The "war on science" is over. Now what?

The state of the universe.
Jan. 15 2009 2:55 PM

Mission Accomplished

The "war on science" is over. Now what?

Einstein, Gore, Gates. Click image to expand.
America's science role models

The "war on science" is over. Or at least it is in the sense that I originally meant the phrase: We're at the close of the Bush administration's years of attacks on the integrity of scientific information—its biased editing of technical documents, muzzling of government researchers, and shameless dispersal of faulty ideas about issues like global warming.

The attacks generated dramatic outrage and considerable activism from the traditionally staid science community and the sympathy of politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. So it's no great surprise to find the president-elect setting out to restore dignity to the role of science in government. George W. Bush didn't even bother to name his White House science adviser until well into his first term, and his appointee (physicist John Marburger) didn't win Senate confirmation until October 2001. In contrast, Obama has already named a Nobel laureate physicist (Steven Chu) to head the Energy Department and a climate specialist and prominent leader of the scientific community, Harvard's John Holdren, as his Cabinet-level science adviser.

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Scientists are ecstatic about these developments and about Obama's recent promise to listen to them "even when it's inconvenient—especially when it's inconvenient." But it would be the gravest of errors for researchers to simply return victorious to their labs and fall back on a time-honored stance of political detachment. If the war on science is over, we're now entering the postwar phase of reconstruction—the scientific equivalent of nation-building. The Bush science controversies were just one manifestation of a deeper and long-standing gulf between the science community and the broader American public, one with roots stretching back to our indigenous tradition of anti-intellectualism (as so famously described by historian Richard Hofstadter in his classic work from 1963) and Yankee distrust of expertise and authority. So this is certainly no time for complacency. Scientists, with the support of the administration, should now be setting out to win over the hearts and minds of the American public, creating a stronger edifice of trust and understanding to help ensure that conflict doesn't come raging back again.

Consider: While scientists may be resurgent in Washington, their world as a whole remains distant and bizarre to most Americans. Only 18 percent of us know a scientist personally, according to a 2005 survey (subscription required), and when asked in 2007 to name scientific "role models," the results were dismal. Forty-four percent of Americans couldn't come up with a name at all, and among those few who did, their top answers were either not scientists or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Albert Einstein.

This bad news comes at a time when we need an appreciation of science—an understanding of its fundamental role in sound policymaking and the future of the economy—more than ever: to help solve our intertwined climate and energy problems, to bolster our long-term technological competitiveness, and to prepare our society for the coming controversies that research in fields like genetics and neuroscience stands ready to unleash. Instead, the communication gap between scientists and ordinary Americans has brought about (or helped to perpetuate) a number of home-grown anti-science pathologies. A seemingly immovable core of Americans don't believe in evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, nearly half of us, according to polling data. Americans are also more likely to reject the Big Bang theory than are people from other countries. Indeed, the public has become polarized about the nature of reality itself: College-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and human-caused.

To help heal such disconnects, the president-elect—as "communicator in chief"—will surely be saying as much about science as he can. But as we all know, he has a few other minor matters to worry about. Scientists and those who care about science—journalists, policy analysts, and concerned citizens—must do the rest.

The problems they face are difficult and deeply rooted but not necessarily unfixable. Fortunately, most Americans aren't actively anti-science; the problem, rather, is that the science world is either alien to them or something they rarely think about. (Most people derive their image of scientists from popular culture: nerdy, socially awkward, and often responsible for nearly destroying the world.) To succeed in the postwar landscape, science communicators must find better ways of talking to people on their own terms and making research meaningful in their lives.

There will be hurdles along the way. Americans are repeatedly being told that science represents an assault on their core beliefs and values. Battles over the relationship between science and religion are newly resurgent, driven in part by the "New Atheism" of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others, and in part by culture warriors on the other side of the aisle who continue to see evolution as a stalking horse for irreligion. If science is ordinarily distant from the lives of ordinary Americans, unending science-religion conflicts can make it seem hostile.

Another hurdle involves not the message but the medium: Newspaper science sections have shrunken or vanished across the nation; on television, real science news has long been struggling, and CNN has let go of its entire science and technology unit. The science blogosphere is, of course, booming—but as media scholars like Matthew Nisbet of American University have observed, the blogs are unlikely to reach very many citizens who aren't already science lovers. And what would be the effect if the blogs did get to a wider audience? The semi-finalists in the recent "Best Science Blog" of 2008 contest were a site that questions the reality of global warming and PZ Myers' Pharyngula—ground zero for a potent mix of pro-evolution advocacy and uncompromising criticism of religion.

And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Science is more important than ever—something our new president fully recognizes. Yet for most Americans, science is probably becoming more distant, not less; it's harder to locate and identify, and it's often more aggressive toward their core beliefs. In this context, scientists certainly shouldn't retreat to their labs. Rather, they should reach out to the public like never before. There's a lot of work to do.

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