A Modest Proposal for Science: End It, Don’t Mend It

Science was rendered obsolete by its own smashing victory.

By Bruno Maddox|Tuesday, November 06, 2007

We’ve been together for a while now, you and I. We’ve done some good, hard work, and I feel we’ve earned the right to step back and take a swing at one of the bigger questions, namely: What is Science?

Now, as mentioned, I’ve been doing this a while, and I’m aware that some readers will already be reaching for their trusty Crayola to inquire in block capitals whether I mightn’t have asked this question somewhat earlier in the game. Before the column on how to cut one’s hair, perhaps, or the meditation on thinking.

But I would recommend patience, should you be one of those readers. By all means write the letter, but I would read the whole article before affixing a valuable stamp to the envelope. For as bare as you think I’ve laid myself by using the pages of a magazine about Science to wonder in print what Science is, you have not—to paraphrase the great Bachman-Turner Overdrive—seen anything yet.

Because while I may not know exactly what Science is, I am far more confident in stating the following: that it needs to be gotten rid of.

My journey to this lonely precipice of modern thought began last week, with an article in the paper about government efforts to “reverse the long-term decline in the number of children studying science.” Youngsters are feeling “turned off” by Science at the moment, apparently, and as a result are not lining up in droves to study it (a topic much discussed in this very magazine last month). This claim struck me as odd because I could have sworn that while flying a red-eye across the Atlantic (the ocean) I’d read an article in The Atlantic (the magazine) by Virginia Postrel declaring that science is in fashion and that more young people than ever were choosing to study it.

To resolve the discrepancy I made use of a rather ingenious technique from comparative literature that was taught to me many years ago by a drunken grad student. I took the article from the newspaper and Virginia Postrel’s article from The Atlantic—the two “texts,” if you will—set them next to each other on a table—“juxtaposition” is the term—then spent a few minutes looking back and forth between the two trying to work out what the hell was going on.

The truth quickly revealed itself. The two texts were not in conflict after all. Postrel’s claim was only that there was a spike in the number of people applying to study the weird little field of forensic science—not Science as a whole; that latter figure, in the U.K., is indeed declining, and in the United States is merely holding steady even as the pace and scope of science explodes. And her suggestion of a new public enthusiasm for science was supported entirely by the success of TV shows like CSI and Numb3rs, in which geeky, obsessive brainiacs use science to track down psychotic killers who are dismembering young, attractive, too-naive members of society. So yes, crime-solving science is hot right now. Not to mention the kind of practical science involved with computers and cell phones and plasma TVs.

But Science itself? That’s about as fashionable as Osama bin Laden doing the Macarena. In fact, Science has been facing down an image problem for decades now. In the 1950s, it seems not to have mattered much. Whatever high schoolers thought of science and scientists, enough of them had changed their minds by college time (prodded, no doubt, by the promise of personal robot slaves and the peril of raining Soviet nukes) to staff American Science for another generation.

But not anymore. These are less serious times, when adolescent attitudes can persist well into middle age and beyond. Science’s perpetual image problem has blossomed into an urgent image crisis.

So what is to be done?

I see two mutually exclusive courses of action. The first solution, the messy one, the one that frankly isn’t going to work, would be a radical redesign of Science. I’m not talking about more or better “outreach,” especially not to “the kids.” If another owl in a mortarboard pops up and tells me “Science is cool, you know,” when all I’m trying to do is eat my huevos rancheros and watch a little SpongeBob on a Saturday, I’m going to shoot it. No, I’m talking about an overhaul of the image of Science from top to bottom. Laboratories where people actually want to hang out, for instance, where there’s a chance your chair will have cushioning on it, where the lighting doesn’t make everyone look like a large-pored vampire, where there’s something to listen to other than the buzz of the lights and the twang of the aluminum walls. Even smooth jazz would be better.

Then there are the Scientists, in their iconic white coats. The public seems not to like the white coat, and it doesn’t help to point out that Scientists don’t really wear white coats anymore. This is about perceptions, and you don’t change a perception by labeling it a misperception; you change it by providing another perception. There needs to be a new uniform, and everyone needs to wear it. Perhaps a white cape. Or a black cape. Or something else entirely.

I don’t know. The fact is, an effective rebranding of Science would require an official committee of scientists and style gurus making these sorts of decisions—and I will only add that evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins should not be allowed anywhere near the thing. Marketing is clearly not the man’s strong suit. His endorsement of a proposal that rational atheists start calling themselves “brights” still induces a squirm four years later. And now he’s gone and founded a teen-friendly OUT Campaign, intentionally modeled after the gay liberation movement. Because of course, there’s no surer way of persuading Middle Americans to your cause than to stand on a chair in the cafeteria at lunchtime and publicly liken yourself to a homosexual. Good thinking there, Richard.

The bigger problem with rebranding efforts, though, is that they often fail. By this point, Science may simply be carrying too much cultural baggage to be convincingly reintroduced to the public.

In which case—in fact, in any case—the second and superior solution is just to get rid of Science. Let physicists be physicists and geologists be geologists, and forensic scientists be . . . well, they can be crime-scene investigators. The word “science” would never be spoken, at least not by anyone who cares about it. Just deny all knowledge. If you’re a physicist and some drunken rube calls over to you at a party, “Hey, Alan! You’re in science. Isn’t it true that cows have seven stomachs?” just shrug and walk away. They’ll get the message eventually. The magazine Science would have to change its name or fold, as would Scientific American, and institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Council, et cetera.

But what else would we really lose? What benefit is currently accruing to the scattered fields of botany, Mars exploration, quantum physics, and so on, by being thought of as mere branches of a greater, more boring whole? They don’t really gain by association with CSI, so what would they suffer by coming to be thought of as self-contained pursuits, like telemarketing or cooking?

What else might we lose? Funding? You think if there weren’t giant federal grants earmarked broadly for “Science” that only research with practical applications would ever get funded? You need to have a little faith in humanity. I know people who get paid to study English literature. I’m not joking. And not the good stuff either. It’s all thee and thou and Shakespeare and stuff.

Which leaves only that yellowed, near-translucent fig leaf of an idea: the Scientific Method. We can’t get rid of Science, you’ll hear the final holdouts yelling as the National Guard uses bolt cutters to free them from whatever they’ve chained themselves to, because only Science has the Scientific Method! Without Science, people will be coming up with hypotheses and only making observations afterward! Or they’ll bypass hypothesis altogether and go straight from observation to theory! There’ll be no—dare I even say it?—no peer review!

Except, yes, there will. The proximate cause of the steps I have proposed today may have been the “science crisis” in America’s schools. But even were our straits less dire, I might propose it anyway, for the simple fact that those great and noble rules of truth finding, the ones that once made Science unique, proved their worth so many times in the infancy and adolescence of our civilization that they are now also to be found inscribed under the rubric of Common Sense. With the possible exception of gypsy fortune-tellers and babbling mad people in the streets, everyone pretty much has it internalized at this point that you can’t just go around making claims about the nature of reality without evidence—and expect to be believed.

Look around at this supposedly irrational, science-hating world. Look at the creationists peering desperately down microscopes for a smidgen of something that might prove their point. Look at O. J. Simpson, goaded into writing a thinly veiled confession by the knowledge that nearly everyone considers him guilty—simply because the evidence says so.

Science either has a crisis or it doesn’t, and it’s up to Science to choose. It can summon its reserves for one final charm offensive, one last-ditch attempt to convince the world it still deserves to live.

Or it can admit the truth—that it won. And go home.

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