August 5, 2011

Science's PR Problem

Torday the New York Times reported that Carl Sagan's beloved 1980 docu-series, "Cosmos," would get a re-boot by Fox to air in 2013. At first glance, Fox seems an interesting choice, and it gets weirder: Seth MacFarlane, the enigmatic creator of Family Guy (which also airs on Fox), will executive produce. According to Dave Itzkoff, MacFarlane "laments a modern society that has lost its fascination with science," and says "We’re obsessed with angels and vampires and whatnot, when there are many more exciting and very real and much more spectacular things to be excited about, that are right in our own planetary backyard." Amen! And inquiring minds want to know: will Stewie narrate?

This very topic--the unsettling and politically dangerous cultural ambivalence about science--is the subject of Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, due out in October. Far bigger than the kind of climate-denier lobbying that clogs public policy (though that's a scourge, for sure), the trouble with science is its institutional reluctance to capture America's hearts and minds. Sagan was special in this way, and suffered professional losses (including a probable admission to the National Academy of Sciences and tenure at Harvard) because of his role as a spokesman; he was often disdained as a "TV star." The phrase "the Sagan effect" became a perjorative term implying that the more popular a scientist is with the general public, the lesser the quality of his scientific accomplishment. Few scientists seem willing to take the risk (Brian Greene being a notable exception), and therefore most of America is in the dark--or worse, frightfully misinformed--about the staggering discoveries being made within organizations like CERN and NASA. Much more airtime is wasted on bogus ideological debates about basic civil rights than actual science; and sadly, some politicians drag the latter into conversations of the former, for example blaming "science" on "perverting" a woman's opinion about her options for an unwanted pregnancy. At core, that's a moral issue, not a scientific one. And let's be honest, it's seriously unlikely that we'll ever hear Michele Bachmann discussing whether supersymmetry explains our perception of existence or whether it's all a hologram. This woman thinks dinosaur bones were planted by God and that homosexuality can be "prayed away." And she's running for President.

On a much, much more adorable note, the aforementioned science hero Brian Greene said this at his World Science Festival lecture, about his precocious three-year-old daughter: when he gave her a hug and told her "he loved her more than anything in the universe," she replied, “The universe or the multiverse?” This, friends, is why I'm optimistic that science will survive.

No comments:

Post a Comment