Indifference not scorn
Sorry for the long break–I’ve been traveling the past two weeks. I did, however, keep a mental list of topics I wanted to raise. Given that I’ve also been trying to blog twice a week, I’ll have to write 6 posts in the next 3 days to make my quota for the month. That would be an unprecedented rate of blogging for me. So here it goes.
A few weeks ago Joe Romm highlighted a Nature editorial decrying the “anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States.” In typical Rommian fashion, Nature neatly divides the world into two camps. The “anti-science streak” in the American right must be countered by more effort on the part of the “defenders of science.” As the science communication scholar Matt Nisbet has noted, such hyperbolic rhetoric itself undermines public engagement with science. While Nesbit is probably correct, I think this analysis misses a deeper point.
I have a nagging suspicion that even if we followed Nisbet’s guidance and dutifully eschew “war” and “anti-science” language, public engagement wouldn’t improve that much. Not because the public is scornful, but because it is indifferent. Scorn requires substantial emotional and intellectual investments. When it comes to science, most people simply don’t care enough. Our neglect of this uncomfortable middle ground is perhaps the biggest casualty of our use of exaggerated metaphors. Scientists are left unprepared to grapple with the brutal fact of our own irrelevance. That most Americans can happily go about their lives ignoring both science and scientist and, for the most part, pay no serious penalty.
To truly improve public engagement with science, I think we have to acknowledge that indifference rather than antipathy underlies public attitudes towards science. We also have to acknowledge, rather painfully, that this indifference may even be valid. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that science may just not be that important.