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The Standing of Science in America

We Respect It, But Do We Care About It?

Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons Quick, name a major American living scientist. When polled in late 2007 and asked to name scientific role models, the best Americans could come up with were the names of people who were either not scientists, or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein.

This week, as I read the news that funding for university-based science and engineering research has lagged behind the rate of inflation for two years running—the first time this has happened—I’m moved to contemplate a complicated subject: Where, exactly, does science stand in America today? Is it respected? Disdained? Or just ignored?

On the one hand, Americans express strong confidence in the leaders of the scientific community; among important institutions of society, only leaders of the military are better trusted. (Journalists and members of Congress are basically considered slime). Americans also claim to be very interested in new scientific discoveries and developments—according to the National Science Foundation, surveys conducted each year from 2001 to 2006 found that “between 83% and 87% of Americans reported that they had either ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ interest in new scientific discoveries.”

That strong respect for science—and interest in it—doesn’t seem to go much beyond a surface level in many cases.

Obviously, though, this isn’t the full picture. The same Americans who express such confidence in the leaders of science probably couldn’t name any of them. When polled in late 2007 and asked to name scientific role models, the best Americans could come up with were the names of people who were either not scientists, or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Moreover, while many people claim to be very interested in new scientific discoveries, they’re more interested in other things. According to NSF, as of 2006 only 15 percent of the public followed science news “very closely,” meaning that science ranked behind 10 other news subjects in terms of people’s interest. (Science’s ranking vis-à-vis other news subjects has been slipping of late; and indeed, declining treatment of science in the news reflects as much.)

The best way I can process these findings in my own head is to draw an analogy with the way scientific information gets treated in the context of political debates. On the one hand, everybody—left, right, and center—claims that science lies on their side, including the Christian right. The perception is basically universal that it is good and advantageous to appear both pro-science and informed about science.

As soon as you get into the details of what politicians or advocates are actually claiming, however, things quickly get murky. The science often fails to support their assertions, and the pro-science aura quickly dissipates under scrutiny—supplanted by opportunism or, in some cases, outright cynicism and manipulation. Consider the arguments about how much mercury we should let polluters spew into our atmosphere, or the carbon emissions and food price increases produced by making ethanol from corn.

The same, in a sense, goes for the public, although I don’t think anything deliberate or nefarious is happening here. Still, that strong respect for science—and interest in it—doesn’t seem to go much beyond a surface level in many cases. If you put it to the test—by asking the public to, say, take sides in a perceived conflict between science and their religious beliefs—then suddenly science doesn’t fare very well. According to NSF, when Americans reject belief in evolution or the Big Bang (which they do far more frequently than citizens in many other countries), it’s not, for the most part, because they don’t understand the basics of what the science says. Rather, it’s that they don’t let science win out in competition with other things that are important to them—like, in this case, religion.

What does it all add up to? I think the person who probably put it best is social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, who, writing in 2003, observed the following:

Science has reached greater heights of sophistication and productivity, while the gap between science and public life has grown ever larger and more dangerous, to an extent that now poses a serious threat to our future. We need to understand the causes of the divide between science and society and to explore ways of narrowing the gap so that the voice of science can exert a more direct and constructive influence on the policy decisions that shape our future.

Yankelovich, obviously familiar with the polling data that I’ve been citing, went on to draw a distinction between “respect” for science on the one hand—which is clearly widespread—and “influence” for science on the other—which is not. Scientists, he wrote, “do not have the influence due to them by virtue of the importance and relevance of their work and of the promises and dangers it poses for our communal life.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. The numbers I’ve cited above simply do not support the argument that we live in an absolutely antiscientific society, a land of know-nothings. But clearly, science isn’t at the top of many people’s agenda, whether they’re average citizens, politicians, or journalists.

Should it rate higher? I, for one, believe so.

To see that, consider a very important question for most people: Where should I buy a home? Amid the housing market meltdown, it has become apparent that home investments can be risky ones, especially when they’re made without adequate information. And yet how many people weigh the likely impacts of global climate change when making their home purchases? It is going to raise sea levels, worsen droughts in many parts of the west, increase the risk of wildfires…all matters that will ultimately factor into real estate markets and prices. But I for one find it almost impossible to believe that many people are taking this into account in any serious way.

That’s what’s missing. Americans might tune in to some science news, visit science museums, and even adjust their diets and prescriptions based upon the latest studies. But it’s not enough. Without anything beyond a surface-level appreciation of science, they stand far too blind when staring down something of paramount importance: The future.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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