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We Do, But Things Are Very Different Forty Years After Apollo

Aldrin Looks Back at Tranquility Base SOURCE: NASA Buzz Aldrin looks back at Tranquility Base.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

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

Seeing a moonscape on the cover of Time magazine as I walked through Chicago’s O’Hare airport this morning cemented for me the fact that we’re in a ripe moment for introspection about the place of science in U.S. society. It’s not just a marker-in-time like Monday’s 40-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s one small step. It’s the bombardment of new survey data from Pew and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, showing the vast gap between science and the public.  It’s the ongoing bloodletting in the science blogosphere over how we should deal with the sensitive topic of America’s religiosity. It’s the continual strangulation of science journalism in the traditional media.

It’s the widespread sense in the scientific community that while research has, for the most part, proceeded apace over the last 40 years, the rest of America has not always followed along.

In my new book Unscientific America, along with co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum, I make the case that we really have lost something important since the days of the Space Race and, more specifically, since the post-Sputnik era, when many dramatic investments in American science and American science education were unleashed. However, it’s important to define precisely what that “something important” is, lest we wind up with just another dirge for a lost “golden age”—a feast of nostaglia rather than a contribution to understanding. So to that end, some considerations:

The American Public Doesn’t Hate Science. Many alarming polling results document  just how disconnected Americans are from the world of science and from the knowledge scientists produce. For instance, the new Pew/AAAS study found that far fewer Americans today than ten years ago consider scientific accomplishments to be among our country’s “most important achievements”: Just 27 percent nowadays, versus 47 percent in May of 1999. That’s a huge falling off. Similarly, fewer Americans today view the space program’s triumphs—epitomized by the moon landing—as our country’s top achievement.

This doesn’t, however, make Americans anti-science; rather, they have many positive feelings about the scientific community. Americans overwhelmingly think science has had a positive impact on society, and have a great deal of trust in the leaders of scientific institutions. In other words, it is possible for the public to be both disengaged from, and yet also positively inclined towards, the scientific world. Science may have been more on the public radar during the post-Sputnik era, but out of mind is not the same thing as out of regard.

We Don’t Want to Warp Back in Time To Before the Environmental and Consumer Awakening. Whatever it is that we may lament about what has happened to our society over the past half century with respect to science, we must not lament the set of very important realizations that helped knock science off of its post World War II pedestal. These include the recognition that science’s fruits can have unseen environmental costs, like the damage caused by the pesticide DDT, or the ozone-depleting effect of chlorofluorocarbons; that moneyed interests can corrupt research; that science is not really as objective as its practitioners sometime claim (thanks, Mr. Kuhn); and so on. Any case for why we need to make science more central to American life today certainly cannot be a case to reject these very important reasons for sometimes viewing science itself with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The 1950s and 1960s May Have Represented an “Artificial High” for Science in American Life. The post-Sputnik era was the height of the Cold War, and the Space Race was driven, in significant part, by what we might call nationalistic fervor. In other words, the 1950s were a unique, and not always entirely admirable, era—this was also the time of McCarthyism, let us not forget.

Moreover, if you look farther back in U.S. history, before World War II for example, you see a country whose scientific community lagged significantly behind the science establishment of Europe.  The post-Sputnik years, and the years of the Space Race, might be seen in this context as an anomaly, a peak with valleys on either side. Perhaps this is not what we can expect to be the norm in America.

These are all important considerations to weigh. Nevertheless, if there’s a bottom line that they do not change, it is simply this: Today as in the post-Sputnik era, our nation’s engagement with science is critical to its future. Science fuels the economy, and it also generates the controversies that will force us to make very hard decisions, both ethical and political, long after the stem cell or global warming debates have finally subsided.

And the more we wake up to this as a people, the better prepared we’ll be for what’s coming—rather than surprised or frightened by it. It’s that simple.

It is this central engagement with science and its place in the future that our society had at mid century—when our political leaders were investing heavily in science and science education, and when citizens absorbed intense media coverage of each new step of the Space Race. That’s the important difference between the way people approached science in the ’50s and early ’60s and they way we approach it now. You can’t seriously argue that today, we are similarly engaged as a people with science—just turn on your television.

That’s what remains worrying, even after all the nuances have been dealt with.

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

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