Thursday, February 10

Are We Americans Becoming anti-Science?

David Mobley (of A Physicist's Perspective) asks if we as a people are becoming more anti-science. The anti-science movement has been in the culture for some time. I'm going to splash some thoughts into the water, with the dreaded bullet points. Hopefully, something will come out of the fog and I'll try to draw a conclusion at the end.
  • Back in the 70's there was a strong anti-science movement in the schools, wherein schoolwork was disdained, and "geeks" were regarded with social scorn. Judging from popular culture, this hasn't changed.
  • In the 80's I went to a relatively elite school (U of Chicago) and was largely insulated from the "geeks are bad" meme. But, I did take a class on the ethics of science and technology and by the end of the quarter only two of us (the only science majors in the class) were still defending science. When pushed to the wall, I was left with the Risky Business defense, i.e., it was (or would be) my livelihood ... don't f**k with it. But at the very least, this corroborates the idea that the intellectual elites (in the humanities and social sciences) have reflexive distrust of technology.
  • Mr Mobley also points out that the Conservative movement is beginning to realize that there are indeed looming ethical implications that come with our advancement in the medical and biological disciplines especially now that we are getting some real advances therein. Many are considering applying the brakes and taking stock of where we want to go.
  • Whether or not, the depiction of science in popular culture has been resoundingly negative, there are exceptions. The film, Apollo 13 did quite well. This may be the exception that proves the rule. Fantasy has been beating out hard science fiction for a long time. The 21st century fiction has no Lucky Star, Kimball Kinnison, or even Dominic Flandry to win the hearts and imaginations of our youngsters. Have Harry Potter and Gandalf have taken their place?
  • On the other hand, Baxter's hard science fiction books are on the shelves, and others fill that same niche. But by the same token, I doubt Mr Baxter's books are greedily sought by teens today.

I think there is some truth to the statement that our commitment to science has been waning. This is not a new trend. Perhaps in a few hundred years, the next Gibbons will write the "Rise and Fall of the American Dream" and pin the blame on our cultural disenchantment with science, but I don't think so. Cultural trends are fickle. The same trends that are disapproving of science and engineering, 40 years ago were diametrically opposite. Our libraries have not burned. No Rubicon has been crossed. The reasons we swung away from the pursuit of science need to be understood and delineated before we give up hope that the future generations will not have the same drive as the Apollo generation.