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When Did Science Become The Enemy?

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2007 13:16:52 -0500
Fwd Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2007 13:16:52 -0500
Subject: When Did Science Become The Enemy?




Source: Space.Com - New York, NY, USA

http://www.space.com/searchforlife/seti_shostak_science_070215.html

15 February 2007


When Did Science Become The Enemy?
By Seth Shostak
SETI Institute

You, dear reader, are one in a thousand.

The fact that you're confronting this column on a web site
devoted to space science and astronomy makes you roughly as rare
as technetium. Despite the fact that astronomy is one of the two
most popular science subjects in American schools (the other is
biology), it's really not that popular.

The overwhelming majority of the citizenry has other interests,
and looming large among them are the peccadilloes and personal
intrigues of the rich and famous. Consider the contrast: in the
past week the Space Telescope Science Institute released a
startlingly detailed photo of a distant cluster of galaxies, a
picture that gives even the non-expert a good idea of the
structure of these, the largest entities in the universe. The
photo of cluster Abell S0740=96an image that would have bedazed
every previous generation of humans=96probably didn't even make it
to the front section of your local newspaper.

However, what did garner front-page ink last week, not to
mention huge dollops of chatter on talk radio, was the
unexpected death of Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy Playmate
and reality TV star.

Movie director Frank Capra wasn't disclosing a staggering new
truth in noting that "what interests people is people." One
dead-obvious reason is that those who are thoroughly
unresponsive to their fellow humanoids don't get a lot of
representation in the next generation. We're most interested in
people, in the same way that click beetles are most interested
in click beetles. That's evolution.

But why the seemingly preternatural fascination with famous
personalities, be they powerful figures (politicians, for
example) or mere celebrities, as was Ms Smith?

That, too, seems to have a clear evolutionary benefit. Unlike
most of the beasts of the forest, we're quite good at learning
things. Stories=96made possible by speech=96are efficient ways of
conveying life lessons to the young without the trouble and
danger of actually having to demonstrate. Hearing stories about
successful people, as well as those who have fallen, could
prompt us to imitate the behaviors of the former and avoid those
of the latter. Heroes, in other words, have survival value.

The peculiar thing is that American heroes aren't often very
good at science. Indeed, in much popular culture, it's only the
villains who're conversant with Maxwell or Einstein. The "mad
scientist" has become such a cultural icon that the Royal
Society held a special lecture on the subject. Some of the mad
men of science (and they are, overwhelmingly, men) are just evil
characters intent on destroying the world, taking over the
world, or simply rearranging the world according to their
personal predilections. Dr. No and Dr. Evil come to mind, as do
Lex Luthor, Dr. Octopus, the overly Teutonic Dr. Strangelove,
and the Green Goblin.

How did scientists become the enemy? I mean, really: who would
you rather have help you take a calculus final... or for that
matter, cure the common cold or figure out the nature of dark
energy: Spiderman or Green Goblin? Science is useful.

And if the scientists in popular media haven't slipped entirely
to the dark side, they've at least gone bonkers. They've become
obsessed with some narrow field of research, and lost sight of
the big picture. When a prehistoric monster is shambling through
a major metropolis, wreaking havoc and destruction, there's
always some lab-coated PhD who's interfering with the steely-
eyed military types, screaming "we have to save it for science!"
And just to make sure that these howling academics won't become
your role model, they're usually portrayed as short, ugly bald
guys with social grace and sex appeal on a par with Ben the
rodent.

This anti-science stuff seems to have arisen in the 19th
century, when the pastoral lifestyle of the English countryside
was being threatened by the steam engine. At the same time,
Victor Frankenstein was endeavoring to replace sex and families
by creating a barely functional human simulacrum in the lab
(using not much more than Tesla coils and scrounged parts), and
Dr. Faustus was out hawking his soul for some knowledge.

That's all European. But when it comes to anti-science bias,
Americans are hard to beat. Our frontier heritage surely plays a
role. When facing off against brutal mountains, a harsh climate,
aggressive animals, and an indigenous population that might not
cotton to new arrivals, are you better off wielding Newton's
equations or a Bowie knife? American heroes are survivors, as
television viewers know.

In addition, and since the Second World War, the public's
perception of science has been influenced by the destructive
potential of some of its products. These range from the evil
wrought by Nazi scientists to the development of scary atomic
power. Today, the threats posed by thinking machines or genetic
engineering are the workaday staples of mad, bad science. That's
just moving with the times, but the public's reaction is the
same: this stuff could be dangerous, and besides I don't
understand it. Ergo, I'll bolster my self-esteem by putting you
down because you do.

So it's no surprise that a discipline like astronomy =96 as
popular as it is =96 doesn't really electrify most folks. The
combined circulation of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope is roughly
200,000 (with readership about twice that). The circulation of
People magazine is 3,700,000.

The membership of the Astronomical League, a national
organization of amateur astronomers, is 16,000. The National Mah
Jongg League has 275,000.

You are, very literally, one in a thousand. But there's little
reason to grouse. The cult of personality, while mesmerizing,
isn't going to guide Homo sapiens into a better future. You're
like the pioneer ants =96 the small percentage of ants that dare
to explore, and who are, ultimately, responsible for the
colony's long-term survival.

Anna Nicole Smith may get the column inches now, but the future
is yours


[Thanks to 'The Norm' for the lead]




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