Popular and Pilloried

By Benford, Gregory | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Popular and Pilloried

Benford, Gregory, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

IN THE EARLY 1990S THE NATIONAL ACADEMY of Sciences held its annual election to membership. Richard Feynman had already become so exasperated that he resigned his membership, saying that he saw no point in belonging to an organization that spent most of its time deciding who to let in.

But this time the best known astronomer in the world was nominated. Each section of the Academy votes separately on all candidates, and the astronomy division voted the fellow in. Bur there were negative votes from other divisions, notably the particle physicists. They disliked his public persona, some said. They complained that he was arrogant and an egomaniac, and said he was really not up to caliber, despite his fame. Clearly, envy played some role. Rumors flew.

Rarely is a candidate turned down, but it happened that time. So it is that Carl Sagan was not a fellow of our National Academy.

World famous, principally for Cosmos, he had done solid work on planetary atmospheres since the early 1960s. After the National Academy rebuff he increasingly spent his time taking science to the greater world.

Many scientists don't think much of such endeavors. But the opposite of popularized science, in the long run, is unpopular science.

We see that daily, in the scare-'em-with-science strategies of Hollywood movies, doomcryer personal liability lawyers, environmentalist Chicken Littles, and the many political tribes who seek new threats in every fresh technology. (I make these comments as a member of about half a dozen environmental groups, too.) All these groups have legitimate issues, but the scary aspects of science are played to the hilt--because it works. Metaphorically, I suppose one could say that once we were a nation of Robert Heinlein fans, and now we're a country of Stephen King readers.

We Americans, once the embodiment of Yankee ingenuity, have a national schizophrenia about science. We love its wonders, hate its threats, dread its manifest power.

Much of this comes from a public that simply doesn't know much science, or even how scientists think. Films and TV routinely get away with mammoth plot boners. Radiation can create giant insects, or it will make you grow an extra head. Viruses spread instantaneously, even through hard vacuum. Spaceships bank and rumble like fighter planes. Mutations cause super powers--the list goes on.

If only the low levels of media were affected, fine. But we have an administration that just vetoed funding for stem cell research, and a notorious Kansas school board that wants Intelligent Design taught alongside evolution.

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