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Science and the Chattering Classes

Friday, December 16, 2011

To speak out against the anti-scientific orthodoxy that prevails among large segments of the educated class is to make yourself the skunk at the garden party.

Imagine yourself at one of those fashionable dinner parties you go to now and then—you know, the kind where everybody has retro-chic eyeglasses and au courant haircuts, and the food isn’t just vegetarian but organic.

You make the mistake of mentioning your headache and the woman on your left offers you some capsules from the health food store. Here is your side of the ensuing conversation:

“Oh, thanks, but you know I only take medications that have been subjected to rigorous double-blind testing... Really? Well, maybe, but I still kind of prefer science… Yup, I know. But hey, maybe all those chemicals are somehow good for us—maybe that’s why life expectancy goes up every year! Ha ha. Oh, gee, sorry. My wife thought it was funny, and she actually had cancer… What? Sure, some things are sacred, but… Gosh, I’m not sure I ever feel ‘spiritual.’ How will I know it when I do? Is it like sneezing?”

Pity the poor rationalist in polite company. Inevitably, diet has come up, and if the party is in Southern California, chances are somebody was “detoxifying.” But to speak out against the anti-scientific orthodoxy that prevails among large segments of the educated class is to paint a stripe down your back and make yourself the skunk at the garden party.

Technology and ignorance have succeeded where religion has failed: in draping the world in a cloak of mystery, but one we find more threatening than enchanting.

Food is at the center of elites’ anxieties about science and modernity, yet the truth is that it has become a scapegoat, or perhaps I should say scapetofu, for a host of imaginary sins we associate with technology. The timing of this obsession is no surprise; never before has such complex technology occupied such a central place in the economy, to say nothing of daily life. Yet by and large, when we chew on the fruits of science, they are sweet. Thanks to science—not so much medical as industrial—life expectancy increases every year, mostly as a function of affluence. So why is science—to say nothing of the very idea of progress—so unfashionable?

One obvious reason is that, among the chattering classes, hardly anybody knows anything about it. Today’s children of the native-born bourgeoisie study cinema or gender studies or even marketing, but not so much physics or chemistry, at least in my experience. It's indicative, perhaps, that in 2006 (the most recent year for which I could find data), foreign students earned nearly two-thirds of the U.S. doctorate degrees in engineering and computer sciences, while snaring about half of those in the physical sciences and math. Mercifully, many of these foreign students stay.

But for too many Americans, science is something alien and abstract. Max Weber observed nearly a century ago that, by explaining so many natural phenomena, science has lead to the “disenchantment” of the modern world. What a difference 100 years makes! Nowadays we’re surrounded by products of technology (from gelcaps to smartphones) whose essential workings are unintelligible to all but a specialized few. The result is that technology and ignorance have succeeded where religion has failed: in draping the world in a cloak of mystery, but one we find more threatening than enchanting.

Food has become a scapegoat, or perhaps I should say scapetofu, for a host of imaginary sins we associate with technology.

With its great stress on specialization, capitalism has eroded the kind of homely technological skills Americans typically possessed a generation ago. Most of us no longer work on our own cars, for instance, and given electronic fuel injection and other newfangled features, we probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. Heck, a lot of us can’t even cook our own food.

In our system, it pays for people to develop knowledge that is deep but narrow, with the consequence that more and more of what goes on around us is shrouded in a fog of intimidating complexity. Newspaper readership, that traditional barometer of the well-informed public, is on the decline, and newspapers that used to have staff expertise in science have cut it back drastically. Broadcast media are especially inept—or uninterested—in reporting on science and technology, except of course when it’s supposedly killing us.

Another reason for people’s discomfort with the products of science might be our sense of the fragility of technological life, which is underscored whenever we read about shadowy Chinese hackers or the rising threat of global warming. Sooner or later, many of us are convinced, we are destined to be hoist by our own petard, victims of the false god of technology. In our high-tech vehicles and air-conditioned homes bristling with microchips, we yearn for some mythical pre-technological innocence the way some Chekhov characters yearn for Moscow. At least until we visit the doctor, at which point we want all the technology in the world brought to bear.

Of course, suspicion of science and technology goes way back. Forbidden knowledge was at the root of our troubles back in the Garden of Eden, and England's Luddites later attacked the newfangled looms that were about to make clothes more affordable for everyone. Mary Shelley, with Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson, with Jekyll and Hyde, were just two of the most prominent writers who warned against the hazards of invention.

Today’s children of the native-born bourgeoisie study cinema or gender studies or even marketing, but not so much physics or chemistry.

Science itself, or perhaps its acolytes, has given us ample reason for suspicion, too, although humanity is an awfully fickle lover. We loved science, for instance, for giving us the atom bomb and nuclear power when those things seemed essential and good; only later did we decide they were evil. Asbestos was at one time a wonder product.

In our country, progress sometimes seems a victim of its own success. If most kids are vaccinated, after all, why not exempt your own children from the infinitesimal risks associated with inoculation, in effect free-riding on the willingness of everyone else to undergo them? You're still relatively safe from disease. Vaccination fears seem to be most prevalent among the young, educated families who ought to be most receptive to the facts—and who in every other way have the most collective outlook on life.

The challenge for business, whose products will contain more and more technology as time goes on, is to increase the general level of comfort in science without making people feel they’re being taken for a ride. More and better science in the schools would be a great start. And of course, somebody needs to help the media distinguish between bogus risks (non-organic produce) and real risks (eating too few fruits and vegetables).

Food irradiation is a great example of a safe, effective technology that could save lives, if only people could get over their terror of it. It may not be true, in this arena, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But it’s close.

Daniel Akst is a columnist and editorial writer for Newsday.

FURTHER READING: Blake Hurst discusses “Our Real Food Problem” and “A Big, Muddy Project Alright.” Douglas Nelson and Alexander Rinkus write “The Hi-Tech Agriculture Imperative.” David Shaywitz says “Leaders of Science-driven Businesses Should Understand...Science.” Jon Entine asks “Geoengineering: Crackpot Capitalism or Climate-saving Science?” Christina Hoff Sommers wonders “Is Science Saturated with Sexism?

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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