Unscientific America: Page 4

By Chris Mooney | May 30, 2009 8:03 am

We’ve now posted the Table of Contents and pages 1, 2, and 3 of the book. This weekend we’ll continue with 4 & 5–and so here is 4:

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…..

Tomorrow will come our final teaser page–5. Meanwhile, to look back, pages 1, 2, and 3 are all online. And to preorder Unscientific America, click here.

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Comments (4)

  1. At least people named Bill Gates, Einstein and Gore and not Marilyn Manson and Britney Spears. Gore and Gates are of course the two names that come to your mind when someone says “scientist”.

  2. I sometimes wonder if we have lost all connection to the real world. When I was still in the corporate world, I had the opportunity to hear a VP from Toshiba talk about software and engineers. He said that he insisted their developers get away from the “green glass” (that tells you how long ago and why I don’t remember his name…) and spend some time in the real world. For chip developers, this meant working in the clean room.

    Science is only a way of understanding the real world in a predictable, repeatable way.

    It seems that we have lost other connections to the real world, as suggested by Matthew B. Crawford in the May 21st article in the NY Times: The Case for Working With Your Hands.

    High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

    It seems that, in many ways, we really don’t want to know how the world works.

  3. The snubbing of Pluto will be undone, if not this year, then certainly when New Horizons gets there in 2015.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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