbing down,” it’s about using style as a means of communicating substance.
Chapter 1 – Don’t Be So Cerebral – The need to draw on other organs of the body than just the brain.
If we allow that final lapse to occur, surely part of the reason will be that most of our citizens have had only fleeting encounters with a world of science that can appear baffling, intimidating, and even downright unfriendly. Just 18 percent of Americans know a scientist personally, according to survey data, and even fewer can name the government’s top scientific agencies: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). When polled in late 2007 and asked to name scientific role models, 44 percent of respondents didn’t have a clue. They simply couldn’t give an answer. And among those polled who did respond, the top selections were Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Albert Einstein, people who are either not scientists or not alive.
It’s no wonder, then, that even as our scientists get up each morning and resume the task of remaking the world, the American public all too rarely follows along. This alienation leads to recurrent flare-ups like the Pluto episode, in which people suddenly catch wind of what scientists have been doing and react with anger, alarm, or worse.
The snubbing of Pluto won’t have dire consequences back here on Earth, but other consequences of the science-society divide may prove far more damaging. We live in a time of climatic change and energy crisis, of widespread ecological despoilment and controversial biomedical research. We have great cause to fear global pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and attacks by tech-savvy terrorists. We stand on the verge of pathbreaking new discoveries in genetics and neuroscience (to name just a few fields) that could redefine who we are and even upend our society. This is a time when science is pivotal to our political lives, our prosperity, and even our lifestyles and habits. And yet again and again, we encounter disturbing disconnects between the state of scientific understanding and the way we live our lives, set our policies, define our identities, and inform and entertain ourselves.
The problem isn’t merely the dramatic cultural gap between scientists and the broader American public. It’s the way this disconnect becomes self-reinforcing, even magnified, when it resurfaces in key sectors of society that powerfully shape the way we think, and where science ought to have far more influence than it actually does…..
Here at Michigan State, just heard a dazzling talk by this dude: Robert J. Lang, a former physicist now a fulltime origami artist. Wow. He and other math whizzes have demystifed the mystical art, broken it down into computer models and equations, and can now literally program complex origami structures and designs: Give the computer a shape (say, a deer) and it will give you the crease pattern needed to produce it.
Here are two of his works, an Irish Elk and a Golden Eagle, and I greatly encourage you to visit his website to see many more:
Talk about a “two cultures” merger….
According to Amazon, a lot of people who buy Unscientific America are also buying another book that’s coming out soon, entitled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles Pierce.
On their face, these books may sound similar. And in fact, we probably agree substantively with Pierce in most of what he says about things like creationism (judging from the book’s description). I would go so far as to suggest that many readers of this blog would likely enjoy Pierce’s book, just as they would (I hope) enjoy our own.
Yet while it definitely gets people fired up, I would argue that it ultimately does little or no good to denigrate the intelligence of one’s intellectual opponents, whoever they may be–to call them “stupid,” “idiots,” and so on. Moreover, it’s rarely an accurate description on a factual level. As I’ve noted about vaccine refusal, for instance, high levels of education don’t seem to be any protection against this particular kind of “idiocy.”
We definitely have serious culture wars, we definitely have serious attacks on science, and we definitely have “scientific illiteracy” (which needs to be carefully defined). But I’m far from convinced that the root problems here have much to do with intelligence; rather, they turn on knottier matters like politics, culture, and religion. What’s more, if you really wanted to change someone’s mind, denigration of his/her intellect is the last thing you would ever do, for obvious reasons.
There’s much more to be said, but, well…that’s why we wrote a whole book about it!