Adam Frank has an op-ed at the New York Times that tells a very familiar story: science is on the decline, and we’re living in an “Age of Denial”.
IN 1982, polls showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created human beings in their present form. Thirty years later, the fraction of the population who are creationists is 46 percent.
In 1989, when “climate change” had just entered the public lexicon, 63 percent of Americans understood it was a problem. Almost 25 years later, that proportion is actually a bit lower, at 58 percent.
The timeline of these polls defines my career in science. In 1982 I was an undergraduate physics major. In 1989 I was a graduate student. My dream was that, in a quarter-century, I would be a professor of astrophysics, introducing a new generation of students to the powerful yet delicate craft of scientific research.
Much of that dream has come true. Yet instead of sending my students into a world that celebrates the latest science has to offer, I am delivering them into a society ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science.
This has prompted a bunch of discussion, up to and including my father calling me at 9pm to ask what I thought about it (I hadn’t read it at that time, but it was on the to-do list). Most of what I saw on a quick scan of social media was resigned nodding, though there have been a few interesting additions here and there, such as the reliably thoughtful Timothy Burke questioning larger cultural context. I think he makes some interesting points, but at the same time, it’s worth noting that the major changes he points to happened years before the polls Frank cites. So while it may be true that there was a great shift in societal attitudes between the era of the Manhattan Project and the end of Vietnam, I doubt that can really explain what’s happened since 1982.
But while I dabble in public intellectualizing, I’m really a charts-and-graphs guy at heart, so let’s take a look at the data. I don’t actually have the exact polls Frank refers to, but the NSF helpfully publishes a “Science and Engineering Indicators” report every so often, and the appendices offer a wealth of relevant data in convenient spreadsheet format. These include, in Chapter 7, some time series of poll questions covering roughly the time span of interest, and some of the same issues. If we pull out the data most closely related to the “creationist” thing, and make a graph, we get this:
These are the percentage of people correctly answering the true-false questions “The universe began with a huge explosion” and “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” If you need me to tell you the correct answers to those, you’re reading the wrong blog.
That shows… not much of anything, really. The numbers start fairly low, and more or less stay that way. I didn’t put error bars on these, but the one-standard-deviation uncertainty would be around plus or minus 2%, so the only thing that would be at all difficult to write off as statistical noise is that first Big Bang point. Lingering effects of Carl Sagan, maybe?
Of course, you can dip into the same data set, and come up with a graph that tells a different sort of story (which is also the “featured image”):
These points give the percentage of people correctly answering the true-false questions “Electrons are smaller than atoms,” “Lasers work by focusing sound waves,” “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria,” and from a different part of the poll, the percentage saying that astrology is “not at all scientific.” All of these have a distinct upward trend over the thirty-odd years of the poll.
So, what do we really have, here? On one set of questions, we have a story of stagnation, but on the other, a tale of modest progress. Is this really indicative of a collapse in the status of science? It’s useful to ask what these sets have in common– in the cases where we see stagnation, the questions are bound up with issues of politics and identity. A professed belief in something like creationism is one of the essential markers of a particular brand of political conservatism. As a result, even people who know the scientific answer are prone to giving the answer they’re “supposed” to give as a member of a particular political affiliation. And the number of people who self-identify as political conservatives, like the number who deny the Big Bang and evolution, is pretty consistent over the last thirty years.
Meanwhile, on issues that are pretty much neutral, politically– at least, I’m not aware of a powerful large-electron lobby pushing the idea of sound-powered lasers– we see a story of slow improvement in public knowledge. The improvement on the antibiotic question since the 80’s is really striking, though the last couple of points are a little troubling, and might reflect collateral damage from the anti-vaccine movement. Which is, as Kevin Drum is fond of pointing out, pretty much the same story we see when we look at math and reading test scores over the same period– despite a pervasive narrative of decline, scores are actually slowly improving.
Is the status of science really collapsing? I don’t know that I’d be comfortable saying that. There are certainly plenty of examples of a degradation in the rhetorical stance political figures take toward science, but then there’s been a degradation in the rhetorical stance political figures take toward just about everything. I’m not sure why you’d expect science to rise above that.
Is the status of science as high as I would like? Absolutely not. But then, I’m not sure it’s actually reasonable to expect science to be held in as high esteem by the general public as by those who choose to pursue science as a career. But that’s not really the issue– the question is whether we’ve fallen off from some golden age when everybody listened raptly to the best science had to offer. But that’s not really clear from the polling data we have, or the plural anecdotes from farther past. After all, as depressing as it may be for forty-odd percent of the population to want to align themselves with a creationist position (whether from honest belief or out of tribal identification), that’s probably an improvement from the days of the actual Scopes trial. Which, it should be noted, Scopes lost, unlike the several more recent cases where teaching of creationism has been soundly rejected by the courts.
And stories of scientists needing to stand up for the worth of their discipline against crass politics are nothing new– people have been (falsely) quoting Faraday as defending electrical research with the line “someday, you may tax it” for decades. And from the height of the supposed golden age in the 60’s, there’s the famous story of a physicist asked what a particle collider would contribute to national defense retorting that “it makes us a nation worth defending.”
To the extent that there was a golden age of respect for science within living memory, I suspect it was a historical accident. Science, like many other things (international sports, cultural events, third world revolutions) was a useful venue for a proxy fight during the Cold War, and some savvy scientists grabbed onto that and rode it about as long as they could. There was a happy alignment between the goals of national politics, powerful business interests, and scientists, and for a while the scientists did very well from that. And, it should be noted, in areas where scientists continue to be useful to wealthy and well-connected businesses– telecom, drug development, biotechnology– they continue to do very well, and win far more battles than they lose. It’s the areas where the interests of science cut against the interests of a powerful political class (the culture warriors of the Right) or powerful business lobbies (climate change) that they run into problems. And that was always the case, even when science was supposedly riding high– look at the rocky start of the environmental movement, or medical research on tobacco. I don’t think the underlying issues are really all that different than they were in the past– the state of science, like the poll numbers, is more or less as it ever was.
I’d like to offer a slightly different explanation for Adam Frank’s narrative of decline, a psychological one. The post title is a play on the old joke about the Golden Age of science fiction being twelve, that being the age when readers are perfectly positioned to have their minds blown by whatever they run across. They’ll forever remember those stories as the most awesome thing ever, and nothing they encounter as adults will ever have quite the same sense of sheer joy and awesomeness.
I think something similar, if a bit darker, is at work in Frank’s op-ed. The difference between 1982 and 2012 is not that the public’s understanding of science has gotten any worse, it’s that Frank has gone from his twenties to his fifties. When you’re an undergrad science major, you’re perfectly positioned to see science as, well, SCIENCE! It’s a repository of wonder, with boundless potential for the future.
Twenty or thirty years later, after a bunch of great ideas that blew your undergrad mind have failed to pan out, and after years of writing essays and columns and books have failed to move the public understanding of science significantly, well, things look a little bleaker. And it’s easy to mistake the change of perspective wrought by decades of frustration for a narrative of decline. When you’re forty, or fifty, and feeling unappreciated, things look bad. This is exacerbated by the modern 24-hour news cycle with its endless parade of hucksters trying to make everyone angry and frightened, but it’s probably just about inevitable even with a healthy media culture.
There’s also a bit of loss aversion here, as well– recent setback may be, in the big picture, small steps back compared to a long history of forward progress. But it’s well documented that people fear and resent a small loss in what they already have more than they value a larger future gain. The combination of the two, after thirty years of work, can feel pretty terrible– while objectively, there might be progress, it was supposed to be even better, and that can be maddening.
I understand the frustration, really I do. I’m about ten years younger than Frank, but I recognize a lot of the feeling. Things I thought looked bright and hopeful have fizzled out, and there’s a lot that’s frustrating about modern culture, and the state of science, and my career. By any reasonable standard, I’ve done very well for myself, but there are days when I feel like everything is a giant waste of time– especially this blogging thing, which feels like screaming into a void– and I want to hang it all up and go herd goats.
But then, I have to remind myself that there’s a lot about modernity that’s awesome, too– the Internet, for starters, is vastly cooler and weirder and more fascinating than anything I would’ve dreamed of as a naive undergrad. And that there were a lot of things that sucked in the past– yeah, it sucks that powerful right-wing politicians make hay by claiming climate change is a “hoax,” but really, how much different are they than, say, James Watt back in the 80’s? Reagan asserting that trees cause pollution? (To pull a couple of examples from childhood memories.) When I was a kid, you could still find people denouncing the phaseout of leaded gasoline as a form of fascism (well, communism, because it was the Cold War, but one of those European -isms), and that didn’t fly in the face of business interests anywhere near as much as climate change does.
So, is science really in decline, losing the culture wars? When I can step back and look at it calmly, I have a hard time saying that it is. Yeah, we’re on the short end of a lot of rhetoric, but at the same time, a lot of things are trending the right way. More people are paying attention to healthy eating and responsible environmental practices, smoking in public is way less acceptable than it was. You see more efficient cars, and lights, and appliances of all sorts coming around and getting adopted. Home solar panels have gone from being a nutty hippie affectation to a home improvement service advertised on sports talk radio. And the picture’s even better at the level of basic science– the list of stuff that we routinely do now that was thought to be impossible when I was a kid is just mind-blowing. Mars rovers! Extra-solar planets! Feathered dinosaurs! Ten-meter atom interferometers!
(And then, of course, there are the vast improvements in the political status of any number of underprivileged groups, and the dramatic economic advancement of large swathes of the globe. Either of those by itself would be worth stagnation in science– the fact that we’ve made progress in all areas is just awesome.)
Again, there’s plenty that’s bad, I’m not going to deny it. But just because we’re not winning as fast as we’d like doesn’t mean that we’re in decline. Though frustration might make it seem that way at times.