…in the first place? Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such a public outcry? Did they simply not care? Was the Pluto decision really scientifically necessary?
Such questions implicate far more than our current conception of the solar system or which planets babies will see in the mobiles overhanging their cribs. The furor over Pluto is just one particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society. The divide is especially pronounced in the United States, which is simultaneously the world’s scientific leader–at least for the moment–and home to an overarching culture that often barely seems to know or care. (Unless scientists mess with Pluto, that is.)
It’s a stunning contradiction, when you think about it. The United States features a massive infrastructure for science, supported by well over $ 100 billion annually in federal funding and sporting a vast network of government laboratories and agencies, the finest universities in the world, and innovative corporations that conduct extensive research. Thanks to such investments, Americans built the bomb, reached the moon, decoded the genome, and created the Internet. And yet today this country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles. A distressingly large number of Americans refuse to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of the origin of our species and the diversity of life on Earth. An influential sector of the populace is in dangerous retreat from the standard use of childhood vaccinations, one of medicine’s greatest and most successful advances: By the end of the twentieth century, they were responsible for saving a million lives per year. The nation itself has become politically divided over the nature of reality, such that college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and caused by human activities. Meanwhile, the United States stands on the verge of falling behind other nations such as India and China in the race to lead the world in scientific endeavor in the twenty-first century.