Sorry for the long break–I’ve been traveling the past two weeks. I did, however, keep a mental list of topics I wanted to raise. Given that I’ve also been trying to blog twice a week, I’ll have to write 6 posts in the next 3 days to make my quota for the month. That would be an unprecedented rate of blogging for me. So here it goes.
A few weeks ago Joe Romm highlighted a Nature editorial decrying the “anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States.” In typical Rommian fashion, Nature neatly divides the world into two camps. The “anti-science streak” in the American right must be countered by more effort on the part of the “defenders of science.” As the science communication scholar Matt Nisbet has noted, such hyperbolic rhetoric itself undermines public engagement with science. While Nesbit is probably correct, I think this analysis misses a deeper point.
I have a nagging suspicion that even if we followed Nisbet’s guidance and dutifully eschew “war” and “anti-science” language, public engagement wouldn’t improve that much. Not because the public is scornful, but because it is indifferent. Scorn requires substantial emotional and intellectual investments. When it comes to science, most people simply don’t care enough. Our neglect of this uncomfortable middle ground is perhaps the biggest casualty of our use of exaggerated metaphors. Scientists are left unprepared to grapple with the brutal fact of our own irrelevance. That most Americans can happily go about their lives ignoring both science and scientist and, for the most part, pay no serious penalty.
To truly improve public engagement with science, I think we have to acknowledge that indifference rather than antipathy underlies public attitudes towards science. We also have to acknowledge, rather painfully, that this indifference may even be valid. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that science may just not be that important.
I mostly agree, and I’d add that where it seems to be antipathy to “science” it is usually antipathy to issues most scientists think one way about that others disagree with for moral or ethical (not scientific) reasons (stem cell research, evolution, climate change). There is, however, an undercurrent to some of this that scientists are experts and elitists and are untrustworthy for those reasons – the faux populism of the Tea Party, for instance. On the other hand, there are plenty of excellent scientists who work for industry.
I disagree, though, that science isn’t that important. No one has a problem with science when it’s giving them a new kidney or letting them listen to their favorite music or a million other examples where people encounter the fruits of scientific inquiry every day. But, at this point, people expect that: thus the indifference. It’s not that science isn’t important; it’s that their expectations have changed.
Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the slow response. I see what you’re saying. I would qualify it by saying that science is partially responsible for giving people a new kidney and their favorite music. A sound legal system, global capitalism, free press, also deserves some of the credit. So I would say that it isn’t clear to me that science is uniquely important, and people will pay attention to it as much as they pay attention to all these other social and institutional factors that make our economy work.