The problem isn't merely the dramatic cultural gap between scientists and the broader American public. It's the way this disconnect becomes self-reinforcing, even magnified, when it resurfaces in key sectors of society that powerfully shape the way we think, and where science ought to have far more influence than it actually does—in politics, in the news media, in the entertainment industry, and in the religious community. Consider:
In the political arena from 2001 through 2008, we saw the United States governed by an administration widely denounced for a disdain of science literally unprecedented in modern American history. Judged next to this staggering low, the Obama administration gives reason for hope. But science continues to occupy a ghettoized section of the political arena, one that few elected officials really understand or prioritize. Too many politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, fail to see the underlying role of science in most of the issues they address, even though it is nearly always present. In fact, politicians tend to be leery of seeming too scientifically savvy: There's the danger of coming off as an Adlai Stevenson egghead.
We're still struggling with the problem that historian Richard Hofstadter outlined in his classic 1962 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which documented how the disdain of intellectuals had become such a powerful fixture of American culture. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to scientists, and has been to varying degrees since our nation's inception: We've even rewritten the biography of one of our most cherished founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, to recast him as a tinkering everyman, rather than a deep-thinking scientist of the first rank. Alexis De Tocqueville similarly remarked upon Americans' interest in the practical, but not so much the theoretical, side of science—the goods delivered at the end, rather than the intellectual challenges and questioning encountered along the way. For a very, very long time, American scientists have found themselves pitted against our businesslike, can-do attitudes as well as our piety. When John McCain and Sarah Palin made fun of research on fruit flies and grizzly bears on the 2008 campaign trail, they were appealing to precisely this anti-intellectual strand in the American character. They thought they'd score points that way, and probably they did.
And if you think politicians are bad, let's turn to the traditional news media, where attention to science is in steep decline. A 2008 analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that if you sit down to watch five hours of cable news, you will probably only see one minute's worth of coverage devoted to science and technology—compared with 10 minutes of celebrity and entertainment content, 12 minutes of accidents and disasters, and “26 minutes or more” of crime. From 1989 to 2005, meanwhile, the number of newspapers featuring weekly science or science-related sections shrank by nearly two-thirds, from 95 to 34. And since then both trends have continued or perhaps even accelerated: In 2008 the esteemed Washington Post killed its science page and CNN laid off its entire science, technology, and environment unit.
As a result of this upheaval, what we might broadly call science communication—the always problematic bridge between the experts and everybody else—is in a state of crisis. For even as business-driven cutbacks the “old” media are killing science content, the “new” media are probably hurting science as much as helping it. The Internet has simultaneously become the best and also the worst source of science information. Yes, you can find great science on the web; and yet you can also find the most stunning misrepresentations and distortions. Without the Internet, the modern anti-vaccination movement probably wouldn't exist, at least not in its current form. Jenny McCarthy, celebrity vaccine critic extraordinaire, is proud of her degree from the “University of Google.”
More generally, thanks to the Internet and ongoing changes in the traditional news industry, we increasingly live in an oversaturated media environment in which citizens happily pick and chose their own sources of information. This means they can simply avoid learning (or even hearing) anything meaningful about science unless they're already inclined to go looking for it—and most won't be. And they can shop online for “expertise” as easily as they can for Christmas gifts.
When we shift our gaze to another extremely powerful source of information about science—the entertainment media—we find the situation more complex but still dismaying. From Grey's Anatomy to CSI to The Day The Earth Stood Still (the Keanu Reeves version), science and technology provide fodder for many popular television and film plotlines. In fact, there appears to be a growing trend of basing stories on scientific themes, especially in the case of primetime medical dramas. But whether such entertainment depictions contribute to a science-friendly culture is less clear. Often we see little effort devoted to achieving basic scientific plausibility or getting the details right; and we simultaneously find Hollywood obsessed with paranormalist UFO and “fringe science” narratives and recurrent stories of “mad scientists” playing God. Scientists in film and television tend to be depicted as villains, geeks, or jerks. Rare indeed is the Hollywood film or scripted drama that tells a story about science that's both serious and also entertaining. That strongly affects how we think.
And then there's religion, the source of perhaps the single deepest fissure in the science-society relationship. Surveys overwhelmingly show that Americans care a great deal about faith; many scientists, by contrast, couldn't care less. There's nothing wrong with that, except that some scientists and science supporters have been driven to the point of outright combativeness by the so-called New Atheist movement, led by Sam Harris, Oxford's Richard Dawkins, and others. Meanwhile, many U.S. religious believers are just as extreme: They reject bedrock scientific findings—an entire field, evolutionary biology—because they wrongly consider such knowledge incompatible with faith. The zealots on both sides generate unending polarization, squeeze out the middle, and leave all too many Americans convinced that science poses a threat to their values and the upbringing of their children.
For all these reasons, the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing wider and wider. Nearly a decade into the 21st century, we have strong reason to worry that the serious appreciation of science could become confined to a small group of already dedicated elites—something like eating caviar, rather than a value we all share.