Thursday, April 09, 2009

Americans Love Science

It’s a trope that I hear repeated a lot – Americans love science.

When this came up again and again during the panel discussions and presentations at TAM in Vegas back in June, it may have been Neil deGrasse-Tyson who held up his iPhone and declared it so. I commented to Friend DEG in a bit of a stage whisper, “They don’t love science; they love engineering.” And I think that this is crux of the problem plaguing skeptics in the States and all over the world. How do we reconcile the fact that people love science with the fact that they are reluctant to engage with it, to accept even its most well supported findings, avoid in droves learning anything about it, and reject without evidence any part of what makes them uncomfortable?

People love gadgets. There’s no way to dispute that. From the iPone, iPod, and Blackberry to the netbook, X-Box, and DVD player people love stuff. We get DVDs for our cars, we text friends to meet at the pub, and we nuke ready meals in our microwaves. Do people know how it works? Not really. Do they need to? No.

Let’s face it. Americans both idolize and despise the intelligent and intellectual. We saw that streak play itself out during the election cycle gone by as ‘elite' became the worst insult since liberal. To paraphrase Dennis Miller when he was still funny, is being smart in America a bad thing? Well, duh. This is a country where being called an Einstein is a bit of an insult.

Let’s face it, Americans don’t take to science too well, at least they’re selective about which aspects they will take. The results have been well repeated in the blogosphere and elsewhere about how poorly the US came out on surveys of the acceptance of evolution. Most people don’t know Quantum Mechanics from any more than a Deepak Chopra book, despite the fact that by some estimates over 40% of the American economy is based on it. The Big Bang Theory is on the Evangelical hit list as much as Evolutionary Theory. (I realize that internet polls are worthless but read through the comments.)

And their heads are filled with supposed scientific literates like:

What do they offer in return?

  • denial of an expert’s expertise on the basis of what feels right.
  • weak praise for science while gutting it
  • down right dismissal of the implications, conclusions and substance of science

And yet an enjoyment of the fruits of science. I suspect that those in science, and the interested laymen (like myself) will continue to be in the minority and will continue to have to speak out against pseudoscience, logical fallacy and religious intrusion in education for years to come. And with the Goodyear controversy in Canada and the increase in pseudoscience like the MMR vaccine hoax in the UK, those of us from or in other countries will have no reason to be smug.

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