Science and science-themed shows have seen a resurgence in the past decade. In early 2017, the movie Hidden Figures celebrates not only women mathematicians, but also civil right pioneers working to bring NASA in Virginia into the 20th century. There have been multiple recent movies made about space travel. In my mind the best of these was The Martian, which celebrated someone already declared sexy by Hollywood (Matt Damon) using his scientific and analytical skills in order to survive by himself on the Martian surface long enough to be rescued. Even in its limited way, the Big Bang Theory does serve to humanize those who presumably work in the realm of physics. And then there is the current lead ambassador for science, Neal DeGrasse Tyson, who has led an admirable effort to popularize science in the public sphere.
In the realm of commerce, Elon Musk embodies the persona of a man of science who is trying to alter the course of history by integrating science and high technologies into our commerce. Other examples of individuals transforming the world through high technology include Mark Zuckerberg, and going back a bit, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs generated their mojo by creating an entire industry and entwining that industry into everyday lives. I doubt whether many consider this latter duo to be very sexy, though.
But. For each example of a scientist who grabs the public attention, for each media presentation glorifying STEM efforts, for each entrepreneur transforming the world through a science based agenda, those images are overwhelmed by the hordes who gain their fame and fortune via more demeaning means. If science were really sexy, would multitudes love to follow the Kardashian’s every move? Would the major money-making category for Hollywood be super-hero movies? Would Wall Street be hanging on every move that the category of “activist investors” make, those “investors” who blackmail companies into eliminating their research programs as not being instantly convertible into shareholder returns?
Within the US, throughout its history, intellectuals have seldom been viewed as figures to emulate. H. L. Mencken said it very well when he said, with a quote that is often paraphrased: “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”
Why is it that we seem unable to raise the consciousness of our populace? Is there a way we can use to improve the scientific literacy of the public, so that the public can provide an informed input to public discussions concerning matters of science? Let me assert that we must find such a way or we will find ourselves in a degraded world, squabbling over decreasing resources instead of working to grow the size of the resource pie. As the population of the world has increased, the use of science and technology becomes ever more important in order to provide adequate nutrition and energy and other resources.
But instead of using the knowledge of science and scientists to solve problems, the political momentum pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Scientists are decried as elitists, and as political animals whose sole purpose is to keep government funding grants flowing. Scientific consensus is treated as being subject to debate, and one side of the discussion claims that their facts are just as good as the observations, models, and analytical perspective provided by thousands of scientists working in a given field. It is mind-boggling to see the famous line from the Treasure of the Sierra Madre co-opted by science deniers: “Facts? We don’t need no steenkin’ facts!”
So there are really two issues we have to face going forward. The acute issue is how do we who are scientifically literate provide guidance and influence public policy to prevent irreversible harm from the new administration. The longer view is how do we actually change public perception, and make science sexy to the youth of the nation. It is only when more folks would like to watch Nova and Cosmos as compared to American Ninja, and the 45th iteration of Survivor, that we will know that science has gained at least a foothold in the American consciousness.
I wish I had answers on how to deal with these issues. In some ways, this blog is my small attempt to influence the public debate. But it is such a tiny piece, I feel as if I were trying to steer an asteroid away from the earth by shining a cat laser on its surface. As far as influencing the popular culture and making kids begin to love math and science, instead of fearing them, I do not have ideas on what can change people’s perceptions.