Does Science Matter?
November 11, 2003
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and JAMES GLANZ
Through its rituals of discovery, science has extended
life, conquered disease and offered new sexual and
commercial freedoms. It has pushed aside demigods and
demons and revealed a cosmos more intricate and awesome
than anything produced by pure imagination.
But there are new troubles in the peculiar form of paradise
that science has created, as well as new questions about
whether it has the popular support to meet the future
challenges of disease, pollution, security, energy,
education, food, water and urban sprawl.
The public seems increasingly intolerant of grand,
technical fixes, even while it hungers for new gadgets and
drugs. It has also come to fear the potential consequences
of unfettered science and technology in areas like genetic
engineering, germ warfare, global warming, nuclear power
and the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Tension between science and the public has thrown up new
barriers to research involving deadly pathogens, stem cells
and human cloning. Some of the doubts about science began
with the environmental movement of the 1960's.
"The bloom has been coming off the rose since `Silent
Spring,' " said Dr. John H. Gibbons, President Bill
Clinton's science adviser, of Rachel Carson's 1962 book on
the ravages of DDT. Until then, he said, "People thought of
science as a cornucopia of goodies. Now they have to choose
between good and bad."
"The urgency," he said, "is to re-establish the fundamental
position that science plays in helping devise uses of
knowledge to resolve social ills. I hope rationality will
triumph. But you can't count on it. As President Chirac
said, we've lost the primacy of reason."
Science has also provoked a deeper unease by disturbing
traditional beliefs. Some scientists, stunned by the
increasing vigor of fundamentalist religion worldwide,
wonder if old certainties have rushed into a sort of vacuum
left by the inconclusiveness of science on the big issues
of everyday life.
"Isn't it incredible that you have so much fundamentalism,
retreating back to so much ignorance?" remarked Dr. George
A. Keyworth II, President Ronald Reagan's science adviser.
The disaffection can be gauged in recent opinion surveys.
Last month, a Harris poll found that the percentage of
Americans who saw scientists as having "very great
prestige" had declined nine percentage points in the last
quarter-century, down to 57 from 66 percent. Another recent
Harris poll found that most Americans believe in miracles,
while half believe in ghosts and a third in astrology -
hardly an endorsement of scientific rationality.
"There's obviously a kind of national split personality
about these things," said Dr. Owen Gingerich, a historian
of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics who speaks often of his Christian faith.
"Science gives you very cold comfort at times of death or
sickness or so on," Dr. Gingerich said.
In this atmosphere of ambivalence, research priorities have
become increasingly politicized, some scientists say.
"Right now it's about as bad as I've known it," said Dr.
Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist who has
advised the federal government on national security issues
for more than 40 years.
As the world marches into a century born amid
fundamentalist strife in oil-producing nations, a divisive
political climate in the United States and abroad and ever
more sophisticated challenges to scientific credos like
Darwin's theory of evolution, it seems warranted to ask a
question that runs counter to centuries of Western thought:
Does science matter? Do people care about it anymore?
Breakthroughs and Disenchantment
science has mattered a lot, for a long time. Advances in
food, public health and medicine helped raise life
expectancy in the United States in the past century from
roughly 50 to 80 years. So too, world population between
1950 and 1990 more than doubled, now exceeding six billion.
Biology discovered the structure of DNA, made test-tube
babies and cured diseases. And the decoding of the human
genome is leading scientists toward a detailed
understanding of how the body works, offering the hope of
new treatments for cancer and other diseases.
"For a lot of people, life has gotten better," said Dr.
James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix. "You
don't know what it was like in 1950. It wasn't just the
dreariness of Bing Crosby that made life tough."
In physics, breakthroughs produced digital electronics and
subatomic discoveries. American rocket science won the
space race, put men on the moon, probed distant planets and
lofted hundreds of satellites, including the Hubble Space
But major problems also arose: acid rain, environmental
toxins, the Bhopal chemical disaster, nuclear waste, global
warming, the ozone hole, fears over genetically modified
food and the fiery destruction of two space shuttles, not
to mention the curse of junk e-mail. Such troubles have
helped feed social disenchantment with science.
When the cold war ended, the physical sciences began to
lose luster and funding. After spending $2 billion,
Congress killed physicists' pre-eminent endeavor, the
Superconducting Super Collider, an enormous particle
"Suddenly, Congress wasn't interested in science anymore,"
said Fred Jerome, a science policy analyst at the New
At the same time, industry spending on research soared to
twice that of the federal government, about $180 billion
last year, according to the National Science Foundation.
One result is that Americans see more drugs, cellphones,
advanced toys, innovative cars and engineered foods and
less news about the fundamental building blocks and great
shadowy vistas of the universe.
The main exceptions to the downward trend in the federal
science budget are for health and weapons. This year,
spending on military research hit $58 billion, higher in
fixed dollars than during the cold war.
Meanwhile, other countries are spending more on research,
taking some of the glory that America once monopolized.
Japan, Taiwan and South Korea now account for more than a
quarter of all American industrial patents, according to
CHI Research. Europe is working on what will be the world's
most powerful atom smasher. The British are now flying the
first probe in a quarter century to look for evidence of
life on Mars.
New Challenges, but Also Threats
Despite the explosion in
the life sciences, cancer still darkens many lives, and the
flowering of biotechnology has fed worries about
genetically modified foods and organisms as well as the
pending reinvention of what it means to be human. Many
people worry that the growing power of genetics will sully
the sanctity of human life.
Last month, the President's Council on Bioethics issued a
report warning that biotechnology in pursuit of human
perfection could lead to unintended and destructive ends.
Experts also worry about terrorists using advances in
biology for intentional harm, perhaps on vast new scales.
"As this becomes ever easier and cheaper, it's only a
matter of time before some misguided people decide to
infect the world," said Dr. Philip Kitcher, a philosopher
of science at Columbia University. Last month, a panel of
the National Academy of Sciences recommended wide review of
experiments that could lead to biological weapons.
The physical sciences seem to have lost what was once a
good story line. Without the space race and the cold war,
and perhaps facing intrinsic limits as well as declining
budgets, they are slightly adrift. Some observers worry
that physics has entered a phase of diminishing returns.
That theme runs through "The End of Science," a 1997 book
by John Horgan.
In an interview, Mr. Horgan noted that physicists no longer
make nuclear arms and have lost momentum on taming fusion
energy, which powers the sun, and on developing a theory of
everything, a kind of mathematical glue that would unite
the sciences. Abstract physics, he said, "has wandered off
into the fantasy land of higher dimensions and superstring
theory and has really lost touch with reality."
Other experts disagree, noting that scientific fields rise
and fall in cycles and that physics may be poised for new
strides. "You can smell discovery in the air," said Dr.
Leon M. Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics and an
architect of the supercollider. "The sense of imminent
revolution is very strong."
Despite the decline in prestige recorded in the recent
Harris poll, scientists still top the list of 22
professions in terms of high status, ahead of doctors,
teachers, lawyers and athletes.
"Science is one of the charismatic activities," said Dr.
Gerald Holton, a professor of physics and the history of
science at Harvard. "This keeps our interest in science at
some level even if we are deeply troubled by some aspects
of its technical misuse."
Polls by the National Science Foundation perennially
identify contradictions. Its latest numbers show that 90
percent of adult Americans say they are very or moderately
interested in science discoveries. Even so, only half the
survey respondents knew that the Earth takes a year to go
around the Sun.
"The easy answer is, `Oh, I'm interested,' " said Melissa
Pollak, a senior analyst at the National Science
Foundation. "I'm not quite sure I believe those responses."
The Battles Increase Over Darwin's Theory
A simple number
jars many scientists: about two-thirds of the public
believe that alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution
should be taught in public schools alongside this bedrock
concept of biology itself.
The organized opposition to the mainstream theory of
evolution has become vastly more sophisticated and
influential than it was, say, 25 years ago. The leading
foes of Darwin espouse a theory called "intelligent
design," which holds that purely random natural processes
could never have produced humans. These foes are led by a
relatively small group of people with various academic and
professional credentials, including some with advanced
degrees in science and even university professorships.
Backers of intelligent design say they are simply pointing
up shortcomings in Darwin's theory. Scientists have
publicly rallied in response, last week staving off an
effort at the Texas State Board of Education to have
intelligent design taught alongside evolution.
"It just absolutely boggles the mind," said Dr. James
Langer, a physicist at the University of California at
Santa Barbara who is vice president of the National Academy
of Sciences. "I wouldn't want my doctor thinking that
intelligent design was an equally plausible hypothesis to
evolution any more than I would want my airplane pilot
believing in the flat Earth."
Science has, in fact, sold itself from the start as
something more than a utilitarian exercise in developing
technologies and medicines. Einstein - who often used
religious and philosophical language to explain his
discoveries - seemed to tell humanity something fundamental
about the fabric of existence. More recently, the
cosmologist Stephen Hawking said that discovering a better
theory of gravitation would be like seeing into "the mind
Such rhetorical flourishes are as much derided as admired
by the bulk of working scientists, who as a culture have
drifted closer to the thinking of Steven Weinberg, another
Nobel Prize winner in particle physics, who famously wrote
that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more
it also seems pointless."
That almost militantly atheistic view helps some observers
explain how science has come into bitter conflict with
particular religious groups, especially biblical
"What accentuates the fault line," said Dr. Ernan McMullin,
a Roman Catholic priest who is a former director of the
history and philosophy of science program at Notre Dame, is
that "the scientists see their science being attacked and
they immediately rush to the battlements."
"I think they rather enjoy seeing themselves as a
persecuted minority instead of as the dominant force in the
culture, which they really are," he said.
Urgent Goals for Governments
Industry looks to short-term
goals and has proven highly adept at using science to take
care of itself and consumers. A far more uncertain issue is
whether the federal government can successfully address
issues of human welfare that lie well beyond the industrial
horizon - years, decades and even centuries ahead.
"Science is still the wellspring of new options," Dr.
Gibbons said. "How else are we going to face the issues of
the 21st century on things like the environment, health,
security, food and energy?"
Some experts believe that despite the gnawing doubts today,
the world will be ever more inclined to seek scientific
answers to those questions in the decades to come. "It will
probably accelerate," said Dr. John H. Marburger III,
President Bush's science adviser, "because it will become
increasingly obvious that we need this steady infusion of
results to sustain our ability to cope with all these
An urgent goal, experts say, is to develop new sources of
energy, which will become vitally important as oil becomes
increasingly scarce. Another is to better understand the
nuances of climate change, for instance, how the sun and
ocean affect the atmosphere. Such work is in its infancy.
Another is to develop ways of countering the spread of
nuclear arms and germ weapons.
The world will also need a new science of cities, to help
coordinate planning in areas like waste, water use,
congestion, highways, hazard mitigation and pollution
"It's going to take a lot of work," said Dr. Grant Heiken,
an editor of "Earth Science in the City," a collection of
essays just published by the American Geophysical Union in
Washington. The number of urban dwellers is expected to
grow from three billion now to five billion by 2025.
"I don't know if we'll get a new science," Dr. Heiken said,
"but we damn well better."
Dr. Richard E. Smalley, a Rice University professor and
Nobel laureate in chemistry, argues that new technologies
and conservation can probably solve the world's energy
needs. But success, he said, requires a new army of
scientists and engineers.
Like others, Dr. Smalley worries about a significant shift
in the demographics of American graduate schools in science
and engineering. By 1999, according to the latest figures
from the National Science Foundation, the number of foreign
students in full-time engineering programs had soared so
high that it exceeded, for the first time, the steeply
declining number of Americans.
"Where the bright kids and the big action are is in Asia,"
Dr. Smalley said. "That's great for them. It is not what I
would hope for our country and our economic well-being or
our national security."
Whether the complex challenges of today generate a new era
of scientific greatness, several scientists said, may
depend on how a deeply conflicted public answers the
question of whether science still matters.
In many ways, it all boils down to "a schism between people
who have accepted the modern scientific view of the world
and the people who are fighting that," said Dr. David
Baltimore, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist who is
president of the California Institute of Technology.
"Scientists are presenting a much more complicated, much
less ethically grounded view of the world, and it's hard
for people to take that in," he added.
Some experts warn that if support for science falters and
if the American public loses interest in it, such apathy
may foster an age in which scientific elites ignore the
public weal and global imperatives for their own narrow
interests, producing something like a dictatorship of the
"For any man to abdicate an interest in science," Jacob
Bronowski, the science historian, wrote, "is to walk with
open eyes towards slavery."