Science Meets Culture. Science Loses.

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Last spring, a young guy at the checkout counter was being friendly. “Who do you like,' he said, 'Boston or L.A?” It took me a minute. In order to be sociable, I didn’t tell him the truth, which is that I have zero interest in the NBA. Instead, I picked . . . um . . . one of them. With enthusiasm!

It was culturally appropriate for him to assume I had an opinion; sports are an integral part of our culture. Even college professors, or those who dress like them (I’m thinking of George Will), love baseball, at the very least. I was the one who was out of step here, and I knew it. Now imagine the kid asking me, 'What do you think about exploration of the solar system — human or robotic?'

No, I can’t do either. Unlike sports, or movies, or politics, science is not considered essential cultural knowledge. That’s true even in Princeton, New Jersey, where there’s a high proportion of scientists. Everyone knows Einstein lived here, and that’s about it. Bring up some scientific topic at a dinner party in this town and you mostly get embarrassed looks. Everyone knows it’s important to know about science, for vague reasons, but very few actually want to.

This naturally upsets scientists and science journalists a lot. We know that science has an essential role in American life, and every so often, we wring our hands over the nation’s appalling lack of science literacy. (Some of our favorites: the percentage of Americans who think the Sun orbits the Earth; that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; and that evolution by natural selection is a hotly disputed theory. No wonder we have trouble thinking seriously about climate change, stem-cell research, and the anti-vaccine movement.) I did my own hand-wringing in TIME back in 2006, and last year the writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum published Unscientific America—hand wringing at book length.

An answer to the crisis? “We must begin to train a small army of ambassadors who can translate science's message and make it relevant to the media, to politicians, and to the public in the broadest sense” they write. Inevitably, they point to Carl Sagan, who made us a nation of science-lovers back in 1970s and 80s (or maybe not; more on this later).

But Mooney doesn't just long for the return of Sagan. He's got another idea, called “Rock Stars of Science,” and he explains on his blog, The Intersection. The idea is that a bunch of top scientists pose with rock stars for glitzy photos, the rock stars say something about how cool science is, and the whole thing is becomes a feature in GQ—Harvard researcher Rudy Tanzi and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins get down with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, for example. The first installment appeared last year, and the second is going into GQ's 2010 “Men of the Year” issue.

The theory, as I probably don’t need to explain, is that readers will say “If Joe Perry thinks Francis Collins is cool, I'm subscribing to Scientific American!”  Kind of like being born again, you might say.

I don’t buy it—just as I didn’t buy the idea that Carl Sagan turned us into a nation of science lovers. He was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, and “Cosmos” on PBS was certainly popular (by the standards of public TV).  But the things most people remember about him is that he had a goofy voice and said “billions and billions” a lot (and only the first of those is true).

It's true that for a few decades in the last century, Americans had a reverence for science that bordered on the religious. Scientists were the heroes who won World War II, invented fantastic machines and medicines and organ transplants, and got us to the Moon. But then the Challenger crashed and we still haven’t won Richard Nixon’s War on Cancer and the environmental movement drew our attention to the downsides of technology (cf. the Gulf oil spill, just a blip compared to the furor over Silent Spring).  Science had not delivered on the unrealistic promises that had been made for it.

But even before those setbacks, popular awe didn’t make the average American science-literate in any meaningful sense. Back in 1959, C.P. Snow famously described the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between the “two cultures.”  Science might have more effect on our lives, he said, but the humanities were more familiar, more comfortable, by far.

As we settle ever more comfortably into consuming the handsomely packaged end-products of science, we are ever more distant from the effort and ideas that went into the science.  Despite the best efforts of Joe Perry, I don’t see that changing any time soon.