The Public Disdain for Science

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 30, 2011

There is a cheap sentiment poorly played out as the moral of many movies and stories—scientists are madly pursuing futile or forbidden knowledge. The attitude started a long time ago in the thoughts of people like Plato. Plato thought that our world is a mere shadow of Reality, and pursuit of knowledge through the senses is doomed to imperfect knowledge.

More recently, you find the moral of Shelley’s Frankenstein is that there are spheres of knowledge that man should not enter because those spheres are the domain of God’s secrets. Such questions as the origin of the universe or life are out of bounds for men. It reflects the tale of Prometheus stealing the secret of fire in Greek mythology—man was not meant to know too much.

The application in modern times of this philosophy points to the development of the atomic bomb as a bona fide example of man looking in realms not permitted. Other groups find the use of science to break the genetic code another trespass on the holy unknown. Science is blamed for the manufacture of pesticides that pollute soil or chemicals that taint the air.

In the popular press our age is fond of touting these sentiments at the expense of scientists. Our own vociferous Rush Limbaugh wrote in his book The Way Things Ought to Be that we shouldn’t listen to scientists. As his example he pointed to the late Carl Sagan’s caution about Iraq lighting fire to the oil fields of Kuwait. Sagan had cautioned that the fires could create an environmental disaster.

Iraq did light the oil. No disaster came. So, said Limbaugh, although Sagan was a bright "astrophysicist”, we should not trust him on issues concerning nuclear winter, the greenhouse effect, global warming, or anything else that reasonable people like Limbaugh could better explain.

Too bad people pay so much attention to the tirades of anti-rationalists such as Limbaugh. Point in fact is that Sagan was never an astrophysicist, but a planetary scientist. And while he could very well have made mistakes in his calculations he knew much more on the topics for which Limbaugh disparaged him on than most people alive—much more, especially, than a media savvy Limbaugh who admitted the monumental effort it takes to write a book.

Wherein lies our fear of science? Yes, science has brought us more power than any other sphere of knowledge, much of it potentially destructive. But the knowledge is always natural, relics there for the taking. Science brought us the understanding to make the atomic bomb, but as our Sun attests, that power has been in effect since the beginning. It is not science that fails us, it is our hearts of hatred and lack of wisdom that mars our world. Science can only be used for the evil that man applies it. Even a pencil could be a mortal weapon if applied in such a way.

John Dewey once wrote, "The eye sees many foul things and the arm and hand do many cruel things. Yet the fanatic who would pluck out the eye and cut off the arm is recognized for what he is.”

Dewey said, "The opposite of intelligent method is no method at all or blind and stupid method. It is a curious state of mind which finds pleasure in setting forth the "limits of science.” For the intrinsic limit of knowledge is simply ignorance; and the point in extolling ignorance is not clear except when expressed by those who profit by keeping others in ignorance.”

Our age, despite its grasp on the rockets of accelerating technology, is sentimentally disgusted with science. But science and technology are two separate identities. Science is merely a method for finding facts. Technology is the child of science, not an identical twin. Technology is the application of making tools of our hearts, and when the tools are evil they reflect flaws in humanity, not science. For this misunderstanding, we are a childish world, living snuggly under the phantom warmth of mystics, frauds, and happily ignorant fanatics. We should not be happy with ignorance.

We Need Science

Essays on the need to prioritize science in our everyday lives--and to focus on science in our schools.

  1. The Public Disdain for Science
  2. A Call for Reason


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