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.