Americans love science, but if its practice and outcomes challenge their deeply held beliefs in any significant way, their love can easily turn to rejection. That dichotomy is nothing new, but today it’s a problem not only for science but also for our nation’s 21st century economy, which depends so heavily on research and development for its growth.
To see that Americans are enthralled with science, you have to look no further than “The Big Bang Theory,” which leads the TV sitcom ratings with an appeal that spans virtually every demographic group.
Or you can reflect on the public’s love affair with smartphones and tablets, which trace all their technologies to federally supported research. Last January, Pew Research found that 58 percent of all adults possessed at least one smartphone, 42 percent owned a tablet, 44 percent slept with their smart devices next to their beds and 29 percent said they couldn’t imagine living without one.
And it’s no accident that Best Buy’s tech service is called the Geek Squad, and Apple’s repair counter is called the Genius Bar. Science clearly sells — but not when it’s at odds with people’s personal belief systems.
Take the results of a 2010 National Center for Science Education survey that found nearly 2 out of 5 Americans believe “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and the first two people within the past 10,000 years.”
No matter that radiological dating has shown that the earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years and that cosmic microwave background measurements have revealed that the universe started with a “big bang” about 13.7 billion years ago. These are scientific facts, not idle theories. But a large fraction of the public doesn’t accept them as true.
So don’t put all the blame on members of Congress, such as Paul Broun, R-Ga., for being part of an anti-science culture whenever they espouse the same views a majority of their constituents may hold. Perhaps elected officials should know better or behave more sensibly. But the real problem lies with members of the public who love the benefits of science but don’t comprehend how they came about and can’t sort out fact from fable.
For selfish, professional reasons, as a physicist, I worry about public rejection of scientific facts. But I also worry about it because of what it could mean for our engine of discovery and innovation that relies heavily on federal support for its scientific fuel.
If the public increasingly buys into an anti-Washington belief system, and if downsizing government becomes the route to electoral success, as the David Jolly, R-Fla., win in a Florida special election suggests it might, our vaunted science and technology enterprise could be heading for a crash. And it wouldn’t take long for it to occur. Destroying something is almost always easier than creating it.
These facts are clear: Discovery and innovation have accounted for more than half our nation’s economic expansion since the end of World War II, and in the 21st century they are accounting for an even greater fraction of gross domestic product growth. Science holds the key to increased prosperity for all Americans, not just rich and middle class, but also the poor among us.
More affordable and healthful food, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, more efficient and less expensive appliances, better and more affordable medical diagnostic instruments are all within reach if we continue to devote financial and intellectual capital to scientific research and education. And those who have the least today could benefit the most tomorrow.
Last year, explaining why he was going to expand Medicaid in Ohio, Republican Gov. John R. Kasich put it this way: “Now, when you die and get to ... the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.”
Conservatives should heed one of their own. Keeping government small at all costs is bad policy. Science and the nation can’t afford it, especially the poor.
Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.