Two weeks ago, a conversation begun at the North Carolina Science Blogging conference, (summarized in this post at Terra Sigillata) asked why much of the public regards science as a matter of opinion, to be disregarded as needed. My contribution to that conversation can be read here.
But I think that missing so far in the discussion is awareness of just how ghastly one face of science has been for much of the last century. Look at this astonishing film, one I actually was shown in my impressionable youth:
What should an ten year old or anyone else conclude from that? Two pretty obvious thoughts:
1: Science is important, because it can kill you.
2: The same people who brought us such wonderful disasters as atomic bombs must think the rest of us are pretty damn stupid. I mean, I’m happy for Bert, and I hope someone nails that commie monkey that keeps trying to blow him up, but I remember wondering about the value of the suggestion for those of us who weren’t cartoons.
The point, of course, is that throughout my childhood — the sixties, essentially — science was framed by a kind of persistant low-grade fear, cultivated in schools and elsewhere by stuff like that film.
And at least one of the consequences of that shared paranoia was that science in the US — physics in particular — gained support because of the importance of taking care of our physicists so that the other side’s clever folks didn’t get the drop on us.
An unintended consequence of that devil’s bargain, however, is that as the cold war ended and the immediate danger of nuclear holocaust seemed to recede, high energy physics in this country has suffered blow after blow, from the cancellation of the SSC to the most recent gutting of Fermilab, SLAC, fusion energy projects and more.
Backlash is not confined to physics, of course. To the extent that different disciplines have a reputation as bearers of bad news — think global warming, for example — then even though Hear-Speak-See no evil may not be all that useful a response, it’s an understandable one in human terms.
Time to get back to my day job. For the last word of the impact of the bomb on public attitudes towards science, I’ll surrender the floor to a genuine cultural prophet: