I happened upon an article today entitled "Does science matter?" that deals with emerging trends in the public perception of science. Some of the implications of what was in the report disturb me; others echo ideas that I have already mentioned in this diary. All of them seem to have important consequences regarding what this country will be 100 years from now.
For me, the article underlined the fact that the United States, as a nation, is turning away from science. I think there are a variety of reasons for this. As I was recently telling the ever lovely Ilonina, people feel betrayed and confused by science and technology. It would appear that the scientific gains of the last 100 years have far outpaced the ability of our culture to digest them. That has left and ethical void that people yearn to fill. At the same time, the fruits of science and technology has allowed the human species to "go forth and multiply" to the point that it has to consider problems that it collectively never had to consider before -- ranging from the large scale extinction of species to the ecological impact of progress.
The net effects of these changes have been to lose respect for science and scientists and seek faith in something else. According to the article, "a Harris poll found that the percentage of Americans who saw scientists as having 'very great prestige' had declined nine percentage points in the last quarter-century, down to 57 from 66 percent." This also manifests inself in a resurgence of fundamentalist religious belief and faith-based pseudo-science, such as "the theory of intelligent design" that posits "purely random natural processes could never have produced humans" (Creationism). It has resulted in an increased media profile for what I can only call "crackpot science", ranging from the so-called statistical experiments in spirit medium behavior that gave us Jon Edward, to denial that the Apollo space program ever landed on the moon, to studies in alien abduction, to so-called archeological evidence for the lost city of Atlantis. Finally, this attitude and the end of the Cold War has pushed the United States away from science education (foreigners now exceed United States citizens in advanced degree programs in science in the U.S.) and from nationally funded primary research.
The net result gets potentially kind of scary from my point of view. Science education will decline, and "crackpot science" and pseudo-science will flourish, governing our lives in everything from what is added to the water (fluoride), to what we believe about the world (we are actively being abducted by little gray space aliens with big oval eyes and telepathic powers), to what we understand about death (we are surrounded by the spirits of the dead and require psychics to intercede with them for us). The lack of fundamental discoveries that provide new sources of food, water, and energy (the oil will all be gone soon) will make it impossible for humans to live in the large urban centers we live in now. We will take to burning people at the stake or having public stonings, live on television (if we aren't already).
Well, ok, maybe it isn't all bleak as that. I still think that science represents a tradition of rational inquiry that is thousands of years old. It represents the best of human endevors. The dilemmas that it currently poses arise because it has worked so well, and become so complicated in the process. It brings us new and sometimes scary views of the world, but, that is always happening... even within the spheres philosophy and religion. Science doesn't deserve to abandoned, because even if it helped to get us into a bit of a mess, nothing else is going to be able to help us get out.
on 2003-11-11 at 1:11 p.m.
The Wayback Machine - To Infinity And Beyond