According to the latest compilation of data (PDF) on the relationship between the public and science issued by the National Science Foundation, Americans have more confidence in the leaders of the scientific and medical communities than in the leaders of any other major societal institution other than the military. (We journalists, in contrast, are considered even slimier than members of Congress.) These data also show that most Americans agree that science makes our lives better and has far more benefits than costs. So when you write that Americans “fear science at least as fully as we embrace it,” I don’t really agree with you. To me, the real question is how to understand the paradox that even as we say all these wonderful things about science in surveys, we betray that sentiment on a regular basis. We’re not an anti-science country, just an inconsistent one.
Was it Confucius or Jon Steward who first observed that we are consistently inconsistent. Most Americans do not believe in evolution, but do believe, for the most part in modern medicine. Of which the treatments are derived from basic scientific principles directly related to the Theory of Evolution. Why are so many people, who would normally fellow the advice of their physician listening to the moronic Glenn Beck on the Right and the well meaning, but determinedly hard headed Jenny McCarthy on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to vaccines,
You make a great point when you argue that Americans—according to the data you cited and other data as well—are not all that anti-scientific. At least they say they are not all that anti-scientific. I think many people even mean it. But then what happens? Nearly half the adults in this country say they are opposed to vaccinating their children against the H1N1 influenza virus. No vaccine is perfect—and every choice we make entails risk of some kind. But so far there have been more than 10 million doses of the vaccine administered and, according to the CDC, no reports of serious adverse reactions. Americans clearly like the idea of scientists; increasingly, though, they reject their advice. That is what I was trying to suggest in the book by writing, “We expect miracles, but have little faith in those capable of producing them.”
Michael Specter notes there is a downside to opting out of H1N1 vaccinations. The opters might be killing themselves, which some would argue is their right, but in exercising that right they’re getting their friends, co-workers and children sick and possibly killing them. The recent spat of surgical errors at a New England hospital is the type of incident that does cause some concern about our medical institutions, but there is a point where concerns get run through with paranoia. Paranoia that is statistically unfounded. Turning science into a buffet where one gets to pick and chose what is true and what is not is not a choice made in vacuum. Sure you and your family are not likely to suffer much if you totally reject relativity theory in favor of pure quantum mechanics, but this growing tendency to have a belief, find a web site that gives one some lame rationale for continuing that belief is going to have consequences for us as a society. Specter cites a worse case scenario example from Africa where some years ago South African President Thabo Mbeki rejected science based medical treatments for AIDS in favor of natural home remedies. The consequences were hundred of thousands of deaths.
Darwin’s finches, peppered moths and Heliconius butterflys all have one big thing in common, evolution in a relatively short period of time, Caught in the act: Butterfly mate preference shows how 1 species can become 2
In a paper published this week in the journal Science, the researchers describe the relationship between diverging color patterns in Heliconius butterflies and the long-term divergence of populations into new and distinct species.
“Our paper provides a unique glimpse into the earliest stage of ecological speciation, where natural selection to fit the environment causes the same trait in the same population to be pushed in two different directions,” says Marcus Kronforst, a Bauer Fellow in the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University who received his doctor’s degree at The University of Texas at Austin. “If this trait is also involved in reproduction, this process can have a side effect of causing the divergent subpopulations to no longer interbreed. This appears to be the process that is just beginning among Heliconius butterflies in Ecuador.”