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SCIENCE, CULTURED

The Year of Science

Anniversaries and Progressive Policy, Hopefully Without the Culture War

title page from On Origin of Species SOURCE: Public Domain Get ready for regular discussions of science all year long—in the policy arena and the broader culture. But what are we hoping to gain from this effort, and how will we know if we learn anything at all? This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. The 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The 400th anniversary of Galileo’s development of the refracting telescope that jump-started Earth-bound exploration of the solar system.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about these milestones over the next twelve months, as the science community gears up for an annum of anniversaries that will—hopefully—help engage our broader culture in the scientific process. Or at least, that’s the stated goal of the COPUS network—it stands for “Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science”—which has organized the “Year of Science 2009” initiative to connect science-related events across the country and raise awareness about the nature of science and its importance to policy and our future.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

And it’s not just big anniversaries: We can expect science-related issues to come up repeatedly in Washington and in the media as the new administration starts governing. How will president-elect Obama resolve the stem cell and climate issues—solely through administrative and executive action, or by championing new legislation? Expect an answer this year. Meanwhile, the administration has a science budget to propose in short order, and will be investing heavily in clean energy to fire the economy and create jobs. Such initiatives start this month with the push towards an economic stimulus bill.

When you combine a new science-friendly administration in Washington with all these historic milestones, there’s no doubt it adds up to a unique opportunity to get the broader American public better connected with the world of science that lies right under their noses, but which many citizens seldom perceive. Still, it’s worth asking a few questions about what we hope to achieve by capitalizing on these convergences.

Take, for example, the string of anniversaries: All celebrate momentous scientific achievements, but each also has, as a subtext, conflicts between science and religion. Galileo, we all know, was persecuted by the church; and Darwin’s theory is the reason Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading anti-religionist, claims he can now be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Does science or the American public benefit if these anniversaries become a new cause for debating the alleged rift between faith and reason—or are we just inviting another round of culture war skirmishes?

While there are reasons to fear an uptick in divisiveness this year—as some of the science world’s more confrontational types try to use the Darwin anniversaries as a reason to assault the public’s religiosity—there’s zero chance the administration itself will get involved in such politically futile and damaging advocacy. Obama’s science team isn’t a bunch of culture warriors; they’re deadly serious about tackling what is arguably the biggest issue we face, our intertwined climate and energy problem. And you don’t waste time needling people of faith if you want to solve such an intricate and massive challenge. In fact, over the past two decades, faith communities have joined the green movement in force, working to protect the environment and avert the worst threats of climate change. This is a new opportunity for those groups to collaborate with other freshly energized efforts.

For a complete listing of Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science events around the country, see their full calendar.

Still, we’re left with a potentially large gap between the role of science in policy and politics this year, and the level on which the coming science anniversaries could be discussed. One dialogue moves us forward toward solutions; the other holds us back. It’s totally Bush era to argue endlessly over how science clashes with religion; and it’s absolutely critical to use science to get us out of the energy and climate mess we’re in.

There’s no avoiding the fact that as we discuss the great achievements of Darwin and Galileo—and how far we have and haven’t come since their times—we’ll awaken some dragons that still slumber among us. I would hardly propose toning down our science celebrations for this reason, but I would suggest adding to them, leavening them by adding a new dimension.

You see, there’s another science anniversary coming this year that I believe deserves considerably more recognition. On May 7, 1959, a British scientist and novelist named C.P. Snow delivered a now-famous lecture entitled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow wasn’t nearly as important a researcher as Darwin or Galileo—in fact, his early scientific career involved a publishing-related scandal that may have helped push him on to literature—but his delineation of the broad disconnect between the scientific and humanistic ways of thinking has resonated powerfully across the last half century, and describes a problem that’s very much still with us.

The COPUS “Year of Science” advocates want to communicate about science—they want to bring science to the rest of America, seizing upon this year’s auspicious timing to do it. It’s a noble goal, but Darwin and Galileo alone don’t necessarily get you there. You need a lot of Obama—and more than a little bit of Snow—as well.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Galileo as the original inventor of the telescope.

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