The "Bad" Image of the Scientist: Fact or Fiction?
Alan H. McGowan
From the scientific community, one hears it all the time: "Television portrays us as nerds." "Why aren't there 'handsome' scientists on television?" (Why is it, then, that these same scientists laugh at the "Studmuffins of Science" calendar?) "The image of the scientist in the public mind is terrible!" And so forth.
The recent report Worlds Apart, from the First Amendment Center (part of the Freedom Forum enterprise) says, "support for science and technology in this country has dwindledin part, it appears, because of media inattention." "A retreat [from science and technology] is underway." Worlds Apart also reports "On October 17, 1996, five American Nobel Prize-winning scientists lamented to a group of journalists gathered at the National Press Club in Washington that public support and understanding of science and technology was in a serious state of decay." Many scientists, whether in academia or industry, have the idea that the public does not hold the scientific community in high regard, that science is composed of nerds, who are not like other human beings.
Combined with this is the feeling that we are experiencing a "flight from reason," that indeed the public is less interested in science and other intellectual pursuits than it has ever been before, and that the situation is getting worse. Several books have been written and conferences held on the subject, to the acclaim of many in the scientific community.
The arguments sound convincing. They certainly are stated with passion. And they have convinced many scientists. The problem is, they are not trueat least not yet. I don't think that we are experiencing a flight from reason; I chiefly want to discuss the image of the scientist. These are important considerations, and we must worry about them. It is, after all, crucial in this technological age, that the general public have a generally positive view of the scientific enterprise. Not that they should believe everything scientists say (far from it) but the success of our society depends on the public trusting the scientific community sufficiently to provide the funding necessary for science to do its work.
And they do. The data are pretty clear. Science Indicators 96 tells us that "Science and Technology are subjects of interest to a substantial minority of Americansapproximately 40 percent." And although there seems to have been a decrease in the respect the public has for scientists, this is part of a general trend of decreasing trust in institutions of all kinds. If you want to see a public institution in bad repute, look at the data on how the public views the press. It starts low and gets lower. Scientists start our fairly high, and remain high, relative to other institutions in our society.
Again, from Science Indicators 96: "Americans continue to hold the scientific community in high regard. According to the most recent General Social Survey, approximately 40 percent of Americans are very confident in the leadership of the scientific community and the leadership of the medical community. These levels of national esteem have been stable for almost 3 decades and are far higher than the levels reported for the leadership of other major institutions in societyMore than 70 percent of Americans believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any present or potential drawbacks associated with scientific research. This level of positive assessment of scientific research has been stable for nearly two decades. College graduates and citizens interested in science and technology policy issues are even more positive about the scientific research."
Just for comparison's sake, the analogous statement in Science Indicators 93 was: "Americans continue to hold science and medicine in high regard. Over the last 20 years, the proportions of American adults who report 'a great deal of confidence' in the leadership of the scientific community and the leadership of medicine have been among the highest for any institution in the United States, including the Supreme CourtApproximately 80 percent of Americans believe that S&T have increased our standard of living, enhanced working conditions, and improved public health. Throughout the last decade, at least 70 percent of Americans have continued to express the view that the benefits of scientific research have exceeded any risks or harms associated with that work."
If respect for all institutions is declining, yet the relative positions of the scientific and medical institutions are the same (which seems to be what the data are telling us) then something else is going on in our society. And it is not that science is getting less respect than it did previously. I do not have enough space here to speculate here on what is going on, but it is certainly a phenomenon that goes far beyond the scientific community.
In fact, the public has always had a high regard for science and its products. Since the beginning of the Republic, science has had a profound effect on our lives and on our perception of the world. One has only to think of the influence the scientific enterprise had on our beginnings and the people who made those beginnings. One example is I. Bernard Cohen's fascinating work examining the role that Newton's Principia played in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Another example is how the 1859 publication of Darwin's Origin of Species fundamentally changed our world outlook. It revolutionized not only the way scientists viewed the world, but also how the general public (at least the intelligentsia) viewed the world. Before 1859, people believed in a constant world, a world that had not changed since creation. They believed in a created world, a world designed by a wise and benign creator. And they believed in the unique position of humankind in creation, such that no transition to humans from other animals was possible.
Darwin changed all that. He certainly had his critics; the arguments that were let loose were ferocious. One certainly could have concluded from the barrage of criticism and negative comments that science was indeed held in bad repute. Yet most people today think of Darwin as one of the great thinkers of any age, which indeed he was.
In the same way, the breakdown of Newtonian physics and the advent of quantum theory and relativistic physics changed the way people thought about the world around them. The advent of the new age was dramatically announced with the 1945 Trinity atomic weapon test. That caused a great deal of fear, but the outlook had begun to change before then. Now the new biology is all around us, with an unfortunate "genetic determinism" seeming to take hold.
Short stories in the New Yorker, articles in a magazine devoted to the theatrical arts, and many other examples all point to the profound influence of the science of today, from chaos theory to the structure of DNA. Unless the scientific community and its members had the deep and profound respect of the public at large this influence would not be there. And the data support that view.
We have other data that demonstrate that people are interested in (and even fascinated by) science. In Barnes and Noble and Borders book stores, the biggest and fastest growing section is the science section. The Science Times section gives the Tuesday New York Times the largest weekday newsstand sale. When either Time or Newsweek put a science story on the cover, it becomes one of the top 10 newsstand sellers.
We do have a problem, however. And it is a big, profound, and important one. Unless corrected, it could very well change the positive image the public has of the scientific enterprise. The problem is this: People don't know enough. Not by a long shot. The data are frightening. We all have heard them before. Those of us who have dealt with editors, not unimportant "gatekeepers" in the transmittal of information to the public, know all too well what this ignorance can produce.
Consider the magnitude of the changes before us (reflect on the talk that Harold Varmus gave to the AAAS meeting in February, for example). These changes rival if not exceed the changes that Charles Darwin presented more than a century ago (and the reaction could rival the negative reaction he received). We face a significant challenge. What people don't understand, and fear, they want to stop.
Frankly, we in the community that works for the public understanding of science have not been doing a very good job. We have not convinced the working scientific community and our administrators that this job is too important to be left to a few. It must be the job of every scientist in every lab to spend time on this effort. There is a lot being donefar more than ever beforebut it is clearly not enough. We have not convinced the historians that to teach history without considering what Darwin, Newton, and Einstein contributed to civilization is like teaching about the 20th century without mentioning World War II. We must convince playrights that science is the stuff of which real drama is made. We must convince our colleagues in music and art departments that aesthetics is a part of the scientific experience, just as it is central to the arts.
To do this requires a fundamental shift in our thinking. Yes, science is special. It has a special way of looking at the world. It is not better than other ways, although it is profoundly important. It is also a human endeavor, similar to other human endeavors. It is done with passion. It is done by visionaries. We have fights and arguments in science, some not so pleasant. But in our writings, we often present science as bland, dry stuff.
We see some very encouraging signs. At San Diego State University, for example, a group of artists and scientists are meeting to discuss a course on ways of knowing. One member of that group, an artist, states that he finds it much easier to talk with scientists about this than with people in the humanities! This is an example, and there are more, of using the great strengths of our universities, where scholars across many disciplines can unite in a common cause. We must treat education as a holistic enterprise, looking for the connections, rather than the differences, between disciplines, and looking to educate the whole person, not just a piece.
We also must turn to television, where most of the people in the United States get their information. We must turn not just to PBS, which reaches the elite, but also to commercial television, where shows like Seinfeld hold power (as well as soap operas, where millions of people tune in every day to General Hospital and similar dramas). The teaching potential is enormous.
In short, the job of science understanding and education is not the job of a few; it must be the job of many. We who care about it must reach out for help to many peopleto working scientists everywhere, to writers, artists, musicians, poets, everyone who can help carry the message. It is too important to be left to us alone.
Alan H. McGowan is program director for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, AAAS. This article is based on remarks delivered at the 23rd Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, held April 29May 1, 1998 in Washington, DC.