Restoring the Luster of Science
Jeffrey Lee Funk and Gary Smith
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Americans once believed that science was on our side. Radar, microwaves, penicillin, helicopters, magnetrons, and nuclear weapons helped win World War II and fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Vaccines for polio, smallpox, tetanus, measles, mumps, and rubella literally wiped out diseases that once killed millions. Televisions, polymers, radial tires, Velcro, vinyl, and freezers made our lives more comfortable. Nuclear power promised us energy too cheap to meter.
We celebrated the space program that sent astronauts walking on the moon and splashing back home again. The annual meetings of the American Association for Advances in Science were regularly covered by the media. New electronic products and medical technologies continued to astonish in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
How things have changed! The last blockbuster technologies were the iPhone and iPad more than ten years ago and they are, at best, indirectly linked to scientific advances. Nanotechnology, superconductors, quantum computers, and fusion still seem far away as do replacements for integrated circuits, silicon solar cells, and lithium-ion batteries.
A week before the 1980 presidential election, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan held their only debate—and Reagan sealed the deal by asking Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Nowadays, too many Americans don’t feel better off than they were 10 or even 20 years ago and the elite are tempting targets.
Millions of jobs left the country while economists proclaimed that it was all for the best. Now experts predict that robots and AI will eliminate millions of more jobs—not just blue-collar workers, but accountants, journalists, lawyers, architects, doctors, and nurses. The predictions sound like boasts and make the ruling elite look like the enemy.
Bill Gates tells us to stop eating meat while he flies around the world in his private jet. Politicians tell us to wear face masks while they party in McMansions inside gated communities. Universities say they need more government funding while professors are paid more money for doing less work then most taxpayers. Scientists say they need more largesse while they live among the elite and well-connected.
The rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in less than 11 months was an absolutely stunning achievement, done with real science applied to a promising but unproven type of vaccine called messenger RNA (or mRNA). Instead of nationwide celebrations, there was fear and paranoia. Here are some comments in response to a March 2021, CNBC news story on government guidelines for COVID-19 vaccinations:
I still haven’t gotten one, never will and no one is going to tell me what I can and can’t do vaccinated or not!!
Flu shots are proven to make you 38% more likely to catch another respiratory virus like Covid.
Easy way to target the elderly. Don't be fooled people.
Biggest scam in our lifetime.
I won’t vax I won’t mask I won’t follow mandates or guidelines and I’m armed.
Millions believe that 5G is being used to spread COVID-19 (and they have burned down cell towers to stop it) and that COVID vaccines are a nefarious plot (and they refuse to be vaccinated). A recent survey found that 44 percent of Republicans, 24 percent of independents, and 19 percent of Democrats believe that Bill Gates is developing a COVID-19 vaccine that will implant microchips in us so that our movements can be monitored.
Science was supposed to replace superstition and rumours with logic, reason, and empirical evidence. It still can.
How do we collectively resurrect the reputation of science? A starting point is better science education. Memorizing the names of the parts of a cell and then forgetting them after a test is not scientific understanding. Nor is deciphering the periodic table or memorizing trigonometric formulas. Science is fundamentally about being curious—about how things work and why they sometimes don’t work. Richard Feynman’s journey to Nobel laureate began with a boyhood curiosity about how radios work. He tinkered with them, took them apart, and put them back together. He fixed other people’s radios. He loved it.
He later wrote about his life-long curiosity:
When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.
Kids don’t have to become Nobel laureates to appreciate how science can satisfy their curiosity. Kids who appreciate science can grow up to respect science and become scientists.
Another part of the problem is that far too many superbly intelligent, voraciously hard-working scientists devote so much of their time to generating the papers and citations that are now required for promotion and funding. Anirban Maitra, a physician and scientific director at MD Anderson Cancer Centre, wryly observed that, “Everyone recognizes it’s a hamster-in-a-wheel situation, and we are all hamsters.”
The public wants to see technologies that improve our lives, not long CVs filled with papers no one reads. We need scientific advances that are useful and affordable.
We also want stable jobs with decent pay. Semiconductor factories once provided good jobs but these were shipped overseas and new ones haven’t been created from new commercialized science-based technologies. Where are the American factories producing products based on nanotechnology, superconductors, fusion, quantum computers and new forms of semiconductors, displays, and solar cells?
American scientists are the best in the world and real science can produce useful innovation and good jobs, but these need to become our priorities.
Jeffrey Funk is a retired Associate Professor, most recently from the National University of Singapore and now an independent technology consultant. He received the NTT DoCoMo Mobile Science Award for lifetime contributions to the social science aspects of mobile communications. His research has been reported in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets, statistical reasoning, and data mining often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data. He is the author of The AI Delusion, (Oxford, 2018) and co-author (with Jay Cordes) of The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (Oxford 2019), which won the Association of American Publishers 2020 Prose Award for Popular Science & Popular Mathematics, and The Phantom Pattern Problem (Oxford 2020).