About half a dozen readers have called my attention to an op-ed piece in Wednesday’s New York Times by Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester: “Welcome to the age of denial.” Several readers also noted that it was a breath of fresh scientific air in the fetid doldrums of summer, decrying the loss of respect for science in America and offering solutions.
But after reading it, I was disappointed, for although Frank’s piece is pro-science, it’s merely another op-ed calling our attention to the pervasiveness of creationism and climate-change denialism, decrying the decline of science in the U.S. in an unconvincing way, and failing to propose another solution beyond “get more kids interested in science.”
To be sure, any pro-science piece is good in the Times, which has shown a recent and distressing habit of publishing pieces that osculate the rump of faith. But in the end it contributes little more than saying, “Yay for us!”
Frank begins by arguing that when he went to school in the eighties, and when his professors went to school earlier, things we different: Americans had respect for science. But, he says, American society has changed: it’s become less accepting of scientific facts and more enamored of anti-scientific views. His examples are the supposed rise of creationism and the undoubted rise of climate-change denialism and opposition to vaccination.
This is not a world the scientists I trained with would recognize. Many of them served on the Manhattan Project. Afterward, they helped create the technologies that drove America’s postwar prosperity. In that era of the mid-20th century, politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone.
. . .Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.
Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.
Climate change wasn’t even on the radar in the eighties, except perhaps to the most prescient. As for anti-vaccination, well, I can’t remember whether, back in the Fifties, there was opposition to polio (or other vaccines), but I’ll grant you that there wasn’t. But creationism has held steady since Frank was in school, at least insofar as Americans accepted it and denied evolution. I’m pretty sure that creationism is no more entrenched in American classrooms now than it was when I grew up. As far as public acceptance of evolution goes, it’s slightly higher than it was in the early Eighties.
But is America really less scientifically inclined than in the past? I don’t accept Frank’s data on creationism, whose rejection, by the way, derives almost entirely from religion—something that Frank conveniently ignores. Denial of global warming is an economic (and partially religious) issue rather than a flat-out rejection of science, which is just an excuse. And anti-vaccination sometimes reflects not an antiscientific attitude but a campaign driven by those who don’t want to accept that autism is either genetically or developmentally innate or (wrongly) caused by bad parenting. We all know that trying to teach people the facts about climate change and vaccination doesn’t work very well, because the advocates of those wrongheaded views are simply impervious to fact. Vaccination and climate denialism are, in that respect, akin to religions.
I don’t see a decline in American science, or in public acceptance of science, except in one area: funding. In the halcyon days when Frank’s professors were young, and later, when he was a student, the government had tons of money to fund science. Grants were much easier to get than they are now, when the funding rate of an organization like the National Science Foundation is only 7-10%. But that diminution of funding reflects not a disrespect for science, but the tightening of everyone’s belts in tough economic times. I am sure than when things improve economically, science funding will rise.
Nevertheless, other nations are catching up to us, and we hear dire warning that the U.S. is falling behind in science. But should we really worry about that? The U.S. remains the gold standard for scientific research, but other countries are closing the gap. So what? Many of those countries send their students to the U.S. and Canada for training, and we’re simply exporting our expertise. A rising tide lifts all boats, and it’s good, I think, that other countries are catching up to us. The argument that “our country is falling behind” smacks to me of chauvinism, especially when it reflects a rise in other nations rather than a decline in our own.
So I’m not sure I agree with Frank’s assessment that our culture is now “less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.” There are tons of popular science books on the shelves these days, and although Carl Sagan and Steve Gould are no longer with us, we have Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dan Dennett, Steve Pinker, Lee Smolin, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and many others, as well as tons of nature shows on television. We are literally awash in popular science, as a visit to any bookstore can confirm.
So what is Frank’s solution to this problem? It’s lame. He argues that students “must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.” And this:
The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us. There are science Twitter feeds and blogs to run, citywide science festivals and high school science fairs that need input. For the civic-minded nonscientists there are school board curriculum meetings and long-term climate response plans that cry out for the participation of informed citizens. And for every parent and grandparent there is the opportunity to make a few more trips to the science museum with your children.
Yes, yes, those activities could marginally increase interest in science among the public. But why do we have to be inspired by Sagan when there are others equally compelling? Just read some of Dawkins’s evolution books, and nobody is more enthusiastic about selling astronomy and cosmology than Neil deGrasse Tyson. Still, the failure of parents to take their kids to science museums is not the major problem. That is close to the failed solution proposed by Mooney and Kirshenbaum, who in Unscientific America suggested that those interested in science should become journalists and science p.r. people instead of working scientists. That is, we should train more cheerleaders for science. Nobody took that argument seriously.
Now maybe this is just me, but I think that we’re if we really want to boost public respect for U. S. science, and the amount of science being done, we should do two things:
1. Weaken America’s hold on religion, which is largely responsible for climate-change denialism and completely responsible for creationism. These movements are brushfires that will re-ignite so long as faith is there to fuel them. We’re in a war not for science, but against superstition, which enables nonscientific views.
2. Fund science more generously. That not only increases the product (new knowledge), but feeds back into public education, for the best science educators are those practicing scientists who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their craft, and want to sell it to others. Those are the people with the means and the credibility.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that Frank’s article is, on the whole, a good thing. It’s just not an excellent thing, for it neither pinpoints the cause of the problem nor offers credible solutions. What we need are more secular players in the game, not more cheerleaders on the sidelines.
To the readers: Do you agree with Frank that there’s a problem? If so, what is it? And what solutions do you propose?