Folmsbee: America’s love-hate relationship with science


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Americans love science. We are proud that our scientists and engineers are global leaders in medical innovation and technological advances, so we happily invest in research.

But Americans also despise science. We turn our backs when researchers discover evidence that human activity is driving global climate change, and we embrace pseudoscientific alternative medicines when confronted with an unpalatable medical regimen.

How can America simultaneously love and hate science? The National Science Foundation has just released its survey on Americans’ attitudes toward and understanding of science and technology. The results provide some insight into why we love science, why we hate it and how we have no idea what science really is.

Americans are struggling to identify real science, and the popularity of the “science” of astrology is rising. Astrology, the archaic belief system that horoscopes based on planets and stars can be used to predict an individual’s personality and future, is an absurd presence in an age when we can actually send a rover through space to visit one of its clairvoyant planets. A decade ago, it had appeared that astrology was dying when, in 2004, it hit its lowest point with 66 percent of Americans describing it as “not scientific.”  However, in 2012, that number has dropped to a disturbing 55 percent, leaving 32 percent claiming it was “sort of scientific” and an alarming 10 percent as “very scientific.”

And this phenomenon appears specific to the United States, as similar surveys have shown many other countries have already marginalized such fantastical thinking. A 2010 survey of China revealed 92 percent did not believe in horoscopes. There is no acceptable reason for the United States to lag so far behind the rest of the world.

But why is astrology blurring the lines of science? It’s partially our fault; specifically, the problem may be this generation of young Americans: Only 42 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds identified astrology as not scientific. Although college-educated individuals tended to correctly view astrology as non-scientific, many young Americans are adopting this antiquated belief system as science.

And thus, astrology is becoming the immortal guard of pseudoscience. The Washington Post,  Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune still run horoscopes. Thankfully, astrology itself is mostly harmless. Disasters will likely not come to people expecting to have their fortune told along with the weather forecast. Yet its popularity is indicative of a more insidious misunderstanding of science and a troubling disconnect from reality.

But despite not understanding it, America is still able to love and hate science. Confidence in scientific leaders is one of the highest out of all private and governmental institutions, second only to the military, the NSF said in its report.

Additionally, a strong majority thinks the benefits of scientific research outweigh the risks. However, despite our love of scientists, there is still a consistent distrust of science. Fourteen percent thought science did more harm that good, and, more strikingly, 41 percent of Americans thought we “believe too often in science, and not enough in feelings and faith.”

We develop an aversion to science when it confronts our beliefs, and clouds our judgment. Only 67 percent of Americans accepted that the earth was getting warmer, and only two-thirds of them attributed it to human causes. In fact, in 2006, 50 percent attributed it to human activity, which dropped to 36 percent in 2009. This follows the other trend of American interest in correcting climate change, with 38 percent considering it a priority for lawmakers in 2007, down to only 28 percent in 2013. Ironically, it seems that the more evidence scientists gather to demonstrate how we have contributed to global warming, the less the public cares.

Clearly, Americans love science — until it reaches a conclusion we don’t like. Better education can reinforce that science is a process by which we use critical thinking and testable hypotheses to understand the world around us, and that pseudosciences like astrology rely solely on belief. Our generation in particular needs to be more active in promoting scientific principles, defending scientific evidence and rebutting pseudoscientific claims.

If science continues to be misunderstood and perverted, the United States will lose its standing as an intellectual superpower. Perhaps we may soon become a country less concerned with potentially disastrous changes to the global environment and more interested in whether the stars will bring us fortune today.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].