The tolling of the bells for America’s declining stature in the international science community can stop for a minute. Three U.S.-based scientists have won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, momentarily restoring the country’s scientific pre-eminence.
But the U.S. has slipped badly in the rankings. One culprit is our educational failings. Elementary school students spend fewer hours in science than they did two decades ago, and our students’ science literacy scores reflect that: U.S. 15-year-olds rank about as high as those from Poland and Liechtenstein — somewhere in the middle among developed countries.
But there’s another insidious factor in play here. More and more, it’s apparent that millions of Americans have little respect for science, and by science I mean the findings of consensus, peer-reviewed research. Science has somehow become an elitist pursuit. Conclusions that offend political, economic or religious sensibilities are routinely countered with “science” of a more world-view-affirming nature.
National and local media, which otherwise tend to endorse bedrock scientific conclusions, are among the offenders. Ninety-nine percent of the aggregate scientific community might agree on a particular principle, but journalistic DNA compels us to acknowledge and sometimes give voice to minority, even crackpot dissent. Fringe, science-averse websites fill in the rest.
Media outlets recently reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization comprising the world's top climate scientists, had declared with 95 percent certainty that human activity, i.e., the burning of fossil fuels, is a chief cause of global warming. And the outliers responded. But when NASA and the national science academies of the G8 nations, plus those of Brazil, China, India and 23 other countries, make formal declarations attesting to humans’ role in climate change, there should be no debate.
With that in mind, the Los Angeles Times opinion section announced last week it will no longer publish letters that deny climate change. “Saying ‘there's no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy,” Paul Thornton, The Times' letters editor, wrote in explaining the decision.
PopularScience.com, the offspring of the 141-year-old science and technology magazine, took it a step farther last month and announced it will no longer accept online comments of any kind. “A fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story,” Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s online content director, wrote. She cited two studies that found that strident or offensive comments polarized readers’ opinions.
“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” LaBarre wrote. “... Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
Eventually this rejection of legitimate science filters down into public policy. North Carolina banned planners from using climate data in projecting future sea levels. Oregon revisited its school attendance policies because so many parents have bought into an anti-vaccine campaign that’s based on a few long-discredited studies linking autism and booster shots. The House leadership canceled a perfunctory vote to allow Obama to name up to three science laureates — an honorary, unpaid, ambassadorial role — after the American Conservative Union warned that he would appoint people who "share his view that science should serve political ends.”
“And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember,” Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, wrote in an August op-ed in the New York Times.
So celebrate these esteemed Nobel chemists, America. It’s hard to say, given our widespread contempt for science, when the next one will come along.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.