Unpopular Science


Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander

One of great television events of the last century was Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a thirteen-part science series written by the astronomer Carl Sagan, his partner Ann Druyan and Steven Soter and hosted by Dr. Sagan. First broadcast by PBS in 1980, it was then the most widely watched series in the history of public television. So much has happened to scientific knowledge during the last 34 years to make Cosmos, though still worth-watching, almost obsolete. Others agreed, which is why we now have Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which premiered on the Fox Network March 9. Executively Produced by Druyan and Seth MacFarlane, it is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in my opinion the worthy successor to the late Dr. Sagan. Cosmos’s scientific view that the universe is “billions and billions” years old (to paraphrase Sagan’s now-famous quote), did not go well with creationists who believe that the cosmos was created 6,000 years ago. They demanded equal time, something that Tyson, who does not want to debate ignorance, refused to grant.

Unfortunately, many Americans seem to agree with Cosmos’s creationist critics. According to a recent Associated Press poll many of US are skeptical about the Big Bang, evolution and climate change, things that Cosmos takes for granted. Most Americans do not reject all science offhand: According to the poll, “just 4 percent doubt that smoking causes cancer, 6 percent question whether mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain and 8 percent are skeptical there’s a genetic code inside our cells.” On the other hand, “4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection, though most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority – 51 percent – questions the Big Bang theory.”

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington DC.

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington DC.

This poll is startling to do those of us who thought those matters were settled years ago, and suggests that Dr. Tyson and other popularizers of science have their work cut out for them. Some scientists were not surprised. “Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts,” said Randy Schekman of the University of California, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Not surprisingly, trust in science declines as religious faith rises. To many God-fearing Americans, “values and beliefs trump science,” said Alan Lerner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On the other hand, folks who believe that a talking snake coaxed the first woman into eating a forbidden fruit are not convinced that the universe began with a Bang, because “I wasn’t there.” They might instead agree with Rep. Paul Broun, Republican from Georgia, who in 2012 said that “all the stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and [the] Big Bang theory [are] lies from the pit of hell.” The fact that Broun is a doctor of medicine is startling. The fact that he sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is appalling.

Much has been written about the dumbing of America. Critics blame this on the decline of education: many children are home-schooled or charter-schooled, and career training has replaced liberal arts in many colleges. Sarah Gray, in salon.com, wrote that “the intentional spreading of misinformation could be partially to blame” for the shocking poll numbers. These days, many Americans get their knowledge from the Internet or (even worse) from Fox News. It is also politically and economically convenient for many in power (including perhaps Broun) to keep the masses dumb and happy. Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, saw “the force of concerted campaigns to discredit scientific fact” and blamed significant interest groups for their campaign against scientific truths. It is no surprise that much of the skepticism about climate change comes from the oil, gas and coal industries, and from the politicians who depend on their support.

Blue_Marble_Western_HemisphereIn the April 20 episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Tyson told the tale of Clair Patterson, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology. Patterson was the scientist who came up with what scientists now agree is the age of the Earth (4.5 billion years old, much older than the creationist belief). Patterson also discovered that lead was all around us, and that it threatened to kill us. Patterson’s campaign against leaded gasoline, which placed him on the top of the lead and oil companies’ enemies list, eventually led to the elimination of lead from our vehicles and from the environment. Patterson’s story, as told in Cosmos, teaches us that, sometimes, the good guys actually win, and that a good show like Cosmos can exist on commercial television.

Jesse’s Journal
by Jesse Monteagudo

Jesse Monteagudo


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