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.