Why America is flunking science

Don't just blame poor education for our nation's scientific illiteracy -- but our politics and pop culture

Published July 13, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

In the recent Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film "Angels & Demons," science sets the stage for destruction and chaos. A canister of antimatter has been stolen from CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research — and hidden in the Vatican, set to explode right as a new pope is about to be selected.

Striving to make these details as realistic as possible on screen, Howard and his film crew visited CERN, used one of its physicists as a science consultant, and devoted meticulous care to designing the antimatter canister that Hanks' character, Robert Langdon, and his sexy scientist colleague, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), wind up searching for.

But there was nothing they could do about the gigantic impossibility at the center of the plot. While the high-energy proton collisions generated at CERN do occasionally produce minute quantities of antimatter — particles with the opposite electrical charge as protons and electrons, but the same mass, which can in turn be combined into atoms like antihydrogen — it's not remotely enough to power a bomb. As CERN quips on a Web site devoted to "Angels & Demons," antimatter "would be very dangerous if we could make a few grams of it, but this would take us billions of years."

As its Web site attests, CERN has been forced to develop some pretty sophisticated P.R. tools in recent years. Before "Angels & Demons" came out, the institution had to counter widespread but baseless public concerns that its Large Hadron Collider — the source of antimatter in the film — might create black holes that would grow to devour Earth and kill us all. CERN researchers received death threats; lawsuits were filed to stop the collider's operation. (Granted, the scientists scored a considerable hit when their hilarious YouTube video, the "Large Hadron Rap," went viral and garnered more than 5 million views.)

The experience of CERN is, more broadly, the experience of science in our culture today. It is simultaneously admired and yet viewed as dangerously powerful and slightly malevolent — an uneasiness that comes across repeatedly in Hollywood depictions. As science-fiction film director James Cameron ("Aliens," "Terminator," "Titanic") has observed, the movies tend to depict scientists "as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains." That's not only unfair to scientists: It's unhealthy for the place of science in our culture — no small matter at a time of climate crisis, bioweapon threats, pandemic diseases and untold future controversies that will surely erupt as science continues to dramatically change our world and our politics. To begin to counter this problem, though, we need to wake up to a new recognition: Fixing the problem of science education in our schools, although very important, is not the sole solution. We also have to do something about the cultural standing of science — heavily influenced by politics and mass media — and that's a very different matter.

There can be little serious doubt that entertainment depictions have consequences. Entertainment industry expert Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, perhaps puts it best when he describes Hollywood films as the "unofficial curriculum of society."

What do we learn from this curriculum about science? Well, just ask America's kids. Researchers who have studied the stereotypical views of scientists held by American schoolchildren report that when they encounter real-life scientists who visit their classroom, the kids think someone's pulling their leg, because the scientists aren't anything like the big-screen version — mean, male, gray haired and mad. As one study author explained to the magazine Nature: "They might say the person was too 'normal' or too good-looking to be a scientist. The most heart-breaking thing is when they say, 'I didn't think he was real because he seemed to care about us.'"

To some extent these depictions may be changing today, as Hollywood appears to be finding a new interest in science. Yet with such images having been predominant for so long, is it any surprise that most Americans can't name a scientific role model? And that those who can tend to name people like Bill Gates, Al Gore and Albert Einstein, who are either not scientists or not alive?

To better understand why science fares as it does in our culture, perhaps it will help to grapple with the legacy of a man who contributed vastly to science's popular image today and who also embodied the seductive power of anti-scientific thinking: the late novelist, screenwriter and sometime anti-global-warming advocate Michael Crichton.

An M.D. who became a phenomenal entertainment industry success, Crichton was very much science's man in Hollywood. Even with his many science-centered hits, ranging from "Jurassic Park" to "ER," he still found time to lecture to scientific institutions and compose numerous nonfiction essays sharing his views on matters ranging from science in entertainment to climate change. He was, through and through, a paradox. His plots were meticulously researched and filled with science; yet at the same time — and most memorably in "Jurassic Park" — they depicted science going out of control, running amok, so that before long the bodies begin to pile up (or get digested).

And then toward the end of his career, Crichton produced a book that, for many in science, will live in infamy: 2004's "State of Fear," whose plot involves eco-terrorists trying to create natural disasters that will scare the public about global warming — which doesn't, in the view of the novel's heroic scientist-protagonist, even exist.

Let's take these two halves of Crichton in sequence, as both embody important lessons about science in our culture. First, science in the entertainment media. Crichton had little patience for scientists' complaints about ridiculous sci-fi plots and wild scientist stereotyping. In a 1999 lecture before the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he countered such gripes with his own perspective on why scientists will probably never be very happy with the products of Hollywood. As Crichton advised, there are at least four important rules of movies that just don't mesh with the real process of research: "(i) Movie characters must be compelled to act. (ii) Movies need villains. (iii) Movie searches are dull. (iv) Movies must move." Crichton argued that real science, with its long, drawn-out intellectual processes and frequent dead ends, simply can't be reconciled with such exigencies. "The problems lie with the limitations of film as a visual storytelling medium," he concluded. "You aren't going to beat it."

Crichton's words are worth heeding. People who care about science and want it to come off better in the mass media can't ignore his four rules of movie storytelling. They can't ask for entertainment products in which the characters do actual research (or at least not much of it). They can't ask for entertainment products that will be boring — a contradiction in terms. Rather, the goal must be to work toward finding ways of conveying information about science through film and other entertainment media without rendering them dull or unpalatable to audiences.

Now on to perhaps the most controversial part of Crichton's career: His attack on the science of global warming in "State of Fear." Crichton's views on climate science have been pilloried by leading experts, and exhaustively refuted; there's no need to retill that ground. But what's instructive is the very fact that an M.D., a polymath, and indeed a man possessed of vast talents could nevertheless pen a wholly misleading and revisionist attack on climate change research. How could he have gone so horribly wrong in this instance?

The answer is that whatever happened, it had nothing to do with stupidity or ignorance, and it is surely nothing that a better high school education would have prevented. Crichton, don't forget, was an M.D. He backed up his bestselling narratives with considerable scientific research himself, becoming, in a sense, an expert on each subject he tackled. It wasn't that he didn't know anything about climate change, but rather that he fell for various highly sophisticated — but still ultimately wrong — misinterpretations and misinformation. In this he was likely impelled either by political convictions, the desire to be a contrarian, or perhaps some combination of both.

What's true of Crichton is true of the country. Polling data from the Pew organization reveals something fairly stunning about global warming and public opinion: If you're a Republican, you are vastly less likely than a Democrat to accept the scientific consensus that global warming is brought about by human activities. You probably have a bias in favor of business and industry and don't believe factory or automotive emissions exacerbate global warming. But that's not all. The higher your level of education, the more skeptical you probably are that humans are to blame. Why? One possible reason is that more education makes you better at finding information and arguments that are supportive of what you already wanted to believe — as Crichton clearly did.

But the same thing can also be true of Democrats and liberals. Consider vaccination. An army of aggrieved parents nationwide, likely spurred in part by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., swears today that vaccines are the reason their children developed autism, and they seem virtually impossible to convince otherwise. Scientific research has soundly refuted this contention, but every time a new study on the subject comes out, the parents and their supporters have a "scientific" answer that allows them to retain their beliefs. They get their information from the Internet, from other parents of like mind, from a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, and perhaps most of all — as was much the case with Crichton and global warming — from a group of celebrities, most prominently Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who have made a cause of championing such misinformation and almost assuredly deeply believe in it.

Yet the parents who listen to McCarthy and Carrey — rather than the CDC and the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine — tend to be well-to-do and highly educated. Calling them "ignorant" is hardly accurate. After all, they've probably done far more independent research on a scientific topic that interests and affects them than most other Americans have. Like Crichton, they may be misusing their intelligence, but it's not as though they don't have any to begin with. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best: "The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain't so."

But if politics and culture, as much as educational deficiencies, are the reasons we live in a society that is so science-challenged, perhaps we must think differently about how to address this disturbing problem. "We" in this case would be not only scientists but also anyone else who cares about making important decisions, particularly political ones, based on evidence and future-oriented thinking of a sort that science can best impart.

To this end, we need to realize that it isn't wise — and usually isn't even accurate — to denounce members of the public, or filmmakers and entertainers and celebrities, for scientific ignorance and for constantly getting it wrong. Instead, we must find ways of talking to these people, becoming aware of the constraints they're working with, and try to help them see that science is no necessary enemy to the realities of filmmaking or what it takes to entertain an audience.

It is heartening, then, that in a major initiative, the U.S. scientific community has recently tried to connect with Hollywood on its own terms. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the elite membership society of American science, has just launched a project called the Science and Entertainment Exchange to "facilitate a valuable connection between the two communities." A permanent National Academies office has been opened in Los Angeles to "make introductions, schedule briefings, and arrange for consultations to anyone developing science-based entertainment content." This is a new initiative, so one cannot yet judge its impact, but early signs are promising — and it is precisely the sort of step the scientific world should be taking if it wants to heal its rifts with the entertainment industry.

As for dealing with rampant misinformation — refuting it is certainly important, but in the end this does only so much good if people have a powerful political or social reason to cling to their beliefs and if they have easily available arguments to throw in the face of scientific consensus. Denunciations from across an intellectual battlefield go only so far — the harder work involves talking to people, understanding the sources of their misconceptions, and figuring out how to move them to better ground. It won't be easy, even then, to change minds. Humans cling to beliefs ferociously, because they are a core part of our identities. But that itself is precisely why we have to understand what makes people tick, and figure out where the real blocks to accepting science are.

Above all we should remember, as recent survey data released by the Pew organization underscores, that nobody really hates science. Rather, like Crichton, they might be fascinated by it while having their own reasons for problematic departures. But they're still reachable, curious, intelligent. If we want a society that sees how science can save the world — instead of destroying it — that's who we should be talking to most.

By Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including "The Republican War on Science" (2005). His next book, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality," is due out in April.

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