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…..