A few days ago, I complained again about the relative lack of science books in the New York Times “Notable Books of 2008” list. Yesterday, one of the big stories was CNN axing its entire science unit, such as it was, which drew comments from lots of blogs (and more whose links I can’t be bothered to track down).
I’m probably the only one who thinks this, but in my opinion, these two are related. I’m not saying one caused the other, but that they’re both symptoms of the same thing: the broad lack of respect for science among educated people. (Which I’ve ranted about before.)
One of the comments to the “Notable Books” post captures it nicely:
Also, I’m assuming that most people who end up at newspapers are going to be coming from literary or political backgrounds, which of course suggests they are going to find those kinds of works more compelling.
This is the problem in a nutshell. If I were to say to one of these people “You know, I’m just not interested in politics,” they would be horrified, and rightly so. I should be interested in politics, because politics is interested in me. No matter what I think, politics will have a major effect on my life, through the decisions made by my government and others.
But if somebody says “I’m just not interested in science,” that’s met with a shrug or, worse yet, a nod. The general lack of interest in science is just One Of Those Things.
But an interest in science is just as important as an interest in politics, for exactly the same reasons. Whether you’re interested in science or not, science is interested in you.
Many of the largest dangers facing us require some knowledge of science to understand and confront.
Are you worried about global warming? Should you be worried about global warming? Understanding the dangers posed by climate change and evaluating policies toward it require some understanding of science. How do we know the Earth is warming? What will happen when the temperature increases? What can be done to mitigate or avoid the problems? These are essentially scientific questions.
What about bird flu? MRSA? AIDS? Pandemic disease is something that can only be understood and combatted through science. Are we all going to get wiped out by some disease? What steps should we take to avoid being wiped out by disease? These are essentially scientific questions.
Science even turns up in places you might not expect, like terrorism policy. Should we really fear a “dirty bomb?” What about nuclear terrorism? Chemical or biological weapons? Evaluating these dangers requires scientific information and a scientific mindset. The question of how big a risk these things are properly involves not just “can Scary People get these weapons,” but also questions like “how much damage can these weapons do?” which are essentially scientific.
I’m upset about the lack of science book coverage in the Times for the same reason that I’m upset with CNN shutting down its science division: these are symptoms of, and aggravating factors for the general societal disinterest in science. And this is every bit as damaging to our society as the oft-denounced apathy regarding politics.
Many of our biggest political fuck-ups can be directly traced to a lack of respect for science. Energy policy, public health policy, security policy: all of these things have been bungled badly in large part because they have been approached in an unscientific manner.
Turning that around will require not only replacing the bunglers and con men at the top of the administration, but also instilling a respect for science in the broader society. And both the CNN shutdown and the lack of respect for science in the Times book reviews move in exactly the wrong direction. The message is the same for both: politics and literature are things that smart people find interesting and important, while science is disposable– if you’re into it, great, but it’s really not that important.