Vandermause: Spreading Science

by Jon Vandermause | 11/17/14 5:57pm

Last fall, Jim Gates, an eminent string theorist and a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, gave a talk at Dartmouth and said something that rattled me. This country does not need more people like me, he declared. He was speaking as a theoretical scientist and tenured professor to a room full of undergraduate and graduate science students who dreamed of one day having a career like his. Needless to say, his words were not especially comforting.

But his statement came close to ringing true. Whether we need more people studying exotic physics is debatable, but one thing is abundantly clear: the U.S. does not want more scientists.

American beliefs about science certainly seem to suggest this. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, more than 40 percent of Americans believe that human beings were created in their present form 10,000 years ago. Compare this with the 97 percent of scientists who hold, according to a Pew Research Center report, that human beings evolved over time. There is a vast gulf between the beliefs of the public and the beliefs of the experts.

Biology is not alone in the scrutiny it receives from laypeople. Physics suffers from public skepticism, too. According to a 2014 study from Chapman University on American fears, Americans are about as likely to believe in Bigfoot as in the Big Bang.

Why should such a divergence in opinion cause concern? Some argue that both parties can carry on untroubled: the public can believe whatever so long as scientists can continue publishing papers. According to this view, the two communities can run along parallel tracks without colliding.

Unfortunately, the situation is more complex. Scientific inquiry is not merely the stuff of idle speculation and ivory towers. While it is surely true that string theory and loop quantum gravity have little bearing on the here and now, a great deal of scientific work is devoted to burning issues that demand public and political attention.

Climate science is perhaps the best example. Scientists are shouting with a unified voice about the dangers our practices pose for the environment, but a significant fraction of the American public — about one in four, according to a 2013 report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication — thinks they’re bluffing. Climate scientists have laid out a clear and compelling case for action, but many politicians show little interest in change. We continue to pump carbon into the air at a rate that is only accelerating with time.

Furthermore, because public opinion has a direct bearing on scientific funding, scientists should take a strong interest in what the public thinks of their work. Lab work grinds to a halt without government grant money. And these funding decisions are made by politicians who are ultimately held accountable to the public. Given such strong disagreement between the scientific community and the public that funds it, it is not surprising that federal funding for research as a percentage of GDP is declining.

The public also has a vested long-term interest in supporting science. It is easy to forget that the technology surrounding us exists by virtue of scientific discoveries made decades ago. Thanks to our deep understanding of classical mechanics, we can push satellites into orbit. We would not have cell phones without solid state physics. GPS without special relativity would be unthinkable. The public has science to thank for the conveniences of the contemporary world. Likewise, the revolutionary technology of tomorrow will be the fruits of scientific discovery today — if it gets funded.

Disagreement between scientists and the public therefore gives everyone cause for concern. To move forward, both sides need to be proactive. The scientist must spread her work beyond the conference halls. Communicating discoveries to a broad audience should be nearly as important as the discoveries themselves. At the same time, the American public must stop viewing scientists with distrust. They do not aim to cut down religious belief or advance a political agenda; they aim to better understand the world, a goal that benefits everyone.

Gates may be right — we may not need more scientists. But we do need a better understanding of science.