When Did Science Become the Enemy?

February 15, 2007
by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

You, dear reader, are one in a thousand.

The fact that you’re confronting this column on a web site devoted to space science and astronomy makes you roughly as rare as technetium.  Despite the fact that astronomy is one of the two most popular science subjects in American schools (the other is biology), it’s really not that popular.

The overwhelming majority of the citizenry has other interests, and looming large among them are the peccadilloes and personal intrigues of the rich and famous.  Consider the contrast: in the past week the Space Telescope Science Institute released a startlingly detailed photo of a distant cluster of galaxies, a picture that gives even the non-expert a good idea of the structure of these, the largest entities in the universe.  The photo of cluster Abell S0740–an image that would have bedazed every previous generation of humans–probably didn’t even make it to the front section of your local newspaper.

However, what did garner front-page ink last week, not to mention huge dollops of chatter on talk radio, was the unexpected death of Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy Playmate and reality TV star.

Movie director Frank Capra wasn’t disclosing a staggering new truth in noting that “what interests people is people.”  One dead-obvious reason is that those who are thoroughly unresponsive to their fellow humanoids don’t get a lot of representation in the next generation.  We’re most interested in people, in the same way that click beetles are most interested in click beetles.  That’s evolution.

But why the seemingly preternatural fascination with famous personalities, be they powerful figures (politicians, for example) or mere celebrities, as was Ms Smith? 

That, too, seems to have a clear evolutionary benefit.  Unlike most of the beasts of the forest, we’re quite good at learning things.  Stories–made possible by speech–are efficient ways of conveying life lessons to the young without the trouble and danger of actually having to demonstrate.  Hearing stories about successful people, as well as those who have fallen, could prompt us to imitate the behaviors of the former and avoid those of the latter.  Heroes, in other words, have survival value.

The peculiar thing is that American heroes aren’t often very good at science.  Indeed, in much popular culture, it’s only the villains who’re conversant with Maxwell or Einstein.  The “mad scientist” has become such a cultural icon that the Royal Society held a special lecture on the subject.  Some of the mad men of science (and they are, overwhelmingly, men) are just evil characters intent on destroying the world, taking over the world, or simply rearranging the world according to their personal predilections.  Dr. No and Dr. Evil come to mind, as do Lex Luthor, Dr. Octopus, the overly Teutonic Dr. Strangelove, and the Green Goblin. 

How did scientists become the enemy?  I mean, really: who would you rather have help you take a calculus final… or for that matter, cure the common cold or figure out the nature of dark energy: Spiderman or Green Goblin?  Science is useful.

And if the scientists in popular media haven’t slipped entirely to the dark side, they’ve at least gone bonkers.  They’ve become obsessed with some narrow field of research, and lost sight of the big picture.  When a prehistoric monster is shambling through a major metropolis, wreaking havoc and destruction, there’s always some lab-coated PhD who’s interfering with the steely-eyed military types, screaming “we have to save it for science!”  And just to make sure that these howling academics won’t become your role model, they’re usually portrayed as short, ugly bald guys with social grace and sex appeal on a par with Ben the rodent.

This anti-science stuff seems to have arisen in the 19th century, when the pastoral lifestyle of the English countryside was being threatened by the steam engine.  At the same time, Victor Frankenstein was endeavoring to replace sex and families by creating a barely functional human simulacrum in the lab (using not much more than Tesla coils and scrounged parts), and Dr. Faustus was out hawking his soul for some knowledge. 

That’s all European. But when it comes to anti-science bias, Americans are hard to beat.  Our frontier heritage surely plays a role. When facing off against brutal mountains, a harsh climate, aggressive animals, and an indigenous population that might not cotton to new arrivals, are you better off wielding Newton’s equations or a Bowie knife?  American heroes are survivors, as television viewers know.

In addition, and since the Second World War, the public’s perception of science has been influenced by the destructive potential of some of its products.  These range from the evil wrought by Nazi scientists to the development of scary atomic power. Today, the threats posed by thinking machines or genetic engineering are the workaday staples of mad, bad science.  That’s just moving with the times, but the public’s reaction is the same: this stuff could be dangerous, and besides I don’t understand it.  Ergo, I’ll bolster my self-esteem by putting you down because you do.

So it’s no surprise that a discipline like astronomy – as popular as it is – doesn’t really electrify most folks.  The combined circulation of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope is roughly 200,000 (with readership about twice that).  The circulation of People magazine is 3,700,000.

The membership of the Astronomical League, a national organization of amateur astronomers, is 16,000.  The National Mah Jongg League has 275,000.

You are, very literally, one in a thousand.  But there’s little reason to grouse.  The cult of personality, while mesmerizing, isn’t going to guide Homo sapiens into a better future.  You’re like the pioneer ants – the small percentage of ants that dare to explore, and who are, ultimately, responsible for the colony’s long-term survival. 

Anna Nicole Smith may get the column inches now, but the future is yours.