I know there is a crisis in the public understanding of science. Upwards of 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution or anthropogenic global warming, and about as many do believe in astrology and ESP. Believe me, that’s a disaster in so many ways that I can scarcely bear to think about it. But it’s not the only problem that Americans have with science, and I don’t think it’s the worst one.
More disturbing to me than the ignorance of one big segment of the public is the overconfidence and gullibility of another big segment. And before I start bashing people, let me say that I don’t typically blame people for being ignorant, but I do blame them for their willful ignorance. And I think the two groups I have mentioned are both guilty of that.
I took the title of this blog from a Facebook comment that I have made so often on some of my friends status updates that I am sure they are blocking my posts, “Bad Science Writing Will Destroy the World.” I say this because much of my Facebook feed, and much of the popular media, is filled up with bad science writing which, as I may have mentioned, will destroy the world. Why? I was hoping you might ask.
The sort of bad science writing (and reporting) I refer to is mostly “gee-whiz,” good-news writing and reporting, and everyone from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye to the writers for Gizmodo and I F@*king Love Science are guilty of it in equal parts. This “look at what we can do” writing is harmful because it engages a fairly well-educated class of people, people who do believe in evolution and global warming and not in astrology, in a way that makes them complacent and optimistic when they shouldn’t be. These people, many of whom are my former students, have become indoctrinated in what is called scientism, the belief that science is the source of all the answers and, in the extreme case, that science already has most of them.
The title of this post comes from a joke with long-standing in the power industry: “Practical fusion has been just around the corner for the last 45 years.”
Here’s a fairly recent example from Reuters:
Genome Scientist Craig Venter in Deal to Make Humanized Pig Organs
In this article, the reporter somewhat breathlessly reports that rejection-proof pig-human hybrid organs are, as it were, just around the corner:
“We’re going to start with generating a brand new super-accurate sequence of the pig genome, and then go through in detail and compare it to the human genome,” Venter, the founder and chief executive of Synthetic Genomics Inc, said in a telephone interview.
“The goal is to go in and edit, and where necessary, rewrite using our synthetic genomic tools, the pig genes that seem to be associated with immune responses,” said Venter, who is best known for his role in mapping the human genome over a decade ago and who created synthetic life in 2010.
Of course, the other shoe drops later in the article when it is revealed that:
If all goes well, Venter thinks his team will be able to deliver the cells in a few years. Testing the humanized organs in clinical trials to ensure they are safe in people will take many more years…if the team succeeds in developing humanized pig lungs, hearts and kidneys from these animals may also prove to be suitable for human transplantation.
and also that a company called Lung Biotechnology
will take a $50 million stake in [Venter’s] La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics, which also will receive royalties and milestone incentives from the development and commercialization of the organs.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for pig lungs to be available for transplant.
It’s a complicated problem. Most college graduates know very little “real” science unless they major in one of the sciences, and even then, they are so specialized that they lack a general perspective on the various fields and their interrelations. And the students that go on to write for the news industry are seldom people who majored in a scientific field. Even Bill Nye, admired as he is, is a master’s degree level Mechanical Engineer by training—training that occurred a long time ago. And yet his is the most prominent defender of climate science and evolution. A man with an irrelevant and outdated degree whose only other credential is as a host of a children’s show is now the official spokesperson for SCIENCE.
So for now, we have a situation where the publicly accessible “experts” on science are talking to reporters with little background in the field and who then, as a condition of their employment, sex the story up in the telling of it. And all of this is fed to an audience smart enough to know things are bad in the world but human enough to wish, desperately, that things were otherwise. We all want to fix the environment, reverse the effects of aging and bad living, raise everyone’s standard of living and the like, but we don’t want to make any sacrifices doing these things. Hence, the market gives us the story we want—the story of the human/pig organ boom that is just around the corner.
Right after we get practical fusion. On the surface of the Earth, I mean.